A Lesson In Empowering Young Black Men

Black students using computers in classroom
Black students using computers in classroom

It only took about 20 minutes of watching “Last Chance U” before it hit me: educating young men who aspire to play football and training boys and young men of color to pursue technology pathways are one and the same in many ways. The men in this Netflix original documentary are not just college-age student athletes in East Mississippi, these are our Hidden Geniuses. Strong, fast, intelligent, and gregarious as they are, they demonstrate the same highs, lows, hope, promise, and pitfalls we see daily in the adolescents developing technology skills with The Hidden Genius Project.

The Hidden Genius Project trains and mentors black male youth in technology creation, entrepreneurship, and leadership skills to transform their lives and communities. We offer intensive, project-based training to young people to develop their skills in computer science, problem solving, software development, business, and critical analysis of issues related to identity and social justice.

Over six installments of “Last Chance U,” we follow national football powerhouse East Mississippi Community College (EMCC, or “Scooba Tech”) as its players navigate the trials and tribulations of a strenuous season, high-stakes academic responsibilities, and daily life stressors (many stemming from home and family). We marvel at their keen insights, big hearts, and physical prowess. Still, at the same time our hearts drop with every missed assignment, failed exam (possibly owing to a failure to bring a pencil), class absence, traumatic family experience, and self-doubt.

In addition to offering an intimate view of the complicated business of college football, the documentary simultaneously humanizes the students by exposing their vulnerabilities and insecurities. Consequently, we see a little bit of ourselves in each of these young men. Accordingly, as Scooba Tech’s football team is comprised primarily of black males—many of whom come from underserved communities—we see our Hidden Geniuses in them as well. Thus, the lessons from “Last Chance U” carry real implications for our work:

1. Self-doubt is insidious. Too often, the bad decisions we see our young people make are not necessarily rooted in bad intentions or fundamental ignorance, but rather self-doubt. In the first episode, “Last Chance U’s” most dynamic character responds to a teammate’s declaration that, “They say ya’all don’t learn in Mississippi,” by agreeing: “They say we don’t do nothin’ in Missippi…they say we just fat ass, dumb ass country folk…that’s f***ed up ain’t it?” When we internalize other people’s negative perceptions of us, self-doubt can drive us to make decisions based on assumption that we are incapable, or have nothing to lose. Such decisions can effect dire consequences that self-confidence might otherwise help us avoid.

2. Exposure counts. In youth development work, we often assume intensive programming should carry priority over shorter-term exposure activities. Still, exposure is critical. After a difficult game, one EMCC student intimates that he is not sure he wants to keep playing football, and he “might just leave school to become a garbage man and make one or two [thousand dollars] a week.” An academic adviser then explains that in Mississippi it is rare to earn $50K-$100K per year in sanitation. Here, we see this young man feeling the weight of limited options, stemming in part from limited exposure to what is available. In our work, we struggle to demystify, debunk, and expose the vast array of opportunities available to young people within the technology space, to show just how broad their career options are.

3. Trauma matters. Life inevitably presents all of us with various traumatic experiences. When multiple traumas compound for an individual at a young age, it can have a deleterious effect. For the young men from EMCC and our young men alike, each trauma increases the load on their shoulders, and often impedes positive decision making. We are sometimes dumbfounded when young people make decisions that seem to undermine their goals. Pain certainly has that effect. Addressing that pain is a critical step toward improving performance and outcomes.

4. Hope and resilience breed healing. For all the challenges outlined above, I constantly marvel at the brilliant exploits of our Hidden Geniuses. Just in the way we see the Scooba Tech players’ sharp wit, tenacity, and ability to rise to the occasion at the most critical juncture, the youth we serve show tremendous resilience and brilliance. It brings me joy to see young people excelling in the face of great hardship. Even seeing their ability to smile and laugh inspires us to do whatever we can to infuse our young men with the hope and exposure to advance.

What I love about “Last Chance U” is how it compels us to challenge one critical assumption: that there is a linear relationship between interest and achievement. These young men are just months away from playing big-time college football, and yet we see them get frustrated, under-achieve, and even consider walking away from the game altogether. The stressors, trauma, and insecurities they wrestle with all conspire to sabotage their progress.

In training young men of color (even from a range of backgrounds), it is not enough to drum up interest, rather we must work hard to help them manifest their resilience in navigating a host of challenges en route to excellence. Just as a number of the documentary’s protagonists push through and earn four-year scholarship, our young men continue to advance as well. Hard as it may be, this work is possible, and it is fulfilling.

Access Your Potential is a new blog series focused on exploring the importance of developing technology skills and financial acumen in minority communities. Join the conversation by emailing PurposePlusProfit@huffingtonpost.com or by tweeting with #AccessYourPotential.