On a recent Saturday afternoon, on a grassy patch in Boston Common, 29-year-old Angelo Paul pushed through the last of five dozen push-ups.
About 35 men and boys — members of the Northeastern University-based Paul Robeson Institute for Positive Self-Development — sat in a circle looking puzzled and amazed. The push-ups, after all, were punishment. Yet Paul hadn’t done anything wrong, a 14-year-old group member had. But when the boy declined to accept a 30-push-up punishment, Paul volunteered to take double the discipline for him.
“That was for ujima,” an exhausted Paul said to the sullen teen and hugged him tightly.
“Ujima” is a Swahili word for collective work and responsibility — traditionally one of the seven principles of the Kwanzaa holiday. But in the Robeson Institute, it is one of the seven fundamentals of maturing into manhood, something the mentoring organization has been focused on since its start nearly 25 years ago. About 100 local boys are currently enrolled, and over the years, the group has mentored more than 2,000 boys and young men.
“Then as now, unfortunately, there were very high, violent crime rates terribly affecting young
African-American men — young men who could have been our own sons or nephews or neighbors’ children,” said Richard Harris, an assistant dean in Northeastern’s College of Engineering and codirector of the Robeson Institute. “And we wanted to do something different. . . . We wanted to take things to another level and become family to these boys.”
To do that, the founders developed a plan. With parents’ permission and referrals from teachers, clergy, and police officers familiar with at-risk boys, the mentors would become a consistent part of the kids’ lives, starting as early as second grade and continuing at least through high school and, in some cases, well into college.
They named the institute for Paul Robeson, after noticing that the first boys they mentored were enamored of basketball superstar Michael Jordan, actor Denzel Washington, and singers like Michael Jackson – all single-talent celebrities.
“We chose Robeson, because he represented all of those things: He was an academic, a scholar, a talented, famous singer and actor, a professional athlete, an activist. He did it all,” said J. Keith Motley, one of the institute’s 10 founders and chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston. “We felt from the beginning it was important that the boys and young men have an icon who demonstrated you could do all of those things and be all of those things.”
The boys would also have role models who served however they were needed.
“If moms asked us to be present for parent-teacher meetings, we would,” Harris said. “If single dads had to pull extra shifts and couldn’t guarantee their sons would be all right, we watched them. If grandmas told us their grandsons they were raising were acting up, we’d get in their faces and show them tough love. We made ourselves family.”
Back at the Boston Common, members had gathered for a regular weekly meeting, a staple of the program dating back to its early days. The meetings are best characterized as a mash-up of group therapy, almost religious exhortations to do good works, banter about the daily trials of life, three lively meals (the members who attend arrive no later than 8:15 a.m. and stay through dinner), and one-on-one talks as deep as any father-son chat.
“Our motto has always been reinforcing and reviving the viability of the black male,” Harris said. “In group — in the circle of love — it is about positive care, advice, counsel, even sometimes reprimand. Individually, it is to plug a hole and play a familial role.”
Alexandra Sylvestre, a Boston charter school teacher and single mother who lives in Waltham with her 16-year-old son Terrel, certainly considers the Institute to be family, saying the mentors embraced Terrel as their own.
“Particularly, Brother Courtneay,” Sylvestre said of Courtneay Small, co-director of the Institute and a chemical technologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“He has been there for Terrel for school events, for counseling, for help with math and other topics. And it has done my son tremendous good in terms of focusing his life by having in it positive black male role models. He is a man now. He is responsible. He is ambitious. And he isn’t just skilled or smart. He’s also confident he can do anything with his life. We may not have gotten to this point without these men.”
Terrel agrees Small and the Institute have altered his path.
“I’ve been a mentee in the Institute — and now I’m mentoring some of the younger kids — since I was in sixth grade,” said the Waltham High School junior. “And honestly, I didn’t like it at first. There was the getting up early on Saturdays. There was all the rules. . . . But you know what? The more I listened to them and watched them live their lives, the easier it got for me to see what I could accomplish in spite of what you see in the news sometimes. My grades are good. I’m planning for college: chemistry.”
Small, who says his relationship with his own father is not good, was guided as a boy by an uncle who lived in England.
“I met him for the first time when I was 13, because he lived abroad,” Small said. “And I’ll tell you what it did for me to see him succeed in life and to hear from him how a man conducts himself in life: It demonstrated to me that my hero could be a ‘regular’ man. It did not need to be Michael Jordan or any other celebrity. And that’s what I try to give these boys and young men — guidance based on the types of lives that a great many ‘normal’ black men live.”
Clyde Neville, 41, a software manager at Juniper Networks in Westford and a mentor with the Institute for eight years, has a different take on why it works.
“Naturally, our plan in and of itself is solid: to teach and demonstrate to these young men their worth as black males and to help them prepare to be men and grow into men,” Neville said. “But I’d argue that just as important is our plan for succession. Our succession plan allows for other male volunteers to step up, fill the gaps, relate to these young men, and keep them from missing a beat in their personal growth.”
Shared responsibility is what the overarching theme of discipline is all about, says Institute graduate-turned-mentor Angelo Paul.
“These young guys don’t want to do badly on their own accounts,” Paul said. “But even more, they are being groomed to not let down the people in their lives either. And that’s a big thing. It may not always take right away. But when it does, that whole desire to do right and please others is powerful.”
By the end of the day that saw Paul doing push-ups that were not his to do, the young man who had petulantly declined apologized to the group and asked to do his push-ups after all.
“He was so moved by the group still embracing him in spite of his attitude,” Paul said. “We don’t discard these boys when they mess up. And you know what? I did the push-ups again, with him. We’re in this together.”