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Urban League Program Looks To Draw in More Black Leaders, Role Models

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Cedric Owens is finding success in his young life. He works as a pharmacist for Humana. He's proud of where he is, but he's certainly not content.

Raised in the inner city of Jacksonville, Fla., Owens said negative temptations were always lurking, but he had a strong support system in his family that kept him on track.

"My role models, I always wanted to be better than them," he said. "I had a silent competition."

Owens, 30, is African-American. And he believes other, younger African-American men need similar role models to help guide them toward success.

So that's what he's aiming to do.

"If I can be beacon and be able to say, 'Hey, look at me. Through hard work, dedication, devotion, there is a way to attain your highest desires,' in that I will find fulfillment because that will motivate and liberate others to do the same," he said.

That desire to better himself is what drove him to take part in the Urban Leadership Alliance Seminar. The program is facilitated by the Louisville Urban League and sends a dozen or so African-American men working in upper-level corporate jobs through a six-month professional development session.

During an event Tuesday to highlight the program, Mayor Greg Fischer told the men that it's a "confusing, difficult time, especially for boys of color in our country right now.

"It's important they have strong role models, that are life-long learners ... and that's what you guys are doing."

The goal of the program is to help the men gain skills they need to climb higher up on the corporate ladder, said Sadiqa Reynolds, the new executive director of the Urban League.

"I think it's important for folks in executive suites to understand that there are people who want to be in those roles and are qualified to do it," she said.

Poverty rates for African-Americans in Kentucky have climbed in recent years while incomes have dropped, U.S. Census data show. These economic gaps, coupled with high incarceration and unemployment rates, as well as negative portrayals in the media, can make it difficult for African-American men to find success, Reynolds said.

"For whatever reason, black people seem to be highlighted by the least among us, instead of the best among us," she said. "What you see on the news is not the most of us, what you see in the courthouse is not the most of us."

Programs such as My Brother's Keeper, Zones of Hope, Right Turn and ReImage are focused on creating better opportunities for young people of color locally.

Many of these programs bank on volunteers to act as role models and mentors. A July 2015 report from the White House concluded that such programming has positive effects on young people, noting that youth who work with mentors tend to skip school less, have higher GPAs and are less likely to use drugs and engage in violent behavior.

Owens scoffed at the negative stereotypes young, black men are often cast into. He said with the help of positive role models, future generations of black men will be able to chip away at the old mold.

"There are a lot of highly intelligent, highly motivated African-American men that want to better themselves and better their community," he said.

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.