St. Louis has re-entered the media spotlight with the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death by police. Numerous protesters were arrested and another police shooting of a local young man marked the anniversary with more violence, which plunged this Midwestern city once again into turmoil.
The front page article of the Aug. 9 edition of The New York Times examines the clash of race and economic disparity within this urban area of 317,000. Since the 2014 death of Michael Brown, according to the article, necessary steps to merit change or improvement have been minimal or void of any forward progress. The lengthy cover story is a stark reminder of the economic and societal deterioration within many American inner cities.
Chicago’s South Side is one of those urban areas with a history of minority strife. This economic pocket of crime, drugs, gangs and poverty is an ongoing and stark contrast to the economic affluence of Lake Michigan’s “Gold Coast,” just a few miles away.
One person attempting to change the landscape of this long-blighted Chicago area is Stephen Davis, chairman of the DuPage County Airport. As a founder of Tuskegee NEXT, his non-profit organization is giving South Side area youth both life skills and valuable aviation training.
Named for the elite Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, a group of African-American aviators, Davis — in partnership with several surviving Tuskegee veterans who reside in Chicago — is offering this first step toward an improved economic outlook for South Side youth.
Davis had aspired to become a pilot, but could not afford the $10,000 cost for flying lessons as teenager. Now as the airport chairman, he is giving other youth the opportunity to learn for free.
The mission of Tuskegee NEXT is “to train and support 100 minority Chicago area youth in obtaining their pilot licenses by the year 2025. This goal will be accomplished while introducing participants to the aerospace industry through various educational initiatives, life skills, mentorship collaborations, and flight training,” as stated on the organization’s website.
A former Tuskegee aviator, 93-year-old Milton Williams, is one of the program’s sponsors and was interviewed during an Aug. 7 CBS Evening News segment. Williams spoke emotionally of his inability to find employment after WWII ended, despite his distinguished aviation career and 38 combat missions. “I couldn’t find a job, even with the National Guard,” Williams said. He and Davis aspire to change the 2 percent vast under-representation of African-American licensed pilots currently in the United States.
One of the summer’s Tuskegee NEXT participants is 19-year-old Malcomb Dunn, a Chicago South Side resident. “My friend Corey, rest in peace, he was murdered in February,” Dunn stated. He thinks about his friend when he flies. “Yeah, I’ll take a look over, try to configure his face in the clouds.” Added Dunn: “Mostly our people see like rap stars and basketball stars — ‘Oh, yeah, we can do that’ — but you don’t really see any black pilots.”
The Tuskegee NEXT program has the motto of “Exploration – Aviation – Innovation” with the purpose of introducing inner city youth to all careers in the aerospace industry via education opportunities, mentorship and flight training. Several girls are participating in the 2015 Tuskegee NEXT summer program and were shown on the CBS segment. Having this program nationwide would be a national treasure for so many underprivileged youth.
As a counselor employed by a Medicaid-subsidized agency, I see the monumental benefits of such a program, but find few available for clientele who are predominantly minority youth. Most of these teenagers are from single-parent homes, have few role models, and attend problematic, under-achieving schools.
To stop the generational cycle of poverty and minimal education, mentorship programs for society’s urban youth, such as Tuskegee NEXT, are in dire need. Beyond the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Boy Scouts or Cub Scouts, and Big Brothers & Big Sisters, there are few programs I’ve discovered to motivate youth with viable career aspirations and educational goals.
Referring clients to Boy Scouts or a nearby Cub Scout troop has been the most successful for me. Pairing a young male with either of the other two organizations has been more challenging due to at-capacity programs or few male mentors — with a long waiting list of young boys.
Should you be an adult male with the desire to make a difference in the life of a teenager, please consider becoming a mentor with a non-profit organization specific to youth services. I will thank you, as will many young men who need guidance to break the cycle of minority poverty and under-achievement within many of America’s urban areas.
Mariann Main is a Delaware native and journalism graduate of The Ohio State University. She has a master’s degree in counseling from Georgia State University, and is licensed as a counselor in both Ohio and Georgia. She can be reached with commentary or questions at MariannMain@gmail.com.