FLINT, Michigan—Charles Kelley, 15, of Grand Blanc is called upon. He moves to the front of the class and with a bold delivery recites his spoken word composition.
There is applause for a job well-done.
Next, Gianni Love, 19, moves hesitantly to the front. His voice carries strength as he begins the poem, but then comes to a point where the words just won’t come. He stumbles and buries his head in his hands for a moment.
There is no laughter. There is quiet support. Gianni recovers and completes his poem.
These young men are here for mentorship. These young men are here to become leaders. These young men are the Alpha Esquires.
For 20 years, the Alpha Esquires have been a guiding force in Flint.
They typically meet in a Mott Community College classroom just off North Saginaw Street. The advisors are men of varying ages and professions who meet with the young African-American men who are Esquires.
Their purpose is to teach and learn what it means to be a man and to build a path for future success.
The group’s name infers its outgrowth of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, a 108-year-old African-American collegiate service fraternity. The name also communicates its purpose: “Esquires” refers to a class of young nobleman who are groomed for knighthood.
“We’re trying to instill in them the positive aspects of being a strong African-American man,” says advisor Sam Wells of Flint Township. “That encompasses an educational piece and a social piece. We have an etiquette workshop for them to round them out as young men and show them there’s a lot of positive things out there. You don’t have to buy into all the negative things you see.”
“It’s like a community, a brotherhood, and it’s really nice to have friends here. They’re almost like family,” says Cruz DuHart, 16, of Flint and a student at Grand Blanc High. “They want to help me with my future and that’s very important to me. The idea of the group is to set an example for everyone as one unit in a way that we can all establish as a standard.”
Fundamentally, Alpha Esquires is an organization built on respect. The members are called “young men” and nothing less than respect for all is accepted.
“We want them to have respect for themselves, pride in their race, and the understanding that they can do whatever else they want—but they must commit, and there’s a support mechanism there to help them,” Wells says. “We work with them on all aspects of life.”
Robert Matthews of Flint is a founding member of the Alpha Esquires who joined Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity while in college. The impetus to build the Alpha Esquires program here came from a realization that fraternity members could teach some of what they learned—and benefited from—in college to the next generation by mentoring local high school students.
“Personally, I’m a little brown boy from Flint, Michigan,” Matthews says. “I grew up in a single parent household. My mother was a teen mom, and I vividly recall things that she did to go above and beyond to help me with. (There are) certain things, people and places she tried to introduce me to. But I also recall vividly a point in time in my life where I felt like being able to have a male role model or mentor was critically important.
“There were things that she wanted to do, but her experiences limited her from being able to transfer those things to me. Some of these we fundamentally weave into the mentoring program.”
This meeting marks the end of the school year and of the Alpha Esquires corresponding season which runs from late August to late June. On this evening, the group will rehearse their step-dance routine, a performance which will showcase a tradition of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and other African-American fraternities and sororities since the mid-1960s. It is an intricate routine of dance and spoken word lasting 10 minutes or so.
Eric Owens II and Isaiah Hill find their way to the front line. Their movements are quick and complicated. The 20 or so members of this group know their parts. The performance has its purpose.
“You need to learn to work as a group. You need to work as a team. You need to have some discipline and commitment,” says Wells.
Robert Matthews believes the development the young men receive can’t be thrown in their faces but must be presented subtly.
“Who wants to work on a self-confidence routine or work on self-esteem?” Matthews says. “Nobody’s gonna raise their hand. But when you work on it as an activity like that, it achieves that goal but it gives them ownership and buy-in.”
Former Flint City Councilman and Genesee County Commissioner Omar A. Sims of Flint is another founding member of the Alpha Esquires.
“Everyday is Father’s Day for us because of our relationship with them. There are things we’ve exposed them to and things we’ve learned from them. It’s a two-way street,” he says. “Sam (Wells) would say this all the time—this is not a drive-by commitment. This is a life sentence.”
“We can’t start and stop because the young men would lose trust and respect,” says Sims acknowledging that the trust element has shown its value during difficult times.
Eric Owens II, 16, of Flint was influenced by his brother’s father to join the Alpha Esquires as an eighth-grader. For Owens, it’s the brotherhood he cherishes, but realizes that when life takes him from beyond his current circle of friends there will be residual value from the what he has learned.
“Everything I have been taught here, every workshop, everything we have done, will stick with me because it’s that meaningful. It’s going toward something. It’s going to stick with me the rest of my life because I’ve been taught a lot of things,” he says. “It hits my heart.”