Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Black Male Achievement Fellows Create Next Generation's Environmental Leaders

John Jordan and Markese Bryant, founders of Fight for Light and 2012 Black Male Achievement Fellows

As a black male that overcame many obstacles, it is my moral obligation to increase the quality of life for black boys.”
                                                                                                                   -- Markese Bryant

In June, the Open Society Foundations and Echoing Green announced the inaugural class of 2012 Black Male Achievement Fellows, a group of social entrepreneurs dedicated to creating innovative solutions to advance the lives of black men and boys in the United States. Shawn Dove, manager of the Open Society Foundations' Campaign for Black Male Achievement shared, “We’re proud to support innovators working to transform the lives of black men and boys and their communities. Historically, black males have been prevented from fully engaging in American society due to a host of economic, civic, social, and political barriers. Now for the first time, there’s a fellowship program dedicated to providing creative thinkers the space and support they need to tackle this complicated and entrenched problem.”

The eight Black Male Achievement Fellows receive start-up capital and technical assistance over 18 months to help the new leaders launch and build their organizations; receive access to technical support and pro bono partnerships, and a community of like-minded social entrepreneurs and public service leaders. This is the first time that Echoing Green’s Fellowship class is uniquely comprised of both traditional Echoing Green Fellows, and an inaugural group of Black Male Achievement (BMA) Fellows.

The latest in our Black Men and Boys Series features two BMA Fellows and their cause to empower local black college students to become environmental leaders. Meet Markese Bryant and John Jordan, founders of Fight for Light, that aims to recruit high performing students to become change agents for environmental sustainability in low-income communities. Read on to learn more about these Morehouse graduates and their different paths that led them to social entrepreneurship.

Markese, your early life was marked with challenges. How did you find your way to a mentor diversion program and eventually to Morehouse College?

After losing my mother to crack cocaine and my father to the prison system, I nearly met the same fate in 2005 when I was arrested for selling crack cocaine. Fortunately, I was given an opportunity to correct my mistakes through the Oakland Mentor Diversion Program, which compelled me to enroll into Laney Community College. One year later, I enrolled into Morehouse College and subsequently graduated cum laude with a B.A. degree in African American Studies.

John, after your graduation from Morehouse you served as an Oprah Winfrey South African Fellow assisting youth living with HIV/AIDS. Please share about this experience and how it impacted you.

Being selected as a Morehouse College Oprah Winfrey South African Fellow was a transformational experience that really widened my perspective of life. As an African American, just being in Africa was spiritually renewing. The purpose of my trip was to work with youth living with HIV/AIDS and it was with them that I really learned more about the power of the human spirit and the idea of hope. The most impactful part of the trip took place during a communal gathering for those that had passed away because of the disease. It was then that I experienced the value of community and togetherness.

The Oprah Winfrey Fellowship also afforded me the opportunity to learn more about the struggles of the South African blacks. It was interesting to parallel their struggles with apartheid with those struggles for civil rights by blacks in America. While there, we connected with students from a South African historically black university who were leading innovative efforts to address the issues of HIV/AIDS and sexual health education. After dialoguing with those students, I was really inspired to create more opportunities for Africans and African American college students to learn from each other and work together to impact social change in the world. That trip was a major inspiration in Fight For Light’s study abroad component.

How did you both get involved in environmental sustainability, and what inspired you to create Fight for Light?

John: While in college, I was very active in my passion about addressing the many disparities facing African American communities. I focused my efforts through founding a student organization that gets students engaged in addressing the spectrum of these issues. I had a banking internship the summer leading into senior year, and that shifted my perspective about the potential of using business models and raising capital for social investments. That internship opportunity also allowed me to see the increasing trend of investments into green businesses. Upon returning to school, Markese shared his paradigm shift caused by Van Jones’ book, The Green Collar Economy and asked me to co-found Fight For Light, which I knew would be the perfect intersection of using my business degree to address social and scientific issues that could ultimately economically empower minority communities.

Markese: During my junior year at Morehouse, I began searching for a way to help prevent black mothers from losing their sons and daughters to the prison system, drug addiction and senseless violence. While seeking a solution, I read, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems by Van Jones. The book details how green jobs can provide disadvantaged youth with an alternative to the streets by creating pathways out of poverty. After I finished reading the book, I wrote a theme song for the green jobs movement entitled “The Dream Reborn” and partnered with Green For All to create the music video (http://bit.ly/7EkUQ9), which garnered over 26,000 views on YouTube.

In 2009, my former partner and I had a vision to launch an organization to mobilize HBCU students to retrofit their schools with LED lighting. We set the foundation for a retrofitting project at Morehouse College. Eventually, the partnership dissolved for various reasons. In an effort to complete the project, I reached out to John Jordan. We completed a successful retrofitting project with Morehouse and subsequently established the new Fight For Light model.

What do you hope to achieve as a BMA Fellow?

John: My hope with the fellowship is that our work will be the catalyst that redefines the black college experience. We will start a movement across HBCUs that will harness the power of college students and use their energy, talents, and creativity to transform their campuses and minority communities towards a sustainable future.

Markese: I’ve watched many of my friends fall victim to the prison system, drug addiction and violence. The underlying causes of these circumstances are inadequate education, and unemployment. As a black male that overcame many obstacles, it is my moral obligation to increase the quality of life for black boys. I did not have any positive role models as a child, so my goal is to serve as one. I pray that impoverished black children study my life story and recognize that my success was not a direct result of my formal education, but a result of the lessons I learn from common folks, my experiences on the streets and the history of my people.

How can individuals get involved to support your efforts?

There are several ways to support Fight For Light, Inc. First, we have been granted tax- exempt status, so we are capable of receiving tax-deductible donations. For more information, please email us at fightforlightinc@gmail.com.  Secondly, our supporters can spread the word about this fellowship and our mission to build momentum around our work. Also, our supporters should look out for the launching of our website www.fightforlight.org in July 2012.

Learn more about the Open Society Fellowship for Black Male Achievement, powered by Echoing Green at http://www.echoinggreen.org/bma-fellowship.

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