By George Kevin Jordan, Special to the AFRO
Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson (D-FL 24th District) has a mission – pull young Black boys out of the school-to-prison pipeline. She hopes her 5,000 Role Models of Excellence Project is the ticket to providing diplomas and degrees instead of prison sentences.
Wilson had big help pushing her project during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest, D.C.
The Rev. Al Sharpton was on the panel, as well as actor and activist Erika Alexander, “America To Me” director Steve James, Dr. Cedric Alexander, national president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and George Ray III, current contestant on the “Grand Hustle” series on BET Networks.
The Excellence project started in Miami-Dade County when Wilson saw the young men her community rushed into the prison system, working in the drug trade or dropping out of school.
On a national level there were 1,506,800 people in prison at the end of 2016, according to the Department of Justice. There were 487,300 Black prisoners, or 41.3 percent. This is in comparison to 39 percent White prisoners.
When it comes to school drop outs, the number of Black boys who drop out between the ages of 16-24 has dropped nationally to 6.2 percent. But that number is still higher that the national average and White students’ 6.1 percent and 5.2 percent respectively, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In 1993, when Wilson started her program, it almost immediately caught national attention. Several sitting presidents and vice-presidents, including Barack Obama have supported the project. The initiative provides leadership and mentoring to young Black boys during a critical time in their lives.
The panel dissected many of the issues that impact a child’s trajectory to the school to prison system. Dr. Alexander spoke about police officers using more discretion and thinking of the larger community when arresting people.
“The law is what the law is,” Dr. Alexander said, who heads up the National Organization of Black law Enforcement Executives. “But what we can ask them [police officers] to do is use some judgement. Do you really want to hurt someone over an infraction? We as police officers have to have discretion.”
“I think what we are beginning to see as we’re training officers to have better relationships, we find some, not all, but some are mindful of the fact that there is a larger community watching you.”
Mayor Oliver G. Gilbert III, who is mayor of Miami Gardens, Florida, said citizens need to be mindful of how much they want police involved with their students at schools.
“We can’t over police our schools,” Gilbert said. “We can’t use police at schools as conduct supervisors. Understand if you ask a police officer to come to our schools and they witness a crime that kid is going to jail.”
Gilbert further cautioned, “We have to be careful of the part we are playing in this narrative.”
For George Ray, III who currently stars on “The Grand Hustle” series, Congresswoman Wilson intervened at the right time in his life. “She’s my fairy godmother,” Ray said to the packed crowd. The business professor spoke of facing 15 years in prison at 15 years old. The congresswoman happened upon his life and “instead of peddling drugs I had someone peddling hope.”
“She took me everywhere with her, she kept me so busy I couldn’t get in trouble if I tried,” Ray said of his relationship with Wilson.
Currently, the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project services 105 schools within Miami-Dade County Public Schools (37 Elementary, 35 Middle/K-8, and 33 Senior High), according to the organization.