Slow Roll is about changing narratives around our city through free and inclusive community bike rides that both advance and create conversations in one of our country’s most segregated cities; this purpose aligns us with the work of Breaking Barriers, and so we spotlight this initiative for our Breaking Barriers Ride this coming Monday, September 21st, starting from Kerns Ave Bowling Center (163 Kerns Avenue, 6:30pm start, see below for the pandemic-induced changes to Slow Roll) and riding 12 miles mainly in the 14215 zip code to Zone One Family Entertainment Complex (30 East Amherst Street).

The Breaking Barriers Youth Leadership Council is “a group of young men of color, 12-24 years in age, creating a unified voice that advocates for racial equity, social justice and policy change. Through civic leadership training and direct lobbying opportunities, Breaking Barriers participants learn the importance of advocacy and develop their personal and collective leadership skills to be able to influence positive change, strengthening and improving life outcomes for boys and young men of color.”

Learn more below from one of the program’s founders, Daniel Robertson, who was born and raised on Buffalo’s East Side and helps lead Breaking Barriers through his work as program manager of the Boys and Men of Color Initiative of Say Yes to Education Buffalo.

What inspired the creation of Breaking Barriers?

Breaking Barriers is a part of the Boys and Men of Color initiative within the nine-point agenda created by the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable at the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. The BMoC initiative was strategically placed it into Say Yes because of the pre-existing wheels in already motion around the work. This allowed us to hit the ground running and move a lot faster than if we were on our own.

The initiative itself is really tied to the work that President Obama is doing nationally with My Brother’s Keeper, which started after what happened with Trayvon Martin, to improve outcomes in the lives of young men of color. In Buffalo, we’re focused on improving lives from cradle to career – making sure that young men don’t end up in the criminal justice system, making sure the neighborhoods where they live are safe, making sure the education system is preparing them for life beyond high school and college, and pathways for employment are created.

We want to get kids on the right track, we want them to graduate high school, go to college, obtain degrees and stay here in Buffalo. The main focus of Say Yes Buffalo is economic revitalization, the BMoC initiative provides more of a focus on young men of color to in effort to get them to the finish line.

One key for us in creating Breaking Barriers was infusing youth voice and forming youth-adult partnerships. We gathered young people and adults from the community to actually build Breaking Barriers with us. We often fail as adults because we don’t include young people in the building process of programs. We tend to think we’re the experts, because we’ve been where they are and where they’re going to go, so we think we’re doing it right, but rarely do we ask for their input. We built this program alongside them right from the start.

Building on that instilling of agency in the youth, what are the pillars of Breaking Barriers programming?

The pillars are youth leadership development; changing the narrative around boys and men of color; and then looking at changing policy and systems. Every year, the young men identify three to four issues or policies they want to impact. This year, the focus has been suspensions amongst young men of color in schools and using restorative justice practices or other alternative methods to reduce the number of school suspensions. When young men of color aren’t in school, they’re more susceptible to things we don’t want them to get involved in. And obviously, if they’re not in school, they’re not learning.

The second policy issue involves increasing awareness about the advance course offerings in school. Often times, young men are not aware of the AP classes available in their schools and the expectation is not set for young men to take those classes until senior year. The goal is to change that and allow young men to be better positioned from a credit standpoint for classes at the college level.

The third one that they decided to push on – and probably one of my favorites – is the lack of diversity in school faculty. The young men always talk about when they’re in school, they don’t see teachers who look like them, and I know from my experience walking into the schools, I see some administrators of color, see some teachers, but when we look at makeup of the students and teachers, it’s far from comparable. Our young men want to see teachers who look like them. In some cases, they’ve gone through 1st-8th grade and never seen a male teacher of color, or even their entire preK-12 education without seeing a teacher of color. We know that has an impact on whether or not these young people even desire going into the field of teaching, because if you don’t see yourself in that position, you’re never going to aspire to actually become that.

Just speaking personally, I think the lack of diversity in school faculty ties into why so many young men get suspended in the first place, because if you have a teacher leading your class who understands the things you go through – maybe they came from the same neighborhood, same community you come from – there’s a different type of conversation the teacher and student can have, where that teacher can still hold that student accountable.

I’ll give you an example that I’ve seen before – a student comes in late to class, and the teacher is immediately on this kid’s case, without any context or understanding of why the student is late. Maybe that kid didn’t eat that night before; maybe they saw their friend get shot; maybe they saw some abuse in their home; the kid is not thinking about school, they’re thinking about all the stuff going on at home. A different approach to that could be, “those are some nice kicks you have on, I noticed you were late today, everything alright?” That opens the door for conversation and you can still hold the student accountable. There’s a culturally responsive piece that is missing, there’s a discussion you can have; this is heavy stuff for me, I see it way to often being in our school buildings, it’s a relationship thing.

When we talked with Xavier Lamar about Breaking Barriers, he spoke a lot about changing the narrative – how much is that a pillar of the programming?

Narrative change is a big part of what we do. When you look at the time we’re living in now, you’d love to be able to change the minds and hearts of society as a whole, but at the end of the day, there are still going to be people who feed on stereotypes and images portrayed in media of young men of color. And the dominant narrative that exists around young men of color is that they’re always getting locked up, staying in trouble, involved in homicides, committing murder, carrying guns, selling drugs, only good to be athletes and want to rap – and that’s so far from the truth. When you talk about what’s really going on with young men of color, you rarely hear about the Xavier’s of the world, who get up and grind every day.

That’s why we created our website and also the podcast, which is youth-led, going now into its third season. The goal of the podcast to bring on individuals doing positive work in our community – people of color who don’t get the airtime on the news, or we don’t read about them in the newspaper – and we sit down and have a conversation. That’s not so much for society – that’s really for those young men, so that when they start to see themselves in a different light, when they don’t feed into the dominant narrative, they’re move, act and behave differently.

How has the pandemic affected Breaking Barriers?

Prior to COVID-19, our young men would meet twice a month at Bennett High School on Saturdays, in conjunction with Community Schools. Since Covid caused us to stop meeting back in March, we’ve gone completely virtual. We were meeting via Zoom, Monday through Friday – up until the beginning of August. While doing so, we incorporated a variation of themed activities to keep the young men engaged.

For example, we called Tuesday “Turn on the Stove Tuesdays” with Chef Steve, the Executive Chef for the Buffalo Bills. Chef Steve would show our young men how to prepare different dishes while blending mentoring and life skills at the same time. We also incorporated Workout Wednesdays, where I would lead the young men through virtual workouts. Thoughtful Thursdays focused on a trending topic or current event, which stimulated very a deep conversation. Many of the discussions have been centered around the impact of COVID-19, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, police brutality, protests, and racism in Buffalo. In addition, we invited men from our community to present on a certain topic area – one day might be financial literacy; another day, stocks or even time management. Duncan Kirkwood did one on resiliency; Mark Abraham did one on success; Lindsey Taylor did a piece around real estate. By tapping into the men in our community, it provides an opportunity for them to share their own personal stories – this ties into the narrative change. Often times we see an end result, with suit and tie, but never hear all the things the person went through to get to that place.

Now that the young men are back in school, we are meeting on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for about an hour.

About a month ago, we launched a sports and recreation component through Project Play to build on our workout from Wednesdays. We’ve been meeting in person at Delaware Park on Saturday’s following social distancing protocols for fun and engaging workouts and activities. This component was in direct response to the young men sharing their desire to still interact with their brothers in person.

What inspires you personally to do this work?

First and foremost, I would say it’s because I enjoy working with young people, I have a passion for it.

Secondly, I would say it’s the fact that I didn’t have a father growing up – my dad spent more time out of my life than in, and so I grew up as an angry young man on the East Side of Buffalo, and a lot of young men grow up in that same situation. It plays a huge role in why I personally got involved with young people, why the Breaking Barriers work is so important to me – that’s the social/emotional side that never gets dealt with in schools, and sometimes it is not dealt with at home either. I want to give young men what I didn’t have growing up.

Thirdly, I want to be a change agent in my community, to help continue to build our young men in this city to step up to the plate and be our future leaders. Xavier a prime example of that. When you see the light and potential in a young man, you want to feed it as much as you can. I have no doubt that he’ll become a leader and a pillar in our community, and then he’s going turn and do it for somebody else.

How can folks get involved?

They can get involved by going to the website, learning more and reaching out. We’re starting recruitment for the 4th cohort of young men in October – all they have to do is go to the website and fill out the youth leadership application online. If there are young men or adults that want to get involved, become part of this initiative or become mentors, all they have to do is reach out to me or Tommy McClam. I can be reached via phone at 716-704-9865 or by email at drobertson@sayyesbuffalo.org. Tommy can be reached via email at tmmclam@sayyesbuffalo.org or by phone at 716-228-6619.