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Group formed after uptown melee expands vision

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

Two years after its founding, a group of successful black professionals returns to Food Lion Speed Street on Saturday to set an example for thousands of teens drawn to the uptown event.

Men Who Care Global’s members and their distinctive orange T-shirts have become fixtures at large center city gatherings in recent years.

But the group is evolving beyond its roots, which followed a melee that left one man dead after the uptown race festival ended on Memorial Day weekend 2011. Men Who Care Global wants to teach young black males how to become men.

“We’re convinced that if we can get this group, this demographic focused toward providing for themselves, that we’re going to be able to substantially positively impact the community they’re part of,” said Ron Leeper, a Charlotte businessman and co-founder of Men Who Care Global.

“We’re talking about changing the culture and the outlook for a group of young people in our community who in many places have been pushed to the side.”

They’ve started mentoring students at West Charlotte High and are planning to form partnerships with other schools. And they’ve connected with job training programs such as the one at Goodwill.

That’s how McKinley Johnson-Morning came in contact with the group. The Winston-Salem native says he squandered a football scholarship at N.C. A&T State University a few years ago.

Down on his luck, he moved to Charlotte to follow the woman who would become his wife and enrolled in Goodwill’s job training program. A few weeks later, Men Who Care Global called.

After an interview, they offered the 23-year-old a construction job at the Charlotte Knights’ new stadium. “It’s a great opportunity,” Johnson-Morning said. “They’re putting faith in people they don’t even know. It’s a very deep and great opportunity for males out here.”

It’s not too different from what Men Who Care Global has been doing since 2011 – modeling good behavior for young people.

After the melee, leaders envisioned a group that would show young black men a good example of how to behave during large events in the center city.

The group sought to engage youths, not confront them.

“The modeling is just how do you act on the street in a large group. How do you be a man?” Leeper said. “How do you interact with people who might have grown up in different cultures and backgrounds?”

No recent problems

In 2011, Charlotte had been announced as host for the 2012 Democratic National Convention, but the city found itself with unwanted national headlines from the Memorial Day weekend melee.

Fights broke out that night after Food Lion Speed Street let out. Groups of teens yelled “Gun!” and charged passers-by. Police shocked a man with a Taser outside of the Ritz-Carlton hotel.

By morning, one man was dead, one of two people shot during a fight near an uptown hotel. The unrest was due in large part to what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe called “kids running amok.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Maj. Jeff Estes said groups of young men would come to the center city, “seek out each other and just fight.”

“Large crowds provided these young men with some anonymity. It created an atmosphere where there was no adult supervision … outside of the police,” he said.

Men Who Care Global held its first news conference a month later.

The group showed up in force at the next big center city event – the Fourth of July celebration. And event after event, they keep returning.

Police have not had to contend with a disturbance as significant as the Memorial Day weekend melee. And officers say the group has helped the community.

Over the years, a number of private groups have formed after high-profile crimes, seeking to help police or mentor at-risk youths. Most fizzle out for a number of reasons.

Sometimes a group can’t sustain the fervor that got it started. Others become victims of their own success, expanding until they lose their original focus.

Estes described Men Who Care Global’s success as “both unusual and exceptional.

“I have seen my fair share of flash-in-the-pan, knee-jerk reactions in the past,” Estes said. “The reason why I have been so impressed … is because these men, they have no ties to these young men at all other than being a member of the African-American community. They have no skin in the game at all except they want to make a difference.”

Hands-on mentoring

Johnson-Morning said Men Who Care Global’s leaders have asked nothing of him but that he give back to the community, especially youths. In return, he said, they’ve offered hands-on mentoring from people who seem genuinely interested in his growth.

“A lot of organizations do resumes, do job placement. But they don’t check up on you. They don’t guide you,” Johnson-Morning said during an interview on his lunch break. “That’s what a lot of youth out here lack, is somebody calling them once a day, or two or three times a week and just asking that simple question: How are you doing? It makes a big difference.”

The mentoring has helped him keep his job in construction – and expand his horizons. He’s working full time and taking classes at Central Piedmont Community College, with an eye toward continuing his career in construction.

He’s optimistic about his prospects, but work and school are taxing. Some days stretch for 15 hours, most of the time spent in the sun.

So he’s looking forward to this Memorial Day weekend, but not because it’ll get him off his feet. “I’m definitely going to be out there on Saturday with Men Who Care Global,” he said. “I’m going to be wearing that bright orange shirt with the blue writing.”

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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