In the 1980s, a high school guidance counselor told John Martin he wouldn’t attend college because he was black.
“She told me I wasn’t that kind of material, that I wouldn’t make it,” Martin, now a project manager at tech company JDS Uniphase Corp. recalls. “It kind of inspired me to go to college.”
While Martin persevered and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science, he and his wife, Tammy, eventually became fed up with negative stereotypes surrounding young black men.
After brainstorming on the beach about five years ago, the University City couple created the Young Black Men Leadership Alliance, which recognizes local young black men for their academic achievements and helps them pursue higher education.
The Martins wanted to give a fresh perspective on how the group can succeed.
“No one is thinking ‘how do we make them the next Mayor Foxx,’ everyone is thinking about saving them,” Martin said. “We wanted to give an opportunity to showcase what they’re doing.”
This fall, the Martins unveiled a publication, the Top 100 Young Black Men of Charlotte. The young men are high school seniors who have a 3.0 or higher GPA, and they had to write about their community service and leadership experience, extra-curricular activities and vision statement in an application.
The Martins are now taking nominations for next year’s Top 100. Nominations will be accepted until March.
But the Top 100 is just one facet of the group, commonly referred to as YBM.
The Martins have formed a 14-member leadership group of men to help run the organization, and YBM now offers about 30 workshops a year as well as group college visits.
The workshops cover topics like college applications, how to get scholarships and how to dress and act professionally. Top 100 members are trained to mentor elementary school students to help develop literacy.
“I see some very intelligent men,” Martin said. “They need someone to say, ‘you can do it,’ and to want to persist. That’s what I needed – someone to believe in me.”
Top 100 member Joel Bello-Osage, 16, a Mallard Creek High School senior, said he knows a lot of people envision sagging pants, inattention and a lack of respect when they think of young black men.
The art enthusiast said YBM is a step toward changing those perceptions.
“YBM is instilling in us the importance of success and leadership, and to be proud that we’re African-Americans,” he said. “Society doesn’t look at us as successful people, but the whole goal is to create a new reality.”
Jalen Roddey, now a senior at Mallard Creek High School, remembers getting a 100 on a spelling test in the third grade. “A kid next to me said, ‘Wow, you’re smart; you can’t be fully black.’ Being black should never be associated with being stupid,” he said.
Roddey is one of this year’s Top 100 Young Black Men of Charlotte. He wants to attend N.C. A&T State University, and he wants to eventually open his own business after working as an industrial engineer.
He said since joining YBM, John Martin has been one of his biggest role models.
“He’s one of the coolest guys ever,” Roddey said. “He’s a really good person, and he sees something in all of us.”
Damari Withers, a senior at Vance High School who is also part of the Top 100, agreed that Martin is a positive influence.
“Without his vision, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am and have met the people I’ve met if he hadn’t acted on his vision,” Withers said.
Withers dreams of attending Morehouse College to study psychology and marketing or public relations. He currently works at Arby’s and is an assistant basketball coach for 14- and 15-year-olds in a church league.
As an eighth-grader, getting up early on a Saturday to attend a YBM conference was the last thing Withers wanted to do.
“My mom said, ‘You’re getting up at 8 o’clock for this conference,’” Withers recalls. But however grudgingly he went, Withers is glad he did.
“Since then, I’ve just been a YBM type of man,” he said with a smile. “Looking back on it, it was definitely worth it.”
Vance High School Principal Melissa Dunlap has seen some of her students join YBM, and she wants to see more join.
“They are just incredible to me,” she said. One of her sons was a member and is now studying to be a teacher.
“I think you’d be startled by how articulate, how well-mannered, how humble they are,” she said. “It just fills my heart.”