Seven to Watch: Charlotte’s Colin Pinkney hopes book clubs can reach more kids

Colin Pinkney’s book club was in session.

The subject: “The Pact,” a true story about three African-American boys who grew up in New Jersey projects, helped each other beat the odds and found success.

The session began with a quiz, as a dozen Olympic High School students scrambled for answers. Where did the boys grow up? (Newark.) What was the epidemic that ravaged their community? (Crack).

But as usual, the discussion soon drifted beyond the book.

“What do you think is the No. 1 way for you to avoid poverty?” Pinkney asked. “The No. 1 way  for you guys is graduate high school. The real way to break through is go to college. That’s the biggest poverty prevention you got right now.”

Pinkney has led the weekly book club for seven years. For more than 160 boys, most members of a minority, many from single-parent homes, he’s shared not just what’s in the pages but the values they’ll need in their lives.

Just ask Keith McAfee II.

A former book club member now at Hampton University, he reels off what he learned from Pinkney.

“Everything about life,” McAfee says. “How to stay persistent  about relationships, how to talk to people, how to network, to never quit once I start something.”

Pinkney hopes to expand the clubs to other schools next year.

“My goal really this year is to replicate myself,” he says. “The hardest part is finding men to make a commitment of an hour a week.”

Pinkney, 49, is a former corporate manager who works full-time as executive director of Charlotte’s Harvest Center, a nonprofit that cares for the poor and homeless. In 2012, he was recognized for his mentoring by Gov. Bev Perdue, who presented him a Governor’s Medallion Award.

Pinkney, whose own father left home when he was 9, recently wrote and published a book called “Blueprints,” a guide to mentoring young black males.

The book is full of examples, and some statistics. While 1.1 million boys play high school football, he writes, 1 in 40 goes on to compete in college. Just one in 325 college players ends up in the NFL.

“I believe it is time to design a better blueprint for manhood other than the ordinary success models of wealth, fame and machismo,” he writes. “We have failed many young black men because many of us were failed young black men.”

Pinkney says the book club has become more than an extracurricular activity for students, who adhere to rules that include respecting others. Sometimes they share their experiences.

“In the room there’s kind of a brotherhood,” Pinkney says. “They get to be vulnerable.”

A minister, Pinkney also is a volunteer chaplain for the Charlotte Hornets. Before home games, he spends time with players from both Charlotte and the visiting teams. Though professional, many come from backgrounds not unlike those of the students at Olympic High.

“Somebody saw them on a basketball court and they got that ticket out,” Pinkney says. “The only difference is the money.”

Pinkney’s next project is an end-of-year ceremony for male athletes at West Mecklenburg High, where his own sons have played football. He says the event will be a rite of passage to recognize not just athletic achievement but the values each boy will carry into manhood.

Pinkney has been a frequent presence at West Meck, both as a parent and mentor, says Hawks football coach Jeff Caldwell.

“He doesn’t talk down, he makes the kids feel comfortable,” Caldwell says. “He meets them right where they are, and I think the kids really respect that.

“He’s extraordinary. He doesn’t look for recognition. He gets it immediately when he’s dealing with the kids.”