Enlightened Mentor Project Champions Black Youth
By Dianne Anderson
Of all the skills that Tony Williams believes helped him traverse the hardest places of his youth, discernment tops his list, thanks to many caring mentors and coaches along the way.
Growing up in Compton and through his high school years in Inglewood during the 80s seemed hopeless, everything was all about gangs and drugs, and he saw it all first hand.
He lived in a Blood neighborhood.
“They were dealing right in front of me, people offered me to run drugs for them. I saw people killed, I had friends that died that I grew up with that didn’t make it. And it was really heavy with gang activity,” said Williams, founder and president of The Enlightened Mentor Project.
With a passion for the inner city community, he started the program in 2019 with outreach in Los Angeles and South L.A. area. But he feels that Orange County — even with its smaller Black population — holds challenges.
Through recent funding from the Orange County Community Foundation, he is looking to work with local Black-led nonprofits to help reach Black youth ages 12 to 23. His focus is on character building, developing emotional maturity and academics, and getting them ready for when opportunity knocks.
He calls them his “champions,” not mentees, and they are paired with family men and businessmen, much like himself that have raised successful families and bring a wealth of experience. The youth will work in teams, learning to build up the brotherhood to form a solid support system.
“We want to change the narrative, particularly with our young Black males who are being told you’re going to go to jail, not college. You’re going to be in trouble, you’re going to find problems in life,” he said.
Programming continues on Zoom and other platforms during COVID, but they’re also leveraging sports events to expand outreach. “We know a lot of our African American youth are involved with sports, but rather than create a mechanism away from that, let’s leverage it,” he said.
With so many young Black men facing uncertainty these days, he said the foundation of their programming is designed to help them learn to respond to situations, rather than react.
“In that moment, you have to decide how to handle it. If you just react, you’re likely to do something wrong. If you can stop and reflect a bit on what’s happening and craft a response, you’re more likely to have a better outcome,” he said.
Since the killing of George Floyd, he said candid conversations around survival tools are crucial for young Black men, and sets the foundation of their TEM model to Dream, Plan To Reflect, and Adjust.
Most importantly, he said they need to dream, and not let the world dictate who they are or what they want to be. But he wants them to be circumspect and aware.
Williams works in Irvine as a technician, and his daughter attends UC Irvine. Frequently, he travels in and out of the area, and knows what local youth are up against. He wants them to learn to make the right choices in the moment.
As for himself, he’s lost count on how many times he’s been pulled over in Irvine. He falls back to practice what he teaches his champions.
“I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with Irvine [police]. I guess a Black man is not supposed to drive a Tesla. I’ve had to answer questions about driving to and from work. Another vehicle with a [American] flag tried to run me off the road,” he said.
In the past, he worked with youth at local sports facilities, including Anaheim, where some of their champions participate in basketball games. After the games, they also pull youth together talk about things that matter, such as navigating the streets of Orange County, or wherever they are.
Currently, his program is working with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, particularly kids currently in foster homes. He invites the community to contact them through their website to request services. No one is turned away.
“Maybe they’re in middle school, maybe high school, some of our folks we work with are in college. Wherever they are, our goal is to make them as strong as possible academically,” he said.
For more information, see https://enlightenedmentorproject.com/