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Tracy White stopped a group of middle school boys at the door, warning them before they headed into a conference room at St. Ambrose University.

“You’re about to sit with people you don’t know.” White, a community organizer, said to the group Wednesday afternoon. “But that’s OK. That’s the point of today. This is a safe space, and you can say whatever you feel is on your mind.”

When the group of boys entered the room, they sat down to eat lunch alongside Quad-City CEOs and business executives, including Estes Construction Owner Kent Pilcher and Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce CEO Paul Rumler. Dressed in suits and ties, the boys reached out their hands to greet the executives.

“It’s very important to be taught by people who care about you,” said Malakhai Carter, an eighth-grader at Wood Intermediate School in Davenport. “It’s useful because kids need to know what they’re going to do with the lives and how to be responsible.”

As the day went on, the teens and local business leaders shared lunch, stories and business cards. The organizer of the event, White, said the first-ever “Embrace Race Luncheon” in Davenport was aimed at creating mentor relationships, in hopes of narrowing the achievement gap for young African-American men and boys.

“We need to start developing relationships with people we don’t sit at the table with normally,” White said. “Part of it is making sure boys see people who look like them, who are now CEOs, military officers or in the clergy. But it’s also realizing when they go to college or get a job, they might be the only person of color. We have to make sure they’re comfortable dealing with everybody. These are our future employees. We have to start relationships now.”

'It was only supposed to be one event'

When she was a single, teenage mother of two boys, White said she learned first-hand the importance of male mentorships.

"I had two boys who I had to try to raise as men. And it took a village," she said. "It was people stepping up and being role models for my sons that made them successful. I realized if it worked for them, it could work for others." 

White hosted a black-tie event in 2016 to connect boys with positive male role models. What was "only supposed to be one event" has become a nonprofit organization, Well Suited, with multiple programs.

During a Quad-Cities Chamber event and Big Table discussion this past spring, White met Pilcher, and they started talking. Pilcher said his work leading Estes Construction, and serving as a chair of the Chamber's Q2030 initiative, was beginning to focus more on promoting inclusivity. 

"We're trying to promote the advantages of more diversity and inclusion because the communities that do that are actually more successful economically," Pilcher said. "The world is changing. In many ways, the communities that are going to be successful are the ones who embrace diversity." 

The community advocates decided to pair young African-American boys with business leaders, leading to Wednesday's luncheon. White said the point is to introduce the young men to people they wouldn't normally meet. 

"It's all about opportunities. A lot of these boys don't have opportunities to make connections, and it's really not what you know. It's who you know," she said. "I don't think people are purposefully not providing opportunities for this demographic. I think they don't know who they are. I'm trying to put these boys directly in that path, so you can't say you didn't know." 

'This can change lives' 

While eating lunch at St. Ambrose's Rogalski Center Wednesday, Pilcher stood up to address the group of around 50 boys. 

"We care about you. You're very important to our community; your future is very important to our community," Pilcher said. "Sometimes you don't always see the people who care about your future. And that's what I'd like you to walk out of here today thinking about. There are people who care about your success and believe in you." 

Tymon Vesey, a mentor and Davenport Schools employee, said it was a crucial message for young men to hear, adding, "it goes beyond cultural or racial barriers. Young men as a whole need someone rooting for them." 

"For these young men to be exposed to people who are professional, and to see these men and women sitting across the table from them, it's huge," he said. "They're able to shake hands with a business owner and have a business owner they don't know speak to them and tell them they can be successful. These kids just light up. This can change lives." 

The kids went around their tables and pulled questions out of a fishbowl, such as, “Have you ever felt discriminated against because of the color of your skin?”

Vesey hopes the luncheon will be one of the first steps toward starting a dialogue and reaching greater equity for minority populations in the Quad-Cities.

The achievement gap between black and white students remains prominent nationally, with African American students largely scoring lower on math and reading scores, for example. 

In Davenport this past spring, an audit of the school district showed black students were more likely to be in special education programs and were more likely to be punished or suspended, compared with their white counterparts. 

And the gap follows students beyond the classroom. Last year, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that while the overall national unemployment rate was 4.4 percent, the rate varied across ethnicity groups. The unemployment rate for black Americans was 7.5 percent, compared to a rate of 3.8 percent for white Americans. 

"These kids didn't ask for this," Vesey said. "They didn't ask to be in the situation they are in. They can't control their home life. A lot of the barriers they're faced with are fatherless homes and having to actually raise their siblings. Financial stability is the biggest issue we're faced with. With the way things are today, some of our kids resort to crime because they're not equipped, not being prepared and not being exposed to things beneficial to them." 

Ryan Saddler, director of diversity at St. Ambrose, said when he was the same age as the group of boys, he constantly felt "invisible," as if his voice didn't matter. He hopes connecting young African-American men with mentors will help them feel heard. 

"Hopefully this is meaningful for these young men, and the adults in the room as well. It's important for decision-makers in our community to listen to the youth," he said. "I hope we can eventually tap into the heart of the issue that stems from race and ethnic disparity. From that, we find every other disparity: housing, education, employment, wealth, personal health. I wish there was a way to focus on race at its core and address its origins for what it is." 

While one luncheon can't close the achievement gap for African American students, White hopes the mentorships will lead to relationships, opportunities and more inclusivity across the Quad-Cities in the future. And Pilcher agreed he'd like to see job shadowing and internship opportunities come out of the event. 

White hopes to make the "Embrace Race Luncheon" an annual event.

"This is long-term for me. One day when they become fathers, with their own careers, raising their own children, that's when I'll see the success of the program and know it's working," she said. 

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