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SALT LAKE CITY — Becoming a professional basketball player, or doing something in the NBA, is a dream that James Neal, 16, can actually visualize now.
When he moved to Utah from Florida in 2002 with his mother and grandmother, he was a young man without mentors in his life. He joined the Utah Alpha Beaus, a mentoring group started by Utah residents who belong to the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Utah chapter. The group targets African American boys ages 14 to 18.
"All of these mentors are like a father to me because I never had a father figure," said Neal. "I made a brotherhood with about five other Beaus."
Neal said he grew up believing his father had died. "She (my mother) told me he was sick and died," said Neal. But just two years ago he learned the truth.
"She was really upset about me asking," said Neal. "She said he had abused her," Neal said. That is why belonging to the group Alpha Beaus is important to him.
"There aren't that many African Americans in my school. I think there are only three," he said. "So this really helps me keep me African American culture inside of me."
The Alpha Beaus aims to instill in African American teens a sense of cultural pride, teach leadership skills, and provide role models.
"There were conversations about how we could create a safe space for African American males that were in high school, to get cultural validation," said Dr. Bryan Hotchkins, Ph.D., Alpha Beaus program chair. "And they¹d be allowed to express themselves in ways that we (as a culture) deem as normal, and where they would be accepted in their expression."
It creates lifelong bonds that won't be broken ever.
Hotchkins started the program with other members of Alpha Phi Alpha, an African American fraternity. Hotchkins said the men in the Utah chapter saw a need to reach out to the young African American teens in Utah. Hotchkins said the group aims to help the boys navigate life in a predominantly Utah Caucasian culture and a predominantly Utah Mormon culture. One goal is to teach the boys to learn about different cultures so they can find their culture and sense of self-worth.
"There are discussions about how culture is seen, how culture is expressed, and how culture is validated," said Hotchkins.
He said the mentors are passing down information given to them by their fathers about cultural identity as young African American males, something he said tends to be missing in some trans-racial homes or homes with single mothers.
"If I adopt a child who is Chinese, I can only teach him about being African American because that is my experience," said Hotchkins. "Because I have lived the experiences of an African American man, I can teach African American boys about those experiences.²
Hotchkins acknowledges that the boys may never have the same experiences that he has had.
"But I can give them the cultural cues to be able to identify language that is spoken to them," he explained.
At least one mentor in Alpha Beaus was raised by a single mother — Dr. Roderic Land, Ph. D., Alpha Phi Alpha Utah Chapter president. He said it is important for the young men to understand the "lens by which they are seen" in society. Land said media images tend to stereotype African American males. Instead of allowing the media to define African American men, the mentors will serve as role models.
"Even with the males that we're mentoring, some of them tend to subscribe to the ideas that they see in the media," said Land. "But it's up to us as men to rectify that situation and show them that there are other ways of being other than what you see on the videos and in the movies."
We want to build upon the things that their parents have ... instilled within them to help them become successful young men.
–Dr. Roderic Land
Hotchkins and Land also work to teach the boys leadership skills by guiding them as they organize activities throughout the year. The Alpha Beaus works with other groups in the community to help the boys have cross-cultural experiences.
"We want to build upon the things that their parents have given and instilled within them to help them become successful young men," said Land.
As part of that success, the mentors hope to set a precedence for excellence.
"It is my hope that expectations will be raised for African American males and that we can exceed any expectation that is put upon us," said Hotchkins.
James Neal said he's grateful to have found a home away from home.
"It creates lifelong bonds that won't be broken ever and I just thank God for it," Neal said.