The only way for America's young black men and women to move forward is to step back.
So says Darryl Kennon, the local director of Rites of Passage, a national black self-help organization holding its fifth annual convention in Baltimore July 19-21.
Up to 500 people from across the United States are expected for the three-day gathering, which is being sponsored by the local Afrikan American Men's Leadership Council.
The conference will be held at three local institutions -- on July 19 at Great Blacks in Wax Museum, 1603 E. North Ave.; on July 20 at Sojourner-Douglas College, 1400 Orleans St.; and on July 21 at the Belvedere, Charles and Chase streets.
"The goal of Rites of Passage is to get optimum development for African-Americans by making them more aware of their traditions," says Kennon.
About 150 children, ages 6 to 16, are enrolled in the five Rites of Passage programs in Baltimore.
As Kennon explains it, slavery and its aftermath separated black Americans from the values and customs of African culture.
Consequently, blacks fell victim to poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, violence, bad schooling and poor self-esteem, along with other miseries that become magnified in the large U.S. cities where many blacks live.
The Rites of Passage program seeks to remedy this situation by teaching blacks, especially youths, that they have responsibilities to themselves, their community, their elders and their culture. In short, the program attempts to show them that they are part of a great heritage, and that they are expected to uphold its traditions.
"We try to teach the young people what the definitions of manhood and womanhood are," says Bruce Stevenson, the assistant director of the local Rites of Passage program.
"We try to give them a foundation, some guidance. For example, we teach the young men that fatherhood goes beyond the ability to have a child. It also involves nurturing and caring for another, smaller, fragile human being."
The youths undergo "rites of passage" into adulthood by participating in field trips, workshops, journal-writing and other activities with adult male and female mentors.
Indeed, before joining the program, each youth must choose an "elder" from his or her "extended family," which may include a parent, a sibling or a neighbor.
Once in the program, the youth benefits from what Kennon calls "matrix mentoring."
"In the case of a young man, he has more than his elder as a mentor; he also can link up with all the men involved in the program," says Kennon. "So if his elder leaves or dies, the young man can still feel connected to the other men and feel part of a community."
Mentoring is a key component of Rites of Passage and other black self-help groups locally and nationwide. For example, Richard Rowe, the president of the Afrikan American Men's Leadership Council, also is director of Project RAISE (Raising Ambition Instills Self-Esteem), a local program that matches black youths with adult role models for a year.
Just as the self-help idea has been catching on, so has a back-to-the-roots movement among black Americans, says Kennon, who claims that the movement probably got its primary impetus during the Reagan presidency, when social spending was drastically cut.
"With drugs and violence so big, we have to do something with our people and our children, or else we'll fail ourselves," Kennon says. "We can't let other people help us out, whether it's the government or private [groups]. We can't have that welfare mentality and let other folks take care of us. It's really up to us."