Mentors sought to instill spirituality


November 14, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Roland Gilbert, a one-time malcontent and gang member turned top student, mentor and author, says he has "the ghetto solution."

It relies on people returning to the basics, to what he calls Afro-centric values: spirituality, faith and self-knowledge. It also relies on mentors working continuously with the same youngsters for the 12 years they are in school.

The commitment is long but necessary, said Mr. Gilbert, who made his pitch yesterday to more than 150 people at West Baltimore's Bethel A.M.E. Church. Without that investment, he said, the litany of problems afflicting poor blacks -- especially males -- will only grow.

The problems already are staggering. He cited the following national statistics:

* If current patterns continue, 75 percent of young black males will be incarcerated by the year 2010.

* African-American males already are incarcerated at five times the rate of black South Africans.

* Also in 1990, blacks committed 53.9 percent of all murders in the United States, but they were only 12 percent of the population.

"You won't stop the killing unless you get to the killers before they become killers," said the Rev. Frank M. Reid III, Bethel's senior pastor, who invited Mr. Gilbert to participate in his church's Men's Month activities after reading an article about the Simba Program in Essence magazine.

In Mr. Gilbert's view, the biggest problem facing black America is not poverty, because he feels everybody has the power to change that if they have the right outlook. Instead, he said, too many young people -- especially boys -- are absorbing and then exhibiting grotesquely distorted notions of American values: materialism, being macho and having no sense of common purpose. Those lessons are learned early and are difficult to shake, he said.

"Our children are not sent down here from Mars," Mr. Gilbert said. "They were not born drug dealers and murderers. What has happened is that they learned a way of thinking that is not working for them here."

Mr. Gilbert's program -- which he founded in Oakland, Calif., and now is in place in 10 cities -- aims to train volunteers in proper values and then teach them how to mentor young people. His book about the program, "The Ghetto Solution," is scheduled to be published early next year, he said.

The mentor training is far more intensive than what is required for most such programs, which have become popular in recent years. The training totals 66 hours, after which the mentors are expected to serve with young people for 12 years, ideally while the recipients are between ages 6 and 18.

The intensive training teaches prospective mentors how to integrate their volunteer work into their lives, teaches them how to model the values they will pass on to their young charges and emphasizes the importance of sticking with it.

"What's 66 hours when you are talking about saving a people?" Mr. Reid said. "Instead of preaching about the problem, this helps you change the problem."

Heeding the minister's words, dozens of people at Bethel signed up to work with the program when it expands to Baltimore. Mr. Gilbert hopes that will happen soon.

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