Continuing MLK's dream by enhancing self-esteem

January 24, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

IN THE HOURS after that terrible night of April 4, 1968, when despair and rage set in among many black Americans - while others just hunkered down for all the hell that we knew was going to break loose - one woman had a different reaction.

Willia Bland decided she would start a modeling agency. She had turned to modeling when she was 30 - "a time when life was over for women at age 30," Bland said recently - and remembered what it had done for her self-esteem.

"You have to look at the historical perspective of what was going on," Bland said. "Dr. King had just been killed. He challenged everybody to respect his dream."

Bland's dream had been to start a modeling studio. By doing so, she felt she could help black women build their self-esteem as a tribute to the man who helped raised all of black America's self-esteem. Thus the Flair Modeling Agency was born.

"I thought this would be buying into the dream and putting skills and knowledge back into the community," Bland said.

Kristina Alexander, 23, has been modeling with Flair since she was 8. A 1998 graduate of Randallstown High School and now a student at Catonsville Community College, Alexander said Flair "raised my self-esteem" and "made me aware that there are black models out there."

Don't be put off by the term "self-esteem." Bland and her daughter, Andrea Bland Travis, who teaches dance and modeling at Flair, were building self-esteem long before it became a racket used by some to justify rampant social promotion in public schools.

A dance studio - where students learn tap, ballet and jazz - was added to the modeling agency. The ages range from 2 on up. At a recent holiday recital, Travis' 2- and 3-year-old girls performed ballet and tap numbers to tunes ranging from "The Nutcracker Suite" to "Winter Wonderland" to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Some have suggested - even claiming that there are studies to support their position - that exposing children to music and dance at young ages sharpens their intellects. If that's true, then Bland and Travis were way ahead of the curve. They've been doing this for years.

Almost as if on cue to prove this point, 12-year-old Morgan Thomas, a Severna Park Middle School seventh-grader, introduced herself to me after the recital. She has been dancing with Flair since she was 3. Thomas has a 4.0 grade-point average and has acted in the Arena Players' productions of Annie, Kidsville and Oliver.

"I'm more poised than I would have been if I had joined any other dance or modeling studio," said Thomas, who must take that poise to the classroom.

"We believe," Travis said, "that what we're doing is beneficial to children academically and spiritually."

OK, so one academically successful girl does not a pattern make. But here's what we do know about girls who train in modeling and dance at Flair: It doesn't seem to do them any harm. And Flair's customers, primarily from Baltimore in the early years, now come from surrounding counties - and even as far as Frederick County. The costs - $75 a month for once-a-week dance classes and $195 for a six-week modeling program - are not prohibitive. And, in keeping with King's dream, Flair serves a multiracial clientele.

But Travis doesn't just wait for parents to bring their daughters (and sometimes their sons) to Flair. Travis frequently takes her Best Foot Forward program into schools. Some schools pay her. She volunteers at others.

BFF has six parts: A Celebration of Self, Enjoying Your Skin, Beautiful Body, First Impressions, Successful Dress, and It's How You Say It. The youngsters learn it all from Travis - their uniqueness, how to clean their skin properly, good nutrition and exercise, the importance of eye contact, good manners, good posture, dressing appropriately and speaking clearly and effectively. As much as Bland and Travis were needed to teach these things in 1968, it's even more imperative that they be taught today.

"We're finding parents are no longer raising children," Travis said. "They're raising themselves."

So Travis has to teach some children what their parents don't: that what young people do - or don't do - will determine their success. As part of her BFF package, Travis emphasizes job interview techniques: what to wear, what not to wear, how to sit, and yes, young man or young woman, that tongue ring does have to come out of your mouth.

Travis remembers the time she saw two young black men walk into a place, baggy pants sagging below the waist, looking for jobs.

"Our brothers, our brothers," Travis lamented. "I wanted to take them and say `Look, brother, if you want to get a job, you have to do this first.'"

What Bland and Travis have been doing first, for nearly 36 years, is helping Baltimore's children. Recently Travis has received calls from group homes that work with troubled young women who want her to bring BFF there.

"These girls include some runaways," Travis said, "and some with promiscuity problems. They want me to show them how to be young ladies - how to sit, how to talk."

Helping those in trouble is a perfect way to uphold the legacy of King, who died fighting for justice for Memphis' sanitation workers. Bland isn't blind to what she and her daughter are doing.

"We feel," Bland said, "that, generally speaking, we are making a contribution. Dr. King's life had a very profound effect upon me."

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