2014 Chattanooga Boys Leadership Summit

What began in 2010 as a discussion of the needs of boys living within Chattanooga's urban core, the Boys Leadership Summit (BLS) celebrated its fifth year of inspirational training for middle and high school males on November 15, 2014. The Summit brings together a host of agencies, faith-based institutions, and parents interested in improving leadership qualities of male students. The Saturday morning event was held on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. During the annual Summit, adults share strategies on keeping young men productive, safe and focused on achievement; while youth share their life experiences as 6th – 12th grade males navigating their complex environments.

On this day, I observed a mother stopping at the BLS registration table to check to see if her son's name appeared on the list. The young man was confirmed by BLS volunteers and was handed a backpack with a conference schedule, trinkets and useful information. The young man searches the content of the pack and looks at his mother with a sense of satisfaction, then smiles as they walk. It is the start of a good day for a middle-school age boy from Chattanooga’s urban community.

Assembled in the UTC University Center Auditorium, the Summit’s morning session opened with a strong message of hope and inspiration from UTC student, Aderius “A. J.” Jackson. Aderius has attended all five Boys Leadership Summits and has since enrolled at the university. His message was one of perseverance, hope, and encouragement to seize every opportunity in life. Jackson encouraged the boys to reach out to their mentors when they have questions or problems. Today was also a celebration of mentors, parents, and those who understood how significant the next five hours might be to a young man. You could see on their faces that A. J. Jackson’s message resonated and was meaningful, particularly coming from a contemporary who got his start attending the Summit.

Lurone “Coach” Jennings, Administrator for the City of Chattanooga’s Department of Youth & Family Development, stepped to the microphone and gave a powerful message that blended practical life lessons, sage wisdom, and a testimony or two. “Coach” Jennings encouraged young men to stand up and become leaders in their communities. “All things rise and fall with leadership”, said the fiery former ball coach, teacher, and principal. He spoke openly and honestly to the young men about his own life experiences and how he had to overcome some obstacles in life, but kept it moving. “Don’t stay stuck”, admonished Jennings. His message, like the theme of this year’s conference was about “The Way Forward”.

Planners for the 2014 event, Temus Terry, Chris Ramsey, and Stacy Lightfoot, greeted students, parents, facilitators, and exhibitors throughout the day. Exhibitors ranged from nonprofits aimed at helping youth make healthy choices to an aviation program aimed at encouraging minority students to take an interest in the field as a career option. Mayor Andy Berke attended the event and met with parents and students to share his vision for Chattanooga that embraces programs like BLS to multiply the number of leaders needed for our city to be a great place to live and raise a family. Dr. Paul Smith, City of Chattanooga’s Public Safety Director, spoke on an upcoming White House initiative dubbed “My Brother’s Keeper”.

Breakout sessions for the event focused on leadership, character, and an exploration of how young men should carry themselves in the public realm. A host of community youth leaders facilitated interactive sessions and kept students engaged, inspired, and inquisitive. The BLS is provides a tremendous platform for participants and their parents to have a dialogue about what the future could really look like if the resources are carefully applied and individual effort is invoked.

Keynote speaker, Vincent Phipps, a locally-based consultant and motivational speaker, shared stories and adages of triumph and perspective. Phipps’ engaging style and interaction with the boys made for light-hearted lessons and the whole room seemed relate to his stories in some way. Throughout Phipps’ presentation, students followed along his story lines and guessed the punch-line of many of his jokes. At the end of each presentation, Phipps asked the students about the moral of the story.

Formerly, the BLS event was coordinated as a once per year activity. BLS planners are now encouraged that enough interest has been garnered to offer quarterly activities over the next year, and pledges have been made toward moving to monthly events by the following year. There is growing community support for the positive youth program. Having celebrated a fifth year in existence is certainly a framework on which change and improvement for our city can be built.

Gary Rudolph is the Director of the Chattanooga Ambassadors Program (CAP), which provides education support and leadership training for 50 teens each year. CAP is an initiative of the City of Chattanooga's Department of Youth and Family Development. 
“It is the start of a good day for a middle-school age boy from Chattanooga’s urban community.”