The Men's Network: Generations of Men Coming Together
With contributions from Teonna Cooksey, Tesia Zeitlow, Lena Jensen, Bella Biwer, and Arijit Sen
It is nine o-clock on a Tuesday morning. We approach the low-slung façade of a ranch-style building located on the north-east corner of North Avenue and Sherman Boulevard in Milwaukee. Mr. Charles Carmickle, an old friend of the field school, invited us to a breakfast meeting with his group. The group is called the Men’s Network and many of the members belong to the Community Baptist Church located on the south-west corner of the same intersection. Members of the Church have welcomed us in their midst and today we are paying them a social visit.
As we step into the building, smell of breakfast draws us in. We are surrounded by sounds of conviviality around a repast. Groups of people are huddled around discussions, laughter, and mirth. We observe a backdrop of old photographs and documents hanging on the walls. Many of these images show family members and congregation members who served in the military or those who hold significance within the fellowship. A variety of food is lined up, against the wall: scrambled eggs, grits, potato, bread, condiments, cake, biscuits, sausage and bacon. Mr. Mike Staples, a founding member of this group, is cooking in the kitchen located at the far end of the building, opposite the entrance hallway. He hardly has time to talk; but he is watchful, making sure everyone is fed well.
Commensality, or the practice of eating together, has always been a central mode of human engagement and community-building. Communal acts of breaking bread, after all, are primordial acts of caring. Field school scholar Lena Jensen points out that “caring is a form of knowledge that is passed on through generations in the form of tales, morals, and codes of behavior. Elders recount family histories and memories to young adults, reminding them of their moral responsibilities towards others. …” Jensen describes that “natural forms of caring,” — expressed in receptivity and openness to each other, being aware of each other’s distinctiveness, and engaging with each other in an open and convivial way — promotes habitual practices of empathy that bridges generational gaps and other social divisions.
A central goal of this group is to connect and collaborate. A group of older African American men converse with younger adults and continue their engagement outside the breakfast. The elders have taken on the role of community mentors for the enthusiastic youngsters. They emphasize the importance of discipline as a form of self-care and empowerment. They explain how personal discipline can become bulwarks against social disempowerment felt by many black youth. Focus and diligence can save them from violence perpetuated by individuals, institutions, and the state. They teach the youngsters that mindfulness can become a form of resistance against structural inequalities that stymie youthful ambition. They discuss the importance of entrepreneurship and self-help. The goal of everyone in this room is to share knowledge and ideas with one another and nurture a social network of care. This intergenerational group has committed to empower their community. We hear that their objective is to be the best version of themselves and to learn how to navigate life proudly and with dignity.
Reverend V.W. Chambers sits silently on the corner watching everyone. At the Men’s Breakfast, they call him The Godfather. He jokes about it in a humble way. He explains it’s because he thinks differently, and he tries to pass his way of thinking to younger members of the community, to teach and protect. His message is of knowledge and understanding, and that knowledge should be shared, passed to others to help them improve their lives rather than guarded for exclusive use. He talks about love: love has no color; knowledge has no color.
We meet Arthur Brown who has lived in the Sherman Park neighborhood since 1993. He has served as a member of the Community Baptist Church and he participates in the Men’s Network breakfasts and events on a regular basis. He is committed to help his community in any capacity that he can. During our conversation, Mr. Brown discusses the generational gap that is present in the community today. As a young man, he wanted to get out of his hometown and experience new things. He moved around a lot. During that time, he experienced various jobs and met various people. He feels that young people have all the tools and resources they need to succeed, but a lot of them are not willing to put in the effort to do so. Discipline, diligence, and steadfastness are qualities that served him well and he feels passionately about reinstating some of these ethos to young adults in the neighborhood.
We return to Mr. Staples, who recounts his family’s history, highlighting the men in his life. His history helps explain the relevance of the Men’s Network to him. Staples goes back to the days of slavery on the Emery plantation. Joseph Emery, who owned anywhere from two to three hundred slaves, was the older brother of Jefferson Davis—the Confederate President. Joseph owned a slave named Benjamin, who ran away but was returned to the plantation. Instead of cruel corporeal punishment typically reserved for runaway slaves, Joseph talked to Benjamin. The conversation ended with Benjamin becoming the overseer on the plantation. Within time, Benjamin formed a community among the slaves working under him. That community would be the voice of reason when a slave was to be punished.
Over time, Mr. Staples continues, through hard work and determination, Benjamin paid to live on the plantation with his family as a freed man. Shortly after, Benjamin died, his son Isaiah, in order to maintain his father’s legacy, recreated a living community of African Americans. He bought land in Bolivar County, Mississippi, and created a community that came to be known as Mound Bayou.The lesson we take from this story is that this self-help community of African slaves and freemen became strong and resilient because each individual worked together and empowered each other. Hard work is something that Mr. Staples feels is necessary for anyone to be able to support themselves. He places value on work ethic and lifelong learning. Yet, although he believes that education is extremely important, he is not only referring to book-learning or school work. There has been many times when he chose work over his school. He explains, “I need to show the men that come here, that there is nothing they can’t do”. The Men’s Network has an agenda to work with either Washington High School or North Division High School to teach students’ carpentry and wood shop skills—the skills that Mr. Staples started off learning while he was in high school.
Another member of the Men’s Network who shares similar ideas is James Brown. Brown a community activist and feels that he was born to do what he does. He chooses to work with the youth and he addresses the concern some people have that “young people do not want to listen.” He argues that they do listen… “it’s just what they listen to has changed.” Mr. Brown wants to create a youth center that would include programs around the concept of tolerance, history, and work, because “life is a gift and people [of color] try to forget what we have experienced in the past.” That experience of history is necessary as we work hard with young people to let them know their responsibility to make their world a better place to live in.
I ask Mr. Brown about his thoughts on education and how it influences the stability of a community. He describes education using concepts such as skill, labor, and social contribution. What matters is what one can provide to a fellow human being. To Mr. Brown, it doesn’t matter if you spent years getting a higher education or if you spent decades working as a mechanic in a shop—if you have the knowledge to produce something, you will always have work. Respect for work and labor come up, and Brown explains that he believes that we need to learnhow to do work. He feels that that the youth needs to get it together now, before it’s too late—which explains his involvement with this mentoring group.
When we began our field school project, we planned to focus on positive stories of grassroots resilience and resistance against disinvestment, crime, poverty, and segregation. We decided to collect stories that describe how victims of environmental injustice take back their homes, sidewalks, and streets through minute everyday acts of labor, stewardship, and vigilance. The story of the Men’s Network is one such story of grassroots empowerment and community resurgence.