Agents of courage

Initiative advances the narrative and economic status of black men

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A businessman, rapper, former big city mayor and convicted felon walk into a room ... Hokey as it sounds, this isn’t the set-up for a bad bar joke. In fact, it was this very interaction nearly three years ago that created the movement now known as Ford Men of Courage.

In 2015, I met with former Detroit Mayor and NBA All-Star Dave Bing, three-time Grammy Award-nominated artist Big Sean, and convicted felon turned best-selling author, Shaka Senghor in the basement of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. There, we conceived the idea for a unique program designed to unite diverse black men from all walks of life to challenge the perception, advance the narrative, and create solutions for problems often faced by black men in America.

Shawn Wilson, Dave Bing, Big Sean on stage talking about Men of Courage.
Three years ago these three men, Shawn Wilson, left, Ford Fund; Dave Bing, center, former Detroit mayor; Big Sean, right, American rapper, were among those founding the Men of Courage. Photo by Louis Carr

Too often black men are painted with negative stereotypes. I have experienced it. And any black man reading this knows what I’m talking about. As we sat around the table, we looked at our own stories. We conceived the idea for a unique program designed to unite diverse black men from all walks of life to challenge the perception, advance the narrative, and create solutions for problems often faced by black men in America.

This vision came at the cusp of heightened racial tension in the country, as one week after another, the nation was confronted with the brutal, often live-streamed deaths of black men. It was an exhausting, heart wrenching, and taxing moment in the country’s history. We were at a critical impasse as a nation, and in the chaos of the social climate, there seemed to be more energy given to finger pointing and blame than working toward actual solutions.

Jewell Jones, youngest member elected to the Michigan House of Representatives, writes in Men of Courage journal.
Jewell Jones, D-Dearborn Heights, the youngest member elected to the Michigan House of Representatives, writes his story in his Men of Courage journal. Photo by Tafari K. Stevenson-Howard

Ford Fund is the charitable arm of Ford. Our job is to help the communities where the company operates. It’s something we’ve been doing since 1949. Because we’re a fixture in so many ways, as a representative for Ford Fund, it is not uncommon to get the “What is Ford going to do?” questions. People are hungry: “What’s Ford going to do?” Education is in crisis: “What’s Ford going to do?” A natural disaster occurs: “What’s Ford going to do?”

But now the issue was hitting home for me. Black men are dying: “What’s Ford going to do?” I had been with Ford less than a year. Even as I grappled with my own feelings surrounding the moment, because of my role as manager of Multicultural Community Engagement for the Ford Fund, I was also being held to account by the community – and rightfully so. The Ford brand is synonymous with American values. From Henry Ford’s bootstrapping entrepreneurial spirit to his pioneering nod to equality in offering a $5 wage to all of his workers despite race or ethnicity. The Ford story is as American as apple pie.

As a black man, I recognized that I didn’t have all the answers. There was no way that I could represent or speak on behalf of the entire black male population. But sometimes by exploring, seeking to understand — and at the very least listening to our customers and the community — we can find a way to make a difference.

Shawn Wilson talking while young man receives haircut in barber chair.
Shawn Wilson, left, speaks as a young man gets a haircut in the pop-up barbershop during a recent Men of Courage event in the Ford Resource and Engagement Center on Detroit's east side. Photo by Tafari K. Stevenson-Howard

As I pondered that question, I realized to solve it we needed to bring to the table black men from across all backgrounds, professions, generations, and experiences. That is the spirit in which Men of Courage was born.

Big Sean, Shaka Senghor, Dave Bing and I agreed that it was more productive to focus on the assets of black men versus the deficit statistics – the perceived liabilities – that portray the future of black men as bleak. Instead, we wanted to focus on the assets black men represent and bring to our country and communities. The team created an action-oriented initiative, which combines storytelling, envisioning and action. In three short years, we’ve held Men of Courage forums in five cities. Today, we can report black men have downloaded more than 2,000 toolkits in 34 cities.

These results are a testament to Ford’s commitment to the community. Dealing with race and social issues is a daunting challenge for corporations because it is difficult to address without taking a political stand, but Ford Men of Courage confronts these issues, not by casting blame, but by asking, “How can we make this work?” and then doing what the job requires.

What I like about the Ford Fund’s approach is that it is not just about promoting our corporate logo, but it is really about how we help people live better lives. When people see the Ford logo, and if they have been a part of the program, they have a certain feeling now. It's not that they were at a fundraising dinner and saw the logo flash on the screen for two seconds. It's that people – including black men – can connect in a real way and understand that Ford authentically and genuinely cares about helping make their lives better. Whether you are a Ford customer or not, we are helping build a better community for all Americans.

Men of Courage attendees in eastside Ford Resource and Engagement Center, holding I am a man of courage posters.
Men of Courage attendees during early February event in the Ford Resource and Engagement Center on Detroit's east side. Photo by Tafari K. Stevenson-Howard

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