Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Why we are winning?

It all started in fall 2008, the time for my family and me to choose a new baseball organization. Now a sophomore at Benjamin Elijah Mays High School, I was looking for a program that could help me gain exposure to play baseball on the next level. My high school counselor, Andrew Ragland, saw my potential on the baseball field and gave me a flyer for tryouts for an organization called L.E.A.D.

At first thought, I told my mom they play at Perkerson Park—they can’t be any good. Having interest in organizations around Atlanta such as the Georgia Royals, MGBA (Marquis Grissom Baseball Association) and the Atlanta Blue Jays, I didn’t think L.E.A.D. would have much to offer. My focus was to find the best team, with the best players, and most popular brand. This way, I’d be able to travel, win games and be seen all over the country.

Upon arriving at Perkerson Park I was surprised to see so many people come out for tryouts. There was even lots of baseball gear and equipment available to the program that I could see with reps from Mizuno on site at the tryouts. My opinions had changed and interest had grew at first sight.

After completing the tryout process, my mom and I had a conversation with C.J. Stewart, the co-founder and CEO of L.E.A.D., Inc. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct). The first question he asked me was, “How are your grades?” My mom was sold. No other coach or organization was concerned with what I did off the field, but his first concern showed he cared and would not only help me on the field, but off the field, in the game of life, too. Our relationship took off from there, as I chose to join L.E.A.D., an unpopular choice at the time being the only Mays Raider to join the program. I found this experience more valuable in all of the losses that we took, not because we weren’t good players, but Coach C.J. and L.E.A.D. taught us how to see through the scoreboard and understand the real importance of travel ball.

The summer of 2011 had come around and it was time to make a decision on college. Still in the Ambassador program, I had become a Division I baseball prospect, being placed in front of colleges as well as professional scouts at every game and showcase. It was one day in particular I’ll never forget. It happened to be at Perkerson Park. The place I had doubts about when I first joinedg was now giving me the stage to perform on.

Before taking the field for the game that day, Coach C.J. pulled me to the side and basically challenged me to secure this Division I baseball scholarship to Grambling State University. The decision to stay and trust the process with L.E.A.D. had ultimately paid off. I can remember only winning about three to four games, but that was minor in comparison to winning the ultimate prize. I stayed with L.E.A.D. for the culture set in place—one that saw the big picture and was bigger than any game we could win.

Upon graduating from Grambling State University in 2017, I returned to Atlanta with my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, along with five great years on the baseball field. I began working with L.E.A.D. as the programs manager and Ambassadors head coach shortly after. Now approaching two years in this position, I have gained the experience and built a resume I need for the professional world. I have also embraced my passions for giving back to the community, leading and teaching, all while staying close to the game with coaching. These passions, in fact, are ones I’ll be looking to expand upon in my next job after moving on from L.E.A.D.

Head coach of the Ambassadors puts me in charge of three teams. We place Ambassadors on either the practice, play or performance team. The practice team does not play in any games. Once an Ambassador can show he knows how to practice, we will promote him to the “play” team. The process is similar to the minor league to major league progressions. Once an Ambassador is on the “play” team, his focus is to become consistent enough for a promotion to the performance team. The performance team is where you actually get to play for me, where my focus is winning games and scholarships.

I’m often asked after games—“Where are you guys from?”—due to the fact they are surprised that we compete or either won the game. The more surprising comments when I let people know all of my guys are from the Atlanta Public Schools system. I am not supposed to compete, let alone win games with this group. Each game I focus on pitchers throwing strikes, being solid on defense having timely hitting. If we do those three things well, we can compete with anyone.

Leading the Ambassadors did not start once I took this position. The journey started years ago watching and learning how to lead. When I matriculated through the program, there was no Desmond Stegall, C.J. and Kelli Stewart to lead us by themselves. Coach Kelli has taught me the importance of communication, holding people accountable and to sticking to my core values and beliefs.

Desmond Stegall leading the Ambassadors during the 2019 Safe at Home Game. Photo by iSmooth.

I also wondered for years how Coach C.J. managed to do all the things he had going on with excellence. He has taught me how to multi-task, how to prepare and how to delegate, because most things in fact cannot be done alone. I learn from them both each and every day. I use those skills and lessons as best I can when pouring into all the young men L.E.A.D. serves. Our mission is to empower an at risk generation to lead and transform their city. Coach C.J. and Coach Kelli provide Ambassadors this opportunity to do so. You are guaranteed professional coaching, lifelong connections and a network beneficial to your professional desires.

Preparation for the Ambassador program starts in our Middle School Character Development League. These participants are our Junior Ambassadors, who go through a 10-week process, where I am using a leadership method called “Habitudes,” founded by Dr. Tim Elmore. This core value training focuses on teaching Junior Ambassadors everything they need before they learn how to practice, play and perform.

As I close, I want to lend some words of advice to my successor on how to keep winning. You must understand that you are not only leading the Ambassadors, but serving them as well. Be knowledgeable of what each Ambassador can and cannot do. On the field, value each opportunity to get better as a team. Communication can go a long way in your coaching and the Ambassadors performance. You cannot stress it enough in every aspect of the game.

LEAD and they will follow.

Desmond Stegall is the L.E.A.D. Ambassadors Head Coach.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Running. Reaping. Reciprocation.

On April 28, 2019, Pastor Charles Jenkins preached a sermon at my home church, Elizabeth Baptist Church, about three seasons of life—running, reaping and reciprocation.
  • Running Season — Faint not and let us not be weary in well doing
  • Reaping Season — Heavenly blessings come through human hands
  • Reciprocating Season — Blessed to be a blessing
Our oldest daughter, Mackenzi, is now a freshman at Howard University. She will graduate with a degree in Afro-American Studies 2023. Ultimately, she wants to help reform the K-12 education system in the United States. She will be a member of the tennis team, so be sure to follow her career here.

I remember when Mackenzi was born. I can still feel the excitement of being a first-time father. I remember crying when I dropped her off the first day of kindergarten. I remember when she became a teenager. And I will never forget the first young man who asked my permission to date her.

I didn’t cry when we dropped her off at Howard on August 11, 2019. I was too happy. Kelli and I have put a lot of work into Mackenzi’s development.

While driving to D.C. from Atlanta, Mackenzi launched an empowerment apparel line, “Know Your Truth? (KYT?)” The line is to educate and inform the masses about key concepts, events, people, etc., who were conveniently and intentionally left out of our history books.

Mackenzi Stewart. Photo by Steve West.
KYT? steps in where the K-12 educational system never picked up, providing basic, fundamental facts and truths about pivotal people, places and ideas in our society.

Kelli and I did a lot of running to get to this moment of reaping. Mackenzi is starting her running season at the Black Mecca.

Our youngest daughter, Mackenna, is a rising seventh grader at The Lovett School who aspires to become a professional tennis player as early as 15. She is passionate about social activism. Kelli and I are currently doing a lot of running with Mackenna.

Mackenna Stewart. Photo by Steve West.
Reciprocation for me will be when both of my daughters are married. I’m actually looking forward to it. I’m intentionally preparing them today to be a blessing to a man, like their mother is to me.

Running. Reaping. Reciprocation.


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Why baseball really needs to be (all of) ‘America's Favorite Pastime’

Baseball is called America’s pastime. I have always wanted to believe that. I have spent my life chasing the dream and helping others do the same. When I look at the game today, I see it as a microcosm of the American Dream. Some people get what is needed to follow their path and enjoy the experience, while others do not. 

If you look closely at the decline of African-American participation in the sport, you will see what I see. The decline is a social justice issue that cannot be solved until we view it through that lens.

The issue is something that is near and dear to my heart. When I challenge white college coaches about not having as many African-American players as others on their rosters, many say their edict is to recruit the best players in order to win.

I do not believe that assessment measures up. For the past 20 years, I have lived and breathed the game of baseball, logging in more than 20 years of developing and scouting elite level players. I can tell you explicitly that African-American communities across the country are rich in baseball talent, proven by the fact that there already are hundreds competing at the NCAA D-I level.

This opportunity was made possible after Jackie Robinson carved a path for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have A Dream" speech. The trials and tribulations he endured proves, even today, that they must be adhered to with seriousness.

So yes, we need more Black boys to participate in baseball. To do so, we must first own up to the fact there are tens of thousands eagerly awaiting for their opportunity.

C.J. Stewart with youth in the Northwest Atlanta neighborhood that he grew up in. Photo by Eriel Dunnam.
During the 2017-18 school year, nearly 490,000 boys played high school baseball in the United States. Of that number, let us say that 10 percent were African-American. That is 4,900 African-American boys playing high school baseball. Is that number too hard to believe?

Rhetoric suggests that African-American males are “born good athletes,” yet some believe they are not capable of throwing, catching or hitting a baseball like the Negro Legends that helped save Major League Baseball.

Do you believe that?

Let us say that only 10 percent of those 4,900 African-American high schoolers playing baseball were “good enough” to compete in the classroom and on the baseball field at the NCAA D-I level.

That number is 490.

That means that at any given time, there should be close to 490 African-American males playing baseball at the NCAA D-I level. Why is it not a reality? I believe there are three threats impeding their progress:

1. Implicit bias
2. Colorblindness
3. Blackballing

To help turn this way of thinking around, I am proposing a five-point plan that every baseball organization and community can implement. Let us call it the 5 P’s:

1. Participate
There is no shortage of opportunities for African-American youth to participate in baseball because it is the easiest thing to organize. Participation is the first step to increase the amount of players performing at the collegiate and Major League levels.

2. Practice
Once a player demonstrates a love for the game at the participatory level, it is time to learn how to practice. Thisrequires commitment and discipline. Commitment is a promise made and kept. Discipline is doing the things that need to be done even when you do not want to do them.

Having a love for the game is important because you cannot master something without loving it. Players who love baseball possess commitment and discipline. If stressed properly, both of these characteristics should last a lifetime, helping a player win on and off the field. Commitment and discipline are skills that last a lifetime.

3. Play
Learning how to play baseball does not make sense if you do not know how to practice. Playing the game is nothing short of testing what you are working on at practice. Translation: Practice prepares you to play in the game, and the game dictates what you work on in practice.

Growing up, I did not have access to coaches who were former MLB players. Most of my coaches loved the game and a few played at the D-II level. I learned how to play under their leadership because they allowed me to play the game. We focused on the mistakes made at practice and learned how to make adjustments.

I remember playing in my neighborhood with a tennis ball, a stick and some friends. We received lots of reps uninterrupted by a “coach.” We were our own coaches. As we see too often, coaches can unintentionally coach the critical thinking skills out of a player.

4. Perform
When a player reaches the level that allows him to perform, he has earned the right to compete at the collegiate and/or professional level. Performance requires skills developed as a result of practicing under pressure. The skill yields game impact. Strike the right balance and you can avoid excuses like: "I’m tired." "I’ve never faced this type of pitcher." "I’m hurt."

Performance is the ability to get things done in spite of the circumstances. Players who perform know their ability so well that they can make guarantees and execute. They do not focus on getting hits; they focus on executing what it takes to get a hit (timing and tracking pitches, repeating their approach, etc.). Getting hits is the effect, not the cause.

Players cannot learn how to perform until they learn how to participate, practice and play.

5. Protection
The other P's do not mean anything if we are not protected. When African-American males do not feel their dreams are being protected, they oftentimes are unable to reach an optimum level of performance. Nobody wants to feel like they are doing something in vain.

African-American males often go unprotected because they are silent and deemed naturally resilient. Their silence could be the result of a lack of self-confidence. Their resilience could be the result of having to make things happen on their own.

Boys should not have to figure things out of their own. African-American males need heroes more than they need coaches.

As we see too often, structural racism is a real thing. It shows up in baseball as implicit bias, colorblindness and blackballing. It is time to break the chain.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Dreams. Worries. Questions. A LEAD Ambassadors’ Perspective

“Quality leaders recognize that life is pretty much about managing expectations— their own expectations and those of others. People can handle significant challenges—as long as they align with their expectations. Any time hardship fails to align with expectations, however, we can expect trouble.”
Dr. Tim Elmore

I have been the Chief Empowerment Officer for LEAD for 11 years and we partner with Atlanta Public Schools to empower an at-risk generation to lead and transform their city of Atlanta. LEAD Scouts The Counted Out. We use baseball as a vehicle to help youth black males overcome crime, poverty and racism. The over 350 student-athletes grades 6th through 12th that we serve earn the opportunity to become empowered by LEAD with the ABC'S ...

• Attendance
• Behavior
• Curriculum (grades)
• Service

LEAD stands for Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct. It is the gift God gave to me in order to live out my purpose on earth. We develop and position black boys to live sustainable lives of significance by freeing them from the stereotypes that keep them bound.

John Phillips
John Phillips is age 15 and a rising sophomore at Frederick Douglass High School. He’s been a LEAD Ambassdor for one year.

I recently asked him what he dreams about, worries about as well as the questions that people ask him that lets him know that they care about him. Here are his responses . . .

My dreams.

  • I dream about retiring from the MLB and starting a program like LEAD to help black kids be successful. 
  • I dream about making the people proud that helped me be successful. 
  • I dream about fixing poverty. 

My worries.

  • I worry about my grandad and dad not living long enough to see me be successful. 
  • I worry about letting everyone down that believes in me. 
  • I worry about not being successful as a result of leaving LEAD, dropping out of school and following the streets. I have no plans to do either one because LEAD has taught me how to be disciplined with my thoughts and actions. 

Caring questions.

  • Has everything been alright?
  • How have you been?
  • Did you make it home or your destination safely?
There are a lot of aspects of LEAD that I am proud of, and this one ranks high on my list - we are a meritocracy. A meritocracy is an elite group of people whose progression is based on ability and talent rather than class privilege or wealth. Because of this, we have what some believe to be a high attrition rate, around 15%-20%. Some of the attrition is due to lack of funding for staff, but most of it is because of the high standards we set. We are uncompromising in our expectations for our Ambassadors, and when they fail to meet these standards, they are met with the consequences. One such consequence is termination from the program, and when that happens we encounter quite a bit of criticism.

My stance is this: we cannot empower our youth to overcome their struggles by enabling them to use those same struggles as a crutch. Through stories they’ve shared with me, the Ambassadors have taught me how much they respect our organization by reaching for, and at times exceeding, our standards; even more so when they accept the negative consequences for not meeting the standards. Too many times they’ve told me that being in LEAD is the first time they’ve been held accountable on a consistent basis. For some reason, when it comes to helping Black males, most folks throw accountability right out of the window. This is exactly what they need; trust me, I know. Not too long ago, I was a teenage Black male walking the same streets as my Ambassadors walk today. I’ve overcome similar situations to theirs. The last thing they need is someone offering them benefits or opportunity without accountability.

Our Pathway2Empowerment model for our Ambassadors includes a K-12 education from Atlanta Public Schools, Core Value training via Habitudes®, and access to higher education via the military and/or the two to four-year college/university system. Ambassadors who work within our model and hold themselves accountable to it, go on to be employed at industry leading companies like Home Depot and Aerotek, and are well on their way to living a sustainable life of significance.

A great way for you to lead with us is by coming to a game this summer to support John. Here's a short video of the Ambassadors in action on the baseball diamond.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

What does baseball have to do with transformation?

I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one's own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Change in Atlanta needs a name and it must start with passion. The Latin word for passion is suffering. A person cannot be passionate about a certain issue unless they first have experienced suffering centered around that issue. I am passionate about the well-being of marginalized people. Why? Because I have experienced their suffering first hand, felt the brokenness, seen the shame.

As a child being raised in the inner city of Atlanta, I was blessed to be raised with my mother and father in the household. My parents masked our poverty with nice clothes, proper grammar and social events like the Nutcracker.

My parents were hardworking striving to do good while living in the hood. Episodes of the Cosby Show and sleepovers at my white teammates houses when I was a teenager caused me to realize that my family wasn’t as financially successful as I thought that we were. I was embarrassed when my teammates would pick me up from our small house in Bankhead when I should have been appreciative that I had a home.

I’m happiest when marginalized people become the best version of themselves. When they don’t feel like outsiders, but are experiencing acceptance and opportunity, lifted to their rightful dignity of a being a beloved son or daughter of God. My journey from suffering to dignity to passion started over ten years ago. I grew tired of being selfish, pessimistic, arrogant and gave my life to Christ Jesus.

“Get all you can, can all you get, sit on the can.”----This was my slogan ten years ago and I’m not proud of it. I took an honest look at myself as my wife, Kelli voiced disappointment in me as a leader in my household. We have two daughters and I was treating everyone outside of my house better than them. Her words hurt me and led me to change.

I’ve been a baseball and life coach to thousands of males. They don’t begin to believe my success until they understand my struggle. Therefore, I always start with my story so that we can connect. I’ve loved baseball since the age of eight and I dream of using baseball as a vehicle to help legions of black males throughout Atlanta overcome crime, poverty and racism.

I want to increase the number of African-American student-athletes competing in baseball at the NCAA Division I level from 3.7% in 2019 to 40% by 2036.

Why baseball? Because baseball is considered “America’s game” and is used to develop character and critical thinking skills. Jackie Robinson made Dr. Martin Luther King ‪Jr’s‬ “I Have A Dream” speech believable. The Braves coming to Atlanta in 1966 during the Jim Crow era with Hank Aaron from Milwaukee was proof that Atlanta was truly a city “Too Busy To Hate”.

I believe that baseball is a microcosm of America. More blacks in baseball means more relationships between blacks and whites and America will reap benefits because decisions will be made for all with consideration for all.

We welcome you to come lead with us to fulfill our mission to empower an at-risk generation to lead and transform their city of Atlanta. You can be a prayer warrior for us, share your gifts and talents, show up at games and events, and make recurring donations. Use the following links to email us with any questions or comments you may have about signing on:

Click here to email us your prayer for us as well as 
share your gifts and talents with L.E.A.D.


Friday, April 26, 2019

Black Youth are Over Mentored and Under Sponsored

“But perhaps the most important difference of all and the one most dangerous to the American ideal of equal opportunity is in how we raise our kids. In the modern economy, human capital has become vital to success. The most educated and affluent parents got the memo. Upper middle class families have become green houses for cultivation of human capital. Children raised in them are on a different track than ordinary Americans right from the very beginning.”
Richard V. Reeves

Just like the minor leagues prepares professional baseball players for the Majors, so too must mentorship lead to sponsorship to prepare black youth for life.

My childhood dream was to become a rich Major League Baseball player for the Chicago Cubs. I wanted the cars and fame but lacked the character to make it a reality. I was selfish as a child and teen. My dreams did not include helping anyone but myself. I did get to play for the Cubs, though never made it to the Majors. After returning home, my wife Kelli and I founded a business, Diamond Directors, that provides top athletes with a blueprint of success. The selfishness is gone, which is why we also co-founded L.E.A.D., Inc. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct), where baseball is the blueprint to help inner-city, Atlanta Black males combat three curve balls they face in life - crime, poverty and racism.

Mentorship is guidance. Sponsorship is reliance. I believe that he who owns the definition owns the movement.

I’m currently reading Richard V. Reeves’ book Dream Hoarders: How The American Upper-Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is A Problem, and What to Do about It. Among many things, the book introduced me to the terms “market meritocracy” and “market merit.”

The Business Dictionary defines meritocracy as “governance by elites who deserve to wield power because they possess merit (defined as 'intelligence plus effort') instead of by those who merely possess wealth or belong to privileged classes.” Such a system, in theory, forms the basis of an 'equal opportunity' society. But, in practice, unrestricted meritocracy may result in a society without rules and concentrate power in only a few hands. The term was coined by the UK sociologist Michael Young in 1958 book, The Rise Of Meritocracy. Richard V. Reeves, adds the term “market merit” to the conversation to highlight the emphasis on skills and attributes that predict economic success. We know that it is harder for some in our city to gain those skills, keeping them out of the meritocracy that runs our city.

L.E.A.D. Ambassador Justin Riddle. Photo by SMAX Photography.

I was born and raised in poverty in the inner-city of Atlanta, and I’m ashamed that we have the largest wealth gap among major cities in the United States. According to the Atlanta Chamber, if you are born into poverty in our city, you only have a 4% chance of making it out. Most people agree that the first step in changing this is education. Atlanta Public Schools (APS) educates over 51,000 students in grades K-12 and over 80% of those students live at or below the poverty level. APS is doing great things for Atlanta under the leadership of Dr. Meria Carstarphen, however, even if every Black student graduates from high school, that won’t be enough. Students living at or below the poverty level may get the education they need, but they still don’t have access to the opportunities that provide them access to the market meritocracy. Until we address this disparity, children born in poverty in Atlanta will never catch up; will never be able to live their “best life.”

People in this city want to help. The issue is that they aren’t helping in the right way. Georgia has one non-profit organization for every 361 people. Volunteers and money for inner city Atlanta are plentiful; the question is why aren't they more effective.

Unfortunately, for many black families living in poverty the only way their children can achieve merit is to leave their community to attend school. By restricting access to the levers of meritocracy to spaces outside the inner city, we perpetuate the “ghettoization” of our city. Those left behind fall further behind. Those who can, get out by attending charter or private schools, and stay out. What can we do to change this? We need to move from mentorship to sponsorship.

We need the volunteers and philanthropists who sit on boards to understand that our youth need access to the same opportunities that their White peers living five miles away have; otherwise their merit will never be enough to break into our city’s meritocracy. It is not enough to mentor them; they need to be sponsored for specific positions and opportunities.

What does that look like? This four-step process illustrates how we can sponsor Black youth that are living at or below the poverty level in Atlanta.

Ask yourself, “Why do I care about Black students escaping poverty so they can enjoy a life of prosperity like I have?” Vulnerability is better than pageantry.

Determine what resonates with you when you ask that question, and then share that with the student you are mentoring. This will create a connection between the two of you which will be critical for moving from mentorship to sponsorship.

Together, identify a specific career opportunity the young person wants to pursue and make a promise to him that you will personally help him navigate achieving it through your support and endorsement.

Work together to make sure that the student doesn’t just get the education he needs; but that he also has access to the opportunities that will make him marketable in our city’s meritocracy. This will require your time, money, and ongoing endorsement.

By sponsoring, and not just mentoring, our most vulnerable at-risk, Black youth, we can help make Atlanta a place where merit is rewarded regardless of the circumstance of birth. Only then will we live up to the promise of our meritocracy.


Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Covering my bases - Bankhead, Buckhead and Bartow

I was born and raised in Bankhead in the late 70’s. Bankhead was and still is a community for majority Black and poor people.

Around the age of seven, I remember leaving my Bankhead community to attend Northside High School located in Buckhead so that I could learn how to do gymnastics and engage in other academic enhancement activities.

I remember the houses in Buckhead being so large. The grass was so green and everything was so clean. The contrast with my community was stark.

At age eight, I began dreaming of playing professional baseball with the Chicago Cubs after watching hours of the Cubbies playing on WGN in the summer with my grandfather. After the games, I would practice in the backyard by hitting and throwingrocks at targets.

I was drafted at age 18 and 20 by Chicago Cubs and finally signed the second time. After my career ended, I began training youth baseball players in the East Cobb and Buckhead community.

I grew as a person and coach in those communities. I was able to help a lot of young men fulfill their life goals of becoming Major Leaguers, business owners and military officers, to name a few.

In 2007, Stan Conway, one of my for-profit clients fromBuckhead challenged me in a way that I will never forget. He asked me what I wanted to with the rest of my life in addition to coaching. No one had ever asked me a question like that – a question that forced me to expand my limited horizon beyond my current daily life and outward to “the rest of my life”. In baseball terms, he was asking me what I planned to do to “cover all my bases” – the present, the future and the larger world in which I exist.

Stan, a white man, told me that he was aware that there was a decline of African-Americans in baseball at the MLB level. I knew that to be a fact, but I also realized I wasn’t doing anything about it. I was planting seeds in a field in the suburbs and Buckhead – I was helping fill the coveted spots of Major League Baseball with more white men – and by doing so, I was working a field that wasn’t mine. My field – my farm, my “garden” - was Bankhead and I wasn’t planting anything there.

L.E.A.D. Ambassador Amari Jones
In fact, I was unconsciously avoiding black male youth in Atlanta because I didn’t know how to intentionally help them. Why did I do this? I think part of the answer lies in the fact thatI didn’t quite know the details of how I made it out. I was raised by two parents that worked hard. I had a stable church andhome, loving family members and some good coaches. But getting access to educational opportunities as a collegiate student-athlete requires more than hope and a prayer. It requires advocacy.

L.E.A.D., Inc. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct) was established in 2007 and we’ve been tilling, planting, nurturing and harvesting ever since. L.E.A.D. offers advocacy and significance to inner city ATLANTA black males that are struggling with grades, attendance and/or behavior.

I am both privileged and challenged by the reality that we live in a bifurcated city – a city of two separate communities – and I have one foot in each of them. Consider something as simple as barbershops. Barbershops are institutions that are a microcosm of a still segregated ATLANTA. I have two barbers, one in Bankhead and one in Buckhead. A few years ago, I met former Georgia Governor, Joe Frank Harris at my Buckhead barbershop. I later met his son, Joe Frank Harris, Jr. The Harris family has resided in Bartow County for several decades.

Joe Jr. asked me if I would be willing to come to Bartow County to mentor students as I do in the inner city of Atlanta. I hosted Joe Jr. at one of our partner middle schools (Brown Middle School) so that he could see how and why L.E.A.D. exists. A few weeks later, he hosted me at Allatoona Elementary School in Bartow County. Like Bankhead, Bartow County suffers from extreme poverty which often leads to drug addiction and crime. The only major difference between the students that I serve in Bankhead and Bartow is their race.

C.J. Stewart at Allatoona Elementary School
I believe that race is a social construct that was created to justify slavery. The exploitation of this construct has since become a demonizing force that creates and perpetuates poverty, crime, health outcomes and housing to name a few. We are so often obsessed with the differences between our communities – the disparities between places like Bankhead, Buckhead and Bartow – that we rarely consider the similarities. The social construct of race is just another version of a wall – a psychological one in this case – with the sole purpose of separating us. But we are far more similar than we are different, and unless we consider those similarities when we ask ourselves, what do we want to do with our lives? – if we don’t confront the reality that we are all one community, we won’t be “covering our bases”.

I succeeded in escaping poverty and have reached a level of success that I leverage to serve others. Many years ago when Stan Conway asked me what I was going to do with the rest of my life, he challenged me to be significant – to do something that I could look back on and say without any regrets that what I did was meaningful. I have answered that question now for myself, but I will continue to do so for others. My answer is to serve others, by doing what I know I can do best. And that is not just an answer, that is my significance in this shared but segregated community of ours.