Friday, September 9, 2016

Your 3-Step Guide to being an Effective L.E.A.D. Mentor

Mentor: A trusted counselor or guide; Someone who teaches or gives help and advice to a less experienced and often younger person.

My calling in life is to be significant through service to others in an effort to bring them to Christ and address racism. This is a tall order, and one I could not come close to meeting were it not for my mentors, Dr. Craig L. Oliver, senior pastor of Elizabeth Baptist Church and Dr. Tim Elmore, the founder of Growing Leaders.

When my wife Kelli and I founded L.E.A.D. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct), we became mentors to a group of boys who desperately needed strong role models who would be there for them – even when they didn’t want us to be. As our program has grown, so too have the issues facing the young men we work with. We cannot do this alone and are constantly on the lookout for people who want to be a part of preparing our city’s next generation of leaders.

Do you have what it takes to be a L.E.A.D. mentor? Are you willing to be a present, be present, and be a partner?

Be a Present

It’s easy to avoid the hard things in life. Very few people need help with that. What we do need help with is going deep. When you care enough to ask the tough questions and then stay around to listen to the answers, you are showing a young person you care. I’ve found that in asking the following six questions, I am actually telling the Ambassadors that I love them:

1. What do you worry about?

2. What do you cry about?

3. What do you dream about?

4. Why does God have you on Earth?

5. What world problem do you want to solve?

6. What is your calling in life from God?

Now it’s your turn. Do you have answers for these questions? Can you say them in six words of less? Are you ready to ask our Ambassadors these questions and listen to their answers?

When you help a young man you are mentoring see himself in a new way, you are a present; a present that strips away entitlement and replaces it with empowerment. Out goes the complaining and in comes critical thinking. No need to blame, because now he believes.

Be Present

The number one response when you ask someone to be a mentor is that they don’t think they have enough time. Mentorship is a blessing and a burden. I rely on my mentors to help me do what God has called me to do. To be able to do that for an Ambassador, I must first help him discover what God is calling him to do and then make sure he keeps that front and center. This requires a mentor to be there not just physically, but spiritually.

Can you be there spiritually? If you start by answering the six questions yourself, you will discover your super powers and learn how to be there even when you can’t physically be there.

For Geri Cook, it was through the weekly prayer she texted to Ambassador Vernard Kennedy – prayers that he shared with the other L.E.A.D. Ambassadors on their group text. Those prayers have come every Wednesday since February – the last time she saw the Ambassadors in person. She is present in her faithfulness to God and to the Ambassadors, who have learned a great lesson through her.

How else can you be present? Each month, our Ambassadors focus on a specific core value. You can share an article or blog post, send a video message from you and others, or pass along a favorite quote that reinforces what they are reflecting on that month:

Excellence (August, February)
Humility (September, March)
Integrity (October, April)
Loyalty (November, May)
Stewardship (December, June)
Teamwork (January, July)

You can also literally be present. We have over 50 activities on our calendar and invite you to join us for any one of them. When you come, I believe you will be a fan of what you see, and that’s what Black boys living in poverty in crime-ridden inner city neighborhoods need. They need to see values in action, receive a little bit of help, and a whole lot of hope. That is what L.E.A.D. is all about.

Be a Partner

This is a tough one. This requires humility. L.E.A.D. defines humility as not thinking less of yourself while thinking of others more than yourself. As a child, I recognized the humble people. They were the ones who did something great, but were embarrassed to take credit for it.

When you partner with our Ambassadors, you will learn as much from them as they will learn from you. They will introduce you to a different Atlanta. They will invite you to become a part of a team that is working to make your Atlanta and their Atlanta
C.J. Stewart and Ceasar Mitchell
one. The young men we serve need partners who are willing to walk beside them, learning from each other.

My calling in life is to be significant by serving millions and bringing them into a relationship with Christ, starting with my wife, Kelli, and our daughters Mackenzi and Mackenna. The world problem that I want to solve is racism. My spiritual gift is discernment and my earthly talent is coaching. This all became clear to me after being challenged by friends and loved ones. It involved lots of tears on my part. It is why L.E.A.D. is here and why we need you.

1. What is your calling in life from God?

2. What is your spiritual gift?

3. What is your earthly talent?

4. What’s more important, to be perfect or intentional?

5. What do you have to give?

6. Are you ready to start?

If you are ready to learn more about how you can help L.E.A.D., please contact Kelli Stewart (


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Jaws of Death

People often ask me what is my role in L.E.A.D. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct).

Yes I am the co-founder along with my wife Kelli.

Yes, I am the CEO, the Chief Empowerment Officer of L.E.A.D.

Those are my titles.

What I do within L.E.A.D. was hard for me to articulate until I met a gentleman named Dez Thornton. Dez gave me a visual story to tell that vividly brings to life what I do.

Imagine a crocodile infested river. On one side you have zebra who are trying to cross to get to the food that's on the other side. As the zebra

enter the water, some will make it across without incident; others will inevitably get caught and become entangled within the crocs' jaws. Some will die, some will manage to break free yet with many scars. Some of those scars will never heal.

The zebra represent black boys in the inner-city of Atlanta. The crocs represent three evils in life that are designed to destroy them: racism, prejudice and poverty. I'm not a spectator on the sideline of this struggle. I am in the river, in 

a boat, waiting to rescue any young man that will grab hold of the baseball bat that I extend to them. If they choose to grab hold of my bat, I will pull them into my boat and take them across the river safely. I have survived this very same struggle, and as a survivor, it is my duty, my burden, my blessing to provide safe passage for others.

How can you help?

Donate so I can purchase more boats.

Click here to donate to purchase more boats for L.E.A.D.


Friday, August 19, 2016

The Inner City of Atlanta from A Different Vantage Point

My commitment to L.E.A.D. Ambassadors is to lead them out of ignorance so they don’t end up as anecdotes for others. I fulfill my commitment through mentoring, coaching, teaching, and role modeling. The only way I can be effective is to understand as much as I can about what it is to be a young black male growing up in the inner city of Atlanta today and who loves the game of baseball. I measure up in so many ways but still have work to do.

I wasn’t a drug dealer or trouble maker growing up but I did live in a crime ridden inner city Atlanta community similar to those communities where L.E.A.D. Ambassadors live. I know that youth from inner city Atlanta zip codes 30310, 30315 and 30318 grow up to represent 80% of the Georgia prison population with Georgia ranking number one in the U.S. in incarceration and the U.S. ranking number one in the world. It is my calling to make sure that I’ve done everything humanly possible to empower L.E.A.D. Ambassadors so they don’t become such a statistic.

Up until last year my understanding of inner city Atlanta was somewhat one-sided. I had focused on the community through the eyes of L.E.A.D. Ambassadors. That changed when I was invited on my first APD Ride Along last year. It was so impactful to my understanding of community interactions within the inner city, that I vowed to make an APD Ride Along a bi-annual occurrence.

My APD Ride Along this year took place on Saturday, August 13, 2016 from 4pm to Midnight. Following is my experience this year and why I’m happy that I participated.

Why did I do the ride along?

The experience of an APD Ride Along provides me with an understanding through police officers’ eyes that positively impacts how I relate to L.E.A.D. Ambassadors when faced with questions about law enforcement.

For instance, I accompanied Investigator J.T. Somers and Investigator Ralph Woolfolk. J.T. is a white male, born and raised in New Jersey. He was a former pitcher at Georgia Southern College. Ralph is a black male also from Atlanta. He was a standout multi-sport athlete at Our Lady of Mercy in Fairburn, GA. I have come to know both officers as good men. They are passionate and skilled at what they do. They demonstrate love for people and commitment to justice. I’ve seen their passion, witnessed their skills in action and their compassion for the people they serve. My positive experience naturally transfers to those I serve.

Additionally, and as we all know too well, the rhetoric over the last couple years in America speaks to a war between police officers and young black males. I chose to go on the police ride along because I want to feel what the officers feel when they are in the public eye. I want to see what they see and how they see it. The only way to achieve that is to participate in a ride along.

What did I see and experience while on the Ride Along?

I arrived at police headquarters with excitement at 3:58pm. The rotation was expected to start at 4pm. I was immediately escorted into the parking garage that housed the police squad cars, vans and SUV's. I'm thinking, “Wow! This is real!”.

At exactly 4:00pm sharp, Investigator J.T. Somers briefed me on a shooting case that we were investigating along with Investigator Ralph Woolfolk. J.T., Ralph and a few select others make up the newly appointed task force by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called Operation Whiplash which was created to jolt crime down. Here’s an 11Alive news segment about the Mayor’s Operation Whiplash.

About 5:00pm or so, after we finished up the necessary internet research and a deep conversation, we were in the squad car headed to the gentrified portion of Edgewood to investigate a shooting. I thought “Are you kidding me? I just heard the radio say shots fired and we are going to the crime scene?”

Left to right: Investigator Ralph Woolfolk and Investigator J.T. Somers and I headed to the scene of a shooting

We arrived at the scene of the shooting. I'm calm only because J.T. and Ralph are calm. The crime scene has now been identified. It is outside in front of a convenience store. We know this from viewing the surveillance tape inside the store. I'm standing there thinking, “Two guys actually had the nerve and total disregard for authority to get out of the car in the middle of the day with guns out, approach this kid and shoot him.” The gunmen just got back in the car after shooting the kid and drove off. The reality is that it happens every day somewhere in Atlanta. I learned that violent crime is up by 25% here.

The street was quickly blocked off so that the crime scene could be investigated. While several officers and I searched for the bullet shell case, along comes a K-9 Unit officer and his German Shepherd. I asked Ralph why the dog was here and he explained that it would find the shell case. I'm thinking “Hmmm Ok” and am anxious to see it happen. I mean “Really? Come on. That shell case is so small and could have been run over by car. It could be anywhere.” Well . . . guess what? It was right over next to the fence and hidden by some leaves. The dog found it within 5 minutes. Geez!

We made a quick stop at Smoothie King - my treat - and headed back to headquarters to continue putting the pieces together on another investigation.

The conversation between me and my Ride Along officers was so awesome. They both have baseball backgrounds and I couldn't help but ask how baseball helped prepare them to become the meticulous, disciplined and patient investigators that they are. There answer was in the question that I asked. You can't be successful in baseball without being meticulous, disciplined and patient.

At that moment, I began to realize that if any L.E.A.D. Ambassador chose to become an Atlanta police officer when the time came he would be well prepared because he went through L.E.A.D.’s methodology. Interesting fact, Atlanta Police Chief George Turner was born and raised in the inner city of Atlanta. He went to Atlanta Public Schools, and he learned how to play the game of baseball.

I can tell you the night flew by. Before I knew it, the clock read 12:00A.M. Our shift was over and we were back at headquarters. Shortly after midnight, we were on our way home to our families.

C.J. Stewart with Investigator J.T. Somers at midnight

How did I feel?

Although I was wearing a bullet proof vest the entire time, I felt safe with Somers and Woolfolk. I observed that they chose verbal communication over pulling out guns and handcuffs. I also noticed that they treated all people, including suspected criminals, as “innocent until proven guilty”. A little cliché, I know, but it's how I felt about how they were doing their job.

We had a real conversation about race along the ride as well. The bottom line is that several young black teen males in Atlanta don't trust cops, especially white cops, in fear that they will be profiled and disrespected. I appreciated Somers, as a white cop, not shunning that narrative for some and making it a reality for others. I became to understand that his life experiences have positioned him to have an empathetic perspective for the plight of young black males in Atlanta.

I also saw that Somers has several verbal pitches that he can draw upon and throw out in varying situations. He acknowledges that everyone is different - just like the hitters that he faced as a pitcher at Georgia Southern University.

Woolfolk was a star in a Nickelodeon sit-com called My Brother and Me in the mid 90's. Check it out. He was also a baseball client of mine as a teenager aspiring to become a baseball elite player. The stories he told of his experiences as an Atlanta cop with Operation Whiplash, street patrol and Special Victim's Unit were clear, easy to understand and follow along. Just like a movie.

When will I do it again?

My plan is to do a ride along at least twice per year just so that I can understand and maintain an unbiased perspective on what's really going on in the inner city of Atlanta.

Famous rapper and actor Ice Cube played Dough Boy in the 1991 Academy Award Winning Movie Boys n the Hood. My favorite line from the movie, and one that sums up why I would put my life on the line with the Atlanta Police Department is this:

"Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what's going on in the hood."

In the context of the movie, "they" was negative. The disconnected. The status quo. As a son of Atlanta and a trusted consequential leader in Atlanta, I am committed to being connected and not being known as "they".


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

How to Ask the Right Questions in a Politically Correct Society

No doubt you’ve heard or read some strong statements surrounding the recent police shootings that have dominated the news, especially if you’re on social media. What you probably haven’t seen are people asking questions that might actually move the
Willie Stewart, Andy Menard (Tanner Tees), and C.J. Stewart
conversation forward.

I believe many of us run from asking questions to avoid getting a response we don’t like. If you follow me on social media, however, you’ve probably noticed that I like to ask questions. In fact, I crave being held accountable.

Asking the tough questions

I don’t just ask the easy questions, what I would consider Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). Instead, I like to ask what I call Should Ask Questions (SAQs).

SAQs make you dig deeper, whereas FAQs maintain the status quo. SAQs make people uncomfortable. Sometimes SAQs make people cry, but that shouldn’t make you shy away from asking them. Remember, Jesus wept.

If you ask me, America needs to cry. You can’t be trite and shallow and solve an issue this big.

America can take a page from L.E.A.D.’s playbook on this. Here’s a look at the three-step process we engage with our Ambassadors to help them dig deeper when speaking with industry professionals, mentors and other adults with whom they come into contact.

1. Many times when we ask for advice, what we receive in return is a simplistic, trite statement. For example, one of our Ambassadors might ask an industry professional, “How does someone become successful?” and receive the answer, “Hard work pays off.”
What has our Ambassador learned from that statement? Particularly for these young men who haven’t had a job yet, what does it mean to engage in “hard work”? The answer doesn’t elevate the conversation, it completes it.

2. This is when we encourage our Ambassadors to challenge the statement – what I call “complicating” the conversation. What we want is for the answer to contain actionable advice. However, many times what we get next is a deeper answer, but not one that advances the conversation. So, perhaps the person replies, “Everyone that works hard isn’t successful.”
Fair enough, we all know people who have worked hard for years and never received any accolades, raises or other acknowledgments of their success. But again, our Ambassadors aren’t walking away with actionable advice.

3. What we want to do is ask those SAQs – specific questions that require specific answers. So, maybe now our Ambassadors ask, “What are some of the things a person can do in order to be a valuable employee?”
Now the Ambassadors get answers like “Arrive for work on time, have a positive attitude every day and engage with your boss in a manner that shows respect, meaning you don’t do things like curse during office conversation.” Finally, some actionable advice they can put to good use.

Don’t be afraid to go deep

The process of complicating things involves conversation. It's like tennis – sometimes there are long rallies. The most important thing to remember is that what is right is more important than who is right. And as much as our society is all about being politically correct and not upsetting anyone, there can be a right person in the conversation.

Decisions are made in this country every day, from “small” decisions like a husband and wife agreeing on the color of their new minivan to deciding who is going to represent our country in the Olympics. Once upon a time, someone decided to crown the Dallas Cowboys “America’s team.”

Now the time has come to decide how blacks fit into American society.

I want this blog to give Americans a framework on how to move from simplistic and trite statements to something simple and actionable – and permission to ask those SAQs and engage in difficult conversations. 

We’d be fools to think any progress can be made without conversation and conflict.

Safe At Home Game in Atlanta, GA Saturday, Aug. 20th at Georgia Tech


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Millennials Will Lead Us If We Let Them - A Conversation About Race

C.J. Stewart
It is my intention to be a catalyst for change and to work with people of all races, genders and economic backgrounds to move conversations about race from trite to solution.

As a man of deep faith, I have committed all glory to God. To that end, one of my goals over the next five years is to grow deeper in my faith. In addition, I want to gain the knowledge and experience necessary, so that I may be recognized as consequential leader with respect to racial issues, and, by doing so, make my intention a reality.

I found myself in a situation recently that proved to me that I was on the right track -a confirmation from God that He is using me to do something amazing. A young man named Chris, who I had coached some time ago, came to me for advice about how to address comments he was hearing from black friends and coworkers that were making him feel uneasy. We talked. At the end of our conversation I asked him to write down what he took away from our discussion.

I couldn’t be more proud of Chris. Here is what he wrote:

Recently within the United States, racial and social tensions have been growing. As a 29 year old white male, I was uncomfortable entering into these discussions. I feared good intentions would come off as racist, or certain phrases would be misconstrued.
I recently spoke with C.J. Stewart, my first batting instructor and former baseball coach for help. Statements I sometimes hear from black friends and co-workers range from “all white cops should die” to “I will disregard the Constitution until it has a black signature”. I felt there was no good way to address these statements without being viewed as racist, so I remained silent.
After C.J. and I spoke, I realized there are good ways to address such comments. I understand that the statements that were being made can be viewed as simplistic. By simplistic, I mean very surface level and not much context. If I address the statement straight on as simplistic, then we get nowhere. I need to get to the root of the problem to move the conversation forward, and to do that I need to ask questions.
By, asking questions such as “can you share some of your experiences [on] why you feel this way?” I acknowledge that there’s more to the statement, and that the conversation is complex. Complex is not a bad thing. It simply means that the statement is composed of many interconnected parts, and the initial conversation should be based on that complexity.
Once we break down the statement by having the complex conversation, and I truly understand the root problem, the conversation becomes simple. It becomes simple because I know where the other person is coming from. We have now created a non-hostile atmosphere between us because the other person can see that I have an understanding of his or her point of view.
I can use the A.C.T.S. Method between the simplistic and complex stages and help ensure that the other person knows where I am coming from and I am not here to judge, but to understand their perspective.
  • Acknowledgement – “I see you’re hurting; this must really hit home for you.” 
  • Confession – “I understand we come from different upbringings and have different experiences.”
  • Thanksgiving – “Thank you for bringing this up.”
  • Supplication (asking for something) – “Do you mind if I ask a few questions so I understand your experience?”
From this point, you are setup to have an honest conversation. The goal of this conversation is not to solve a problem or fix something, but simply to learn from each other. I do not believe I will ever understand everything that is involved [with] growing up black. Neither do I believe that the other person will understand some of the things I encounter being white. What I do believe is that the more I understand about the experiences he or she has gone through, the closer we stand a chance to be united. We have a long road in front of us. It starts with all parties involved being open-minded enough to understanding each other’s perspectives and experiences to begin to progress. When we can get to that point; we can begin moving in the right direction.

As Chris’ advisor, I knew I didn't have to have the right answers. I simply had to give him a framework that would allow him to be comfortable with having the challenging conversations about race. I think after having read Chris’ thoughts you will agree with me that he understood our conversation, and all of us will be blessed by his efforts.

Chris Johnson


Friday, July 8, 2016

Empowering Young Black Men to Speak on Alton Sterling Shooting

Earlier this week, I was attending a Gwinnett Braves game with a group of our Ambassadors when I heard that Alton Sterling, a black man, had been shot by a white Baton Rouge police officer.

I’m standing there watching the video that I’m sure many of you have seen by now, realizing that it’s something I have to share with the Ambassadors. Speaking with, and guiding, the Ambassadors through situations like this is not something I take lightly. I view it as an opportunity to empower them to use their voices and explore not just what they feel, but why they feel it.
We have a four-step “Pathway to Empowerment” methodology that I used in this situation:

Assessment: Without expressing judgment, I asked the Ambassadors what they knew about the shooting of Alton Sterling. I then asked them to share how they felt.

Engagement: Instead of focusing on what they said, I challenged them to think about why they said the things they did in reaction to the situation. I explained to them that you can’t solve anything with trite statements.

Empowerment: I gave them the power to share their thoughts publicly on social media as Ambassadors for L.E.A.D., as Atlanta Public School students and as citizens of Atlanta. 

Application: Lights, camera, action . . .I decided to shoot this video so you can see the reaction of the Ambassadors as they watch the video for first time of Alton Sterling being, and then I asked a couple of the Ambassadors to share their thoughts on what happened and what they want people to know about them as young black men.

No doubt, the shootings this week of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have left many feeling helpless, angry and a whole host of other emotions. Hate and fear are two of the emotions I’m sure many of you have felt, but it’s not what we want for you or for our Ambassadors.

To combat emotions like hate and fear, particularly as they relate to the men and women who risk their lives each and every day to protect and serve our communities, L.E.A.D. will be hosting its second-annual “Safe at Home” game this August at Georgia Tech.

We’ll bring together our L.E.A.D. Ambassadors with officers from the Atlanta Police Department so they can interact with one another in a positive setting. Young black males and police officers may have more in common than even they realize – both are targeted and find themselves labeled as thugs, criminals or corrupt because of the actions of some of their peers. Through the “Safe at Home” game, we’re able to bring together two important groups who are assets to our community.

We want to abolish any notion of hatred or fear – from either side. Our young men seek to be stewards of this community, right alongside the men and women in uniform whose job it is to keep this community safe.

Now isn’t the time for hate and fear. It’s a time for reflection and change. Join us.