Emmanuel Armstrong stood on the gym floor at Grand Rapids Community College, a broad smile on his face as behind him more than 1,000 GRPS scholars in grades eight through 12 began to take their seats for the 2023 edition of the African American Male Achievement Conference.

As they settled in, Sultan Muhammed, the School to College Coordinator at Innovation Central High School, stood up on the stage, took to the microphone and welcomed the attendees.

“This is a day off from school, young brothers,” he said as he scanned the room. He paused for a beat and then continued. “But it is not a day off from knowledge. Today, we are going to be talking about challenges, choices and changes. In every challenge we face, we have a choice to make. We can embrace the challenge, or we can run away. If we choose right, if we have the right attitude, we will make changes for the better. So, I encourage you today to be present. We believe in you, and we want the best future for you.”

Armstrong, the counselor coordinator for GRPS, said that Muhammed’s words were part of a larger theme for the day, a theme that began already even before the event’s first formal words were spoken.

Indeed, as buses dropped them off and scholars came into Ford Fieldhouse, they walked through a receiving line of sorts, a line made up of African American men from throughout the community, many of whom would also be leading later breakout sessions.

The receiving line greeted each scholar with fist bumps and hugs and smiles and words of encouragement, and that positive energy carried over into every aspect of the 2023 event.

For example, in a video produced by GRCC and set in a local barbershop, young and old people discussed issues of leadership, respect on the streets and even the value of a 401k with wisdom coming from both the scholars and the self-described OGs – those elders respected or regarded for their insights and their example.

Elijah Taylor, a senior at Museum High who has a four-year college scholarship awaiting him, watched the barbershop video with a smile on his face and then picked up on some of those same themes. He talked to his 12th-grade peers, but also those next grades coming up, about his approach to life, including his podcast and its ongoing emphasis on knowledge.

“Knowledge is everything,” he said in a clip from his podcast that played on the big screen. “Don’t chase the money, chase the knowledge.

And Grand Valley senior Abdul Cisse spoke movingly about his own journey as a young Black man, including his emigration to the U.S. from Somalia at the age of 4, and the impact on him of the death of his older sister from tuberculosis.

“She never got a chance to show up,” he said. “Never got a chance to see her little brother do what he was born to do.”

He encouraged GRPS scholars to never take a day for granted but to show up, to put the extra work in and to define what success would look like for their own life, not based on anyone else’s ideas about success.

“One day the life you’re dreaming of right now, you’re going to wake up and it’s going to be the life you’re living in,” he said.

In addition to the variety of speakers, the Alger Middle School Drumline brought energy and enthusiasm with both original songs and covers, setting just the right tone for Abdul’s talk and then the 100 or so breakout sessions that took place throughout Ford Fieldhouse, including dozens led by members of the Grand Rapids Urban League, one of the event’s lead organizers, as well as representatives from GRPS, GRCC, GVSU, the City of Grand Rapids and more.

Afterward, Armstrong reflected on the event and its value to GRPS scholars.

“The event can serve as a bridge between the generations,” he said simply. “It provides an opportunity for young men and adults to connect with each other, for the young men to gain a chance to get the advice that will be necessary to be successful in life.”

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