Training young leaders

It hasn’t always been easy for Rickell Jones, 15, to walk away without hitting someone who had either teased or disliked her.

“I had an attitude — a bad one,” Jones said. “I wanted to fight everybody.”

When her school principal invited her in January to join Leadership Iberville, run by East Iberville School and 100 Black Men of Metro Baton Rouge, she was pessimistic, but agreed to give the Saturday sessions a try.

Jones said she’s glad she got involved.

Following several weeks of positive reinforcement and encouragement from youth counselors, mentors and other professionals, Jones has adjusted her quick temper, improved her grades and thinks through her problems, she said.

“I’ve learned not to listen to negative comments because it can bring you down,” Jones said. “At the first meeting, my mentors told me I was bright and smart. They made me feel like I’m somebody.”

Sunday, she will join about 39 middle school students in a graduation ceremony recognizing their completion of the program which addressed such topics as public speaking, community service, teen violence, decision making, social network responsibility, entrepreneurship and money management, said Michael Eskridge, program director.

The program took students from the 100 Black Men Project Excel, East Iberville Parish Schools and the youth division of Full Gospel United Pentecostal Church.

Students in the program had to maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average, have a counselor’s recommendation and have parental involvement.

Eskridge said the program will also track and research students’ progress to determine the program’s impact. He said factors including grades, attendance and discipline are areas that contribute to students’ success in finishing school.

Hands-on, role playing sessions helped train students to think differently, Eskridge said.

Licensed social worker Tangela Colson helped students, including Jones, work through issues involving peer pressure during a leadership session on Saturday.

Colson asked the students to describe where they see themselves in 10 years.

Jones said she planned to earn a law degree and become a lawyer.

“Now, think of what obstacles you face that could stop you from getting to your goal?” Colson asked.

Jones listed her past fighting habits and poor attitude.

“Why fight somebody just because they don’t like you?” Colson said.

Colson initiated a roleplaying session in which she played the person instigating a fight with Jones.

“I don’t like you,” Colson told her. “You got Buster pants and I don’t like your hair.”

“In the past, I would’ve fought somebody who told me that,” Jones told Colson.

Jones’ response now, “Well, you don’t have to like me,” she told Colson.

Colson applauded Jones’ response to the insult.

“You cannot control how somebody feels. The only person you can control is yourself. If you try to control other people, you will constantly fight,” Colson said.

Colson told the students to think about the consequences, including suspension from school for engaging in a worthless fight. “Your life, education and your family are more important than this person who is trying to put you down. They don’t know you.”

Prescott Middle School intervention counselor Evelyn DiMarco helped facilitate a public speaking and leadership workshop in February.

“Surround yourself with positive people. Negative people will pull you down,” DiMarco said.

Eskridge, who also facilitated the workshop, asked students to cover their faces in blindfolds and led them in an activity through hallways at Istrouma High School.

“Don’t run into that locker,” Eskridge warned Nmandi Ceaser, 12, who was following the lead of Marquis Kelly, 11.

Following the exercise, Ceaser admitted his fear.

“I don’t trust people. It felt like I was going to fall,” he said.

Of the 20 students participating in the exercise, half raised their hand when Eskridge asked whether they trusted their leader to safely lead them through the hall without falling or bumping into walls.

“I trusted my leader,” Jones said. “He gave me good directions.”

In another activity designed to build confidence, Eskridge led students in a public speaking session.

“What does speaking with confidence mean, and what do you need to straighten out as far as being able to speak to a big group of people?” he asked

Jones said she’d learned to ignore negative comments.

“I can stand up without caring about their opinion,” she said.

100 Black Men mentor John Smith urged students to navigate life’s challenges by having a mentor to talk to, create a clear vision for the future and dress the part, he said.

In a session on mental health and entrepreneurship, facilitator Reginald Browhow encouraged students to scratch beneath the surface, grow from experience and to pursue healthy activities such as sports or hobbies, rather than unhealty ones such as drugs or poor eating habits.

Leadership member Jonathan Jackson, 15, said his peers engaged in risky behaviors that he has refused to follow.

“They don’t pass (drugs) to me, because I’ve made it clear that this is not what I’m going to do,” he said.

Jackson said leadership sessions on drugs and peer pressure helped him understand, “I don’t have to be any of that to be a full person. I don’t have to follow the crowd.”

He also pulls his pants up, he said.

“I changed my mind about stuff that’s not good including not sagging,” he said. “I wore my pants sagging, because I didn’t care. But now I know it makes people look down on you. It’s disrespectful.”

Jackson said he is interested in learning to weld or becoming a barber.

The program has “given me motivation,” he said. “I didn’t take anything serious (before). Now, I come to learn.”