Shawn Wilson, Manager of Multicultural Community Engagement for the Ford Motor Co. Fund, conceived the idea for the Rev. Martin Luther King Day event, “Men of Courage.” | Provided photo

King Day ‘Men of Courage’ goal: Changing narrative on black men

SHARE King Day ‘Men of Courage’ goal: Changing narrative on black men
SHARE King Day ‘Men of Courage’ goal: Changing narrative on black men

When Shawn Wilson conceived the idea for a unique mentoring program bringing diverse black men together to consider issues facing their community as part of a Martin Luther King Day of action, he thought of his own upbringing, and to what and to whom he owed his success.

Wilson, 42, of Detroit, manager of multicultural community engagement for the Ford Motor Co. Fund, had grown up in Milwaukee’s inner city, his family on and off welfare.

Today, he’s a successful charities executive, 2 1/2 years with Ford; before that, 10 years with R & B singer Usher’s New Look Foundation in Atlanta.

“I was the first in my family to go to college, and it was having mentors that looked like me, throughout my life, that really led to my success,” Wilson said. His “Men of Courage” program will bring that diverse group from across the nation to Chicago this King Day, in a mission to rewrite what they call a stereotypical narrative of black men.

“It was at the YMCA I attended, where an older gentleman, Mr. Richardson, literally took me down to the university, sat me in the dean’s office and got me enrolled. That’s what I’m trying to pass on through this program,” Wilson said. “It’s time to rewrite the narrative frequently portrayed by the media and start to tell our own narrative. We are amazing family men, businessmen, innovators, barrier breakers.”

In its second year, “Men of Courage” draws on basic principles of the life of the civil rights leader who would have been 88 years old Sunday: leadership, activism, giving back, pulling others up behind you.

Held simultaneously in various cities, the program brings together black men from all walks of life to share about their individual challenges and those facing black men and the black community in general. They’ll then vet solutions, and walk away with individual and group action plans — and new, unlikely networks of support.

The Chicago event is being held over the course of seven hours at the downtown tech incubator, 1871. The dozens converging here range in age from 17 to 70. About 25 percent are at-risk young black men in Chicago, which saw more than 780 people killed last year, its deadliest year in over two decades. Included are the previously incarcerated, black urban professionals, corporate CEOs, celebrities.

“Dr. King’s legacy, to me, is really someone who had a vision, and just an incredible ability to mobilize and build relationships across different groups of people to make real progress,” said participant Fabian Elliott, 26, of the South Loop, an ad tech consultant at Google.

“I wanted to participate because I see this program as an incredible way to continue his legacy. King had a dream, and died pursuing that dream. I appreciate that we’re going to be strategizing on how to bring that vision to life,” said Fabian, also CEO of Black Tech Mecca here.

High-profile participants flying in for the event include Pittsburgh Public Schools Supt. Anthony Hamlet; aviator Barrington Irving, who at age 23 became the youngest ever and first black person to pilot a plane solo around the world; NBA Hall of Famer and former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing; Detroit Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy; and rapper Doug E. Fresh.

Through a digital tool kit that can be downloaded at, the program has encouraged similar events in homes, houses of worship and workplaces nationwide on King Day. About 1,300 such gatherings will occur in Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

“We tend to always think about Martin Luther King from the standpoint of the dream. But there’s a saying that a goal without a timeline is only a dream. We want to move beyond the dream and say, ‘By when?’ ” Wilson said.

“Our action pact asks everyone to make a commitment to making that vision a reality. A 17-year-old who doesn’t have resources can donate their time to an organization supporting black men. Everyone has something they can bring to the table,” he said. “Most importantly, each leaves with a commitment to hold each other accountable.”

Other ways to celebrate King Day:

• The Rainbow PUSH Coalition hosts the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 27th Annual Push Excel Breakfast featuring Archdiocese Cardinal Blase Cupich, 8 a.m., Hyatt Regency, 151 E. Wacker

• DuSable Museum of African American History hosts King Day 2017: Reaching Back, Moving Forward, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 740 E. 56th Pl.

• Black Star Project sponsors MLK Mentor Weekend, with 54 schools, churches, block clubs, etc. hosting mentoring events, activities

• Chicago Public Schools hosts MLK Student Leadership Conference, 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Loyola University’s Damen Student Center

• Cook County Bar Association hosts annual MLK Day of Service Program, a panel discussion, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., National Black Wall Street Office, 4655 S. MLK Drive, Suite 203

• Luster Products hosts free MLK Day Family Movie Day, showing “Hidden Figures,” 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Chatham 14 Theaters, 210 W. 87th

• Writers Theatre hosts free special performance of The MLK Project: The Fight for Civil Rights, 10:30 a.m., Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark

• Chicago Sinfonietta hosts annual MLK tribute, 7:30 p.m., Symphony Center

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