Christopher Rucker II was emotionally floundering his freshman year at Bronzeville Scholastic Institute High School when he learned about the Becoming A Man (BAM) program that serves at-risk Chicago Public Schools youth.
His father, who promised to be in the audience when Rucker gave his eighth-grade valedictorian speech at Harold Washington Elementary, died of a sudden heart attack.
Soon after, his mother lost her job. Things were really, really tight. Life seemed dark.
“I was just out of it. By the time I got to high school, all I could think about was loss. My father lived out of town, but we talked several times a week. He was flying in for graduation,” said Rucker, who just graduated from Philander Smith College — with a 4.0 GPA, and within 2 1⁄2 years.
“It was the first time I would have seen him in seven years.
“I remember the BAM counselor trying to recruit folks to come to a meeting. He asked me in the middle of the hallway, ‘Are you a man?’ I’m like, ‘Uh, yeah.’ He said, ‘OK, come to this session, and let’s see if you’re a real man,’” Rucker recounts.
“A couple friends and I went. He started breaking it down. And something he said at that first session stays with me to this day. He said, ‘There’s no one way to be a man.’”
Rucker, now 21, was raised under challenging circumstances, mostly by his grandmother, in the Burnside, Chatham and South Deering neighborhoods.
BAM, founded in 2001 to help young men navigate difficult circumstances, helped him see college as part of his future.
After going on college tours organized by the group, he applied at several, hoping to attend through scholarships and loans. BAM, however, did him one better.
“My BAM counselors said, ‘No, your grades are too good. You’ve got community service hours. We’re going to get you a full-ride somewhere.’ And they did,” he said.
Dar’tavous Dorsey, then a BAM supervisor, reached out to his Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. frat brother, Philander President Roderick Smothers, about Rucker and a second young man, Damontae Warren, a Marshall High School graduate that BAM also sent to Philander.
Both were welcomed into the President’s Scholar program at the Little Rock, Arkansas, school.
Rucker finished his political science degree in December, walking the stage May 8.
“Brother Dorsey brought the young men from BAM down, and that’s how I met Mr. Rucker. If you were to ask him what are his goals or aspirations in life, he will tell you, ‘I’m going to be the next Black president of the United States,’ ” Smothers recounted.
“I found that quite intriguing. He came with that mindset to Philander Smith College, and was just a model student, involved in everything, from Student Government Association to the Empowering African American Males Initiative, Christian Scholars to our 100 Black Men collegiate chapter. What I most appreciated about him was his inquisitiveness.
“I said how is it that this young man is coming from all those challenges, with all the odds stacked against him in Chicago, and yet he comes to the table with such strength, such ambition, such pride? That was worth investing in and giving my time to,” said Smothers.
As Chicago braces for another long, hot summer of potentially escalated violence claiming more lives in maligned South and West side neighborhoods, programs like BAM, now also running a girls’ program, Working on Womenhood (WOW), are ever more critical.
“Mentorship is a powerful tool,” said Dorsey, who after four years with the organization, left in 2019 to become associate director of strategic engagement at the University of Chicago Urban Labs. The 35-year-old Bronzeville resident remains on BAM’s Associate Board.
“When you hear about young Black men in the city of Chicago, we automatically profile them — urban setting of violence, gang activity, housing/education mobility, justice system involvement, etc.,” he said.
“But if we only can be willing to set aside self and offer up time to inspire, uplift and support youth who have all the potential and deserving talent to be impactful in life, the stereotype of young Black males will change to a positive profile.”
Local and national studies of programs like BAM show significant benefits to young people, including better relationships, improved school performance and decision-making, greater confidence and optimism, and reduced risk factors for violence.
In fact, a U of C Crime Lab study on BAM found arrests for violent crime plunged — 44% — and school attendance improved, among troubled teens served by the program, run by the nonprofit Youth Guidance organization.
A study by the Illinois Mentoring Partnership and University of Illinois at Chicago, however, found a statewide shortage of male volunteers for these critical modeling programs.
“Christopher and Damontae overcame all the negative outcomes of life by first believing in themselves and secondly, trusting someone to believe in them,” notes Dorsey.
Warren, 21, raised by his single mother in East Garfield Park, is majoring in computer science, currently maintains a 3.4 GPA and is set to finish next semester, in 3 1⁄2 years.
“Signing up for BAM sophomore year of high school was the best decision I ever made. Mr. Dorsey has been a great mentor. I didn’t even know if I was going to go to college, because of the expense,” he said. “But with Mr. Dorsey’s guidance and BAM, I was helped to figure out which path I wanted to take in life.”