Leadership in Syracuse’s black communities has taken a turn. The once community engaged black leaders of the past have shifted into campaign driven politicians.
Vincent Cobb II’s earliest memories shed light on an era when black leadership was predominant in Syracuse. Leaders like Akua Goodrich, Julius Edwards, and Brian Freeland energized black youth, serving as the catalyst for black leadership in Syracuse.
“Growing up I felt like I lived in a predominantly black city until I realized Syracuse is a predominantly white city,” Cobb said. “Only because I was around black people all the time. You go to school, you go to church, sports, it’s all black people.”
Cobb, 35, was born and raised in Syracuse before moving to Philadelphia to start the Summer House Institute, a national organization focused on developing the next generations of Black males working in US public schools. Before starting the Summer House Institute, Cobb founded the Empowering Minds Movement, which engaged high school students in workshops tailored to leadership and service. Cobb said he realized how differently African American students were educated compared to students in suburban areas like Cicero and Manlius.
According to a study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2018, black students who are exposed to one black teacher by the third grade are 13 percent more likely to enroll in college. And those who had two black teachers are 32 percent more likely to enroll in college.
“If you don’t see yourself in the school building you don’t see education as something that’s black and for you,” Cobb said.
The location of Syracuse University has led Cobb to see the university as the “other city on the hill.” Natasha Alford, a native of Syracuse, believes inner city youth here have been denied access to the campus.
“There’s no reason that black kids at Syracuse schools have not been up to SU,” Alford said. “We met kids this week who never stepped foot on SU’s campus and it’s literally up the hill.”
The sense of ownership and entitlement has not been instilled into the youth in Syracuse because of its absence of leadership, Alford said. Alford admits to not playing a prominent role in the leadership in Syracuse because she’s lived in other cities since leaving town. She sees the lack of black leadership as a direct result of elderly black leaders carrying the entire weight of a community and simply burning out.
Alford serves as the Vice President of Digital Content at theGrio and as a CNN political analyst. Her success has drawn her back to her hometown to empower through journalism. She credits organizations such as ACT-SO for playing an integral role in her childhood.
“Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological, and Scientific Olympics, I can still say that till this day and I am 35 years old,” Alford said. “[ACT-SO] changed my life. Those kids don’t have that now.”
ACT-SO was an NAACP youth program meant to enrich the social and academic skills of black high school students. The petering out of ACT-SO follows the trend of exhausted black leaders not being able to bear the brunt alone, at the hands of what new black leaders see as important.
The once hands-on approach Vince Cobb and Natasha Alford experienced is being overshadowed by the evolution of blacks in the political arena, said K. Daniel Reed, 38, a native of Syracuse. He sees community engagement taking a massive hit as the programs of once before are now no more. Reed phrases this former engagement as “taking a village,” referencing an African proverb meaning the entire community will be engaged in the betterment of the younger generation.
Ahmeed Turner, Executive Director of Say Yes to Education, believes he was destined to a life of service. Say Yes to Education provides scholarships to eligible residents of Syracuse who attend one of the Syracuse City School District high schools.
“It is all designed to be an economic driver for a community,” Turner said. “We are leveling the playing field and building a pathway to economic prosperity through education by offering scholarships.”
Turner credits Say Yes scholars for their resilience in college once they face roadblocks. According to data from the Syracuse City School District, high school graduation rates here have risen from 54.5% in 2015 to 71% in 2020. The rate among blacks compared with white counterparts in 2020 is 71% (blacks) to 69% (whites). Turner believes Say Yes to Education has contributed to this rise but still has not reached its goals.
The success of Say Yes to Education is leading to the revamping of past organizations. Delta Academy, founded by Delta Sigma Theta sorority, is a national initiative that teaches young girls social skills, how to dress, how to act at formal occasions, etc. Marsha Senior, who works as the Director of HEOP at Syracuse University, served two terms as the president of Delta Academy.
“It was all about exposure,” Senior said. “These are young ladies in the community from disadvantaged backgrounds, one parent households, and this is our chance to give them that.”
With Khalid Bey running for mayor and numerous other black leaders running for common council in Syracuse, black leadership is prevalent in the political realm. But Cobb, Alford, and others remain focused on community leadership.
“This next generation needs to see black leadership in order to feel that this is a city that they can change and that there is a space for them here,” Alford said.
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