A Message to Young People from Cities United Youth Leader Justin Sims: “Don’t Give Up”

Justin Sims, a self-described “Millennial,” is a 26-year-old Mobile, Alabama native who has committed his life and career to mentoring and uplifting Black men and boys. A graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a non-profit director by the young age of 20, Sims now serves as Program Manager for Growing Kings, a non-profit that provides innovative enrichment and mentoring programs designed for adolescent males.

Next week (May 3-5), Sims will serve as one of the MC’s for the 2016 Cities United convening, a national gathering of U.S. mayors focused on curbing gun violence against and amongst Black men and boys, with a specific goal to reduce violence by 50 percent by the year 2020. Cities United lifts up youth leaders as central to its mission to transform communities. In advance of the convening, Sims spoke with us about his background, his involvement with Cities United, and the hopes he has for the future of Black men and boys.

Tell us about your work with Growing Kings and the organization’s mission.

As a youth, I came up in leadership and development programs through a non-profit called “Team Focus,” which was for fatherless boys, boys who stayed with a grandparent or an adoptive parent, or who came from a single parent home. As an undergraduate I was asked to run the program in Birmingham, so by age 20 I was a nonprofit director. I held the position for four years, working with young boys, holding four-day summer leadership camps and two-day mini camps throughout the fall and spring. That’s how I came to meet [Growing Kings Executive Director] Marcus Carson and began working with Growing Kings as Project Manager. As the Program Manager, I am responsible for going into the local schools in Birmingham and working with young men ranging from 4th grade to 12th grade.

At Growing Kings, where our motto is “building stronger men everyday,” we focus on literacy, character development, and college readiness, helping young men find out who they are as men and where they belong in the world. As they navigate the middle school time period – ages 11 to 14 – they have a lot of questions and are going through a lot of changes, so we work with them on a weekly basis to make sure that they’re developing into leaders. Unfortunately, the kids that we serve usually attend the lowest performing schools in the city, so we’re very strict when it comes to discipline, but at the same time we allow the young men to be themselves. We like everything to be authentic; we don’t want to have mentors going in to put on a show or false face to the kids, we want them to be who they are and show that life has its ups and downs, and that kids can get through them. The biggest reward for the staff has come from seeing the whole culture of a school change after the program started.  

What areas of youth engagement in particular do you all focus on?

On a high school level, we offer college and job readiness programs, getting students ready for college, internships, or getting into a trade or the military. Whatever it is, we work with them for four years to make sure they’re ready for whatever decision they’re going to make when it comes down to life. On the Middle School level we strictly work on character development skills. On the elementary level, we focus on math and reading, starting the kids off with daily affirmations and introductions each session, in hopes of preparing them to introduce themselves to the world by making sure they know who they are, and can properly articulate a full thought.

When we read, we allow the students to have their own copies of the magazines to take home each week, whether they be ESPN Kids, Time Magazine for Kids, or National Geographic for Kids. This gives them time to read out loud in a safer environment where they’re not ashamed to mess up, and where they’re around other males who can help them out and facilitate growth in the literacy component. We also incorporate "NBA Math Hoops” with the fourth and fifth grade students, which has been absolutely great for helping the young men in terms of bettering their math skills and becoming quicker with their basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division skills.

What impact has gun violence had on the young males in your program? How has it impacted you personally? 

Gun violence has had a major affect on my students; this past year we’ve had shootings in the area of our schools, our schools have had to go on lockdown. That can cause a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) response: a kid having to jump on the ground, or go hide because they hear gunshots -- and that’s just on an elementary and middle school level. Of my kids who have matriculated to the high school level, we have had some who were murdered, and we’ve had kids that come through some of our programs who may even go to jail due to gun violence. It has had a major effect on all of us. 

Me personally, I have a very close friend who lost a family member through violence. Psychologically, what people have to go through after dealing with the loss of a loved one from gun violence doesn’t just have an effect on the person who was murdered. Gun violence affects whole families. I’ve seen people’s attitudes, cares, values, economics, and drive totally change due to depression stemming from gun violence. So yes, it has affected me emotionally seeing it up close; it’s also made me want to do more to help with the issues going on with young Black boys by finding ways to help eradicate these issues, and also assisting the victims’ family members.   

How did you become involved with Cities United?

I’ve been into mentoring for a long time and grew up in the mentoring field. I was mentored in a structured mentoring organization from the age of 10, so my whole life has been around youth engagement. I’m really appreciative of the relationship I’ve had with Marcus Carson, who is more of a mentor/big brother to me than a “boss”. He has mentored me and brought me to the level I need to be in terms of youth engagement, understanding life, and how to operate as a successful young adult and Black male in the nonprofit realm. As he realized my desires to grow in the field and strengths that I didn’t even realize, he constantly put me in a leadership position to help represent GK. My working for Growing Kings and Marcus Carson has made all of this possible, so I have much appreciation and respect for him.

What kind of efforts are you seeing happening in your city to help curb gun violence? Are you optimistic about them being able to create change?

One of the biggest things is a local city council initiative called “100 Days of Nonviolence”, started by Councilman Jay Roberson. Another “millennial”, my friend Chris Rogers who usually works with just athletes, was asked by the City of Birmingham to take over the initiative. I’ve witnessed over the past five or six years how its grown, and it’s really become a situation where the schools are hosting events every year and the kids are actually looking forward to the 100 Days of Nonviolence. In Birmingham we also have a kids’ summer jobs program, which are very much needed as well. I believe that the economic development piece is very important; a lot of the violence stems from economic issues and a “lack of.”

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s convening?

The biggest thing for me was, coming out of Alabama, I don’t have many people that look like me, who are my age, who are serious, progressive, or anything else that I could relate to in a positive sense, when it comes to creating real change. It’s always fulfilling for me when I’m able to meet other Black millennials who are giving back to youth and having positive worldwide impact. Whether they’ve gone through some adversity or not, everyone I’ve met who’s working with Cities United has been amazing and makes me want to go harder in this work. That’s the biggest thing, being able to be fed because this work that we do can be really depleting and break you down. Being around people who are doing the same work, who know what you know, who speak the same language and understand the fights and battles you have, it’s a great feeling.

What would you tell other young people or young leaders grappling with gun violence to help push them in the right direction?

First, don’t give up and don’t do whatever is the easiest thing, which is to retaliate. Sometimes when we’re affected by violence or anything negative, we begin to think and act negatively. The other day I saw a young woman on Twitter who had 26 family members that had been killed, and she wants people to see their pictures. She just wants everybody to see their faces. Activism is different for everybody, so I don’t know what change looks like for you, but if I can say anything it’s don’t throw in the towel. Someone else needs you. Someone else needs to hear your story and to understand how and why you got there. Someone who may be about to pull the trigger could hear your story about why they shouldn’t and change their mind completely. Don’t give up.

Learn more about Justin Sims at GrowingKings.org and follow him on Twitter at @iammentor.