Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo

Program Helps City Students to Dream Big [The Buffalo News]

Nov 11, 2014 | Posted in News

The Buffalo News - November 11, 2014:

Ranked fourth in his class at Hutchinson Central Technical High School and a fixture on the principal’s leadership council, Charles Bell seemed bound for success.

But never having been exposed to high-achieving, African-American professionals, he didn’t know how far he could go.

That was until recently, when Charles and 10 other Buffalo public school students were selected to go on a trip to the General Motors world headquarters in Detroit.

“I knew I wanted to be someone important, and I do have goals,” the 17-year-old said. “But now I know I can take my goals further and dream bigger.”

The students on the trip, which was organized by the ‘Success Looks Like Me’ role model project, met, dined and chatted with top African-American executives, some of whom had overcome poverty, family dysfunction, and low self-esteem to earn top jobs at one of the world’s largest automakers. Ed Wellburn, who according to Black Enterprise Magazine is the highest ranking black in the domestic auto industry, was among them.

“It was life changing because the higher-ups at GM shared their back stories of how they grew up, what they went through, and they sounded like me because I’ve been through a lot,” said Charles, who wants to be a computer engineer. “It made me realize that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, you can still make it as long as you work hard and stay focused.”

The role model project aims to expose low-income young people of color to different professions by connecting them with successful professionals through field trips, lectures and other activities. Past initiatives have included trips to Washington, D.C., and a visit with the former CEO of BlueCross BlueShield, Alphonso O’Neil White.

“The goal is to provide kids with access to people, places, experiences and role models that look like them so they can dream and plan to be successful,” said Jennifer Parker, president of Black Capital Network, who created the program in 2012 and serves as its chairperson.

The Detroit trip was “the ultimate role model trip. The stereotype people have about black males was erased with this trip,” Parker said.

Students, their chaperones and GM officials described the two days in Michigan as transformative, far exceeding their expectations.

“It was a lot more than I thought it was going to be, and I got so much out of it,” said Karl English, a sophomore at Buffalo Academy of Visual and Performing Arts. “My goal originally was to work in the IT department at the board of education, but now I want to eventually transfer to GM’s IT division.”

As an African-American, Steve Finch, the general manager of the GM Tonawanda Engine Plant, knew the trip would be beneficial to the students. Finch said mentors helped him see a future beyond his East Side neighborhood when he was a kid.

“Sometimes it’s hard for young people, if they’re in a negative or unfortunate neighborhood or circumstance, to see beyond what they’re experiencing,” Finch said, “so an opportunity like this is important.”

Finch, who flew to Detroit on the second day of the two-day trip, expected it to be a routine, educational tour of the GM Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit. “But it was out of this world,” he said.

When Wellburn, GM’s vice president of global design and its chief designer, personally gave the group a tour of his top-secret design studio and sneak peeks at forthcoming models and prototypes, Finch saw the boys on the edge of their seats, beaming with excitement and awe.

“I was literally in tears, knowing what it meant to them,” Finch admitted. “You could feel the energy in the room. I knew that some of those boys would look back years later and realize that experience was a watershed moment.”

Success Looks Like Me is the signature program of the Communities of Giving Legacy Initiative, a Community Foundation’s philanthropy fund. It is managed by leaders of color, who also contribute to it.

The program sought student leaders for the trip. It made selections after receiving applications that included essays from students at various city high schools. It was coincidental that it ended up as an all-boys excursion, but Parker said that demographic is in dire need of mentoring and guidance. In Buffalo public schools in 2012, the high school graduation rate for black males stood at 45 percent, according to the New York State Education Department.

The visit to GM’s headquarters on Oct. 29 to 30 was all-expenses paid, covered by grants from GM and First Niagara Foundation Mentoring Matters. The itinerary included tours of the OnStar Command Center, the GM Wintergarden Flint Assembly Center in Flint and the GM Design Center.

“It was really cool in Flint because we got to see how the car is made from beginning to end,” said Salvador Saez, a senior at Hutch-Tech who is now leaning more toward mechanical engineering after the trip.

Parker said the trip introduced the boys, most whom where juniors and seniors, to the wide gamut of careers in advanced manufacturing and at GM.

“I always thought working at GM would be hard labor, but there are many different positions there,” said Divante Robinson, a senior at Leonardo Da Vinci High School.

The visit to the museums were also remembered fondly, especially since Stevie Wonder’s son was the tour guide at the Motown Museum.

The highlight for many remained the visit to the design center and meeting Wellburn, who oversees the company’s 10 studios with almost 2,000 employees. They saw concept cars from popular movies, including “Transformers.”

“That was amazing, just amazing,” Divante said. “We saw designs and models that won’t be out until 2017, 2018.”

The boys peppered Wellburn with questions, and he also shared his story and offered tips for getting into the auto design field, suggesting the best schools to attend.

At a dinner with Finch and black executives from GM’s headquarters, Salvador and Charles networked with a human resources director who gave them his business card.

“He said we should keep in touch and he might hire us in the future. I’m not losing this,” Charles said, showing of the white card.

To view this story in The Buffalo News, click here.

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