A classroom of shrieking middle school boys at Hope Partnership School in North Philadelphia went radio silent when George Stevenson began to speak.
“I’m gonna tell you what happened to me on Monday,” he started. “Mr. George got caught in a shootout.” He then launched into a story and impromptu Q&A session about the violent incident he’d witnessed.
Stevenson was finishing up a lesson for the seven boys about making things right before it’s too late. Along with partners Bobby Hall and Ray Haynes, Stevenson, a former professional model, runs an after school initiative called Connecting the Dots.
It teaches middle school boys confidence, discipline and organization using an unorthodox vehicle:
“What our program is designed to do is to change their mindset,” Hall said. Along with lessons on the best way to tie ties and shine shoes, other nuggets of wisdom are imparted. “We teach them that there’s options. There’s always another way to do something.”
About 18 boys in fifth through eighth grades are participating in Connecting the Dots this year. Real Men Speak, the nonprofit that manages the program, got a grant to purchase new outfits for the students so that by their culminating May showcase, every student will own a new suit, button-up shirt, tie and shoes.
To prep and prime, the boys practice strutting one of the four types of runway walks: “Preppy,” “New Yorker,” “European” and “BET” Students get to select which one they’ll perform this spring. Sabree Woodard, 11, chose the last style because, “it’s flashy.”
Like they did in the winter mid-year celebration, they’ll be doing tie and shoe shine demonstrations and catwalking. All this happens in front of peers, parents, teachers and school staff.
“On that day, they’re just so proud,” Hall said. “Their peers are screaming at them like they’re stars.”
Achievement unlocked: ‘How it feels to be in a suit’
Hope Partnership is located in the racially and ethnically diverse Fairhill neighborhood. More than half the population lives below the poverty line; the median annual income is about $15k, according to census data.
At a school where nearly the entire student body is Black, Stevenson said he used visuals of the Congo Dandies, a group of economically poor but sartorially rich men in Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, to break down gender-normative stereotypes about well-groomed men of color.
“If you ever realize or watch young Black men in a setting where other Black men are dressed, they kinda laugh and snicker because they don’t see that often,” Stevenson said. “So now we’re exposing them to something that doesn’t look so foreign.”
Take Nahmir Butler. The 14-year-old eighth-grader was shy and timid. He didn’t talk much, and had never owned a suit before, Stevenson discovered.
“I always wanted to wear those type of clothes,” Butler, 14, told a reporter. “I just wanted to see how it feels to be in a suit.”
Butler earned his new threads when he walked the runway in the December showcase, picking up a black and white pinstripe. He ended up in Connecting the Dots by accident, he said, but agreed the program helped raise his self-esteem.
“It boosted my confidence that I could do this,” Butler said. “I started believing in myself because usually when I see something and I see some people can’t achieve it, I be like, I’m not going to achieve it.” However, he said, when Stevenson taught him to tie a tie, “I actually did it.”
Stevenson knows the impact fashion and runway walking can have on self image.
His own time modeling at local venues like the now defunct Blue Horizon boxing gym helped nudge him into the vibrant, even flashy, personal fashion sense on full display that afternoon with the boys.
Already striking at more than 6 feet tall, Stevenson was wearing a brown tweed vest and matching sport coat, pressed khaki slacks with matching hat and cognac brown wingtip brogues. The statement piece was a dark, floor length fur coat.
“I like walking the runway because it helped me to build the confidence that I had,” he said. “It helped me to define how I wear my clothes now. It helped me to understand who I am as a man, as a person.”
Walking with your head up
Etiquette and grooming for boys and men are at the root of the Fairhill-based program, but they aren’t its final fruit.
The pillars Stevenson and his nonprofit hope to instill in their students are confidence, proper speaking, productive thinking, anger management and a more global perspective.
Real Men Speak incorporates everything from financial planning to anti-litter education in the course. One afternoon, the boys learned how to access municipal services at City Hall. The week prior, they calculated that saving a quarter a day could mean a savings of $96 a year.
Thirteen-year-old Haleem Alexander said the program is teaching them how to be a man.
Twelve-year-old Eric Thomas liked learning to tie a tie.
And Butler has memorized a handful of “sayings” he said are designed to teach him life skills when he moves on to high school next year.
He rattled them off rapid-fire: “The definition of team stands for together everyone achieves moments; I do believe there is a God but I’m not him; Two things in life you gotta remember about a person: their name and their words.”
Real Men Speak has operated in five Philly schools since 2016, including Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter and Murrell Dobbins CTE.
Asked why a group of young boys in middle school would stick around voluntarily for a course on fashion and runway, Hall said it’s about self worth.
“It makes them feel like they’re important,” Hall said. “As we’re leading up to the showcase you can see how their attitude changes, their disposition changes. They just walk with their head up and they feel like, ‘Okay, I am somebody. I can make a difference.'”