The Power of an Authentic Role Model


Guest post by Henry Cherry

Growing up, I was into athletics. But very few of my fellow athletes looked like me. I was often one of a few Black athletes on my teams. Having lived in a predominantly white community since I was six years old, I got along well with friends, teachers, and coaches. It was a good life and it seemed to me that I fit in.

By the time I entered high school, I was making a name for myself in sports. Around that same time, my small-town community on the shores of Lake Michigan started experiencing rapid growth. More and more new families moved into our communities.  Many of them were from urban centers like Chicago, Detroit and Muskegon. And some of the new community members were Black families, whose kids looked a heck of a lot more like me than my peers.

All of a sudden, I had access to friends who not only looked like me but had life experiences that were relatable. I started to notice things happening at school that hadn’t been an issue for me before. For example, I got called into my coach’s office. He expressed concern with some of my new friendships. He wondered if I was hanging around the “right kind” of people. And the newly hired school police officer always seemed to “be” wherever a group of Black kids congregated.

An Authentic Role Model Emerges

At the time, I didn’t really connect the dots on the racial dynamics of our growing high school. I was a high school freshman balancing schoolwork, athletics, and a social life. But I could feel a shift in the way some of the adults in the school perceived me. It was almost like there was an unspoken fear—would I somehow become a different Henry Cherry now that I had more Black friends? If I was evolving as a person (which is what typically happens during teen years), why would that be something to fear?

Eric’s arrival was a Role Model Moment for me. He told us, “God doesn’t make duplicates. Be your authentic self.

Henry Cherry, co-founder, I Am Academy

Enter Eric Gray. A Black man. Pastor. Fierce advocate for youth. During my early high school years, Eric led a teen ministry at my school. He was the first (adult) guy who looked like me to routinely set foot in the school building. His arrival was a Role Model Moment for me. Eric talked about the things that white coaches and teachers didn’t know how to talk about with Black kids— things like how to respectfully approach a girl and how to have productive disagreements with peers.

The thing that was great about Eric is that he was consistently who he was no matter who he was talking to. He didn’t code-switch. He was like, “This is me. I’m the dude from Chicago that you asked to come to your school and work with Black youth. You’re going to get all of me.”  Eric got things done.

The Value of Being Fully Who You Are

Eric used to tell us, “Be your authentic self. There’s already a [insert name of famous person.] So you be you. God doesn’t make duplicates.” And from this modeling of authenticity, I gained confidence in myself. I began to see that although some of the adults in my life were concerned about the new friendships I was forming, there wasn’t anything to fear. My new Black friends—although they looked different from most kids in school—they were good kids.

Through Pastor Eric’s mentorship and teen ministry, during school lunchtimes and on Wednesday nights at church, I experienced the power of being one’s authentic self. I learned not to change who I was just to be accepted into certain spaces. These formative years laid down a base for me. It’s why, years after graduation, I became an academic behavioral interventionist and then the Dean of Students for the same high school I attended. My time with Eric planted the seed for what eventually became I AM Academy, a place of encouragement, empowerment, and nurturing for African American youth. Eric Gray showed us what it was like to care. Now I’m blessed to be able to care for others in the same way.

About the author: Henry Cherry (featured in photo at left) is a married father of five and the co-founder of I Am Academy, which partners with area schools to empower Black adolescents and young adults to achieve their full potential by assisting their development, cultivating relationships, supporting educational success, providing collegial experiences, and facilitating job readiness. Visit their Facebook and Instagram pages to learn more. 

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