“Silence is powerful.” Gayle Smaller takes off his glasses and with one sweeping gesture, invokes the grandeur of the North Shore. “Out there, the guys can hear it.”
“The guys” are the promising young black men who are New Lens Urban Mentoring Society, and Gayle Smaller, New Lens founder, is a big man, with big ideas. One of his big ideas was New Lens Urban Mentoring Society. “We want to make sure urban African American males have access to resources and experiences other Minnesotans take for granted.” Today the Society serves African American boys and men through a collaboration of experience and age.
Kids are paired with caring male mentors from the community. Youth mentors are in turn partnered with elder mentors. All mentors are New Lens collaborators and innovators and their in-house community is built on trust. “Every idea I have,” says Smaller, “I know they can make it better. I trust them to make it better.” The New Lens community also includes a handful of strong partners who support the work with a diversity of deep impact, life changing experiences. Thanks to one partner, Voyageur Outward Bound School, silence is one of those life-changing experiences.
New Lens mentors and mentees find the power of silence at the foot of the world’s biggest lake and along one of Minnesota’s most beautiful rivers. With the help of Outward Bound, the New Lens crew goes “on course.” Instructors from Voyageur Outward Bound’s Twin Cities Center facilitate New Lens Peer Leadership Expeditions on the St. Croix River and Superior Hiking Trail each summer. The goal is to get kids out of their comfort zone and into the unknown. The name, “Outward Bound” is based on a naval term for outgoing ships, and it serves as a metaphor for leaving the safe harbor and sailing the wide sea. Smaller says when his “shorties” stand on the Superior Hiking Trail and look out at “all that water,” they can’t help wondering, “What else is out there?”
“Without the noise of their regular lives,” says Smaller, “kids have a chance to just be, to hear themselves think, to connect with the larger world. They see the world is big and they start thinking about their place in it.” Prior to joining New Lens, most of the young men have never been outside of Saint Paul. Six days of backpacking through some of the most rugged terrain in our region offers unique opportunities to build character, and work on New Lens’ “Big Five” life skills. “When we created New Lens, we recognized that young black men needed something that was relevant. We couldn’t find a model that really addressed their particular needs, so we conducted our own research and designed our own model. We surveyed successful black men and ultimately identified 5 key non-cognitive attributes they all have in common.” Smaller, a former Social Studies teacher and high school principal explains,
“These skills are non-cognitive and they are relevant to the lives of young black men.” The Big Five include: 1) Self-Cultivation, 2) Intentional Community Building, 3) Strategic Thinking, 4) Situational Analysis, and 5) Adaptability.
“New Lens and Outward Bound have a lot in common– social and emotional learning, nature, physical fitness, challenge. We share big goals for these kids, and we also have this opportunity to work on important things across race,” says Smaller.
“The relationship between our organizations is great for our community,” adds Poppy Potter, Director of Operations at Outward Bound’s Twin Cities Center. “We also agree that this work takes time. Relationships are key– with kids, between organizations. We see our partnerships as an opportunity to have a long term relationship, building trust together to meet the needs of the community. What differentiates Outward Bound is our commitment to progressive programming. We don’t do one off programming because we target deeper learning. We don’t just throw kids into challenge. We set the stage for success.” Outward bound moves students through a progression of learning, leadership and responsibility. Kids learn and practice skills that prepare them to develop the grit necessary to navigate tough decisions. “They gain confidence through trying and failing and trying and succeeding. Gradually they take on greater and greater responsibility,” adds Potter. New Lens kids work to develop community and built trust with their mentors and Outward Bound instructors.
Dan Stark is the Program Coordinator for New Lens at Voyageur Outward Bound: “We engage New Lens at three different points in the year: single day Insight activities in the fall, a three day Insight series in the spring and a six day Expedition in the summer. Regardless of program length, our goal is to empower students to see their potential. We facilitate experiences that push students out of their comfort zones while teaching social and emotional skills like collaboration, perseverance and problem solving. In a single day of rock climbing, students will not only try something new, they will learn technical skills and communication skills. They engage trust and responsibility as they climb with a partner. They have to be assertive, communicating their needs and they have to depend on their belayer while climbing. When they take over belaying, they have to manage the safety of their partner– it’s a big responsibility. They live challenge and experience success when they safely attempt or summit that cliff. Individual success is tied to group success. At the end of an expedition, after hiking and navigating twenty-five miles, sleeping and cooking outside and climbing a sixty foot cliff, New Lens mentees think, If I did all that, I can do anything.”
“This year every single kid wanted to do a second Outward Bound Expedition,” says Smaller. “They crave that big experience now. Outward Bound changes them. You see it in their eyes.”
At the close of each course, New Lens mentees, like all Outward Bound students, take time to reflect on their overall experience through writing. The act of sitting in silence to compose a personal Course Reflection catalyzes greater self awareness. In their own words, New Lens students speak to the impact and challenge of adventure:
“I know how motivated I can be.”
“I learned a lot about being a leader from my team…moving forward, I will take these lessons of leadership into my life.”
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