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July 10, 2014, 11:21 am

The role models Black youths need

When Oshunbumi Fernandez called me a couple of weeks ago, and asked me to listen to another of her new, “whiz-bang” ideas, I already knew I was in trouble.

As I’ve made clear in this space before, there are very few people in Philadelphia whom I respect more that Lois Fernandez, the founder of the Odunde Festival, and her daughter, whom the whole city knows, simply, as Bumi.

Lois, of course, is the family visionary, the person who, 38 years ago, co-founded the West African-themed festival that annually attracts hundreds of African vendors and musicians and nearly half a million of the rest of us to 23rd & South Streets, and to the banks of the Schuylkill River, where the highly successful event has always been held.

But, if Lois is the family visionary, then Bumi is the 21st Century, Millennial, idea-generator of the Fernandez family. In recent years, she has received the chief executive's baton from her mom, and has never stopped running with it.

You’d think that would be enough. Not for Bumi. It’s a rare week, or month, that she’s not calling, texting, emailing or tweeting her newest/latest concept to grow the Odunde brand, and to help support the people in her city-wide community.

As I said, a few weeks ago, I took the call, not really sure just what Bumi had up her highly creative sleeves, this time.

But, all of a sudden, there it was.

In her normal, 200-words-per-minute delivery, Bumi was explaining to me a concept that she said was just what Philadelphia’s Black community has long needed. As if that already wasn’t enough to hook me, she then went on to explain that this was a program idea that she planned to implement every other month, here, locally, and then roll out onto a national stage, in other cities.

What it was, was a brilliant concept called “My Story,” which would essentially consist of two or three African Americans of proven achievement, who would be asked to share with young people, college students, entrepreneurs, and others, just what it took to move them from point A, to the success they eventually achieved.

As Bumi explained it, young Black people are finding it increasingly difficult to gain the attention of potential role models. There can never be enough mentors, it seems, for those who need them. This program would be established to offer young, and other interested people in our community, open and direct access to information about successful people in our community, that’s not generally available.

The format would be designed to encourage, to motivate, to have people understand that virtually everyone who is black and currently successful, has faced challenges that required unique creativity, a special diligence and strong networking skills.

I told Bumi I thought the concept was both sound and timely.

I had no idea.

She asked me to think through the format for the first “My Story” with her, and to assist her with her own, prodigious promotional skills.

We wound up with having the first “My Story” program on extremely short notice, by my standards, on Jan. 23. If you know anything at all about Bumi Fernandez, you’re aware that she always opts to err on the side of doing it now, rather than later – whatever it is. So it was with the first “My Story.”

The first three panelists, it was decided, would be Ahmeenah Young, CEO of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Rahim Islam, president of the Universal Companies, and me.

Bumi, herself, served as moderator.

The event was held at the African-American Museum of Philadelphia and an audience of about 70 people was in attendance.

The panelists were seated in luxurious, bright red, overstuffed chairs at the center of the stage, in an intimate, “Charlie Rose” kind of way.

Now, I’ve known both Ahmeenah and Rahim for more years than I care to mention, now, and thought I knew them both. This new format revealed that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

"My Story" brilliantly allowed/caused the three of us to share with the audience information about our respective backgrounds, about our early plans and aspirations, that have, honestly, never been shared before, in a public forum.

From Ahmeenah, we learned that, to a significant degree, her professional motivation included having a grandmother who was a Black Quaker and a grandfather who was an always-impeccably dressed and dignified banker in her community – a “numbers banker,” she eventually discovered. He, nevertheless, served as a model for professional excellence and for never believing, even for a second, that there would ever be any challenge or any responsibility that young Ahmeenah could not handle.

We further learned that a part of her unique and obviously effective preparation for a ground-breaking career in the hospitality industry was her early family home experiences, in South Philadelphia. It was during a period when some of the nation’s most prolific and legendary jazz artists would come to perform at two nationally recognized jazz venues in the community,  “Peps” and “Showboat.”

As was the case for most great Black artists who performed in Philadelphia, at that time, they were welcomed to perform at the city’s jazz clubs – they just weren’t invited to book rooms in any of the city’s prestigious hotels.

That being the case, some of the biggest names in jazz wound up staying with Ahmeenah's family, and other black families who lived right off of South Street, during their performances in the city.

Who knew? No wonder, as Ahmeenah informed us, she now takes piano lessons to ease the stress of running one of the country’s largest convention centers. No wonder the music seems to come to her so naturally.

From Rahim, we learned that he had had a career in Corporate America before moving to co-found Universal, with Kenny Gamble. Like so many other black professionals, after too many frustrating years, he had hit the “black ceiling” in that environment, and decided to branch out into a career that would have him use his considerable financial management skills in helping the African-American community.

It sounds like a nice, neat story, but who knew before his “My Story” presentation, that Rahim worked for the first three years, at Universal — for absolutely no salary.

One young, Black, female, recent-college-grad, during the question-and-answer period, expressed frustration with being the “only one on her job," and with having to work until 7 p.m., from time-to-time, to keep ahead of the competition.

It was then that Ahmeenah explained to the “next great female executive” in our city, that she, Ahmeenah, periodically has had to work straight through the entire night, at the Convention Center, leaving only to go home, take a shower, and return to finish the job.

That, like so many other points in the first, “My Story” seminar, was a true wake-up call for the questioner and for others in the room who came to hear the “secrets to success.”

What they learned, I imagine, is that the “secrets” include “remaining true to your own identity, and close to your friends and family; working hard,; relaxing just as diligently; never letting anyone tell you that you can’t get anything done; and that virtually none of those who have achieved in our community was born with a "silver spoon in their mouths," as they might have suspected.

Judging by the audience’s response, the first “My Story” was a smashing success.

Was that enough for an idea-a-minute Bumi?

Apparently not.

As I went up to take my own seat on the stage, her question to me was: ‘Mr. Crawley, do you think that I can turn this program into a book?”

 

A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management, Inc.