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Students learn education is a tool of empowerment

Males-only workshop highlights setting life goals.

They sat slumped in their seats in the auditorium of Vare Middle School in South Philadelphia Thursday morning, looking sleepy, with their heads in their hands, some with eyes shut.

"Come on guys, wake up," Abdur Rahim Islam told about 30 boys in the auditorium. "Sit in your chair right . . . You might learn something."

Islam, president of Universal Companies, a Philadelphia nonprofit development company, was among the community activists and educators leading a workshop for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade boys at the school at 24th Street and Snyder Avenue.

"You're going to talk. We're going to talk, and we're going to respect each other," Islam said, quickly getting their attention during the Male Empowerment Workshop, sponsored by Universal Companies, which also manages the school.

Islam asked the boys whether they wanted him to give each of them $10. "Yeah!" they yelled. One boy shouted that he wanted $1,000.

"You have to earn it," Islam said. "I'm not going to give you anything. Are you guys prepared to earn what you want?"

Islam told the boys they had to prepare themselves with education to be successful adults.

"If you don't like your current situation, you have the ability to change it yourself," he said. "We have a concept at Universal that says, 'no excuses.' . . . I am sure everybody here will be here for you, but you have to be ready to help yourself."

The workshop also featured Philadelphia antiviolence activists Bilal Qayyum and Wali Jones; Alfred Dean, a school district safety specialist; Philadelphia Police Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel; and others.

Bethel told the boys the men on the panel know what it's like to come from a single-parent home; what it's like not to have a lot of things, but that they did not let that stop them.

"Part of good character is making the right decisions," Bethel said. "My core values are, 'I have control of my life. I have control of my destiny.' "

The youths were then shown a documentary, Fair Game?, which focuses on some of the negative issues facing young black males.

The film described the disproportionate incarceration and dropout rates for young black males and other negative issues urban youths must contend with.

Phillip Hang, 13, an eighth-grader, said that he enjoyed the program and that he learned a lot.

"I learned about the racism that is still going on, and that I need to go to school, stay out of trouble and off the streets, to go straight home and study," he said.

Bethel said the event was important because the boys "can get to see guys who have been successful and who have been where they're at. They can see if they work hard and stay true to their values and get their education they can be effective."