Local Heroes: Lloyd Dennis and the Silverback Society
“I will live my life as though generations depend on me, and I will teach mine to do the same.”
-The Silverback Pledge
Two gentlemen of New Orleans often ran into one another at community meetings and soon developed a strong mutual respect. Pastor Arthur Wardsworth and Lloyd Dennis were concerned about the effect the lack of positive male role models had on young men in their communities and agreed they were tired of waiting for things to change, so they decided to do something on their own.
Pastor Wadsworth, Lloyd Dennis and Beverly Johnson Jelks, former principal of Murray Henderson, created a partnership called the Silverback Society to mentor young men attending Murray Henderson. Both gentlemen had experience working with children. Dennis told me, “We know we couldn’t just wing it and if you’re not prepared, children will eat you up.” They were adamant that this couldn’t be an experiment. They proceeded to lay out a curriculum and structure that they believed would work.
Dennis described their approach as: “Consistency, caring and consideration for these children’s lives. We never blame children for ignorance, because you can cure ignorance, all you do is teach. We don’t judge, we don’t criticize, we don’t chastise. We prefer to teach, rather than correct.” The mentees are taught “The Silverback Ways of the World,” which according to the society’s site are:
- Give respect to get respect
- Teach by example
- Give your word only when you know you can keep it
- Use your time to improve something
- Treat everyone like you will need them tomorrow
- Become an expert at something
- Let your light shine for others
The mentoring program was going strong but it experienced a slight bump in the road in 2009 with the passing of Pastor Wadsworth. However, this tragedy did not deter its growth. D’Juan Hernandez, a local lawyer and businessman, and Dwayne Steele, a pharmacist and healthcare entrepreneur, approached Dennis about joining him to continue the promising work that he and Pastor Wardsworth started. The structure and curriculum that Pastor Wadsworth and Dennis established was solid and transferable in the orientation of new mentors and the mentoring of young men.
Proud of the addition of new mentors and the addition of a new school (Craig Elementary) to do its work, Dennis would speak of the great job that he and the other mentors were doing and rightfully so. Then two back to back business meetings with early supporters of the Silverback Society pushed the envelope and asked about the limitations of the movement and about increasing the extent of the Silverback Society’s reach. The growth was just beginning and the Silverback Society hasn’t looked back since.
Today the Silverback Society is in 17 schools in New Orleans and has 117 mentors and speakers. Mentors are stepping in and taking enthusiastic control of key jobs in the operation of the Silverback Society. New mentors are recruited by invitation of a friend or by public appeal, and have to undergo interviews and background checks. Men are placed at a school with multiple mentors to ensure consistency, low stress on the mentors and more important, the boys’ happiness.
Mentees are eighth grade boys preparing to transition into high school. They share six weeks and six lessons of intimate dialogue and stories of mentors’ and speakers’ lives. Dennis told me, “They are being offered several different options and lessons in respect to life for them to choose from and to see something they may not see.”
Dennis described some of the Silverback teachings and philosophy. “Most of our young men are missing the knowledge that real swag is based on what you can do for people and not what you can do to people,” he said.
“We teach them to have principles. Be purposeful. Maintain your integrity. Treat everybody like your going to need them tomorrow and you’re going to end up in the place that you’re supposed to be.”
The mentees are brought together to enjoy a dinner at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant where they collaborate with young men from other schools and are given a lesson in manners and etiquette. The culmination of the program is a celebratory ceremony at Lace: The Grand Ballroom where they support and celebrate one another.
The impact of programs that offer basic life skills is immeasurable. The ability to meet the difficult challenges of the lives of the next generation is an investment in our communities. For that reason, the Silverback Society and its founders are true local heroes.