In between classes at Kealing Middle School the hallways are full of students, but in the library it's quiet. That's where Gabriel Russell and Joshua Morgan are sitting at a table, talking.
"Did you take a test last week?" Gabriel asks. "What test was it?"
"It was actually four consecutive tests -- reading, then math, then science, then Texas history," Joshua says, adding that he struggled with math the most.
Gabriel and Josh go to school less than a mile from each other. Josh is in eighth grade at Kealing, and Gabriel is a junior at Huston-Tillotson University, the historically black university in East Austin. They met through the school’s Kealing Men program, which pairs young male students with male mentors. Nearly a quarter of Kealing students are considered at risk of dropping out, which is why the PTA runs a mentorship program.
“I remember one day we were talking about the shootings of black males, and we were getting into deep thought about it," Josh says. He says it reminded him of his summer track coach, who was shot by a police officer. “It got me thinking of things like that. I was kind of put into an emotional state.”
The principal at Kealing recommended Josh enter the mentorship program, where he met Gabriel. Gabriel is studying education at Huston-Tillotson. He says he wants to become a school superintendent someday.
“I played sports in high school, so I wanted to go to school for something with students, with kids, being around, you know, active. I want to always help somebody," Gabriel says.
Gabriel and Josh have similar backgrounds. They both grew up without fathers at home. But growing up in a single-parent household hasn’t stopped them from being successful.
Josh is a rising track star and made it to the Junior Olympics last summer. He does well in school despite problems during elementary school when he was diagnosed with ADHD. It took a while to get that diagnosis. He often had outbursts in class and was labeled a problem child by his teachers. It also made him conscious of being a young black man.
“With most of the other kids, whenever they had outbursts they handle them a bit longer and try to calm them down, but with me they would send me straight to the place where they send the kids with outbursts," Josh remembers. "And the majority of those other kids were Caucasians, and so it kind of felt like it wasn’t very fair.”
His mentor, Gabriel, grew up in Fort Worth, where he faced his own struggles. He was homeless for a few months as a teenager, living in his car with his mom and siblings when money got tight.
He went to Huston-Tillotson on a full academic scholarship, and he's a National Honor Society student. Gabriel is also a well-known face on HT’s campus: He’s the campus king.
“Mr. and Ms. Huston-Tillotson of the university. We’re kind of like the faces of the student body," Gabriel says. "So, let’s say the president has to go speak somewhere, you want the student body to be there. Anytime anybody’s on campus we introduce ourselves as Mr. Huston-Tillotson and Ms. Huston-Tillotson, and welcome you to our campus."
Students compete in a pageant for the titles, where they perform a talent or deliver a speech. Gabriel focuses on education. He does a spoken word performance about how to inspire young men of color.
At Huston-Tillotson last week, Gabriel practiced his performance for friends and staff.
He was heading to St. Louis to compete against other black male students from historically black colleges and universities for the title of Mr. HBCU.
Born to a single mother. Homeless at the age of 14.
By society’s standards, I shouldn't be here.
But today, I’m the first in my family to attend and soon graduate from university.
Spoken word and writing are another thing Gabriel and Josh have in common. Gabriel’s life experience without a male role model is a big part of his work. Same with Josh, who writes poetry.
I am in control of my future.
The next fastest man alive.
A better man than my father.
A man that keeps his word. A person who doesn't give up.
The man who changed history. Someone who will be remembered in history.
I am strong, intelligent, naive at some points, fearful.
Fearful of failure. Fearful of my past.
“Just the writing alone, I mean any form of writing, I honestly like," Josh says. "It makes me feel like I can do whatever I like with the writing. I can do whatever I like. I can add whatever I want to it. I can do it at my own time, my own way. I don't have to do this specific thing, in order to do this. It’s kind of a place where I feel, I feel peaceful, I guess you could say."
When Josh and Gabriel meet, they usually just talk. Sometimes, Gabriel brings pizza. When you look at the narrative about young men of color, there’s a perception that many are in crisis. Local and national programs have cropped up focusing on improving outcomes and academic achievement for young men of color.
Looking at Gabriel and Josh, it’s clear it’s not always that way, and that’s one way Kealing Men aims to help these middle school students.