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Elevation Q&A: Trayon White, founder of Man Power DC

Born and raised in Southeast D.C., Trayon White has first-hand knowledge of the hurdles that block inner-city youth from achieving success. As a co-founder of Man Power DC, he builds relationships and steers programming to ensure that young men from his community stay on the right path.
With Man Power DC in operation at Hart Middle School for 7th and 8th grade boys, White spoke with Elevation DC about his current initiatives to create a culture of perpetual success among youth in underserved communities. 

Why did you feel that it was important to start Man Power DC?
Every time I interact with someone, it’s like, young people always need a job or direction. A lot of people are drawn to me because I can relate to them. I’m from the same community, have some level of success and always giving back. I felt like I needed to train up another generation of leaders.
Did you benefit from a program like this when you were younger?
I was a part of the Boys and Girls Club. That gave me a foundation of men who were my coaches and poured into me and gave me positive male role models, because I didn’t have a father figure in the home. 
Then I worked for the East of the River Clergy-Police-Community partnership that gave me some of the tools and work experience I needed to get started in the non-profit field. 
What are the issues that young men face most?
I think they face a lot of self-esteem and conflict resolution issues. Young men need to be taught by men. We have this concept where we say "men raise men," so we try to build relationships with other men to teach these young boys how to become a man. Because other than that, they learn from trial and error or on the streets.
So how does the program work to address these issues?
We address their issues and concerns--we talk about relationships, what it means to be a man, how to dress, etiquette and more.
When we talk about manhood it’s more of conversation to tell them what a man is—we go down a list of criteria of what a man looks like. We teach them what men do and don’t do—men don’t hit women, men wear belts, men sit up right in their chairs. So go through a culture shift training of what a man is and get them to adapt and at the end of the day there write on their papers how they see themselves being a man and where they may be falling short based on the men in the room. Each session has different men leading so the conversations change a lot.
In our etiquette training we have classes around setting the dinner table and eating. And we get tickets to take them somewhere nice like the Kennedy Center where they have to dress up. We reach out to different people to get dress clothes for them because most of them don’t have dress clothes. And we want to do a battalion this year for younger kids, which will be a good way for our new guys to go through a more formal process of etiquette.
With relationships, we often talk about it from a spiritual standpoint. A lot of these guys in this generation don’t have a spiritual foundation at all. So we talk about building a personal relationship with God because that’s the most important. 
What has the feedback been from students so far?
It’s been really good. Actually, one of things we’ve been working on lately is helping our 8th graders transition to 9th grade. So we’re helping them try to pick out what schools they want to go to. Some of our kids are going to Banneker, Wilson, School Without Walls--some of the application schools. We’re not against neighborhood schools but those who aspire to go to schools that are more challenging are encouraged to do that. Half of the young men already applied a few have been accepted already.
They’re really receptive to the direction that we’re going. It’s coming to a point where a lot of young people inside the school want to be a part of the program. We can’t fit everybody at this moment but we want to touch as many as we can with the resources we have.
What are your plans for future programming?
We’re collaborating on a grant with the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy Prevention and other partners so that this summer we can take them on trips to workshops and events focusing on teen pregnancy prevention. 
Right now in our workshops we go through a budget of how much it costs to have a child and raise a child. And many of them have siblings so we take the number and double or triple it. And it becomes a paradigm shift—they’re amazed by it and they have a greater appreciation for their parents and the things their parents do for them.
While the boys are familiar with safe sex, some of them practice it and some of them don’t so it’s about changing the culture and making it cool. We set the tone of what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. We come from the perspective of “safe sex is the only sex.”
Why are teen pregnancy prevention initiatives important?
It’s in my opinion that if we can address pregnancy prevention early on, it will alleviate a lot of stress in the community. I find that once a young person gets pregnant or gets someone pregnant, it alters their life to a point where they not only have to fend for themselves but fend for someone else, and unfortunately in our community we have a huge poverty problem so not only do you have your mouth to feed but at least two other mouths to feed. It creates a lot of tension within the home--domestic violence, malnutrition, mental health issues and other things.
When society talks about teen pregnancy, do you believe they focus more on girls than guys?
Yes, I think it’s sex biased, but we know that it takes two to tango. I think that we don’t address the male’s participation or responsibility. But ironically I’ve seen more young men taking care of their children. I was in a community last week and I saw three young guys pushing strollers by themselves down the street.
I think we always talk about the mother because you can see the pregnancy, but with males you don’t know by looking at them. So she gets a lot of attention, but I think it has to be even on both sides because it's the responsibility of two people.
What long-term changes do you hope to see from the boys in the program?
Our ultimate goal is duplication. One of our key principles is Sankofa. It’s an African principle that means "return to your roots" or to give back. We plan to walk with them for at least ten years to ensure they get wrap-around services so when they become engineers, doctors, lawyers, mathematicians, and teachers, they will always give back, strengthen the program and do something for someone else.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Read more articles by Christina Sturdivant.

Christina Sturdivant is a native Washingtonian who's always watching and writing about the latest cultural, community and innovative trends in the city. She's interested in people and companies that create equitable opportunities for longtime residents and transplants alike.
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