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The path to leadership: Nurturing perseverance and grit

American Explorers, Flying through the air

Self-confidence is one trait fostered through the outdoor experiences enjoyed by the American Explorers program. Credit: American Explorers

By Guest Columnist KAAMEL NURI, program manager of American Explorers, a program of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation

If I asked you to define leadership, chances are you would come up with a list of noble character traits, moments of everyday greatness, or inspirational quotes meant to propel us forward on our quest to be better.

Youth leadership is no different and arguably even more important.


Kaamel Nuri

Like many of you, I have come up with that list, read the books, and made it my life’s work to be a leader for youth in underserved communities whose self-worth and investment in their own futures suffer because of where they live.

What I’ve learned is that when it comes to youth leadership, there is no “one size fits all” measure. Developing young leaders depends on efforts that go beyond stereotypes and statistics to nurture perseverance and grit. This is especially true in working with young people from underserved communities.

According to Child Trends, growing up in lower-income environments is associated with a higher risk of lower cognitive and academic outcomes, lower school attendance, and higher rates of grade failure and early high school dropout, which can ultimately lead to a higher likelihood of entanglement with the criminal justice system. In addition, these youth are more likely than others to have behavioral problems and engage in delinquent behaviors during adolescence.

This is why I continually ask myself how can we, collectively – as caretakers, leaders, businesses, educators, and community providers – be that champion and voice for youth growing up in underserved communities to help them forge a better, brighter path?

American Explorers, climbing

Scholars who participate in the American Explorers program learn the power of teamwork through their outdoor adventures. Credit: American Explorers

I admire groups like 100 Black Men that provide the leadership to support issues and causes that promote positive change in our community; and Girls Inc., which equips girls to navigate gender, economic, and social barriers and grow up healthy, educated, and independent; or Harlem Children’s Zone that delivers individualized support to get youth through college and become productive, self-sustaining adults.

As the program manager of  American Explorers, a four-year youth leadership program currently giving students, or scholars as I like to refer to them, from Atlanta’s historic Westside communities pathways to leadership, I am energized by these examples. A sustained investment in these scholars can help them defy a destiny pre-determined by the fact that Atlanta ranks among the nation’s cities with the highest income inequality and their Westside communities are some of our most economically challenged.

We have an opportunity and a responsibility to invest in these young leaders and help change the trajectory of their lives. To foster the belief that their contributions to family, community and education matter. And frankly, that they matter.

American Explorers, Flying through the air

Self-confidence is one trait fostered through the outdoor experiences enjoyed by the American Explorers program. Credit: American Explorers

Here in Atlanta, our Westside youth have at least one unparalleled advantage: They can learn leadership directly from the history embedded in the very streets they walk and the air they breathe. From a king named Martin Luther, a queen named Coretta, a knight named Gladys, a businessman named Herndon, a civil rights pioneer and congressman named Lewis and many others – greatness is all around them.

Over the course of four years, American Explorers focuses on the whole person, with a mission to prepare, shape and empower Westside scholars to live productive lives and careers, and become effective leaders and change agents in their communities. We do this by guiding scholars through year-round academic readiness, social emotional competency, professional development and civic engagement, with each year of experience building upon the last. By partnering with North Carolina Outward Bound for yearly excursions, scholars are exposed to experiential learning, or learning by doing, in an unfamiliar setting and with that, understanding that they are needed by those around them.

American Explorers, rafting

Rafting trips are one of the many adventures that these scholars with the American Explorers enjoy that may not have been available without the program. Credit: American Explorers

We are setting a higher bar for our scholars who long to be given an opportunity.

Next month, we will have more than 100 American Explorers in the program, persevering despite their circumstances and shattering the limitations placed on them by others.

We are committing to each and every one of them. We are committed to ensuring that these American Explorers are not pre-destined to a poverty-stricken life. We are committed to helping these scholars meet their potential and become the leaders we need them, and the Westside needs them, to be.

That is our charge, duty, and commitment.

If you want to provide one of the following services, please email me at: KNuri@americanexplorers.org:

  • Mentor a current American Explorer;
  • Tutor;
  • Volunteer;
  • Provide employment/internship opportunities;
  • Provide transportation to after-school programming.

Note to readers: American Explorers is a program of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation operating out of Atlanta. The program also operates a campus in the Paradise Valley of Montana at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch for local nonprofit organizations to operate their youth-based, outdoor leadership, and natural resource conservation programs. 


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