For over eight years, Marlon Grant has been meeting with young men – primarily African American  – in the African American Student Association group. AASA is an opportunity for the young men to interact with the Duluth community through volunteering and meeting with successful African American men in the area.

To Mr. Grant, the group is a chance to build a strong relationship with these young men – young men who have not always had positive male role models in their life. Mr. Grant indicates that relationship building can be the difference between “the reason a youth is able to get out of a bad situation, or the reason a bad situation is created.” He hopes he can tell them a different story, by sharing his own story of overcoming tough obstacles, by exposing them to new opportunities, and by providing them a safe place to have open discussions about their heritage.

The group is a privilege that has to be earned, and it is expected that those who participate act as leaders not only in the group, but in the home as well. One of the participants, B.L. indicates, “the group teaches us a lot of things: how to carry ourselves in public, how to be a gentleman, and how to behave in a sophisticated setting by carrying yourself like a mature young man.”

Over the years, the group has completed hours of volunteer work. When asked about some of his fondest memories of the volunteer work, Mr. Grant talks about volunteering at Community Action Duluth, watching the older boys interact and play with the young children. And, the time they volunteered at the University of Minnesota’s Duluth’s (UMD) Pucks for Poverty, where they met Willie O’Ree, the first black player for the National Hockey League.

Mr. Grant reflects on the time the group attended the UMD’s Soul Food Dinner. It had a significant impacted on the young men, seeing college student who looked and talked liked them. Additionally B.L., also mentioned going to the UMD as well, taking in a men’s basketball game. It made a huge impact being on a college campus and seeing men of color on campus.

There are days at The Hills that are so scripted for these young men, the schedules so predictable and having AASA to look forward to gives them something to look forward too – a chance to get a break from the group and connect with the outside community.

It’s a place where the young men can talk and share their life experiences, their fears of returning back home, and their hopes of taking a different path. It’s a place where they can learn about their heritage and their ancestors who have paved the way for the things they do today. It’s a place where tough discussions around race, gang relations, and self-control are had. It’s a place for young men to see positive role models making a difference.

As B.L. said, “It’s a group that makes me want to strive for greatness.”