Minnesotans Can Be the Blueprint for Change

The shootings this summer in St. Paul and Dallas, compounded by so many horrific events that have occurred in 2016, have been particularly difficult to comprehend. Through my work overseeing an organization that has worked for 40 years to help set students on a course for success, it would be easy to feel that it’s all been for naught.

One Sunday back in July, I was feeling particularly distraught as I drove up to St. Cloud for the first week of Minnesota Business Venture. This week-long program prepares high school students with leadership, teamwork, and financial literacy skills needed for work and life. The demographics of the camp represents a mosaic of ethnicities and cultures. Students participate in a variety of activities throughout the week, including hearing from inspirational speakers that have overcome some of life’s greatest challenges.

Daniel Shannon speaks to students at MBV.

The camp’s opening speaker for the past five years has been Daniel Shannon, Chief Inspiration Officer at DanielShannonSpeaks.com. Daniel is an African-American man who shares his life journey – challenges and triumphs – with our students. That day, he addressed an audience of 200 people, including youth, parents, business volunteers, and staff.

Daniel took us through his childhood of being brought up by a single mother alongside his older brother. Being surrounded by an external environment full of bad possibilities and having a painful awareness that many people enjoyed a better life could have easily led him down the wrong path. But a constant in his life was his mother’s insistence that education was not negotiable. She believed it would be the key to a rewarding and successful life. Daniel went on to graduate from Howard University and was a star on the track team. That day at camp, his presentation, highlighted by a reenactment of his final race, emphasized the importance of creating a vision for yourself and finding a supportive mentor. Students were encouraged to carve out their own path and make a positive difference, not only in their own lives but in the world.

Daniel closed his presentation reflecting on the violent events of that particular week in July. Living just 15 minutes from the site of the fatal shooting of Philandro Castile, Daniel talked about how he frequently drives with his wife and two-year-old daughter in the same area. He told the audience, that could have been him. He also expressed sorrow about the Dallas shootings. I have heard Daniel’s presentation several times before but there was something different this time. He challenged each and every student to help create a world where we can all feel safe, and working together is the norm. When Daniel finished his presentation, I looked around the room; students were clapping enthusiastically, parents were hugging their kids, and there were more than a few tears.

This moment reinforced to me the importance of having caring adult role models to lead the way for our younger generation. In a society that is as complex and confusing as ours can be, adults need to provide the blueprint. The more positive experiences we can provide to our youth, whether it be through camps, mentoring, or day-to-day experiences, the better chance we will have to reduce violence and have a generation that is ready to tackle tomorrow’s challenges. Every child needs a positive influence in their life. Sometimes it’s simply a short interaction. Sometimes it’s for a lifetime. But it is critical.

My drive back to the Twin Cities seemed so much shorter than the drive up. The experience inspired me to write this piece and to issue a challenge to our community. During my years at BestPrep, I have witnessed the tremendous impact that mentoring can have. Our email mentoring program, eMentors, reaches more than 4,500 Minnesota students each year. But this is simply not enough. We must implore the members of Minnesota’s business community to increase support for mentorship programs through funding and volunteers. Everything around me tells me that now is the time to meet this challenge head-on and demand support for the programs that can help steer our society in a better direction.