Reported by Patricia Andrews-Keenan
Just over a year ago, Wale Nubi opened Jojayden on 53rd Street to sell custom-made shoes and clothes for men interested in fashion, style and quality. Nowadays, he uses his stately Hyde Park storefront shop to do much more.
Late last year, Nubi, a former IT consultant who began his retail business as a “side hustle,” teamed up with the leader of a fledgling nonprofit that focuses on helping young men develop self-esteem and confidence, in part, through etiquette, dress and appearance.
“I saw that kids on the South Side were often discriminated against because of how they dressed,” said Nubi. “No one was telling them about the right way to present themselves to avoid negative encounters, especially with the police, and they often didn’t have role models to help them distinguish right from wrong.”
Nubi, a father of two young sons, knew he wanted to do something to support youth of color both in Hyde Park, and across the city. He found a kindred spirit in Carlos Duncan, who—influenced by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s call to action for citizens to actively engage in mentoring programs—had started a program called “From Gents to Gentlemen” a year earlier. In December 2016, Duncan formed the G.R.O.O.M. Mentoring Group to operate his program, and Nubi joined the organization’s board.
Earlier this year the pair led 10 boys ages 11-18 through a seven-week program, teaching them basic grooming skills such as how to tie a tie, as well as social skills and character-defining habits like looking a person in the eye while offering a firm handshake, keeping their heads up, walking with integrity, being prepared and managing their time, and always using proper manners. They also taught the youth about designing shoes. The mentoring group meets at Jojayden, 1457 E. 53rd Street.
“Meeting Wale opened things up for us to be able offer the program to more kids and help them hone some of those skills,” said Duncan, who met Nubi through a mutual friend who knew of both men’s interest in mentoring youth. Prior to offering the seven-week program at Jojayden, Duncan shared his insights with youth in one-hour, one-time presentations at schools or through other programs.
The vision for G.R.O.O.M.—which stands for “Getting Results Out Of Me”—is to reduce the stigma placed on young African-American males by “grooming them into productive citizens” who are prepared to restore their communities and cities. Duncan and Nubi want to help more young men see how they can positively reflect what they are on the inside by how they present themselves on the outside.
Upon completion of the program each student received a custom suit from Jojayden.
“Many of these young people have never worn a suit, much less a custom-tailored one,” Nubi said while working with the youth earlier this year.
One of those young people was 16-year-old Devinar Billingslea, who participated in the program along with his 11-year-old brother, Demarco. In addition to getting his first suit, Devinar said he was excited about the different people he met through the program, including professionals who spoke to the students.
“I am more confident because of the program. I learned how to be myself and stand up for myself,” said Billingslea, who added that he needed a male figure in his life and that he is now pushing his friends to get involved with G.R.O.O.M.
Billingslea’s mother, Fatima, said she can see a difference in both of her sons’ confidence levels and that they are no longer afraid to speak in public. “They come home excited about the program,” she said. “I’m so glad they were able to participate.”
To help pay for the new suits and to give the students a chance to show off what they learned, Nubi and Duncan co-hosted a fundraiser at Jojayden in March called “Walk in a Gent’s Shoes.” They coached the boys in designing shoes from scratch, and some of their shoes sold for upwards of $300 per pair during the fundraiser.
Nubi and Duncan envision the ripple effects of positive change the G.R.O.O.M. program can have. They hope to expand their reach to 1,000 students by the end of 2017 by working within Chicago Public Schools. G.R.O.O.M. is also partnering with an organization called Lipstick Saints to bring some of the lessons it teaches to girls.
At the end of the program this spring, students participated in a graduation event and received awards. The top three awards: the Engaged Gent Award for exception participation, the Sir Award for showing good manners, and the Intelligent Award for academic excellence.
Duncan, the father of a teenage son and an adult daughter, cites his life experiences and lessons learned in barbershops, churches and other important institutions in African American communities, as the guiding force behind G.R.O.O.M. He says the main thing he wants youth who go through the program to understand is that “daily discipline plus good decisions equal a better life.”
The next session of the program at Jojayden will begin this fall.