The COVID-19 pandemic’s wrath in Florida has put a strain on families, had an outsized effect on Florida’s Black communities and forced schools to go virtual. Marked by interruption and uncertainty, young people had a particularly challenging 2020.
During a breakfast honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the focus shifted toward a hopefully brighter future, awarding high school seniors with college scholarships upon completing Miami-Dade County’s 5000 Role Models of Excellence mentorship program. It’s designed to guide at-risk boys in grades K-12 along a path to attend college or other secondary education and lead them away from “a life of crime and violence,” according to the project’s website.
The 5000 Role Models’ 28th annual event, which was streamed online, awarded 45 students with scholarships named after the program’s founder, South Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. Special guest Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first woman and first Black person to be elected to the office, gave a keynote address challenging the scholarship recipients to become role models in their own way, and to forge paths for themselves without fear of what others think.
“My fundamental belief is that each and every one of us has an extraordinary capacity of success and achievement. Each of us is full with extraordinary promise waiting to be unleashed,” Harris, who will be sworn in to office Wednesday, told scholarship winners “Some of us have more support and opportunities to unleash potential than others. ... None of us has achieved success without role models.”
Harris said now that the young men are going into the world, others will be watching and looking at them, hoping to follow in their footsteps.
“They will admire you,” she said. “Lead with conviction, see yourself and know yourself to be whatever you want to be.”
While the annual scholarship breakfast is usually held in a packed ballroom filled with students and mentors dressed in the Role Models uniform of white shirts and red ties, the virtual event aimed to emulate some of the traditional details, like live performers and slideshows of photos from the 2020 Role Models events.
Participants heard remarks from speakers like Role Models graduate and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Kionne McGhee, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
“The social toll came fast and hard, education has been disrupted, yet our boys and role models endured,” said Eric Knowles, president of the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce. “Our work continued.”
The breakfast also honored “change makers” such as civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump; Florida Lottery Secretary John F. Davis; Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava; and Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, making them honorary Role Models mentors.
“History teaches us that change is possible,” Bunch, a featured speaker, said in his address to the scholarship winners. “History teaches us to believe in an America that didn’t believe in Black people. ... You can’t be historian of Black America without believing of hope. You all carry that hope forward.”
The 5000 Role Models program, which is run through the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, was founded in 1993 by Wilson, a former teacher, principal, Miami-Dade School Board member and state legislator. As a principal she was inspired by the impact of positive male influence on the attitudes and performance of the boys in her school.
“I began to do home visits,” Wilson said Monday in a pre-recorded message. “I found out most of these boys didn’t have one male in their lives, no one to teach them how to behave.”
The 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project serves thousands of students across more than 100 schools. It has been expanded to schools in Broward, Duval, Pinellas and most recently, Detroit Public Schools in Michigan.
The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald were partial sponsors of the event.