July 2, 2008

A Helping Hand for African-American Men

Rev. Landon Adams ’02 works to decrease numbers of those dropping out of school and incarcerated

By Dan Edelen

“The descendants of elephants will never be dwarfs,” says Rev. Landon J. Adams ’02, recalling one of the many Akan proverbs shared by Ghana native Kofi Opoku, former professor of religion at Lafayette. That proverb defines Adams’s mission to empower African-American men and boys to be all that they were meant to be.

Since graduating from Duke Divinity School in 2006, Adams has worked to ensure that young black men avoid the traps of a system that he believes is often weighted against them. This desire was fostered by his work in a place of crushing heartbreak, a federal prison medical center in Butner, N.C.

“Sometimes inmates would come to Butner with just weeks to live,” Adams says. He recalls the bleakness of prison tainted even thoughts of life after death. Many terminal inmates worried that the label of “prisoner” would be permanent. “These guys did not want to die in prison because they did not want to be prisoners forever.”

Having witnessed that difficult end for far too many men, Adams wanted to change the outcome. Though 13 percent of North Carolina’s population is African-American, they comprised 60 percent of inmates in the state’s penal system. To Adams, the system was broken.

“With young people who find themselves caught up in gangs, drug activity, and problems in school, it’s a ‘one strike and you’re out’ situation,” Adams laments. “That makes no sense. Law enforcement will tell you that you can’t arrest away the problem.”

For Adams, the solution is intervention and prevention rather than suppression and incarceration. He found an opportunity to work toward that solution with the Triangle Lost Generation Task Force, founded in 2005 in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area. He joined the group of community, government, nonprofit, social services, and church leaders to find ways to stem the tide of black and Latino youth entering the penal system.

Capitol Broadcasting Company in Raleigh pledged $100,000 to TLGF to jump-start its work. In 2006, Adams was tapped to lead the group, assuming the role of executive director.

TLGF, turning its attention to prevention and intervention, lobbied the North Carolina General Assembly for better support for families, particularly in the areas of healthcare, housing, parenting, and schooling. After seeing the devastation disrupted families wrought on the inmates he served, Adams concentrated much of his efforts on helping fathers. “We have to be honest about the impact on a child’s life when the father is not present,” he says. “The whole system works against a father who wants to be involved with his children if he’s not married to the mother.”

TLGF rapidly became a respected think tank, attracting interest from around the nation. This led Adams, who spoke on a panel addressing “Why Black Boys Need a Hero” for local public television, to connect with other advocacy groups. He met leaders from the New York City-based 21st Century Foundation, overseers of the Black Men and Boys Fund. Adams started attending that group’s meetings in 2006, and topics of fatherhood, incarceration, education, employment, and health resonated with him. Those meetings spawned a steering committee that culminated in a sustained initiative, the 2025 Campaign.

Adams explains, “Black males born in 2007 will be 18 in 2025. The hope and goal for this initiative is to change many of the statistics these black males in 2007 were born into. The percentage likely to be incarcerated, to drop out of school…we want to change those statistics.”

In early 2008, Community Development Associates, a consulting firm that works with philanthropic organizations, approached Adams with an opportunity to join it as a senior associate working directly with the 21st Century Foundation’s 2025 Campaign. A week after accepting the job in February, Adams flew home to share his father’s final days.

“God had His hand in this,” says Adams, who moved back to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, after his father’s death to be near family. He cites 1 Corinthians 2:9—“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.”

That sense of expectation for future possibilities and the role Adams plays in them comes, in part, from his Lafayette experiences. “Being a small school, we were able to engage the power brokers at a moment’s notice. When we had a challenge, we went to the president’s office,” he says. Access to those who could enable change at Lafayette proved that good could come from pressing the issues. “If you needed to change the world and needed access to people, you could have it.”

Adams took that advantage to heart. He served as a student member of the Board of Trustees, worked as coordinator at the David A. Portlock Black Cultural Center, and devoted his time and energies to helping the Office of Intercultural Development.

But most of all, he remembers a commitment he made to the memory Lafayette’s first black student. Adams chaired the Aaron O. Hoff Centennial Memorial Project. Hoff, who played trumpet at the opening of Lafayette in 1832, died in 1902 and was buried in an unmarked grave, listed only as “20.” Adams, noting that Lafayette considers itself “a school where you’re more than just a number,” took it upon himself to see that Hoff had a proper grave marker.

That project, and all the works Adams has done for the betterment of African-Americans, are in keeping with his goal to “continue to do good because surely the world needs some good done in it.” As he reminds us, “Give in all ways, at all times, of your time, talent, and treasure.”

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