Clemson’s Men of Color National Summit gives rise to the next generation of leaders
Not long ago, Javier Gordinez-Pastor thought school was a waste of time. The sophomore at Legacy Early College High School in Greenville was born in Hidalgo, Mexico, where schooling wasn’t necessarily seen as a route to success.
“It’s a hard place to live,” the exceedingly polite and soft-spoken Gordinez-Pastor explained. “It’s very difficult to make a living there. One of my uncles still works from sunrise to sunset, making minimum wage in the fields. He cultivates plants and animals – corn, rice, cattle . . . anything that can make him some type of money.”
When Gordinez-Pastor speaks of his uncle and the other members of his family, it’s with unadulterated pride.
“My whole family is very smart – street smart,” he asserted. “My father didn’t finish high school, but he’ll build you a porch in three seconds. I can’t imagine how far he would have come in life if he had the same experience I’m having.”
Gordinez-Pastor’s parents immigrated to the United States when he was just three years old in a brave reach for a better life. Despite his young age, generations of his family’s work ethic left a deep imprint on his heart.
“I used to believe that I was going to school for no reason,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is useless. I should just go to work.’”
That attitude started to change when, as a high school freshman, he joined Clemson University’s Tiger Alliance program. Clemson’s Division of Inclusion and Equity created Tiger Alliance in 2017 and tasked it with the formidable mission of building a college-going culture for African-American and Hispanic high school students in historically under-represented areas of the South. Participants are paired with current college students as mentors, participate in college-prep workshops and spend a week on a college campus during summer break.
Perhaps most impactfully, they are invited to attend Clemson’s Men of Color National Summit (MoC), an extraordinary two-day gathering at the Greenville Convention Center that adds new meaning to the phrase “influencer.”
Some 2,000 young African American and Hispanic men like Gordinez-Pastor from secondary schools all over the southeastern U.S. are bussed to the event, where they are treated like VIPs at a Fortune 500 business convention.
For most, it’s their first time getting the red-carpet treatment. As soon as they walk through the doors, they are greeted by rows of booths manned by smartly-dressed representatives from colleges and companies like Boeing, BMW and National Labs – all looking to recruit them. Next they are ushered to a keynote speech by one of more than a dozen nationally recognized leaders in government, academia, sports, entertainment and business who come to speak to them. This year’s star speaker was NBA legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Later they would be the guests of honor at a formal luncheon featuring a live opera singer.
And that was just the first half of the first day this year.
The experience is designed to be revelatory to the young men who attend, and by all accounts it works. When asked after the luncheon to speak about what being at the summit has meant to him, Gordinez-Pastor’s eyes lit up.
“This event shows there are people out here who actually believe in us,” he said with a wide smile. “A year ago, I never thought I would go to college. But this event has opened my eyes. It’s shown me there are people out here willing to put their neck out for me. And being around hundreds of men like me with the same goals is unbelievably inspiring. I’m ready to go to work.”
Now Gordinez-Pastor’s ambition is aimed far from the fields: he plans to become both a mechanical engineer and jazz musician.
Gordinez-Pastor’s fellow summit attendee Diego Adams has had to work harder than everyone around him his whole life. The 17-year-old Asheville, North Carolina native was born with cerebral palsy. The disease left him partially paralyzed and smaller than his peers with a right arm that doesn’t always cooperate and a gentle limp when he walks. None of that stopped him from learning to play the piano or joining the Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps when he got to high school. He stood out during the first day of the Men of Color National Summit as he made his way through the halls of the convention center in his Air Force dress uniform, his mother, LaDonna Adams, never far from his side.
The two were invited to the summit by Greenville businessman Michael Sullivan, who met Diego at an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) breakfast seminar in January 2019 and has since become his mentor. Sullivan paid for Ladonna and Diego to come to the summit from their home in Asheville, and LaDonna said they couldn’t be more thankful for the experience.
“Being here is such a big deal because it reiterates what I have been teaching him as a single mom,” said Adams, who speaks directly and holds herself with a crisp posture that reveals her 23 years in the Marine Corps. “He hears it from me every day, but to hear it from an organization like Clemson – man, he gets it. Here he’s been able to learn from some very successful men who value the importance of education and to see with his own eyes how far that can take you in life.”
Adams said Diego dreams of being an engineer or a Marine like herself and developed a clear-eyed and regimented approach to reaching those goals long before he got to high school. They both knew attending the summit would be one step in that journey, but they never expected that simply interacting with the other students at the summit would turn out to be as important to him as anything else.
“Growing up, kids looked at Diego as if he was an enigma,” she said. “He didn’t start walking until he was in kindergarten, and he’s had a lot of surgeries. He had braces on both legs, so kids were hesitant to interact with him when he was younger. But everyone treats him as an equal here. This is a holiday for us. We wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
When asked to describe the Men of Color National Summit himself, Diego only needed one word: “Inspiring.”
Gordinez-Pastor’s and Adams’ experiences were echoed a thousand times by their fellow attendees during the two days of the summit. First-time chaperone Terrance Harris, an assistant administrator at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C. brought 16 of his students to the conference and was thrilled by the positivity of the event and the effect it had on his group.
“The biggest thing for me was to have these young men see other people who are on similar trajectories as them and be able to share their stories,” he said. “And not just their successes but how they were able to overcome their failures. That’s the biggest thing we try to teach our young men – success happens, but failure happens as well, and it’s what you do after failure that defines you.”
Anna Smith, a career development facilitator for the School District of Pickens County, brought 23 students from Pickens High School to this, her second summit.
“This event is so crucial,” she said. “I see freshmen come in and turn into men. The sessions here are so good. This is our biggest group yet; last year we came in a mini-bus and this year we have a full-size bus. I’m really excited to see how this continues to take off. This is a great outlet our guys — our men of color — don’t have in Pickens. It makes an incredible impact because it gives them a chance to see what they can become.”
Presenters are invited to the event for precisely that reason. This year’s attendees were treated to keynote speeches by 82nd United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, “American Ninja Warrior” host and former NFL football player Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, and Chairman of MGM Resorts International Jim Murren, among many others. Perhaps no speaker personified what young men of color can become better than Earvin “Magic” Johnson.
Johnson, who addressed a standing room-only crowd in the main hall of the convention center, took the microphone off the podium to walk among the students as he spoke. He began by describing a childhood likely very similar to their own.
“I was you 40-something years ago,” Johnson told them. “I grew up poor but I didn’t have poor dreams. I struggled as a student. I wasn’t all-A’s. I was just B’s, and I worked hard for those B’s. I was in the ninth grade reading at the seventh-, eighth-grade level and my teacher told me I was never going to get into college.”
But Johnson wanted to go to college, so for the next three years he took reading lessons before school, after school and in summer school. Because of that, he said, he was able to get into Michigan State and go on to a storied career in the NBA and, after retiring from basketball, an equally extraordinary career as a businessman.
“If you want to be successful, you will get the grades necessary to go to college,” he told the room. “And don’t get it twisted: it’s cool to be smart. Don’t let anyone define you or who you can become. It’s up to you to change your area code.”
It was a message that resonated throughout the Men of Color National Summit.
Pickens High School sophomore, Jamorea Keith, left Johnson’s speech beaming and wearing a signed jersey.
“This is my first time at the Men of Color Summit, and I didn’t really know what to expect, but it’s already taught me a lot,” he said. “My plans are to go into entrepreneurship, and this has given me a big push in that direction. It’s been a huge, life-changing experience.”
For Keith, Gordinez-Pastor, Adams and their thousands of brethren the Men of Color National Summit opened up new worlds and showed them paths to success they never knew existed.
They came without great expectations only to discover the climb to success begins at the summit.