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Civic Leadership Now and After Morehouse

Torrence Banks, Managing Editor

There are many questions facing Morehouse College seniors about their post-graduation future. One thing that is not in doubt is that senior civic leaders will remain engaged in their communities after they graduate. Morehouse College senior civic leaders begin to think about the importance of being civically involved and how they will fulfill the college’s mission of leading a life of service after graduation. 

“A civically engaged lifestyle to me is one that is focused on trying to improve the quality of life for others,” Morehouse College senior Bonner Scholar Julien Serrano-O’Neil 21’ said. “That’s whether it means addressing political or social economic structures that disparage or oppress people. So, a civic lifestyle is one of someone who strives to change people’s lives positively.” 

Morehouse College senior Malachi Walden ‘21 said, “Leading a civic life is nothing more than living a life of service. Even the greatest leaders understand, and they know that their greatest call, their greatest obligation, is to be a servant and to do service. You’re only as good the people that you’ve helped.” 

Walden currently works with Augusta, Georgia’s District 5 Commissioner Bobby Williams. He assists with tasks involving parks and recreation, voting, job opportunities and food distribution. When he lived in Atlanta, Walden interned with the commissioner board in the city and worked on similar tasks. 

Morehouse College senior James Smartt ‘21 places an importance on giving back to his community and recreational centers in the Southside of Atlanta. These same places made him the person he is today. He is currently an Adams Scholar serving as a tutor and a social media liaison at Paul L Dunbar Elementary.  

“I was a sports kid when it comes to playing in recreational or AAU basketball, Smartt said. 

“I just hosted a college awareness week for them, and it was like a 30-minute video where I had to reach out to a lot of different people on campus. I worked on that project with Olamide Fagbamiye and we put a production together and got perspective from other leaders on campus to give their perspective on Morehouse to try and influence the kids.” 

O’Neil serves as the Civic Engagement Student Coordinator for the college. He also serves in his hometown of Orlando, Florida as the second Vice President for the United Foundation of Central Florida.  

This nonprofit organization focuses on food insecurity and educational opportunities. For O-Neil, the first step to living a civically engaged lifestyle is to give back to his community through nonprofit programming. 

 

Photo of Morehouse College senior Malachi Walden // Photo courtesy of Malachi Walden.

 

“We have an after-school program called Future Leaders United,” O’Neil said. “It’s an after-school enrichment and mentoring program that in essence focuses on developing a student holistically when it comes to leadership development, health and wellness and financial literacy. 

“We also do a food distribution. We started it in July, and we did it from July to December in which we fed over 20,000 families, which is equivalent to 100,000 individuals. It’s about addressing the most pressing issues in a community.” 

One thing that O’Neil learned in the Bonner Scholars Program was community asset mapping. This allowed him to figure out what resources his community had and did not have. In addition to focusing on food insecurity and educational opportunities, O’Neil has a chance to address social inequalities. 

“I utilized that community asset mapping that I learned with Bonner and brought it to the non-profit organization, O’ Neil said.  

“I get to go to the school board, advocating on behalf of the school district for changes that would enhance educational attainment, decreasing the education gap between minorities and their white counterparts.” 

For some, determining how to become more civically engaged in their community can be tough. For anyone looking to become more involved, O’ Neil recommends meeting community stakeholders. These stakeholders consist of churches, developers, local businesses and any other group where the community receives resources. 

 

Morehouse College senior Julien Serrano-O’Neil moderates a county-wide conversation in Orange County, Florida // Photo courtesy of Julien Serrano-O’Neil. 

 

“My advice to them is meeting community stakeholders,” O’Neil said. “Whether that’s members of the community, churches, any stakeholder within that community, trying to figure out what their needs are so that they can find a place to start. 

“If you don’t address all of the community stakeholders, to hear what it is that they need, then you won’t be able to live that civically motivated life.” 

Walden believes students looking to get more involved in their communities should look to their local connections. These connections can consist of a person’s district representative or county commissioner in their city. Students can also research to find their local food drives, job fairs, soup kitchens and abuse centers, and start working at those organizations. 

“Find out who that person is,” Walden said. “Reach out to that person’s office. Find out what their initiatives are.  What are they trying to do for your district? What are they trying to do for your community? 

“What you will discover is that you will make more marginal change helping out with grassroots organizations and local organizations. Then, when you get involved with the local organizations, you can reach higher to the city and state.” 

O’Neil’s mentor Allie Braswell taught him to approach civic engagement by listening, learning and leaning in. This advice has helped him engage more in his community.  

“Learn what it is that they need and then figure out what you are able to do and what stakeholders you can reach out to provide those resources, O’Neil said. 

“It’s imperative that you give back what developed you. Everybody comes from somewhere and if you’re not giving back, then those people who got you where you were or those resources that got you where you were cease to exist.” 

As a first-year student at Morehouse, Smartt did not have much guidance. Even during the pandemic, as a Residential Advisor this semester, he has been able to give freshmen this year some guidance. 

“I was still able to teach my freshmen the roles and the ways I went about things my freshman year,” said Smartt. “And so did my RA do for me my freshman year. 

 

Photo of Morehouse College senior James Smartt  // Photo courtesy of James Smartt.

 

Post graduation, O’Neil would like to continue addressing the issues that plague his community through his service with nonprofits. He still believes that there’s a lot more work that can be done to improve it. O’Neill also believes that he will run for office in the future. 

“So much work can be done, but you have to keep going,” O’Neil said. “That’s the only way for these things to really change. 

The mission of Morehouse is talking about living the life of leadership and service. We have to have that disciplined mind and so my mind is disciplined to give to others.” 

After he graduates from Morehouse and completes law school, Walden wants to continue the same service, but at a higher level. One of the tasks that he aspires to do includes building community centers and low-income apartments in underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. These centers and apartments would help people displaced by gentrification. 

“Community life centers that are full throttle, that are all inclusive of everything you need; tutors, education centers, financial literacy centers, counseling centers,” Walden said. “If you’re a religious person then we will have religion centers for you. If you want to go for your bachelors, then we will have professors on sight for that.” 

Walden also plans to start a new initiative called Where to Next. This initiative will help high school students in Augusta, Georgia to plan out their futures by exposing them to different post-graduation opportunities.  

“Every student in the high schools, from the beginning of their 11th-grade year, they are going to know upon graduation where they’re going to be,” Walden said. “There are three choices, you have college, you have the armed forces, or you have the workforce. 

“My plan to do that is I’m going to have different colleges come down and go to these different schools and can get an understanding of ‘Hey, if you want to choose the college route, this is what you have to do, this is what will need.’” 

Smartt recently was accepted in graduate school at Loyola University of Chicago. He plans to study digital media and storytelling for his master’s program. During his first Chicago visit, Smartt helped tell students about the Morehouse mystique. 

“It’s a blessing because my first time actually going to Chicago was with Morehouse and I was doing service,” Smartt said. “It was to do service with Get on the Bus, and it was to recruit young Black men to show them what Morehouse was.”  

As for men of Morehouse, who are looking for service and community engagement opportunities, they may access the Servant Leaders community service app via MyPortal to discover opportunities near and afar. 

 

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