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Bettering lives, bettering community: 100 Black Men of Central Virginia awards 48 scholarships

As a senior about to graduate with a weighted grade point average of 4.49 from Albemarle High School in a few weeks, Kawika Keys has already achieved a lot. His high school transcript is but a glimpse: president of the AHS Black Student Union and captain of the forensics and wrestling teams all while reaching proficiency in both computer programming and Spanish. His next four years will be spent studying political science, history, African studies and business — to round it out — on a full-ride Karsh STEM scholarship to Howard University.

Before he starts his freshman year, Keys is participating in the historically Black university’s Summer Bridge Program, in which incoming Karsh Scholars spend six weeks immersing themselves not only in academic subjects such as calculus, Afro-American studies and chemistry, but also other critical skills helping set students on track toward PhDs, JDs and other professional degrees. The course culminates with a two-week trip to Ghana to develop scholars’ cultural and research experiences.

Though these accomplishments are a testament to his own determination and intellect, Keys said he first had to believe such feats were even attainable for himself, a young Black man raised by a single mother alongside two brothers in “not the most stable of housing.”

That belief was instilled in him from an early age, when, in elementary school, he first became involved with the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mentoring Black boys and closing the achievement gap between them and their schoolmates of other races.

“They’ve instilled in me this belief that whatever I do believe I can genuinely achieve it,” Keys told The Daily Progress, “and they provide the resources there for me to be able to do it as well.”

Keys was one of 48 recipients honored by the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia with a $1,000 scholarship designated for high school seniors in the greater Charlottesville area “in recognition of their academic achievements and involvement in their communities.”

The 100 Black Men of Central Virginia has awarded more than $300,000 in scholarship funds to 288 seniors since 2011. While the focus was originally only for young men, the group expanded its reach to include young women starting last year. This year, 21 female seniors were among the 48 scholarship winners, the most the organization has ever awarded, according to Vice President Dan Sparks.

In order to be eligible for the scholarship, students must earn an overall GPA of at least 3.0, have participated in some of the organization’s initiatives and be enrolled in college courses beginning next fall.

“These accomplished students are the trailblazers of tomorrow, and their dedication to education and leadership radiates joy and inspiration within our community,” the group’s incoming President James Watson said in a statement. “It is our privilege to support them in achieving their dreams.”

The students received their scholarships at a ceremony on May 4 at Union Run Baptist Church marked by a keynote address delivered by Charlottesville Mayor Juandiego Wade, a longtime member of the 100 Black Men. Of the 2024 recipients, five came from Charlottesville High School, another five from Monticello High School and 11 from Albemarle High School.

One of the first opportunities students have to participate in 100 Black Men programs locally is the Central Virginia chapter’s M-Cubed Summer Academy. M-Cubed stands for "math, men and mission," and the program is open to rising fifth through eighth graders to help them hone their understanding of algebra as well as academic leadership. Teachers from the organization’s coverage area — which encompasses the ​​city of Charlottesville and counties of Albemarle, Buckingham, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Madison, Nelson and Orange — volunteer their time throughout the year to provide additional instruction.

“The M-Cubed program, I think it really strengthened my views and helped me in terms of cultural experiences,” said Keys, who was first introduced to the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia in second grade through his older brother. “It helped me further deepen my understanding of who I am and where my people come from. Additionally, it helped me learn leadership, which is why I want to become such a figure in order to help others.”

Sparks told The Daily Progress that another key component of the organization’s mission is to incorporate both children and their parents in lessons to build more of a support system for students throughout their education. Families are welcome to join in the Circle of Brothers program, which meets every Monday to provide lessons and bring in speakers on a variety of subjects “not just in math, but financial literacy, American and African American history and life skills,” said Sparks.

Parents are also encouraged to accompany their high school students during the college trips that the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia organizes each year, taking rising juniors and seniors to tour Virginia State University, University of Virginia, Hampton University and Coastal Carolina University, among others.

Keys said one of the memories he’ll treasure most is the commencement luncheon for the M-Cubed summer session when he was in middle school, during which incoming students have the opportunity to interact with various figures in the local Black community.

“We just talked to them about what they do for a living and just being able to see people like that who look like us and have had these experiences that are similar to us, but being able to see them succeed in this world,” said Keys, “and not only succeed but be able to succeed and give back to us.”

This blueprint — giving back to those who gave in the first place — has motivated Keys to return as a mentor for younger students in the M-Cubed program over the past couple of summers.

And it’s also shaping his plans for the future, of which he has many.

Key said he’d liked to acquire some commercial real estate to offer both affordable housing to low-income households but also mental health and financial support to those families — families like his which have not always been able to access such a social net. He also wants to obtain a law degree, run for public office and conduct political research.

While he credits his mother, a longtime Albemarle County teacher who recently became assistant principal of his high school, with instilling in him a strong work ethic and desire for academic success, Keys said growing up surrounded by both admirable mentors and peers in the Black community has had a profound impact on him.

“Being surrounded by other Black, African American males, who are just as dedicated as I am to pursuing the goals that I want to pursue, that’s been a major source of encouragement for me,” he said. “That’s another reason why I chose to pursue Howard University, because of the fact that I know I will be surrounding myself, just as I was in this program, by other Black or African American people who want to see me succeed just as much as I want to see them succeed.”

If it weren’t for the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, Keys said he might not have even been able to attend Howard University. The Karsh STEM scholarship requires applicants meet three requirements: an application, a test and an interview. When it came time to travel to Washington, D.C., for the interview, Keys said he wasn’t sure if he would be able to go, as the university didn’t provide transport or housing.

Whether Keys would make it to his interview wasn’t a question for the organization’s founding president and former assistant superintendent for Albemarle County Public Schools, L. Bernard Hairston. Hairston drove his Keys to the capital, covered the cost of a hotel room and chauffeured the young man back and forth to interviews and other events.

Though he, along with the other 47 scholarship recipients, are about to embark on their own individual journeys, Sparks said they will always remain “a part of the family.” With more than 116 chapters of the 100 Black Men of America, members can access that community almost anywhere in the country. As for Keys, he is already looking forward to returning to Charlottesville next summer to serve as a mentor for next year’s M-Cubed Academy.

“I genuinely mean it, this program helps us become better humans; it helps us to understand the importance of bettering ourselves, bettering our community, bettering our families as well,” Keys said.

“I think what I’m going to take with me is being able to see the Black excellence that is embodied in these men and being able to use that in my own life, being able to give back to not only the same people give it back to me, but give back to those who didn’t have opportunities like this," he added. "That’s really what they’ve instilled in me. I think that’s the most beautiful thing you can do.”


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