The organization is growing and shows no sign of outgrowing its modus operandi.
by David Goldberg
When Desmond Bertrand and Justin Pitts set off to start M.E.N. Incorporated, they didn’t know how many doors they would be opening—including the one to their guest room. Since its founding as a nonprofit in 2010, M.E.N. (Mentoring, Educating, and Nurturing) has provided services to hundreds of teenage and young adult boys in Houston, and has provided transitional living services to some—even out of Justin and Desmond’s own home. The partners have pledged themselves to M.E.N.’s mission of giving young Houston men mentorship, education, opportunities, and, by their daily example, role models.
The men of M.E.N. are having an intense summer. To meet the growing demand for one-on-one mentors, they’ve been running a continual mentor drive. Although the group is still rather young, its reputation in the Hispanic and African American community is solidifying. “We’ve reached people through word of mouth,” Bertrand tells OutSmart. “I get e-mails every week from a parent saying ‘I want you to reach out to my son. I’d like him to get involved in the program.’”
M.E.N. offers personal, relatively no-frills mentorships for young men ages 13–25. Advisors meet with their mentees at least four hours a month, and the terms are mainly up to them. “They can go to the park, go to a museum, have lunch together—it could be anything,” Pitts says. “Something that lets the two spend time together, talk about issues that the mentee may be having, and allow them to continue to build that relationship. They could be hanging out at the house playing video games.” Currently, the group is working with 11 mentors and 20 mentees.
Besides making a regular commitment and passing a background check, it doesn’t take too much to become a mentor. “Our mentors come from all walks of life,” Pitts says. “We have mentors that are from those same areas. Some guys have high school diplomas, some don’t. We have some that are professionals in their field. We don’t look for a specific type of mentor. That limits the type of connection you can make with the young guys.”
M.E.N.’s latest initiative, the leadership institute, has proven to be an instant success. The annual convention attracted 60 young participants in its first year, and played host to speakers on the topics of college admission and financial aid.
While the organization may be expanding, it shows no sign of outgrowing its hands-on modus operandi. Pitts and Bertrand have hosted several young men with no place to call home for months at a time, and still do. “We’ve incorporated a transitional living arrangement within our home,” Bertram says. “We’ve had about six guys who have come to stay with us for three to five months until they get back on their feet. They wouldn’t consider themselves homeless, because they weren’t—they were in transition.”
Pitts says that these boarding arrangements have inspired the leadership of M.E.N. to pursue a full-on transitional facility for some of its young men. He hopes to have a project in development within the next two years. “We want to try to capture some of the young men who have been displaced from their homes and give them a safe place to stay,” Pitts says.
So, who are the young men of M.E.N.? “The majority [of mentees] are Latino and African American.” Bertrand says. “Because many of us, including Justin and me, are African American, like the board and some of our supporters, that is the main demographic that we draw in.” Many of M.E.N.’s participants come from large families and abject poverty, and hang in precarious uncertainty about graduating high school, pursuing work, and finding a proper bed for the night.
“A lot of them come from homes that don’t have a father or mother there,” Pitts says. “The biggest challenge is teaching them that they don’t have to succumb to their environment. They’ve faced verbal abuse and sexual abuse. A lot of the guys have had to grow up quickly. The mentors show them that they are still able to be a teenager or act like a kid.”
The situation becomes even more complicated for LGBT or questioning youth. “A lot of guys we have are dealing with strong issues of abandonment,” Bertrand says. “Their families ostracize them from their homes because of who they are.” M.E.N. has even worked with cases of [youth involved in attempted] religious conversions from gay to straight. Because they lack a fundamental understanding of the larger LGBT community, many of these teenagers are denied a chance to discover their own authentic gender and sexual identities. And, without proper sexual health education, they not only live at a disadvantage, but at a serious risk.
“We run into a lot of issues when people ask for HIV or STD testing,” Pitts says. “That is one of the biggest issues right now. We wonder why the city isn’t stepping in and providing spaces.” M.E.N. has formed partnerships with other organizations to help provide testing for its mentees. But testing isn’t enough to change the communal trajectory for young African American and Latino men who are questioning or experimenting with their sexuality. The culture must change as well.
“There’s a simple fear of ‘if we talk about it, it becomes real,’” Pitts says. “When you get to talking about safe sex or same-gender love, it’s still a taboo topic for these communities. That leaves a lot of children in trouble, and that leaves a lot of them making bad decisions.”
By most accounts, M.E.N. has had a terrific beginning. But its founders know that to provide a better future for Houston’s at-risk young men, they’ll need to fight harder, and on a bigger scale. They hope that the city proves to be more of a collaborative partner than in the past. “Programs like ours should be in partnership with the schools,” Bertrand says, “so that young boys and young ladies don’t fall victim to the streets, and so that our jail population doesn’t increase. It’s going to take a collaborative effort to get these programs into the forefront of education. A lot of people don’t know that these programs exist.”
With an estimated 100 young men reached every year through mentorships and training seminars, M.E.N. has proven to be a powerful force in the development of some of Houston’s underserved communities. And until the city has the infrastructure to provide better sexual health, education, career training, and transitional living services, M.E.N. Incorporated needs all the help it can get.
To learn more about M.E.N. Incorporated, visit meninchouston.org.
David Goldberg interviewed DMW Greer, the director of Burning Blue, in the June issue of OutSmart magazine.