Obama as a Role Model: Students, Educators Share Excitement

Aloysius Puff is 17. In his short lifetime, the black teen has witnessed the appointment of the country's first and second black secretaries of state and its second black Supreme Court justice. But for a long time, he didn't believe a black person would even come close to the nation's highest office.

Now, President-elect Barack Obama "is stepping it up for all of us, especially blacks," said Puff, of Fort Wayne, Ind. "I just hope us African-Americans realize he's doing it for us, and we should give back and step up -- do what we can do, what we can accomplish."

Across the country, educators, community activists and students are hopeful that the election of Obama, whose mother was a white American and father a black African, will provide much-needed inspiration to black youth.

Obama, the First Black President

Mel Campbell, a Corona, Calif., science teacher who also leads a cultural issues class, said he has seen black students engaged in the election like never before.

"I've got students who don't talk politics who are talking politics, who are talking about futures, who are talking about plans, who wouldn't ordinarily be speaking in those terms," he said. "This presidential election has kicked open [a door] in the minds of our underachieving kids."

After seeing students' excitement about Obama's candidacy, teachers and staff at Ramapo High School in Spring Valley, N.Y., held a late-night election results party at the school Tuesday night. More than 60 percent of Ramapo High School's student body is black.

"I believe that schools can really build on this in so many ways," said Joe Farmer, the assistant superintendent of schools in the area, "and use this as inspiration from the very youngest to the oldest of our students."

Fighting Black Stereotypes

For Vinchessica Gray, 17, a high school senior in Gary, Ind., Obama's achievements are especially impressive because he started out as "an ordinary person."

That, she said, "gives other people of our color more confidence in their everyday life."

Obama also helps fight negative stereotypes of black men, said David Williams, 17, of Corona, one of Campbell's students.

"An African-American like Obama, he shows you can actually obtain an education, you can actually be smart and make a difference," Williams said. "Obama is the perfect role model for all black men."

While educators say that Obama's multicultural background may inspire all students of color, young black males are seen as an especially needy demographic.

At the start of 2008, one in every nine black males between the ages of 20 and 34 was in jail, compared with one in 30 among all American men in the same age group, according to the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project. Black males also lag behind black females, Hispanics and whites in employment rates.

Many attribute the underachievement of black males in the United States to the proliferation of fatherless black households, especially in American inner cities.

Samson Davis, 35, was raised by his mother in a tough neighborhood in Newark, N.J. Growing up, he saw males who were often drug dealers and car thieves.

"They were reverse role models," he said.

Davis and two of his childhood friends grew up to pursue careers in medicine. To combat all the "reverse role models" out there, the trio -- calling themselves "The Three Doctors" -- now travel the country talking to teens about their aspirations.

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