future kings

Conversations in the Allderdice cafeteria led to the creation of Future Kings

This first-person story by Sean Spencer was written for PublicSource, Pittsburgh’s nonprofit media organization delivering powerful local journalism at publicsource.org. Sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters. Photo above by Pamela Smith/PublicSource.

Every Sunday, Future Kings Mentoring works with our young black men to ensure they have futures. It all started nearly a decade ago, when Terrell Galloway and I were in 11th grade at Taylor Allderdice High School, and he grew sick of hearing the n-word used as a term of endearment among our friends.

There had to be a more positive word to use. While listening to Kendrick Lamar, Terrell heard him say “negus,” which means Ethiopian king, viewed by some as a root of the n-word. Inspired, he wanted to reclaim it, but “negus” didn’t roll off the tongue.

“I was sick of hearing the n-word used as the form of endearment and in the term of brotherhood. I thought there’s got to be something better that we can call ourselves.” – Terrell Galloway

Then he thought, “What about king?” But we were juniors in high school, and were not acting like kings. Thus the term “Future King” was born.

Terrell explained “Future King” to me one day in the school cafeteria, and it stuck. We spent time defining what it means to be a Future King. Some of the values included leadership, selflessness, being a provider and protector — and humility. Ultimately, we came up with our own creed. Years later, in 2019, those tenets began to gel into a program, and Future Kings Mentoring officially became a nonprofit organization on April 20, 2020.

future kings
Sean Spencer watches over a Future Kings Mentoring meeting at the Shadyside Boys and Girls Club in Shadyside, on Feb. 11. (Photo by Pamela Smith/PublicSource)

Four years later, our journey seems almost miraculous, and the successes of the young men who came through the program are our greatest triumph. But the tragedy of violence still plagues Pittsburgh.

After high school, I stayed local and studied journalism at Duquesne University, while Terrell went to Tuskegee University in Alabama. But when Terrell transferred to the University of Pittsburgh to study mechanical engineering, we reconnected and added a third Future King: Isreal Williams, an industrial engineering student at Pitt who shared our passion for community and giving back to the youth.

All of us came from single-parent households and grew up in neighborhoods across Pittsburgh filled with gun-violence and poverty. Between the three of us, we have lost countless peers and even former students.

We all wanted to have a positive impact on our community and pay forward the teachings of our mentors by pouring into others, as they poured into us. Starting a nonprofit organization in our early 20s, though, wasn’t without challenges.

Early in our journey, we trusted someone to help us with the legal work, and they took advantage of us by taking our money and not completing the work. In reaction, we became hesitant to trust others with Future Kings Mentoring; we constantly reinvented the wheel on problems that could have been solved with a phone call if we had a trusted advisor. It took us a year to get our 501(c)(3) status squared away.

But there were moments of validation, too. In 2019, Isreal’s mom shared a link to the T-Mobile x Ashoka Changemaker Challenge. With only two days’ notice before the application deadline, we labored together to share our vision with the world. A few months later, we were selected among the top 30 finalists, winning $2,000 in seed funding. Terrell and I flew out to Seattle to network with the other Changemaker finalists.

That moment told us that we had a great idea, and that people who didn’t even know us believed in our vision and were willing to invest in us.

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Terrell Galloway laughs with Hezakiiah Bishop, 12, during an art demonstration by Raymont Youngblood (also known as RaiZArts) at a Future Kings Mentoring meeting. (Photo by Pamela Smith/PublicSource)

We didn’t have money, space or business acumen. We were full-time college students with other jobs and responsibilities. Nonetheless, we began, in February 2020, to recruit students for mentoring — and a month later, the pandemic hit.

“It never went across my mind, ‘Oh, this is going to fail,’ because to me if we were going fail, it would have happened already.” – Sean Spencer

Even though the world was shut down, we utilized our networks to recruit students and pilot the program virtually in the summer of 2020. From then until 2022, we operated as a virtual program, then became hybrid before eventually going fully in-person, thanks to the Boys and Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania.

Every Sunday, Terrell, Isreal and I arrive there in the afternoon to set up for the day, arrange the tables, order food, and set up activities. When the students start to arrive, we feed them (which is the draw of course) and we have either Shop Talk or Strength Talk for the first 30 minutes. Shop Talk is open forum, as if we were at a barbershop, and we talk about the highlights from the past week or just debate our favorite sports or anime characters.

In Strength Talk we uplift ourselves and others. For example, if the prompt asks, “Say something to build yourself up,” and someone responds, “I am capable of anything I put my mind to,” the group in unison says, “strength talk.”

Then we go right into the workshop. Students develop their emotional intelligence and leadership skills, and they learn about careers and how to budget, invest and start businesses.

Kameron Howard Al-Amin, 16, and Hezakiiah Bishop, 12, draw sketches during an art demonstration by Raymont Youngblood. (Photo by Pamela Smith/PublicSource)

One thing we emphasize is that we as mentors are not like teachers at school. We spend time making these workshops fun and relatable. We know our students loved Marvel’s The Avengers, so we used Tony Stark’s story to teach selflessness and compassion. We brought in RaiZArts, a freelance anime artist, to teach our students how to draw anime characters, while thinking about the characters to which they relate.

“The ‘why’ comes from the people that we’re not able to reach. The ‘why’ – it comes from all the stories that still show how much our country and our city do not set up young Black males to succeed. ”
– Isreal Williams

When they are growing, becoming leaders and gaining confidence, they think critically about themselves and the world around them, because of our program. That makes this work meaningful. Students have said they are happy they made friends and have a brotherhood within our program.

Hearing the parents’ feedback on how their sons are maturing in a positive way, becoming more responsible and wanting to take control of their lives for the better – that’s what Future Kings Mentoring is all about.

Students who have graduated from our program have gone on to attend Columbia University, Emory University, the University of Virginia and more to study engineering, pre-law, theater, computer science, psychology, and animation, to name a few.

“It always reminds me that it’s worth it just to see them alive. That’s the foundation right there.”
– Terrell Galloway

As we built Future Kings Mentoring, we were changing and growing — and sometimes struggling.

I graduated from college and earned my MBA from Pitt, while working full-time and building our program in my spare time. Terrell, currently an MBA Candidate at Carnegie Mellon University, has faced what he calls “the curse of knowledge” as he learns more about business and wonders if he is putting in enough time and providing the best opportunity for our students. Isreal is maturing in his career, moving around the country and evolving through personal issues into the man he wants to become, sometimes wondering how much he can help Future Kings Mentoring.

“When joining Future Kings, I didn’t fully know how much it would fully change my life.”
– former student

From zero knowledge of nonprofit structure, we’ve built and expanded our Board of Directors, learned fundraising and developed relationships with other people and organizations in Pittsburgh to fill gaps in our knowledge and experience. We thank everybody who supported us, including our own families. We’ve built creatively on the foundations of our organization. Last year, we hosted community members at our first annual fundraiser, Kings’ Court, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament.

Caisy Olwal, 12, sits at a Future Kings Mentoring meeting at the Shadyside Boys and Girls Club. (Photo by Pamela Smith/PublicSource)

This is all about giving back, and here are a few lessons we can share as young nonprofit founders.

  • Start with your “why,” because that will drive you through the good and bad times.
  • Build your team carefully, as they are your biggest asset or your biggest downfall.
  • Recognize that you don’t know what you don’t know, be comfortable with that and find people who are strong in the areas you are weakest, whether it’s budgeting and financial planning, operations, accounting, fundraising, marketing, human resources or law.
  • Focus on the quality of the service you want to provide, making sure that your program can operate at a very sustainable level first.
  • Once you can teach the system and replicate it, then scaling will become easier.
  • Have faith! Good things come to those who stay true to who they are and what they want.

“Because we had our idea, we had our ‘why’. And we had a support team around us who believed in us. It made it so much simpler.” – Isreal Williams

While we have been blessed on this journey to serve and have a positive impact on the young men we mentor, the fight continues. In Pittsburgh, violence still runs rampant in our communities. According to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner, of the 107 homicides in the county last year:

  • 64 victims were Black males
  • 14 were Black females
  • 15 were below the age of 18

We can only figure this out to make our streets safe through dialogue, planning and action. It doesn’t matter where you are from or what you look like – we are all part of Pittsburgh, and we can all do a small part to make it better for Future Kings and everyone.

Sean Spencer is the co-founder and treasurer of Future Kings Mentoring in Pittsburgh and can be reached at seans@futurekingsmentoring.org.