Barron Gunnings is a thoughtful, passionate young man currently entering his third year at the College of Wooster. He’s someone who “never felt the need to silence his voice” and knew he was a leader from a young age. However, he often felt constrained by society’s perceptions of what it means to be a Black man and by the limitations of his neighborhood.
On the far South Side of Chicago, called “the Hundreds,” there aren’t a lot of opportunities for young people to gain exposure to the world outside. Gunnings explained, “Out here, there isn’t much. We live in a food desert. Most of the time, UberEats won’t even deliver. They hear the address and hang up the phone.”
In high school, Gunnings had the opportunity to go to the University of Chicago Charter School. Attending UChicago Charter’s Woodlawn Campus, though still on the South Side on the 63rd block and situated in an area considered underserved, felt like a broadening of Gunnings’s world.
“Even just the ability to go to more local businesses like the Blackstone bike shop was a nice change,” he said.
Beyond the shift of neighborhood, the UChicago Charter School expanded Gunnings’s worldview and supported his already burgeoning passion for thinking outside the box. “Being involved in the programs that the University of Chicago offered through their partnership with our school helped me to understand college-level material better and it helped get me familiar with a college campus,” he noted.
At the same time, Gunnings felt supported to be himself and that his Blackness was celebrated. “I felt free,” he said. “I had teachers who invested in me. They taught me that I have the power to control my own destiny and how to think critically. Even more than that, they built a relationship with me."
Gunnings fondly reflected on a time when he wanted to learn how to wear a bow tie and his UChicago Charter biology teacher delivered. “I didn’t even know how to tie a bow tie, and I definitely didn’t own one. My teacher brought me one and I ended up teaching a lot of my friends how to wear them,” he laughed.
Leadership Training Helped Gunnings Push Beyond the “Black Male” Box
Whether it’s rocking bow ties or opening up to others on tough topics, Gunnings isn’t afraid to push against norms or prejudices. He bristles against the constraints that society places on him and his peers.
“Society puts young, Black men in a box. The news tells us that we’re either criminals or victims. We have to be emotionless and reserved, or we have to be hyper-masculine to make up for what we don’t have,” Gunnings explained. “I’ve made it my goal to help others create their own definition about what it means to be a man, particularly a Black man.”
That journey started for Gunnings in earnest as a student at the UChicago Charter School. A teacher told him about JP Morgan Chase’s The Fellowship Initiative (TFI). TFI provides “intensive academic and leadership training to help young men of color from economically-distressed communities complete their high school educations and prepare to excel in colleges and universities.” Gunnings praised the program for teaching him workplace etiquette, advanced math and how to build strong networks.
Through TFI, Gunnings tapped into his leadership potential and started mentoring other fellows, encouraging them to be more open and honest, express their feelings and stop buying into false narratives about what it means to be a man.
College, International Travel and Mentoring Continue to Broaden His Horizons
Now, entering his junior year at the College of Wooster and majoring in Africana studies, he still has a close relationship with TFI. In fact, he will spend a portion of his summer in Costa Rica acting as a mentor to a new class of fellows.
“I love that TFI brings young men of color out into the larger world to see that Chicago is just one small part of it,” said Gunnings. “People need to go on journeys to find themselves, whatever those journeys look like. When I travel abroad, I feel like I find a different part of myself.”
College has also unlocked new aspects of Gunning’s personality, while expanding his mind. “I’m so grateful that I went to high school at a place that stressed college. I’m so thirsty for knowledge and my college professors are quenching that thirst every day.”
Gunning also loves living among people who speak multiple languages and come from diverse cultures. His roommate introduced him to Japanese candy, while he shared the joys of Nacho Doritos. In college, Gunning continues to broach challenging conversations around race and masculinity.
“I want to continue to inspire people, especially males, to reconstruct their ideas of masculinity. I live that by being wholly myself every day. I live in honesty and I express how I feel,” he said.
After college, Gunning plans to get his Ph.D. and start his own mentoring organization.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Katelyn Silva is mom to a third grader and an education writer in Providence, Rhode Island. She operates her own education writing consulting business. She was previously the chief communications officer at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a nonprofit dedicated to opening intentionally diverse public charter schools. Prior to that, she was the communications director at the University of Chicago ...