A Q&A With Rebels For Good Tyrell Dortch and Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs

A Q&A With Rebels For Good Tyrell Dortch and Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs

A rebel challenges the status quo, constantly pushing the bounds of what's possible. Jordan Brand's latest release, the Air Jordan 1 High 'Rebellionaire', captures this rebellious spirit into a shoe fit for a game changer.

Two game changers for good in the Cambridge & Boston Communities, Tyrell Dortch, Co-Founder of Boys II Men, and Rob “ProBlak” Gibbs, Co-Founder of Artists For Humanity, are personifications of this mindset. A drive to push their communities forward led them to create spaces where the youth have room to create, collaborate, and change the rules. Without their rebellious spirit, the local youth would lose out on having these sacred spaces to grow.

We had the chance to catch up with the founders of Boys II Men Tyrell and Nicole “Ms. Cole” and the Co-Founder of Artists for humanity ProBlak to learn how they got their starts, what led them to where they are today, and the message they have for the youth.

What is Boys II Men?
Created in 2013 by Nicole “Ms. Cole” Rodriguez & Tyrell Dortch. The Boys II Men Program is a leadership and empowerment program based out of Cambridge Youth Programs designed to support emerging self-identified young men ages 14 – 19, grow into positive men and community leaders. The BIIM program creates supportive and safe spaces for young kings to learn the importance of teamwork, gain valuable leadership skills, develop positive self-image as well as life-long learning in self-care, social responsibility, and the importance of community.

A paid internship opportunity BIIM provides a number of different program experiences, covering areas such as self-care, financial literacy, relationship building, fitness/healthy eating and more. which we believe give young kings a better chance of success in the future.

The ultimate goal of the BIIM Program is to make sure young kings have a better understanding of who they are and the things needed to make the transition into manhood.

What is AFH?
Artists For Humanity (AFH) provides under-resourced teens the keys to self-sufficiency through paid employment in art and design. AFH is built on the philosophy that engagement in the creative process is a powerful force for social change, and that creative entrepreneurship is a productive and life-changing opportunity for young people. Bridging economic, racial, and social divisions, AFH enriches urban communities by introducing young people's creativity to the business community.

AFH began in 1991 as an entrepreneurial venture that produced and marketed large-scale collaborative paintings reflecting the voice and vision of urban teens to Boston’s business community. Together with six talented and dedicated middle school teens, including Rob Gibbs, Jason Talbot, and Damon Butler, Artist/entrepreneur Susan Rodgerson co-founded Artists For Humanity to amplify the voices of diverse young people throughout the city of Boston. Her vision was to inspire a group of teens to engage in the creative process and participate in commerce. The paintings created by Rob, Jason and the other co-founding artists was unlike anything the Boston business community had seen before, and was a powerful tool communicate the experiences of urban young people to the larger world. Since AFH’s founding over 30 years ago, the scale, variety and complexity of the projects have grown but the mission to give a voice to under-represented young people has continued.

Now in 2022, two of AFH’s original teen co-founders, Jason Talbot and Rob Gibbs, continue their dedicated leadership in crucial creative and entrepreneurial roles. AFH remains a haven for teens from every corner of the city, a place where they can explore and express their creative abilities, identify possibilities for continuing education, and most importantly, dispel the myth that the larger world is forever closed to them. A new generation of young people is now being heard, and showcasing how they can contribute to our society’s creative conversation. It remains as true today as it was in 1994 when AFH co-founder Damon Butler, then age 16 declared “Artists For Humanity gave me a voice when no one else would give me a thought."

Why did you create this program? What inspired you?
TYRELL DORTCH (BIIM): Ms. Cole was brought into leadership at the Moses Youth Center in part to address what the city identified as a desire to create programming to support boys of color. Her initial vision was to create effective programming -- the city requested that it be in consideration of boys of color. Her initial vision was to create effective programming -- the city requested that it be in consideration of boys of color. Ms. Cole then brought me over from Frisoli to help lead and execute this program which would become Boys II Men.

Prior to the creation of BIIM. I was a youth worker at the Frisoli youth center in Cambridge. During my time at Frisoli I was able to create relationships with a lot of the young kings which translated to us creating a young men’s group. We would hold weekly drop-in sessions. It was unpaid but we felt we needed a space where we can all come together to talk about specific issues. Issues that happen in the community/world, just a space that we can have a dialogue that aren’t available in other spaces. At one point we had about 20 young men coming in every week. My vision for what to do next changed after losing a member in our community to a drive by shooting. I remember being at the funeral and seeing some of our young men come out and seeing them hugging and holding and I thought to myself “what is going to happen in 2 weeks”. Sometimes things can occur, that might take people’s attention away. I realized in that moment that I wanted to make a bigger impact for the young men in my community.

ROB “PROBLAK” GIBBS (AFH): This program started because of the need for art to be in the hands of young people. At the time this was launched, we didn’t have art classes in our schools and our principal wanted to support us artistically. He was the only school representative who said yes to Susan’s request to work with young aspiring artists. It started with a need to create places for young people like me who had the potential and talent. The program gave us the space to grow and develop and make what is now AFH.

Inspiration was to have a spot, a hangout that would keep us sharp. A safe space that we could practice a skill set and bring other folks along with us. This was a place where we could better hear our voice.

Dopest feeling on the planet for us to have someone believe in us and provide that space. And so, we wanted to create that for others. We wanted to make sure there was space available for other young people in the city so that everyone could have the chance we had.

What type of obstacles did you have along the way with AFH and how did you get through them?
PROBLAK (AFH): The obstacle was to be able to create a physical space where young people were accepted and welcomed. It was not easy at that time to convince folks to give us space for a group of teenagers to do this work. Art and entrepreneurship- it was a new idea.

We kept pushing and we able to get this space in Fort Point. Our current space used to be a horse stable. We made the space work for us…. Put in the blood, sweat and tears to make it into the artistic experience it is today.

NICOLE “MS. COLE” RODRIGUEZ: There have been a variety of obstacles along the journey to building the Boys II Men program. Early on, establishing an environment of trust, professionalism and high-performance expectation for participants was challenged by some of the young kings that were recruited for the pilot years. This challenge was responded to by presenting clear expectations and consequences, and consistent enforcement of those expectations. In turn, participants came to rely on a system that was fair, stable and enforced on the basis of behavior, not identity or relationship or ability to manipulate dynamics. This type of environment creates trust and safety for all members, which are an essential part of the foundation that allows vulnerable, transformative work to occur.

Another challenge faced during the development of the Boys II Men Program has been the low standard of expectation for what boys of color can do and produce. While much of the BIIM methodology is clinically effective, it is not the traditional historical approach to prevention programming for young men of color. Doubt and resistance towards the potential effectiveness of our strategies plagued the earliest years of the program. The program’s staff resisted this stigmatization by raising output standards and developing tools to gather data that demonstrated both quantitative and qualitative information about the results of the work invested. This evidence ultimately served to establish the program’s credibility and sustainability.

Why is BIIM important?
MS. COLE (BIIM): Boys II Men is important for a multitude of reasons! The predominant amount of resources distributed towards boys of color in Massachusetts are within the criminal justice system. In 2013, there were few programs investing in strategies to prevent involvement with the criminal justice system to receive services. Boys II Men empowers participants to develop skills and vision that decrease the likelihood of the need for services that otherwise only get addressed through court adjudication. BIIM invests in healing, not punishing. Without the hard work and dedication from our staff, none of this would be possible and the program would not be as successful as it is today.

Boys II Men is important because it exists in a social construct that often polarizes and demonizes men of color’s ability to develop individuality and simultaneously build brotherhood/connection with each other. Boys II Men does not seek to define manhood for its participants, but rather to create a path of individual exploration of what the expression of manhood means to and for them. BIIM resists the monolithic, stereotyped image of black men by expanding the world view of what manhood and blackness can be.

Why is AFH important?
PROBLAK (AFH): It is important because young people need a place to amplify their voice and AFH gives them the opportunities and exposure to grow their skills. They are protected, guided, and mentored in the right direction. People who were mentored, come back and mentor our young people. It is an authentic cycle of collective growth.

For more information on the Boys II Men and Artists For Humanity programs and how you can get involved in the work they’re doing for Boston and Cambridge youth, visit their websites below:

Boys II Men:
Artists For Humanity:

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