Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017
Sean Powell sees family beyond family.
Powell’s mother began fostering children when he was 10 years old. Interacting with his foster siblings — who battled disabilities and misfortune — awakened in Powell a sense of social responsibility. He didn’t know it then, but this led him to find his passion in life: helping others discover their passions.
Powell champions the concepts of community, fellowship, brotherhood and mentorship — the idea of sticking together and experiencing life’s hardships and celebrations, and passing down new information and values along the way.
“If people around me need something to develop or grow, I always make it my effort to provide them access to the resources they need,” he said. “If I can’t provide that personally, then I’ll look into my network to see who I can connect them with so they can reach their goals.”
Powell, a graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business, founded Engage, the Foundation in 2011. The community-based organization connects college students to their communities, and encourages them to work with families and kids on campus and in the neighborhood. Two of its main goals are developing successive generations who understand their purpose and identity, and reducing the costs of government assistance needed by unstable families. Engage has spurred growth in communities by holding fundraisers, development programs, workforce programs and other special events.
Powell interned at the Virginia Department of Health during his senior year at VCU. There, he organized two big community mobilization events focused on educating men about fatherhood. About 850 people attended the events, which included fatherhood experts, mental health experts, authors of books on fatherhood, and other officials representing organizations from all over the East Coast. His success generating publicity for the events gave him the confidence that he could do the same for something close to his heart. That was Engage’s defining moment, Powell said.
Powell built Engage, the Foundation to help underprivileged communities build on basic developmental principles. “There are foundational roots, such as fatherhood, family separation and childhood development,” he said. “These things are tarnished in many communities, so we have to engage into that foundational level of what’s missing in our community in order to develop and rebuild it.”
Initially, Engage focused on male development and fatherhood through its Male Development Boyhood to Manhood — Rites of Passage program in collaboration with the National Partnership for Community Leadership, and its “Raising Real Fathers” program that included a collaborative “Boot Camp for New Dads.” Community members noted its success and wanted more outreach. A female development section, “Believe In Love Like It’s Everything,” was added to the organization’s curriculum shortly after. Powell realized creative possibilities were endless.
For instance, the Young Business Builders Program, one of Powell’s earliest ideas at Engage, developed organically. The program provides mentorship and tutoring to participants from 4th grade and up using an outline focused on developing a young person’s understanding of their personal purpose, cultural identity, and mental health. Mentors identify participants’ underlying talents and skills, and teach them about the career fields related to these skills. Ultimately, the program encourages young men and women to foster ideas and carve out niches for their careers.
Powell stresses the importance of Engage’s college-to-career pipeline, a workforce program that increases the rate at which college students find a job after graduating through industry training, certifications and direct work experience as interns. The college-to-career pipeline “turns passion into profit.” Interns gain experience and practice in fields such as human services, education, marketing, research, fashion, art, transportation, construction, technology and more.
“Each time a student gets involved with us and they pick a lane they want to get involved with, they have a career at the end of it,” Powell said. “We already have testimonies of students who have found careers after graduating, so it’s actively already happening.”
So far, the YBB program has given young people the education and opportunity to create a transportation company, acquire trade certifications and even start a business partnership with Enterprise for highway escort services.
“To me, YBB is an idea of young people fulfilling their utmost potential by aspiring to be self-made in a world full of consumers,” said Malik Sparrow, a member of YBB and creative marketing and art director at Engage. “I learned the value of being able to work with other like-minded people who you can depend on to reach a common goal.”
Engage was even a mentor partner of former President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. A subgrant was awarded to Metro Community Ministries, whose grant writer, Autie Hines — now the grant writer at Engage — lived in Richmond and introduced the two organizations. Metro utilized Engage as a facilitator to mentor 40 kids sent to the United States from Kenya.
“All of Metro’s reports included us and what we were doing in the Richmond chapter,” Powell said. “So when they sent the report to Obama and he saw what we were doing, that’s when Obama decided to get the Kenyan country director to organize 40 kids to come over and visit us.”
Powell and a key partner, Rob Hill Sr., collaborated on the Thousand Kings Walk, which gathers young community members in one location to inspire and foster motivation and award scholarships. The first walk took place in Virginia Beach in 2013 and attracted thousands of participants.
“The Thousand Kings Walk was especially about loving young people within the age range of 12 to 17,” Hill said. “Those years can be confusing. It was a community event to inspire, impact and influence young people to live extraordinary lives.”
Be on the lookout for the next “Serene Culture” fashion show on April 7, 2018 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The show is a concept created by YBB Creative Director Malik Sparrow and features underground local- and student-owned clothing lines, designers, artists, dancers and models.
Engage, the Foundation has built a strong network of partnerships, working with dozens of companies and organizations locally. Partners include the Virginia Department of Social Services, We Help Our Adolescents and VCU. Powell said the latter has been an integral part in everything Engage has done.
“VCU is awesome,” he said. “VCU is our most pioneering partner. We have official classes at VCU, they have advisers that are really all for us, and they consistently recruit for us.”
Engage provides a class at VCU called Disaster Behavioral Health Education. The class covers behavioral or mental impact in the event of disasters or emergency. Powell also hopes to work with VCU da Vinci Center students to increase users of its new app, “My Plug,” which is already available on the App Store and Play Store.
“VCU is helping in expansion plans by waving the flag,” he said.
Powell hopes to break the chain of failure, misfortune and crippling poverty in his communities with Engage. Although the foundation has had success, he says its evolution will have to be as big or even bigger than its ambitions. He has family he hasn’t met yet and they will need his care and help.
“We know that the kids in some of these communities are at risk,” he said. “We can provide them with the resources necessary for them to learn how to navigate their life.”
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