Some men stand taller than their actual height.
At just over six feet tall, Lakethen Mason has a commanding and handsome presence wherever he goes. But after a few minutes with the man, it’s the aura of his heart that jumps out at you, that surrounds him and seems to announce him when we walks into a room, making him feel like a bit of a gentle giant.
He puts that heart directly on the line with the work he does, digging deep into his own experiences as an African American male in helping young men in the community find their own way in reaching their potential.
I sat down with Keith last month at the famed Peabody Hotel to talk about his upcoming conference, but something deeper emerged during our chat: something that gets to the root – er, heart – of why many of us in the community do what we do in trying to make a difference in people’s lives.
Pronounced La-Kee-Then, he often goes by Keith. And this month Keith is busy preparing for an upcoming March symposium he has titled “Maximizing Manhood.”
The symposium was held Friday and Saturday March 8-9, 2019, at the Halloran Center.
“The Maximizing Manhood Symposium is designed to bring people together,” he told me, “with examples of excellence within the African American community and the general community in Memphis.”
With the symposium, he intends to build a “coalition of citizens” who in their own faith and experiences can serve as advocates for what he calls “familial, social and civic acceptance.”
An acceptance, he says, of our responsibility for our neighborhoods and communities.
Communities like Frayser or South Memphis, where our African American youths suffer most, facing life and death decisions during their teenage years when they could be on a path toward a life of hope and prosperity.
Keith’s mission is to help them find that path.
Sharing office space in the Epicenter building in Cooper-Young, I see Keith a few times a week. And during those water-cooler moments when we take a moment to catch up, I have learned just how many efforts he is involved with at the same time.
In addition to planning Maximizing Manhood, he is also a documentary filmmaker. And for his latest endeavor he has been interviewing on camera young black men from our more neglected neighborhoods, asking about their paths, and about how they have managed to stay focused on their goals while surrounded by life’s challenges. And by violence.
I met one such young man, who at 17 has his eyes on college, who had recently witnessed a gunfight outside his grandmother’s house in North Memphis.
“It’s like a video game for them,” he told me. “Pop pop pop, from behind a car across the street. It didn’t feel real.”
Here’s a young man, I thought, who is that close to the wrong path, but who remains focused on the right one. Who lives literally alongside the wrong road, but is firm in keeping on the road where he can one day be someone who makes a difference.
How does this young man stay focused? His grandmother, as it turns out. His grandmother, whose house he lives in, with no mother and no father to speak of.
“Just you and your grandma?”
It’s in the hopes of kids like this young man where Keith is committed to making a difference with his manhood symposium:
“The hope here is that we’re bringing fathers and sons together – sons that can find what their next steps need to be, whether they’re planning their future as a high school student, a college student, or someone who is going out into life as an adult and preparing for it – we want to bridge the gaps, and find out what the gaps are.”
In our discussion, the gaps for young men seemed to fall into two categories: poverty/community and the absence of fathers.
The second – an absence of fathers – was something both of us could identify with.
I knew that such an absence shapes one’s lives in various ways. Through the pain – or perhaps because of it – we find ways to cope, to take care of ourselves, to learn about life on our own.
“When one is an advocate for social change,” I said, “there is usually something inside of us that understands, on the deepest of levels, what certain pains feel like. We’ve been there, and we feel we can speak to that, to help others. What, then, motivated you to put on your first two conferences?”
Having been heavily involved with last year’s MLK50 events and as the driver behind two other similar conferences, Keith’s upcoming symposium is not his first go-round with bringing voices together to forge a difference. Last year before the spring he managed the Our Lives Speak conference, followed by his iWin Summit last fall, both as bookends on his MLK50 efforts.
And what about those motivations?
“The motivations for those were the same,” he said. “To figure out how to use our pain to either overcome, to redeem ourselves, or to give life to what’s possible.
“We came up with the slogan ‘Our Lives Speak,’ and it was about setting the expectation that you can reset your life, you can reset your opportunity, and you can rewrite your story with the right motivation.”
He talked about the example of an ex-convict, who has served his time and wants to turn his life into something, but steps out of prison unable to find a job because of a record. With the right motivation, Keith believes, these men can find their own paths through starting their business, through entrepreneurship. After that, Keith said, there’s no limit to what someone can do.
“So if it’s starting their own landscaping company, starting their own computer company, starting a barber shop… How do you do it? And how do you do it right?”
It’s guys like that ex-con who go on to take the “first step to the next step” as Keith says, in speaking to the young African American male, to share with him their experiences in finding a path. To understand that there is a unique road for them.
“We’ve had inspirational speakers who’ve had horrid pasts,” Keith said. “Guys who have made incredible mistakes… yet there’s a sense of redemption, to (want to) bounce back, to reset and restore. It’s that survival mode.”
There in Keith I could see that drive in his eyes, hear the passion in his voice. He talked about a “DNA of pain within the African American culture,” and how it manifests itself into the anger and violence we see in so much of the black community. Understanding how to turn the pain around into an asset, he believes, is a key to giving these young men a path to success.
“And what about your success?” I asked. “Growing up without a father, what gave you hope? What was it in you that gave you the strength and hope to help others?”
“I grew up seeing a lot of bullying,” he said, “and I hated that. I didn’t want to see people hurt. So I found myself being a defender. But not having my father in my life… it de-emphasized my identity… to recognize myself as a man.”
As an adult in his late thirties, and now with a child of his own, Keith’s biological father returned to his life, albeit briefly, only to disappear again, not wanting a relationship.
“Nothing changed,” Keith said. “And by then, having my own child, it was less of a focus, but it was still very painful. So the reason this symposium is so important to me… is because I can relate to that young …”
He closed his eyes.
For a few moments, the tall intellectual across from me let a little pain – and his heart – slip out.
“I know what it feels like… to not have the support and the affirmation of your father. So for me, I have a mission to correct that for others, even if I can’t correct it… I know that there’s a young boy out there that’s crying, who needs to be reaffirmed.”
With this moment we were both reminded of the why behind what we do in the community.
Call it the gift of vulnerability; tapping into our own pain to heal others. And in the process realize a little healing of our own.
“It takes a great deal of courage to sit here and pour your emotions out,” I said, “but pour them out it in such a way that helps others.”
It’s one of life’s great cycles, and at the heart of the work of guys like Keith Mason.
“And it’s healthy,” he said. “It has to be healthy. The work that we do is about making sure that people realize a personal and social wellness. It’s imperative for our public health, for our public safety… to ensure that we’re not ignoring the signs, that we’re not ignoring the young black male who is fatherless, who is hungry, who doesn’t understand why people look at him and stereotype him and judge him before he even has the opportunity to be whole.”
That is the life today of the young black male. And something that Keith hopes he can help heal.
“They carry that (stereotype) in back of their minds and inside their hearts. And it creates insecurities in what their possibilities can be.
“We’re creating a man who can’t have full access to manhood. Who can’t have full access to life, love, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Keith sees a part of society at blame too, that too often sees these lives as throw-aways.
“If I keep telling you you’re a thug, keep telling you you’re not going to graduate, you’re dumb, or that you don’t deserve to make your own decisions, then you’re going to believe that, you absorb that, and you will become that.”
We must be careful, he seems to tell these young men, about not only what we speak to others, but also in what we’re absorbing from others about our own lives.
“It’s very easy to get caught up in someone else’s trajectory of your life… because you were so clogged with the memories of the pains they cast on you.
“It’s time we removed that. So that these young men can arrive at their own realities and fully live them out loud.” <>
Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis. He was a career consultant and communications specialist in the payroll industry until moving from southern California to Memphis in late 2015. The Bluff City gave him a new start in the second half of his career, gifting him the opportunity to return to his childhood fascinations with cities and his college passions in writing, theater, film, and storytelling.