Sunday, January 18, 2004

New generation carries on ideals

Many born after King died are furthering his goals

By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sometimes inspiration strikes in the strangest of places.

For Marc Johnson, it was the basketball court.

As a high school student, putting the ball through the hoop was his passion.

"Then one day I thought, 'If I can dominate basketball, why can't I be successful in every area of my life?' " he says.

That epiphany helped make Johnson a success. And it led him to the path he is on now - transforming hundreds of young lives in Cincinnati.

Johnson is the vice president of the mentoring program within the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative. The organization has programs in 60 of 81 Cincinnati Public Schools. Since the program began in 1990, it has made 1,776 mentor-student matches in the city.

Johnson embodies a central lesson taught by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that every individual is capable of creating positive change. That lesson is reinforced in the name of his mentorship program: The Power of One.

"It only takes one person to improve the life of one child," Johnson explains.

"From there, the influence is far-reaching."

As the nation pauses Monday to reflect on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a new generation of men and women is carrying on the civil rights leader's message: "You will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be."

In Greater Cincinnati, young leaders include teachers, coaches, pastors, doctors and professionals in nearly every walk of life.

"Helping people now really makes me feel like I'm accomplishing something and making a difference," says Denita Powell, 29. The Pleasant Ridge woman works for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

There are countless Cincinnatians who live the King legacy, says Rabbi Gary P. Zola, president of the Martin Luther King Jr. Coalition.

"There are certainly some very inspiring people carrying on (King's) work," Zola says. "Any adult who takes the time to work with young people, they have an impact. I've seen it myself in countless ways."

Giving back is like a spiral, says Charlie Cytron-Walker, 28, of Blue Ash.

One thing leads to another.

"If you go home at the end of the day and ignore the people around you, you're not taking advantage of the freedoms we have in America," says the Hebrew Union College student.

Johnson, 33, is an accomplished man. His resume includes numerous scholarships, accolades and a stint on Wall Street. He wears classic suits with sculpted lines. His watch is a shiny Tissot.

His baseball cap from Harvard, where he received his master's degree, is hung proudly on the peak of his office coat rack.

But his beginnings were humble.

Johnson was born in Mount Vernon, Ill., a town of 18,000, to a single, 18-year-old woman. He was raised in part by his great-grandmother.

"I'm driven by my past," he says. "I know what it's like to make the conscious decision to succeed, because you're not going to do it any other way. I see a lot of myself in these children."

Inspiration struck again at Morehouse College in Atlanta, the same school where King received his bachelor's degree and decided to become a minister.

There Johnson stumbled onto a mentor of his own, an administrator. "He saw in me more than I ever saw in myself," he says. "Only then was I encouraged to dream big."

Johnson first entered the world of finance. He was manager of an Internet firm and has worked with the stock markets on Wall Street, and in Europe and Indonesia.

Johnson is convinced the same rules that apply to building a great company apply to education reform.

His long-term plan is to establish a system that sets up educational investments for low-income children. Short-term, he simply wants the investment of time for local students.

"For me, I'm still results-oriented. It's just the playing field has changed," he says. "I've gone from stocks and bonds to kids.

"At the end of every day I think, 'What have I done today to help kids?' "

His mission is to aggressively recruit mentors who help with homework or attend school functions. Sometimes they just meet for a chat over a box of milk.

In Johnson's case, he attends the basketball practices of the eighth-grader he mentors, David Watson.

Johnson, who moved here from Boston in July 2003, is already making plans to expand the successful program.

In August, he pledged to add 1,000 new mentors within a year.

He makes goals the same way he once played basketball.

"I dream big and shoot high," he says.


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