Aspiring mentor out to change the narrative for men of color

Jul 1, 2019

Wearing flip flops and a black hat with an upraised fist stitched in the front, Jean Michel Jr. is the definition of leisurely. He doesn’t seem in a hurry to get anywhere today.

His path thus far has been amazing in and of itself.

Breaking Barriers Jacket
Credit Aimee Machado

In May, Michel walked across the stage at Buffalo State College’s spring graduation. Three years ago, that moment would’ve seemed like a longshot.

Michel understands what it means to be a black man in America, but cultural stereotypes and stigmas aren’t all that he’s battling.

“I took off a semester and most of my summer in 2016 I spent in the hospital because I was diagnosed with Stage 4 diffuse large B-cell lymphoma,” he said.

According to the Lymphoma Research Foundation, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) is the most common non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in the United States. Over 18,000 people are diagnosed each year.

Michel’s reaction when he learned the news?

“Well I first thought I was going to die. Just recently one of the boys that I lived next door to, he passed away and I didn’t know until recently,” he said, “and another guy who was on my floor, he was the same age as me, he passed away, too. But I really thought I was going to die. It was a lot and then you know the feeling of ‘why me.’”

Michel was bedridden for two months and in the hospital for four. He admits he was a little hard headed when first going through treatment, but words of wisdom from his grandmother helped him have a different perspective on his illness.

“She was like ‘why not you? You’re not too young to go through things. You’re not too young to have a story and have a testimony. This is you being built up for your next step in life,'" he said.

Spring 2019 Buffalo State College Graduation.
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

His next step was returning to Buffalo State to finish his degree in Criminal Justice with a minor in Legal Studies.

Michel is also a graduate of Say Yes Buffalo’s programs, Boys and Men of Color Initiative and Breaking Barriers youth council. It is here where young black and brown men work to change the narrative of how society sees them and how they may see themselves.

This fall, Michel will attend Barry University Law School in Florida. He wants to concentrate on Family and Criminal Law, helping to work with troubled youth and people of color who have been taken advantage of by the legal system. He also would like to start a non-profit.

“It’s basically going to be like an after school program, and built into different activities,” he said. “The goal is to teach children about the law and about their rights, so when they get older they’re more equipped for the different things that come to them, or at them in their life.”

Orlando Dickson is a recent graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School and currently works at the Partnership for the Public Good. He met Michel through the BMOC Initiative, where he offered keen advice about beginning law school.

“I’ve told him a few things,” Dickson said, “but I think the most important thing is its organization, but it’s also being smart with your time.”

Right now Michel is helping his community in Buffalo with the BMOC Initiative and Breaking Barriers.

“He is currently working now with us as an intern, helping out with the Boys and Men of Color Initiative,” said Tommy McClam, Director of the BMOC Initiative. “Matter of fact, he is currently, as we speak, right now, planning the retreat that the Boys and Men of Color will be having in September.”

This is a learning experience for Michel.

“I like a lot of the work they’re doing with financial literacy, public speaking, getting to know and know about our African history and stuff like that,” he said. “I think is important and I wish that I could’ve had that. Because a lot of the stuff, I’m learning new stuff every time I come here.”

Jean Michel Jr.
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Included in the youth group is Jean’s brother Jeremiah, who is 14. He is a student at the Buffalo School of Technology and ever the defiant teenager. He is interested in art and videogames and wants to be a veterinarian when he is older.

A diverse set of circumstances and influences has helped shape Michel into who he is today. The non-profit program he wants to start after law school is his way of paying it forward in this country’s politically and socially charged climate.

“It’s very important that, especially young minority men and women know their rights and know what should be tolerated and should be tolerated. Know how to act and present themselves in front of law enforcement. And it’s sad that you have to put on a face when you go in front of law enforcement and judges and stuff, but you have to.”