It’s no secret that some of the best ideas occur outside the boardroom… in a relaxed setting with camaraderie (and sometimes libations) fueling creativity and innovation. And so it was, when “a group of guys” got together at a Westchester watering hole over the holidays in 1987 and began to discuss homelessness in their community and those who had no place to go for Thanksgiving.
“Their conversation resulted in the formation of African American Men of Westchester,” says Eric Eller, who joined the White Plains-based nonprofit a few years later and has been its president since 2008. “One of the founders, Herb Jamison, is still a member,” adds Eller, underscoring the longevity and dedication of the group.
Today, 43 members belong to this all-volunteer organization, which meets monthly to address issues related to education, youth empowerment, domestic violence awareness, and environmental justice. New members are sponsored by existing ones, with the expectation that all will have a strong commitment to the organization and be very active participants in the group’s programs, including sitting on at least two event-planning committees.
“Our goal is to design activities and programs that enrich the lives of young people and foster economic development in order to build strong communities that improve the lives of all county residents,” Eller explains.
With the tagline “We Make a Difference,” the AAMW hosts an array of decades-strong annual events, which include education, environmental, and domestic violence awareness workshops, health fairs, and sports clinics, in the hope of making a positive impact on African American people in the county, though Eller points out that the group reaches out to everyone in the community and that their programs are open to all.
Among the AAMW’s annual and long-running signature events are educational forums that bring together teachers, administrators, school-board members, students, education advocates, and business leaders to exchange strategies for closing the achievement gap, reducing dropout rates, and eliminating violence and other negative influences in Westchester’s schools. It’s all in an effort, says Eller, “to support our young people in becoming educated, productive, and involved members of society.”
The Business Skills Olympics is a well-attended, yearly competition among area high school students who analyze grad-school-level business case studies and offer problem-solving resolutions. And the annual Brotherhood Breakfast joins representatives from the business, government, education, religious, and community-services sectors to talk about their missions and discuss mutually beneficial strategies. “This facilitates interactions between people from all walks of life who may not normally interact but who shape economic, government, and social policy in our community,” Eller notes.
“Our goal is to design activities and programs that enrich the lives of young people and foster economic development in order to build strong communities that improve the lives of all county residents.”
—Eric Eller, President of the African American Men of Westchester
In addition, the AAMW supports Westchester’s youth financially by hosting the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Awards luncheon, at which seven to 10 youths involved in community service are granted $2,000 apiece in scholarship funds, Eller says.
“We are always talking about how we can reach out to more people who could use our help and find other vehicles to do that,” says Eller. “We want to make sure that we’re doing enough, developing the right programs, and are most effective at being that light, that positive influence and guidance for young, Black males in the county.”
Eller points out that the AAMW also strives to reach youths that are considered borderline. As he explains it: “They’re doing okay; they’re right there in the middle, but they need a little help and support.” He notes that the organization is not trying to be a mentoring program but is continually trying to figure out how the members can support and participate in existing programs.
Like many of his fellow AAMW members, Eller is based residentially and/or professionally in Westchester (his day job is as a banking portfolio manager). Other members are retired and serve as volunteers with other civic and community organizations. “I want to be involved in giving back to my community,” he says, reflecting on how he got involved with this group in the first place. “Through the bonds of brotherhood and fellowship, and in the spirit of collective work, responsibility, and a strong commitment to community, we make a difference.”
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