Soon after he began teaching at the Bedford Village School in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1999, Shawn Mason was coming to the school on Saturday mornings to let kids into the building to use the gym.
Mason wondered whether more couldn’t be done for them than offering a warm, safe place to play basketball. He found the answer in Kappa League, a program that offers Black and Latino high school boys a chance to develop leadership skills while preparing for college.
The program, which was founded by Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. in Los Angeles in 1969, now has a small presence in New York City public schools.
Mason, a Brooklyn “adviser” to the organization who now teaches 3rd grade at the Red Hook Neighborhood School in Brooklyn, coordinated a fall induction ceremony in his former school’s auditorium, where 19 young males of color in suits and red ties began their tenure in the group.
Kappa League tries to keep parents involved. “We have single parents, two parents, grandmothers, a significant mix in what we call the village,” Mason said.
That approach creates some resistance to joining among the students. “There’s ‘Uhh, do I really want to do what my parents want?’” he said. “They’re apprehensive until they understand what the program is about. It’s about bonding, building up, fun.”
Those who take the leap, he said, soon realize the program offers them “a safe space” to air out problems in their lives that “sometimes they don’t want to talk to their parents about.”
Members of the past year’s class spent 10 days last summer in Ghana, learning about that nation’s culture and traditions. The overseas trip didn’t just broaden the horizons of the Kappa League members. When they began it, Mason said, “They were not friends by any means, but by the end they had bonded.”
The group participated in the Kappa League’s annual excursion to a half-dozen colleges from Albany to Virginia over the course of a week on a Greyhound Bus, said Majesty Perkins, a social worker at the HS of Contemporary Arts in the Bronx, who assists Mason.
Perkins said Mason has been mentoring him for years. “He’s the definition of achievement, and he puts his all into the kids, opening them up to things that Black and brown kids don’t normally get to do,” Perkins said.
School counselor Randolph Bruny also works with Mason to support the program.
There were nine public school students among this year’s inductees, and Mason said he is spreading the word among principals to expand their representation.
Mason said he gets the energy to do both his teaching job and his work for the Kappa League from the kids. “They text me, they appreciate me,” he said. “Mentorship paired with leadership development is essential for the opportunity to live a life with options.”