Detroit — Larry Johnson helped raise his younger siblings while his step-dad at one time dealt drugs.
His mom died when he was 9, so Larry stepped up when the kids needed shoes and sometimes groceries. He learned how to score quick cash.
But the street life is a distant memory, said Johnson, now 18, who is a “Dream King” — a student leader at Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men.
So Tuesday he did what kings do and donned a gold crown. And since it is Valentine’s Day, he boarded a bus from his school and traveled several miles to an all-female academy with his fellow crown-wearing Dream King student leaders from the academy.
Since kings are chivalrous, they hand-delivered 400 pink, white and red carnations and small candies to each student, teacher and administrator at the state’s only prekindergarten-12, all-girls public school, the Detroit International Academy for Young Women, which occupies the former Northern High School.
“I don’t think most young women are used to being treated this way because it’s something different and creative,” said Johnson, who is considering attending the University of Michigan-Dearborn and becoming an engineer or filmmaker.
He paused a moment and added, “We’ve had people bless us, so we can bless others.”
The young women also thought it was wonderful.
“It is really nice and heartfelt that they gave flowers to all the girls in the school,” said senior London Gassaway, 17. “It’s good they’re starting at a young age so when they get married and have a family, they can give good gifts to their wives.”
The Dream Kings brought their buckets of fresh carnations to the school cafeteria and set them up on tables. When the young women entered the cafeteria, the kings handed out carnations and visited their tables as they ate lunch.
Senior Anamika Uddin, 18, was especially impressed.
“It’s so exciting because I’ve never really received a flower, except when they did it last year, too,” said Uddin, who added she has a boyfriend in Bangladesh. “And it’s nice because if you don’t have a boyfriend, you can still get a flower.”
Dream King D’aj Jordon, 17, a senior, said he felt they affected a lot of lives this day.
“You never know what some people may be going through,” he said. “A young lady may be going through a depression, for example, and if she’s given a flower, it could boost her whole day because it’s the little things that count.”
The Dream Kings are the inspiration of the Future Project, a national organization whose mission is to work with schools to “unlock the limitless potential of every young person in the country.” So far, the project is in eight Detroit schools, involving about 125 students, as well as in Newark, New Jersey; New Haven, Connecticut; New York City; Philadelphia; San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
The Future Project began in Detroit schools in 2014.
The dream teams are led by dream directors — described as “part social entrepreneur, part community organizer, part transformation coach” — who must attend a dream academy in New York City for training.
Nurturing leadership, dreams
Dream students meet a minimum of once a week, said Patricia Murray, chief dream director for The Future Project Detroit.
“Some teams meet twice a week and many students come to their dream rooms during lunch time and after school on a daily basis,” she said. “They find the space to be a place of possibility thinking, a place where they can discuss putting their dreams into action.”
Murray said the program has been accompanied by improved attendance and an increase in leadership skills.
“Their interest in changing their school culture in positive ways moves from a dream to action,” she said. “Students have transformed spaces in their schools where they have painted powerful murals on the walls, set up healthy eating vegetable and fruit smoothy stations, created space for students to deal with grief and loss, provided yoga sessions to help students clear their minds and focus, and a variety of other projects, accomplishments and achievements.”
Travion Stafford, 18, and a senior, is the president of the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men Dream Kings.
“I’ve never been one to follow other people, but I didn’t realize how much of a leader I was until I became a Dream King,” Stafford said. “I had friends who were in this group, and after seeing the activities they were involved in, I wanted to be a part of it.”
William Malcolm is the dream director at Frederick Douglass Academy, a sixth-12th grade school with an enrollment of 160. He also founded a mentoring program for Detroit male youth, The Man of Style & Substance Scholarship Academy, which focuses on the development of character skills and educational achievement for young men of color.
“Dream Directors are more than just natural leaders,” said Malcolm. “They’re also rigorously trained at our signature Dream Academy in our core methodology for unlocking potential. Our method combines the best scientifically supported techniques from across multiple research domains to build will and skill in students and enhance school culture.”
Malcolm said the idea to give flowers on Valentine’s Day began last year when he was discussing chivalry and asked the young men if they knew the meaning of the word.
“Many of them did not know what that meant, so I decided to give them the experience of chivalry instead of just trying to explain it,” Malcolm said.
Frederick Douglass Academy principal Berry Greer, expressed his pride in the Dream Kings and described them as “impeccable.”
“When the Dream Kings wear their crowns in school, the underclassmen look at them very respectfully,” he said. “And the young men are elated to be part of such an organization because they stand out and they are doing the right thing.”
Greer said he also was proud of Malcolm, “who had this vision and made it come true.”
One dream Larry Johnson has is to become a filmmaker. He already created a music video on his iPhone.
His home life is different now. He moved in with his biological father and stepmother when he was 13. He said he gets along with the family but he worries about his dad.
“My stepmother is in school and my dad is still working, so there is a load of weight on my father,” Johnson said. “So I’m trying to use my skills to make positive money to help the family.”
He said he gets that sense of compassion from his mother.
“She was always helping everybody all the time and looking out for others,” he said.
Malcolm said the Dream Kings have several projects in the works, including an art project to create a possibility hall within the academy.
“The Dream Kings, whom are all high school students, are going to each work with a student within our middle school population on 21st-century life skills, possibility thinking and leadership,” he said. “We have directed positive film and spoken word projects, dress-for-success events, teacher and staff appreciation days, as well as career and post-secondary institution visits.”
Each of the eight member Detroit schools has its own name for their teams, including the Detroit International Academy for Young Women Dream Queens, Detroit School of the Arts Lucid Dreamers, Western International High School Vibe Team, Renaissance High School Senate, Cody Academy of Public Leadership Metro Dream Soarers, Cody Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School Legendary Dreamers, and East English Village Prep Academy Dreamville Royalty.
Murray said the most important message she wants to convey is “Every student matters.”
“It's important that students feel like they belong and not just attend a school,” she said. “The Future Project creates a space for the student voice.
“...Our ultimate goal is students creating the future they want to see. We teach and coach them to lead.”