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What does it mean to thrive as a young Black man in Philly? On community, legacy building and generational wealth

In this part of a series exploring what thriving means to different people, Technical.ly spoke with six Philadelphians about how they've overcome challenges, and what drives them to succeed.

Clockwise from left: Alan D. Graham III, Oluwatobi A. Odusanya, Andrew Ankamah Jr., William Tukes, Michael Miles and Milaj Robinson. (Courtesy photos, graphic by Technical.ly)

This report is part of Thriving, a yearlong storytelling initiative from Technical.ly focused on the lived experiences of Philadelphia and comparative city residents. The goal is to generate insights about the economic opportunities and obstacles along their journeys to financial security and freedom.

Oluwatobi A. Odusanya has already lived a few professional lives at 31, all with one ultimate goal in mind.

The Northern Liberties resident spent some of his early life living in Philly before moving to the UK for 10 years. He returned in 2011 because his mom wanted him to get an American degree — the best way to set him up for success, she believed. He went on to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in psychology and is currently completing a master’s in clinical psychology at Eastern University, which he plans to finish this spring.

Odusanya is also in his first year as dean of students at Vare-Washington Elementary School in South Philadelphia, a position he came to from a background as a behavioral health technician.

While all those degrees are impressive, Odusanya is on this career path because he wants to make a difference and give back to the Black community.

“I’m here because somebody helped me to get to where I needed to get to,” he told Technical.ly. “And it was a person of color that put their time and effort into helping me become successful.”

What does it mean to thrive?

In this next part of Technical.ly’s Thriving series, we take a look at what it means for young Black men in Philadelphia to thrive, in their own words. Around 77,500 Black men between the ages of 20 and 34 live in the city, per recent Census figures, and three quarters of them earn $35,000 or less per year.

The six men you’ll meet below discussed themes such as the importance of mentors in their personal and professional development, and creating generational wealth. Several spoke of feeling motivated to build a legacy not only for themselves, but to inspire the young people who come next.

For Odusanya, for instance, one of his biggest motivators is seeing kids who look like him succeed: “A lot of us are counted out because of our skin color, or how we look or how we’re perceived based on what’s been shown in the media or stereotypes that have just been thrown out throughout the last couple of decades,” he said.

Here are their stories.

Alan D. Graham III: ‘I have all these ideas that I want to pursue’

Alan D. Graham III is a 21-year-old junior computer science and business major dually enrolled at Cheyney University and West Chester University. He was born and raised in Philly and has lived here his whole life, currently splitting time between Mt. Airy and North Philadelphia.

Graham chose computer science because he wanted a better understanding of technology, and business because he has a deep interest in entrepreneurship. He eventually wants to pursue his own business ideas.

“It doesn’t make sense for me to have all these ideas that I want to pursue, but I don’t know how to properly manage a business or I don’t have the fundamentals of how business is run,” he said.

Alan D. Graham III. (Courtesy photo)

Originally, Graham didn’t think he would just go to college — he thought he would enroll in the military, too. But while attending a career fair in high school, a Cheyney rep told him if he could get his GPA up, he could earn a full scholarship.

So, he did what he needed to do to get his grades up and get that scholarship to the historically Black college. Post-grad, Graham is interested in pursuing full-stack development or strategic planning and project management.

“I’m very fascinated with websites and the data that’s behind it,” he said. “I’m also very artistically gifted or inclined.”

The classes he’s taking to pursue this career path are challenging, but he feels like his education is going to be useful: “There’s never a moment where I just feel like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m wasting my time,’” he said. While he was growing up, several mentors pushed him to be his best, and he thinks it’s cool that he can now be a role model for other people.

Long term, he wants to be a serial entrepreneur. He also wants to have a positive impact on his college.

He could see himself staying in Pennsylvania depending on what jobs he can get after graduation, but he thinks Philly could use more of a sense of camaraderie and community to offer support. He leans on his own support system as he pursues his goals, but he also tries to go into every new experience with confidence that he can succeed.

At the end of the day, he said, the biggest thing holding him back from success is himself.

Andrew Ankamah Jr.: ‘I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do’

Andrew Ankamah Jr.’s passion for activism crystalized after a Temple University student was shot and killed at the end of 2021. Ankamah started organizing protests, holding online forums and meeting with community leaders about gun violence. He also started an anti-gun violence organization in 2020 called The Accountability Initiative, which is now an official club at Temple.

The recent Temple graduate studied political science and African American studies. He was born in Philadelphia and lives near Temple now, but grew up in North Brunswick, New Jersey. He moved back to Philly for college because he wanted to experience living in a city.

Ankamah, 21, is currently working part time with the youth media organization Presenting Our Perspectives on Philly Youth News, or POPPYN, and plans to continue working with them until the end of this school year.

In the meantime, Ankamah is looking for his first full-time job post graduation. Despite all his effort to grow his professional network, it’s been challenging getting people to respond to his applications, and he sometimes feels like he’s “hitting a brick wall.”

“Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do, but I definitely want to continue being involved in my activism, continue being involved in the community,” he said.

Andrew Ankamah Jr. (Courtesy photo)

He considered pursuing work within city government or politics, and going to law school. But ultimately he wants to continue advocating for communities and being a voice for people who need one.

The ultimate force driving him forward though is his family who immigrated to the United States from Ghana in the ‘90s: “It’s an amazing story and that definitely inspires me, how hardworking they are,” he said. “So I feel like that definitely has made me want to do more, made me want to become like them.”

Ultimately, he said, he just wants to live comfortably, with a steady stream of income and no worries about how he’s going to pay the bills.

“I also want to be respected and a valuable member of my community,” he said, “someone that people look up to. I want to be known as someone who made a positive impact both on the city of Philadelphia and hopefully nationwide.”

Michael Miles: ‘I won’t look back at 60 or 70 years old with a bunch of regrets’

Michael Miles has lived in Philly his entire life — 34 years. The East Mt. Airy resident is currently working at the Community College of Philadelphia as a community engagement specialist, but considering a career change.

Miles originally went to school for youth ministry and biblical studies. His career experience so far has been in youth development, working with young people in the nonprofit and social services sectors.

Now, Miles is ready for a change. He’s been taking cybersecurity classes at CCP in pursuit of an associate’s degree. He said he’s always been the go-to person to fix technical issues in past jobs, and he’s had a longtime interest in tech. Since taking classes, Miles has discovered he likes the part of cybersecurity that involves helping people. He expects to graduate this summer.

The challenging part of pivoting your career, he said, is that he doesn’t have any technical experience yet, so he has to show how his first career path can translate to the one he’s pursuing.

The idea of making more money and having more flexibility is exciting to him, though. He would love to boost his income to support passion projects and loved ones — “being able to work in a way that allows me to provide at a different level for my future and family and responsibilities in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do,” he said.

Michael Miles. (Courtesy photo)

With all these irons in the fire, Miles is driven by the desire to not let his potential go to waste.

“I won’t look back at 60 or 70 years old with a bunch of regrets that I wish that I would have maximized this time a lot more,” he said.

Miles said when he was younger, he didn’t think much about how race played into his success. But nowadays, he considers how he moves in certain spaces, and that he might need to do more or act a certain way because of assumptions people make based on race and background.

“[It’s] given me more of a kick to say, ‘You know what, I need to take this seriously, because sometimes people may have embedded just things that they think about certain people,’” he said.

For Miles, success looks like “doing what I’m put here to do.” Financially thriving means providing financial stability for himself and loved ones, but also using his money to help people in the community. The biggest thing getting in his way is himself, he said; he just needs to put in the work and have the discipline to accomplish the things he wants in life.

Milaj Robinson: ‘I want to unite our people a little bit more’

Milaj Robinson is a junior at Morehouse College majoring in political science. He is currently taking a gap year to earn money to pay for school.

The 20-year-old Logan resident is working full time at the Municipal Services Building with the Community Research Corps under the Mayor’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service. His office provides some financial assistance for his schooling, and he said they understand that his goal is return to school next year.

“I’m doing something that I love and I don’t even look at it as work because it’s something that I plan on doing after I graduate,” he said.

Robinson’s interest in political science stemmed from a high school civics class that grabbed his attention. Before taking this class, he didn’t think he was somebody who would want a white-collar job. “However,” he said, “I was so engaged with the civics class and the teacher that I had. He made it more relatable to the students.”

Robinson’s interest in civics eventually turned into starting a youth leadership organization called Youth Creating New Beginnings. “We target the youth in the inner city to guide them in the right direction to creativity and leadership,” he said.

Robinson echoed Miles and Graham, saying that the only thing that could prevent him from reaching success is himself — he just needs to be disciplined and consistent to make it happen. Understanding why he is doing something is what drives him to get it done.

Milaj Robinson. (Courtesy photo)

As a Black man, Robinson said he looks at the struggles of his ancestors as motivation to work through challenges and do hard things.

“I just want to unite our people a little bit more,” he said, “and also think about where we come from and how much of the impact we made throughout the years and even the years to come.”

Heading into his future, Robinson is excited to be of service for his community. He knows he’s probably not going to be making a high salary in this chosen career path. Still, he wants to create generational wealth and hopes to pursue side projects or real estate to make more money in the future. He’s currently in a professional development program called Project Destined that focuses on real estate.

“I’m not doing it for the money,” he said. “But ideally I definitely want to break out of that generational curse when it comes to the financial hardships that my family faces.”

Ultimately, he wants to make enough to support himself and provide enough financial stability that he can fully commit himself to community service and civic engagement. He said he’s learned the difference between being rich and being wealthy, and he wants to build wealth by having money that works for him.

William Tukes: ‘Stability is always the goal’

William Tukes was born and raised in Philly, and is currently a senior at Temple University majoring in bioengineering.

The 24-year-old North Philadelphia resident started as a biology major with the intention of becoming a doctor, but someone in his life convinced him that bioengineering would look even better for medical school or graduate school applications. If he decided not to be a doctor, he still had a solid degree to fall back on.

“I like the versatility, that’s what I really love about it,” he said, “because I do a wide range of things that most people don’t fully fathom or understand what I can do and what I can’t do.”

William Tukes. (Courtesy photo)

Now that he’s almost done with college, he doesn’t know if he wants to pursue that higher degree anymore, partially because of how expensive it can be. He said it would be nice to find a job that would pay for graduate school, but it isn’t a priority for him anymore.

“That’s a big reason why I chose [this] major as well,” he said. “I don’t have to go to grad school to have a good job. They’ll pay well and I’ll get work experience.”

Now, Tukes is considering different options and offers. He had a couple of internships in college that were each very different from each other. Each of those experiences helped him better understand what he wants in a job post-grad.

“I hope to find a role or a job that fulfills most of my needs currently,” he said. “So, something that is pretty challenging with a solid base, a good working community.”

Success to Tukes looks like enjoying what he does for work, putting in eight hours every day and feeling accomplished at the end of it. Of course, you need money to live a stable lifestyle, but for Tukes, it’s not all about the money. He would consider himself successful once he finds the balance of making a solid salary and liking what does every day.

“Stability is always the goal. That’s part of the reason why we go to college,” he said. “It’s not the only thing though because I would definitely take a pay cut to get some more things that I would like with a better place.”

Tukes said his friends and family are his main support system as he pursues his future. His outlook might sound familiar: The only thing stopping him is having time to do it all, between working, school and a personal life — and the only thing stopping him from achieving his goals is him.

Oluwatobi A. Odusanya: ‘That’s how you create a legacy’

As for Odusanya, he wants to see more Black children, specifically Black boys, know that their futures are limitless.

Oluwatobi A. Odusanya. (Courtesy photo)

He believes success looks like following your passion, whatever that may be. For him, that looks like positively impacting children. Meanwhile, economically thriving means providing stability for yourself and the next generation.

“Because that’s how you create generational wealth,” he said. “That’s how you create a legacy, that’s how you impact more than yourself. Because if you’re doing well, and you make sure your kids are doing well, they now have the resources to continue that onwards.”

Odusanya thinks there has been a change in mindset about creating wealth in the Black community among people his age. He said more and more people see themselves as being successful in positions of power, not just working for someone. And he believes the spread of this mindset will help promote the idea of creating generational wealth:

“That cycle helps our community overall.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Series: Thriving
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