By Matt Cosper
February 15, 2018 (Updated)
They call him Baba Reggie, because “baba” means father and Baba Reggie Singleton most definitely has a dad vibe. He clearly knows his business. He dresses sharp and speaks his mind with authority. He is unafraid of earnestness and dispenses discipline and praise for the people in his care without embarrassment. Dude’s got powerful presence. Lucky for us he has been using that power for good since he arrived in Charlotte in the early 1990s. Singleton serves as Executive Director of The Males Place, a mentorship program for African American boys in the community that’s been changing lives for over 25 years.
The Males Place started as a program of the local health department. To hear Singleton describe it, the whole purpose of the program was to hand out condoms. Distributing condoms and pamphlets, and charting metrics isn’t much in the way of in-depth community programming, but when Singleton came onto the scene, he immediately saw the need to expand the program’s mission and footprint. This wasn’t what the county wanted to hear, and there were struggles to shift the program in a new direction.
After studying public health at the University of South Carolina, Singleton worked in corrections at a South Carolina prison. It was doing this work that made clear for him the ways society was failing young black men. Specifically, Singleton saw the need for father figures: mentors that would guide boys into manhood with love and attention. So he left corrections for roles with the Departments of Health in Columbia and Rock Hill. These positions put Singleton front row for both the crack epidemic and the HIV explosions of the mid 1980s.
After taking the job at The Males Place in 1993, Singleton chafed at the barriers that were put in his way working for the county. He wasn’t able to serve in the ways that he saw were so desperately needed.
“The culture had just been decimated…where I grew up you had the family, the community, the school and the church. You had those four institutions that socialized us, that monitored, that supervised, that trained us…and those are the things that sustained me, which got me and my siblings through,” he said. “So I wanted to be able to recapture those things and share that with this group. Because nowadays those institutions, which inculcate values are almost non-existent, and they certainly do not cooperate.”
This sprawling vision of community service and engagement was at odds with what the county was willing or able to offer. This somewhat antagonistic relationship continued for over a decade until The Males Place became its own entity in 2010. Since then, The Males Place has transformed into a fully developed mentorship program for young black men. Under the leadership of Singleton and a team of committed mentors and elders, The Males Place has guided over 3,000 young men into adulthood. The program uses regular meetings with elements of ritual to provide stability and routine for the boys, also known as Warriors. The Warriors in the program are broken into different kingdoms like the Dogon or the Zulu, for instance. This is part of a larger emphasis on teaching the boys their history, one that has its roots in a continent far away and in the shameful legacy of American chattel slavery that brought many of their ancestors to the American South. By confronting that history, as well as the many proud traditions and accomplishments of African Americans, the warriors of the Males Place gain knowledge of self. “You have to know who you are in order to reach maturity,” Singleton said.
The program has elements that are revolutionary and traditional, and the way that Singleton has blended them is a testament to his unique vision. The boys of The Males Place are on a guided journey towards manhood, and that looks a little different for each of them. The core of the program is its foundation in having the boys working the land. All the boys play a part in planting, tending and harvesting in a community garden off of Beatties Ford Road. This return to the land, as a method for instilling discipline and groundedness has its roots in Singleton’s childhood just outside of Charleston. As a child Singleton worked alongside migrant farmers, doing backbreaking labor that he thought had turned him off of agriculture for good. But as he developed his mentorship program, an idea took hold in his mind. There was a connection between the boys’ maturity and the work, care and patience that it takes to grow a garden. By putting the warriors to work in a community garden he could bring them together through the bonding of hard work, and he could give them a living metaphor for the journey they were all on together.
The journey that Baba Reggie’s warriors are on is a trip through their own minds and out into the world. As a part of their regular meetings, the warriors beef up their vocabularies, learning new words and the concepts that go with them in order to connect language to life. Deceptively simple words such as “garden,” “survival” and “values” are discussed alongside heady concepts such as cognitive dissonance and operant conditioning. Here we see that blend of the traditional and radical in the work of the The Males Place. Another example of this lives in Singleton’s understanding that travel is unique in its ability to open minds and broaden perspectives. In 2010, The Males Place traveled with its warriors and mentors to Ghana and they returned in 2018, a trip that was transformational for those who attended.
The work of Baba Reggie Singleton and the mentors of The Males Place is vital for a community that has been undeniably left behind by the policies of supremacy that are at play in our culture. The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing and for folks like Singleton and his crew to step up and combat it with hands on mentorship is heroic. It isn’t heroic because it looks impressive; it’s heroic because it’s our future.