Why Mentoring? 

By Kate Adler, Director of Library Services 

Every year the MCNY library celebrates Black History Month over the course of January and February. This year we are extending the celebration through March! We kicked things off in January, with a discussion about mentorship in Black and Brown communities. A fitting topic, aligned with the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. legacy as well as with our Library’s new special book collection: Brother to Brother: Education, Mentorship, and Men of Color.  

Mentorship is also part of what goes on in our library every day. Did you know that our school’s peer mentor program is part of The Learning Commons!? A library can be a complicated community space (virtually or in person). A million things can go on at once in a library –folks studying and doing research and talking and making copies and having a community conversation, just like the one we had at the end of January.  

At that January roundtable, our very own Gregg Lewis walked us through his experience founding the Uzuri Academy in Bushwick in the 1980s with a few friends to get kids in his childhood neighborhood off the streets. His story and insights sparked rich reflections from many in the zoom from both sides of the mentoring relationship. As Director of the Library, I was struck by how much we could learn from the mentor space Gregg described. I’ll let Gregg take it from here! 

Uzuri Academy: The Backstory of a Mentor Space 

By Gregory Lewis, Library Assistant – Technology Specialist

I believe it was early seventies when I met William Gates or “Pop Gates” as he became to me and my friends. 

In my Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, he was the sanitation man, who liked to come to our park and at first just watch us play basketball. Pop talked to us about the game, where he learned how to play and then would whip our buts every weekend. 

Gregg and Keith Saunders, Gary Grant, Phil Butler James Hays, Michael Windley, Mike Harrison and whole lot more of us have gotten together over the years to laugh and talk about how this forty-year-old man would beat us all the time. 

Pop told great stories about growing up, the importance of education and his college days at the University of San Francisco where he met and roomed with Bill Russell. They both became Boston Celtics. 

Being the father of daughters, he took us under his wing, and we became his sons. With our parents okay, he took us to games in New York and Boston. After his death I realized the one thing he did was keep us straight, by that I mean out of trouble, away from harm. 

It is in his honor that we started a reunion to show our appreciation. Those of us who are left know that he helped us become better men. That led to us going back to where we grew up and trying to give something back. 

That effort became a basement in a senior citizens home, to give the kids there a place to be instead of on the corner or in front of the bodega. Full of our own books, a stereo system (old radio) and chairs. This place became the new hangout stop for both us and the kids when they weren’t playing games outside. We did get a pool table, checkers and chess boards were available too.  

They listened to us talk about our dreams and it got them to talk about theirs, so we talked about how to make them real. Those conversations became the Uzuri academy (intelligence, sense, & intellect in Swahili) –all part of a beautiful mind. Uzuri became our weekend pursuit, our way of giving back to where we came from. I have lost track of the number of people who came through the door but for 16 years there was a place for boys and girls to hangout, talk, and just be. They left with a dream and the belief they could make them real. One of the best experiences of my life.