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Charlotte came last among major cities in a 2014 report measuring economic mobility. That served as a rallying cry for Charlotte leaders to try to figure out how to improve opportunities for the city’s poorest residents. We look at where Charlotte is eight years later.

Thornhill Rites of Passage imparts lessons, life skills in Charlotte youth

The Thornhill Rites of Passage Foundation’s 2023 cohort
The Thornhills Rites of Passage Foundation
The Thornhill Rites of Passage Foundation’s 2023 cohort

This article originally appeared in WFAE's weekly EQUALibrium newsletter. To get the latest race and equity news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

The Thornhill Rites of Passage Foundation works with boys in the seventh and eighth grades to build their character, grow their financial literacy and help equip them to navigate obstacles that arise as they transition from teens to adults.

Wayne L. Thornhill and his wife, Michelle Thornhill, started the Thornhill Rites of Passage Foundation in 2016. The couple live in Charlotte and have two sons. Wayne Thornhill said the organization's founding stemmed from wanting to ensure their children could safely navigate interactions with law enforcement.

A U.S. Department of Justicereport in 2020 estimated that about 21% of U.S. residents age 16 or older have some kind of contact with police. The report said Black and Hispanic people are more likely to experience the threat of force or use of nonfatal force during an interaction with the police in comparison to their white counterparts.

“Most families of color, particularly African American families, have what they call ‘the talk,’ and they have the talk to say, ‘Listen, here’s how you conduct yourself in certain situations … if you're ever stopped by the police,’” Thornhill said. “Whether it’s knocking on the wrong door, in the wrong neighborhood, going down the wrong street or asking directions, we see that people of color — particularly African American boys — face different challenges that other groups don’t necessarily have to deal with.”

Thornhill used the acronym “HAND” to inform his children on how to limit the risk of a negative experience with law enforcement.

“Have your hands so they’re seen. The ‘A’ is for always to be respectful. The ‘N’ is never to give up your Fourth Amendment rights – and that's important, that deals with search and seizure. And the ‘D’ is deescalating the situation,” Thornhill said. “I wanted my sons to know that specific moment how to survive.”

Working as an attorney for 20 years, Thornhill turns to his background to educate and expose the boys to those working in the legal system and to highlight potential career avenues.

“They see a trial, go to the courtroom, and then the judge speaks with them. It’s powerful. It’s Black boys having the opportunity to meet judges,” Thornhill said.

Boys going through the program have met Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather, Mecklenburg Public Defender Kevin Tully and Mecklenburg Sheriff Garry McFadden.

“Those are powerful moments that are etched in their psyche,” Thornhill said.

The program provides workshops on financial literacy. The Foundation offers participants $250 when they enroll. They must strive to at least double the money as they grow and manage it during their time in the program.

“I think it’s imperative as an ethnic group, we understand the power of economics,” Thornhill said. “It starts with how you open up a checking account, but then we move onto investing.”

The yearlong program costs $3,000 and accepts 12 students each year. Scholarships are available for families making less than $75,000.Applications are open until April 1 for the 2024-25 cohort.

The Foundation also aims to expose boys in the program to new experiences. For some, this includes taking an airline flight for the first time. This year, the program plans to take a group on a flight to Washington, D.C., where students will tour Howard University as part of the program's efforts to introduce them to various universities and tour the White House.

Dressing the part and dining etiquette are other things the program works to instill in participants. The Foundation partners with Ilios Noche restaurant, a fine-dining restaurant where the boys are treated to a seven-course meal. Thornhill said the experience is intended to ensure they acquire appropriate table manners and understand the types of conversations suitable for different environments.

“We do a golfing outing afterward because all of this is a part of understanding, building social capital and networking,” Thornhill said. “The etiquette session is about how to conduct myself and how to own my space; the food is a tool. It’s a vehicle.”

Thornhill said one of the most critical parts of the program is making sure the boys are aware of their identity. The program purchases DNA ancestry kits, allowing them to explore their family history. “We found that to be powerful when they know who they are, what they represent, the lineage they come from,” Thornhill said. “That cultural piece, knowing your narrative means not just Black history, but your narrative, your personal one.”

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Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.