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This year, African American young men at all four District 196 high schools will be invited to apply for a program aimed at increasing their exposure to different careers and African American men who work in these careers.

Now in its second full year, the African American Male Mentorship Program targets young men who have shown an increased interest in their grades and may be thinking about college after graduation. Participants make a visit about every six weeks to a business or government office, where they learn about the organization, the different jobs held by the people who work there and the education required to get those jobs.

“We want to create a vision for these young men from the classroom to the board room,” says Leon Tazel, who founded The Tazel Institute in 2015 to offer the program in partnership with the district. “It’s important for students to see people in the real world who are doing the things they might like to do someday. They need to know that the person up front in the suit wasn’t always in a suit and they went through some of the same things they are going through.”

Tazel himself grew up poor and without a father in Aliquippa, Penn., one of five children raised by their mother. With a couple of breaks along the way and through the grace of financial aid, Tazel said he was able to attend college and earned a degree from Slippery Rock University. After graduating, Tazel had a successful 18-year career with Time Warner Cable and since 2007 has been vice president, senior manager of employee relations for TCF Bank in Minneapolis, where he also lives.

The idea for starting the program came to Tazel three years ago, sitting in the Juvenile Justice Center in Minneapolis while his daughter served as witness in a criminal proceeding. “What I saw just blew my mind,” he recalls. “It was a bunch of young African American boys being herded around like cats. The thing that really caught my eye is I saw no fathers. When we left I told my daughter that I had to do something.”

After first presenting the proposal in his home district, Tazel had a business meeting with Rosemount parent Rev. Kelly Webb and the idea came up in conversation. The two talked about it more after that first meeting and in September 2014 they met with representatives from the Washington County Attorney’s Office, Bolander and Sons Construction Company and the Apple Valley Police Department to lay the foundation for the program.

The first visit was held in February 2015 and included about 20 ninth-grade students from Rosemount High School and Park High School in Cottage Grove. It was hosted by the Washington County Attorney’s Office and featured an African American judge as the presenter. Some of the other visits have included the Apple Valley Police Department, Minneapolis Public Library, Bolander Construction, The Metropolitan Council and TCF Bank.

Students who participated in the program the first year were encouraged to continue last year and more students were added from Rosemount and Apple Valley high schools. This year, the program is being expanded to include students from Eagan, Eastview, East Ridge and Woodbury high schools. All totaled, Tazel said the program could be serving more than 160 students.

“If I save one kid from what I saw that day in juvenile court, this work will be worth it,” Tazel says. “The whole thing is about getting a quality education and that they become positive participants in our economy.”

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