James Woody coaches a Sutton Scholar through a mock interview
One of the best parts about working for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland is the opportunity to learn about all the projects, services and care that are provided by our many ministries. Over the past few months, your development team has had the opportunity to interview our exceptional staff and volunteers to learn about their service and life as leaders in our ministries. Earlier this month we sat down with Mr. James Woody, executive director of the Sutton Scholars® High School Enrichment Program. We really enjoyed the conversation, and I think you will too!
Mark Talcott, Director of Development
Episcopal Diocese of Maryland
Building Leaders for a Community of Love: How Sutton Scholars is Supporting a Generation of Youth
Interview with Mr. James Woody, executive director
When you think back on your childhood, who were the role models that shaped you into the person you became as an adult? Was it a parent that taught you a valuable skill? Was it a neighbor you could always confide in? Was it a teacher that challenged you to grow beyond your potential?
For James Woody, one of them was a youth group leader. James’ faith journey developed significantly during his teenage years in Washington DC when he joined a local Christian youth group. It was there that he met Eugene Burrell, a fellow African-American man just a few years older than himself.
“One of the things that he always impressed upon us was the importance and power of knowledge,” James recalled, chuckling as he went on to talk about the philosophical and theological drills Burrell put them through, always challenging them to reach higher.
One particular memory stood out above the rest: during the usual, scheduled Saturday youth group meeting, Eugene addressed the cluster of Black, teenage boys around him, declaring that he had decided that Christianity did not have all the answers he needed, and that he was leaving the church for another faith.
“We’re all sitting there like ‘What? You did what?? And you’re our leader??’” James recalled, grinning at the memory. “But it was all a ploy on his part to get us to defend Christianity, to try and make the argument –intellectually and otherwise– that Christianity was the way.”
“And we botched it terribly!” James laughed. “Eugene gave it to us afterwards! He had been ‘trying to pour knowledge into us for a couple of years’ and this was the best we could come up with? The best you can do is give me some “woe is me” kind of argument?’”
Even though decades have passed since that debate, the memory of Burrell, who passed away in 2021, and the exchange, is still etched in James’ memory. “People like that, and there were a number of them, including my parents, were always willing to be there for us as young people, to walk with us through whatever issue or challenge we were struggling with.”
That is the kind of uplifting experience that James plans to bring to Sutton Scholars.
James Woody, Executive Director of the Sutton Scholars Program
Learning for Life
In the wake of the 2015 Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore, the Diocese of Maryland began a discernment process to figure out how the Church could play a role in healing the broken racial relationships in Baltimore City. The Sutton Scholars High School® Enrichment Program was the result. In 2016, the program launched, providing youth of color in Baltimore with an opportunity to build life skills through mentoring and hands-on experience.
Life skills, also known as “soft” skills, are the many social and behavioral skills that help an individuals successfully navigate their daily lives. These include decision-making skills such as critical and creative thinking; communal skills like conflict resolution, building healthy relationships, rejecting peer pressure; personal awareness skills like self-esteem, personal responsibility, emotional intelligence; and more.
These skills are particularly important during adolescence, a time filled with new feelings, physical and emotional changes, excitement, questions, and difficult decisions. Life skills can help young people overcome the challenges of growing up and improve the quality of their young adult lives.
Life skills are built, not taught. While some academic curricula touch on these skills, mastery of them comes from hands-on practice, over and over, throughout a child’s formative years. This extends outside the classroom: whether by interacting with role models, peers, parents, or other members of their community, youth pick up their behavioral cues and skills from their surroundings. When a child does not have the opportunity to build these skills because of a lack of positive engagement opportunities, they fall behind.
For the past six years, Sutton Scholars has worked with more than a hundred teenagers in Baltimore City to build life skills through mentoring and year-round activities. Working with counselors and administrative staff in Baltimore City middle schools, Sutton Scholars recruits 8th grade students to participate in the program from Freshman year through their graduation from high school. To date, two cohorts have finished high school and gone on to college and careers, while a third is finishing up its last few weeks of high school.
Members of the 2016 cohort celebrate the completion of their fourth year at Sutton Scholars
Building Excellence and Equity
James brings decades of experience working collaboratively with under-resourced communities to identify and support their needs. He got his start at Community of Hope in Washington, DC, a non-profit fighting homelessness and health inequality. Through its housing, education and health programs, Community of Hope worked alongside members of those communities to build authentic relationships and address the challenges that negatively impacted children, families, and the neighborhoods in which they lived.
This community-based mindset followed James from his role at Community of Hope to his role as founding Executive Director of the Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys, a tuition-free school sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington aimed at giving young boys of color in under-resourced communities the same level of academic excellence afforded to their wealthier peers.
“I’m not a classically trained educator,” James explained. “So, for me, I wasn’t approaching that work solely from the standpoint of reading, writing and arithmetic. For me the priorities included things like: How would the students’ parents be involved? What would we do about feeding the boys if they were hungry? What about social work? Mental health concerns? All the things that were part of my experience and background.”
When asked how he hopes Sutton Scholars will meet the needs of communities in Baltimore, James suggested that Sutton Scholars can help youth break the cycles of poverty and violence facing the city by teaching them to challenge paradigms. He used one of the biggest crises facing Baltimore City as an example: gun violence.
“There is this idea that–and I’m relatively new to Baltimore – my wife and I moved to Baltimore City almost three years ago and have fallen in love with our new hometown — but there seems to be this deeply ingrained idea that gun violence is just going to happen, that it’s just par for the course in a city like this.” He began, citing an opinion article in the Baltimore Sun that compared the city’s homicide rate to others in the country. Last year, Baltimore once again lost more than 300 people to violence, a staggeringly high number. By comparison, Boston, which has a population of almost 100,00 more people, lost 40.
“And when I hear those kinds of numbers, it’s staggering to me, and a lightbulb comes on. How is it possible that one major American city on the east coast is losing, on average, six people a week, and one is losing 40 in a year? Of course, all homicides are devastatingly tragic, and while it’s not our young people’s responsibility to solve this epidemic, perhaps we can equip them with the tools and resources to help our communities resolve conflict in healthier, more productive ways. That disconnect for me is just a reminder that sometimes we need to challenge these paradigms. Why is that acceptable in Baltimore? It shouldn’t be.”
Empowerment and Advocacy
Teaching youth to challenge expectations and find new solutions to old problems is how Sutton Scholars moves Baltimore forward. James emphasized that he looks forward to encouraging and challenging the scholars to take very seriously the notion that they have a voice. “They have a say in what this city is, what its future is, what its neighborhoods are like, what its communities become,” James explained. “Because this is their hometown, and they get a say in what it looks like.”
Putting self-advocacy into practice takes a variety of forms at Sutton Scholars: sometimes, this involves teaching a scholar how to positively express their emotions after a conflict; sometimes, it’s coaching a scholar through a mock debate or interview; sometimes, it’s introducing scholars to state and city legislators to talk about the issues and concerns they see in their neighborhoods.
Sometimes, even something as simple as lunch can be an opportunity for advocacy. During his first visit to the program last year, James sat down with the senior class and engaged them in a debate, much like his own mentors did when he was in high school. This time, the subject wasn’t religion, but rather the lunchtime menu.
“I remember asking some of the scholars about the food. Asking them ‘What do you think? How’s the food here?’” That icebreaker question led to a flurry of feedback: some students enjoyed the boxed lunches provided by the program; others hated them.
The conversation soon shifted from sandwiches and chips to advocacy. “Okay if you don’t like this, and I don’t particularly care for it myself, what are you going to do about it?” James challenged the scholars. “Let’s talk about some strategies that you could use to get the menu changed, to get the caterer changed, to get the food you have to eat here every day changed to something you’d enjoy more.”
Soon enough, the senior scholars began formulating their own solutions, proposing ideas and alternatives. “The thing that jumped out at me was the creativity and resourcefulness. I walked away feeling pleased and proud of the possibilities for these young people… I was really excited to hear their strong feelings and their ideas about what they can do to effect change. I think that gave me a lot of hope and optimism for the future of the program and the kids involved.”
When asked if he had any concerns about the scholars making demands of him as the executive director to change the food menu, James laughed. “Isn’t that what this is about? Helping them to see the power they have to effect change? We as the adults, the people who are ‘in charge’ must be held accountable to the lessons we’re trying to teach them.”
(Left) A Sutton Scholar shares her ideas and opinions with her older mentor, (Center) Sutton Scholars meet with legislative representatives to talk about the needs of their communities, (Right) Sutton Scholars demonstrate their business model proposals during the closing ceremony of the summer program.
Building Partnerships and Program Capacity
As Sutton Scholars expands, one of James Woody’s top priorities is fleshing out the year-round aspects of the program. Currently, the core of the Sutton Scholars program centers on its six-week summer program – five weeks on Mercy High School’s campus, and one week at the Claggett Center, with small gatherings and volunteer activities taking place in between summer programs.
“I feel like there’s such an opportunity to strengthen and deepen that which happens between summers,” James explained, “Whether its mentoring or internships, or building connections with the young people that will really enable them to bear more fruit from the program than just that which they get from the six weeks in the summer.”
Another priority James is focused on is building relationships between Episcopal congregations and the Sutton Scholars program. Here, James sees an opportunity for scholars and churches to grow together and learn from one another. “One of the things I’ve talked about with parishes I’ve spoken to is that it’s important for them to do an inventory of their skills, assets, and resources, and we’ll do an inventory of our needs, and let’s look to match the needs we have with the resources we have across the diocese.”
Matching needs to resources, however, is not a one-way relationship in James’ eyes. On the contrary, he sees this as a golden opportunity for Sutton Scholars to give back.
“Our young people need networks that will serve them throughout the rest of their lives. Parishes need diversity, need perspectives that aren’t represented in their day-to-day conversations. Sutton Scholars can be a bridge to parishes and parishes can certainly benefit from and contribute to what we are trying to build.”
James is eager to continue this ongoing process of exploration and community building. “There’s so much we can gain through partnerships.”
The Future of Sutton Scholars
When asked why he is so passionate about Sutton Scholars, James put it this way:
“Baltimore will be as wonderful a place as the next generation of young people makes it… There are all kinds of opportunities. The challenge is that unless the young people who are in elementary school, middle school, and high school now are equipped with the skills to take advantage of the opportunities, this is all going to pass them by,” James warned.
“I see in the Sutton Scholars myself when I was that age… And I understand and appreciate the value that having caring adults in a young person’s life can have,” he added. “I know that but for the commitment of some loving and caring adults in my own life, I could have very easily veered off into a direction that probably wouldn’t have been very productive. Having had that positive experience, I wanted to try and mimic that for other young people as I matured into adulthood.”
It takes many hands to make a program like Sutton Scholars run smoothly every year. To those interested in supporting Sutton Scholars, James encourages you to reach out and get involved: become a mentor or volunteer, come give a guest presentation, or invite James or other leaders in the program to present about the program at your church.
It takes a village to raise a child, after all. And our community of love is the village for our Sutton Scholars.
This amazing ministry is a critical part of our community of love in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and depends upon your generosity. To learn more about this ministry and our other collective ministries visit: https://episcopalmaryland.org/bishops-annual-appeal/