Sharael Alston was proud her son had been chosen as a speaker at the Black Male Leadership Development Institute graduation Saturday, but she wasn't expecting what he said next.
"I want to give a special thanks to my mom," said 17-year-old Troy Miles of Monroeville, "because my dad -- he's a jerk -- but she's always been there, and I appreciate it."
With that short, powerful statement, Troy cut to the heart of what many in the African-American community have been debating for years.
In 2011, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 67 percent of African-American children were being raised in single-parent households, mostly by single moms, compared with 42 percent in Latino households and 25 percent in non-Hispanic white households.
For Ms. Alston, who has three other children, it was an unexpected tribute.
"It kind of tore me up, and so I was in my seat wiping my eyes. I'm truly honored to have him as a son. I knew he was going to do great things, but I didn't know he was going to start out so early."
The leadership institute is a joint project of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and Robert Morris University, with additional funding from The Heinz Endowments and the Buhl Foundation. It starts each summer with 75 black males from grades 9 to 12 going to a week-long session at Robert Morris, and then attending Saturday programs the rest of the year focusing on leadership, community service, character and college preparation.
Saturday's ceremony was billed as a rite of passage for the remaining 52 boys, who sat on the stage at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in white shirts and gray bow ties, washed in the applause of friends and family.
For Troy, a junior at Propel Braddock Hills High School, the issue of black role models is a crucial one.
His mother, he said, "has meant a lot to me. But I'm the oldest and the first to leave the family, and lately, it's been difficult, especially not having a man who I can go to on a daily basis who understands me."
The last time he heard from his dad was a text message on his birthday. "I wish that my dad would have been my good example," he said in an interview, "but he's my bad example, and it just makes things 10 times harder, and I just have to get role models from where I can get them."
The men he met in the leadership institute filled some of that gap. He also took advantage of the opportunity to go to a LeadAmerica event in Washington, D.C., where he got to talk with retired general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"He told me that growing up, he wasn't the best student, and he got into ROTC and found his way through the military. He spoke about how you have to find yourself as a leader, so I realize I have to find somewhere where I would fit best."
The issue of male role models also showed up in keynote speaker Austin Davis' comments. Mr. Davis, executive assistant to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, said that African-American mothers have borne the burden of holding black families together for too long, "and it's now time for us to take our rightful place in our families and in our communities."
Troy, who has his heart set on attending Howard University after a trip to the campus, said the leadership institute has opened his eyes to what he can become.
"I've seen so many broken men in my life, I didn't know what it meant to be a strong, independent black man," he told the audience.
"But this program taught me I may not be able to do everything, but I can do something, and that 'something' can make a difference."
Mark Roth: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1130.