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Experiencing their first flight was nerve wracking for Christopher Wiggins and Markel Dinkins.   But so was standing up to speak in front of 400 people at a conference in New Orleans.

“I was scared,” said the 26-year-old Wiggins with a laugh.

“I was nervous,” added Dinkins, 25.

The flight turned out fine. And fellow attendees at the “A Gathering of Leaders” Conference in New Orleans Sept. 14-16 got to hear about the two young men who grew up in Woodland Terrace, served some time in jail and became young fathers, but have turned their lives around to become leaders in their community.

The conference was attended by policy makers, researchers, advocates, and young men like Dinkins and Wiggins, who discussed strategies to help young men of color.   Dinkins and Wiggins were part of a Washington, D.C., contingent led by DC Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp.

The two shared their experience of being in Smart from the Start, a family support, community engagement, school/job readiness program for young fathers in Woodland Terrace.  They also heard from others who either went through the same things or are working with young people who need mentors.

“Everybody was interested in my story, but I wanted to hear their stories. I wanted to learn from them too,” Wiggins said.

Dinkins and Wiggins said the overall message was clear to everyone: young black men need mentors and role models, but they might be able to find those leaders by looking in a mirror.

“Hearing things about how you can lead in the right way and someone [will] follow you is a great thing,” Wiggins said. “It’s like show others that they can be a leader, and then let them know that they have dreams that they can accomplish just like we are.”

“What also stood out to me is when someone said that the older generation needs to pass the baton to the youth and give us a chance to connect with those younger than us because we can connect to them better,” Dinkins added.  “I love to talk to youth. I don’t want them to go down the wrong path like I did.”

The two will get another chance to tell their stories when they take part in a panel discussion during the National Black Child Development Institute’s conference here on Oct. 19.  The Institute advocates on issues impacting black children and their families.

Wiggins and Dinkins will join two more Smart from the Start participants from Boston during the session, “Focusing on Fatherhood: Leadership, Empowerment and Advocacy.”

“They will be speaking about their experience in the program, going to the conference and really the kind of vision that they see for their community, their families and their children,” said Kathleen Chapman, manager of Special Projects and Strategic Relationships for Smart from the Start.  “We’re really excited.”

Last modified: 10/8/2015 3:18:09 PM