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Service & Impact
January 9, 2024

Shaping Brighter Futures

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BEING NAMED THE WAYMAKER movement’s Making a Difference award recipient for 2022 recently was a great honor, reminding me that the challenges we all face when we try to help bring about positive change are worth it. But while I’m grateful for the recognition, it really needs to be shared with all those who are part of the efforts I lead at the Building Brighter Futures Center for the Arts in the North Lawndale area of Chicago.
Having served on the board previously when it was still known as the Better Boys Foundation (BBF), I returned to Chicago from Los Angeles to become president and CEO in 2021. Renaming ourselves to better represent our vision and values, we’re building on a rich history that dates back some 63 years.
Chicago businessman Joseph Kellman founded BBF to help some of the disadvantaged young men he saw in his community, soon broadening the organization to include girls and parents. Through providing a wide range of educational and recreational opportunities for children, teenagers and young adults from underprivileged backgrounds—everything from tutoring and mentoring to arts, boxing and chess—we aim to provide a safe haven, build their confidence and broaden their horizons. And we don’t just feed their hearts and minds; we also provide meals and snacks.
As part of opening up their future, we also introduce them to their past: our center features a large educational frieze by leading artist Kerry James Marshall depicting the city’s annual Bud Billiken Parade that celebrates our Black heritage. It’s been heartbreaking to me how many of our young visitors know nothing about this important annual event.
We’re not just trying to give them a bigger vision; we are also trying to break down walls by providing common ground. There’s long been an invisible divide in Chicago between the West Side and the South Side; the idea that if you’re from one part you can’t or shouldn’t go to the other. At BBF we’ve been able to demonstrate that’s just not true. We have kids from all parts of the city and even the suburbs who come for the programs. They discover not just new skills and opportunities but also that they have more in common with others from different backgrounds than what they may have thought separates them.
Though BBF began in a boxing gym, we currently don’t have a sports facility. That’s on our wish list, a facility we hope to be able to develop with the support of one of the city’s big sports teams. We envisage it also having room to provide culinary classes.
My previous experience, running my own day-care and entertainment event management businesses, helped prepare me for this new role, with all its challenges. On days when I may be tempted to wonder whether we’re making a difference, to have a child come in and say thank you because if not for the meal we provided they would not have eaten, or a former student who is now working in the film industry come back to tell how if he had not gotten involved with us he would probably be dead like many of his friends, makes it all worthwhile.
I know I’m truly working in my purpose because of the joy I feel every day knowing this work is making a difference in someone’s life.
With five undergraduate and graduate degrees in the areas of education, human behavior and social work, Pamela Joy Blackman is president and CEO of the Building Brighter Futures Center for the Arts in Chicago. She is a mother of two, son Montrelle and daughter Mieka Joi, and grandmother of five: Phoenix, PJ, Shah, Ade and Mualli.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 issue of WayMaker Journal.