Mansa Men Program Shines a Light on the Lives of Young Black Men

Photos provided by Carnell Willoughby

Carnell and Malik Willoughby had a simple idea from the start: to make good, healthy food accessible to their community. Through Willowbeez SoulVeg, Carnell’s vegan pop-up and catering business, they have certainly succeeded in that mission. ECDI recently sat down with Carnell and Malik to learn about their latest project, Mansa Men.

Carnell, a longstanding, cherished community artist, along with his brother and business partner, Malik, understood the challenges facing black boys and young men. As respected leaders in their community, they realized that they were in a position to make a difference.

“Our mother and father always did so much for the people around them,” explains Malik. As products of that altruism, community-focused work is second nature to them.

Carnell Willoughby

In October 2018, after having secured grant funding through the Columbus My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, Carnell and Malik worked with Maroon Arts Group to launch Mansa Men, a nine-month personal development program with monthly workshops hosted at ECDI’s Food Fort on the near-east side of Columbus. Mansa Men positions young black males between the ages of 14 and 18 for success at work and at home through skills development and exposure to strong black male role models.

“The name Mansa Men,” Carnell explains, “is a reference to Mansa Musa, the richest man that ever lived.” Carnell highlighted that Mansa Musa, emperor of the West African Mali Empire in the 1300s, would travel to poor towns and disburse his wealth for the benefit of his impoverished hosts.

The Mansa Men program is about the passing on of personal wealth, much like Mansa Musa did with his financial wealth long ago. In this case, personal wealth is about cultivating the internal strength that it takes to persevere through life’s challenges, which for Mansa Men participants, often include systemic racism, economic disadvantage, and difficult family situations.

“We believe that health is wealth,” says Malik, as he explains that the personal development for Mansa Men participants requires a holistic approach. Each workshop incorporates hard-skills development in nutrition, cooking and food safety, mindfulness training, which involves a mixture of yoga and meditation, as well as activities to focus on building self-confidence, coping skills, communication, and problem resolution skills.

“It’s so fulfilling to see one of ECDI’s clients—one that we have worked with in their own path to sustainable business ownership—giving back to the community in this way,” says Terry Traster, ECDI’s Food Fort Manager. “It was an obvious partnership that ECDI and the Food Fort are very proud to host.”

The program is designed to be immersive and highly impactful. After each workshop, the young men are given homework assignments to continue to develop the skills that they learned in the workshop.

“They leave with recipe cards after they have learned the whole process—from ingredient selection all the way to plating,” adds Carnell. “It’s a big deal for them—their homework is to take those recipes home, cook for their family, and post pictures to show how it turned out.”

The response from the first cohort has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s amazing to see young guys so interested in yoga and meditation,” Carnell says with a smile. In a culture that often puts forth complicated views of race, masculinity, self-care, health and wellness, and economic opportunities, Mansa Men operates through the lens of trauma-informed care by acknowledging the past traumas of its participants. The goal is to show these young men that they do not need to internalize the cultural barriers that drag them down. They can become the strong black male role models of the future—they can be the influential entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

For more information on the Mansa Men program, visit: Mansa Men – Health, Wealth, Mindfulness.

Willowbeez SoulVeg’s next pop-up will take place on Sunday, February 17  from 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. at Upper Cup Coffee, 121 Mill St., Gahanna. For more information on this event, visit: #4DaLoveOfBrunch: A Willowbeez SoulVeg PopUp Experience

This mutli-part sponsored series highlighting ECDI’s work in Columbus is presented with paid support by ECDI.

Since 2004, ECDI has assisted Ohio’s entrepreneurs through its one-stop shop business services model, suited to meet the needs of all entrepreneurs, regardless of what business stage they’re in. From providing capital to entrepreneurs looking to expand their businesses, to providing focused, business-specific educational opportunities to enhance entrepreneurial skill sets, ECDI works with their clients to meet their unique needs. Whether assisting a new client with a business concept or an accomplished entrepreneur opening a fifth location, ECDI’s “never say no” approach has allowed over twelve thousand entrepreneurs to take advantage of the services it provides. Visit ecdi.org today to learn more.