“I feel like the world is a tough love kind of place,” Marlon Wharton tells me over the phone. It’s just after lunchtime on a Thursday, and I’ve managed to get forty-five minutes of Mr. Wharton’s time for an interview. A coup for an interviewer, as this is one man who never seems to stop — to stop working, to stop mentoring, to stop counseling, to stop caring. “I want to make sure that these guys are going to be successful.”

We’re talking about the young men that make up Wharton’s step team, Gentlemen of Vision, as seen in WORLD Channel's America ReFramed documentary of the same name. Founded by Wharton and Paul Albea in 2009, Gentlemen of Vision seeks to prepare young men of lower socio-economic means for a world that, as Wharton says, can be a difficult place for them. On the surface, it might seem like a lofty goal for an after-school program based around dance. But when you see Wharton interacting with and mentoring the young men in this group, you quickly realize just how effective his plan is.

WatchGentlemen of Vision on WORLD Channel's America ReFramed.

A not-for-profit based out of St. Louis, MO, Gentlemen of Vision is a group that uses the structure and discipline of step competitions to instill leadership and community into the students who join it. Self-governed by the students, and overseen by Wharton and his assistant coaches, the group serves as a surrogate family for many of its members — with Wharton and his assistant coaches as the de-facto father figures, who encourage the students to keep their grades up, to work hard and to find a trade or apply to college. And in a country where on 69% of black students graduate high school, Wharton’s practice speaks for itself: over the past 11 years, every single one of the students in Gentlemen of Vision have graduated high school.

Wharton’s success may be based in the fact that he understands the life many of his students are struggling through. Growing up in St. Louis, Wharton’s father was murdered, leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings in a 3-bedroom house with more than a dozen other family members. He’s intimately acquainted with what many of the trials his students go through — but it’s this background that has given him the strength to make such incredible change in his community.

“I want those cycles of not thinking that ‘I can’t fulfill my dreams, or my goals’ to end. I want to inspire these guys to be different, to be bigger than what society even feels that they can be.”

I sat down with Wharton to learn more.

Andrea Wolanin: How did Gentlemen Of Vision come about?

Marlon Wharton: As a high school counselor, I look around and realized that outside of sports there was nothing else really to get young men involved with. And so, I felt like I needed to create something that could be an additional net to help catch some of these guys and steer them in the right direction.

AW: What external challenges have you come across when you're trying to impact change with the young men in the group?

MW: Well, you're always up against influences such as drugs, gangs, freedom... young people just want to be free sometimes. And it's a challenge to get guys to do new things, to try something new.

Initially this was a new concept for these young men — where you're doing steps and you're being mentored. But once the word got out that this is something that was still fun and it was helping them to challenge themselves, then it became an easy sell. So we have always been able to be fully enrolled and have a waiting list of guys, students that need or want to be a part of the organization.

Gentlemen of Vision

AW: So, can anybody join Gentlemen of Vision? And what do you think makes a good member of GOV?

MW: It's open to everybody. And what we like to do is meet them where they are. So some students come to us with almost all failing grades and some kids come to us on the honor roll and most of them are somewhere in the middle. So the thing is that we set incremental goals for those who don't have the grades because the rule is no grades, no stage. You can't get any F's and perform with us. But, even the ones with mostly F's, we give them a goal and a target amount of time to turn themselves around. And because we're able to travel, we can do colleges, and we do a lot of things that the school wouldn't necessarily be able to do. They’re motivated by that and they want to be a part of [it]. We can do all these wonderful things, all we've got to do is turn ourselves around academically.

So, we make them commit and buy into reaching those goals. And the ideal students are the ones that buy in, the ones that say, "Okay, even if I'm here [now], I want to be here in the future. I want to challenge myself." Unlike other organizations we don't do cuts. If a guy can't step, there's no cut process, there's no rejection. But are you going to accept the challenge, to turn yourself around academically? Turn yourself around, where — maybe it’s a social thing, where you've been an introvert but we're asking you to be a part of a brotherhood now. So, are you going to accept the challenge to be able to be around others? And so, our ideal person is a person that's willing to try something new and challenge themselves.

AW: I notice that you have a tough love approach to a lot of the young men that you work with. Is this just you, or is this a persona that you think works better for the students?

MW: That's who I am as a person, but I take that with me. I have learned that it is easy to scale back later once you develop the rapport, and have got a system in place, then to come in too nice and have guys run over [you] or not take the process seriously. The tough love process is again combating all the things that's missing in their lives.

The world is a harsh place if these guys are not ready. So my approach is to prepare them for life once they leave high school. I feel like the world is a tough love kind of place so I want to make sure that these guys are going to be successful, that they're going to be excellent husbands, excellent fathers. It's the only way I know.

AW: In the film, you say if one of the members of GOV gets caught with something or gets sent to jail you're not going to visit them because you've given them their chances. Is that true?

MW: Yes. Yeah. That is so true. They know if they are ever caught up in a situation — and it's their fault, they made a bad decision — that our investment is upfront. We're investing in you before you hit this real world that we've been trying to prepare you for. So, in the event that you've made some bad decisions, we've instilled so many positive things in you then we're not stopping for you.

Because again, you're asking me to stop molding and mentoring new guys that are in high school. To stop, and come back, and revisit you from two or three years ago, when we've already planted those seeds. It's just unfair, because we've got new guys relying on us and our energy, so we will not waste any energy on guys that had the opportunity to do the right thing.

AW: You keep the teams trophies in your basement. What’s the reasoning behind keeping them there and not at the school?

MW: Like it was said in the documentary, our trophies are the guys that come back from medical school or law school; those are our trophies. [The trophies] do mean a lot — and maybe at some point when we get a physical space, they will all come out and be displayed. But right now, the work that has to be done is really about transforming lives. And we don't even feel like it's time to let down our hair and celebrate. It's like, "Okay, we've got a whole new group of guys and so the struggle continues."

AW: There’s an especially powerful scene at the end of the film, where one of the young men says of the group: "You made me realize what a real family is like." That seems to be one of the most vital parts of GOV for a lot of the students involved.

MW: I think it's critical, because a lot of them do have… there's some fathers that are absent right now. And a lot of times parents have to work — we have to do what we have to do to pay the bills — so the program has to stand in the gap, to be able to still teach them the value of family, to help them set goals, and have dreams, and fulfill those dreams by bonding, being able to share common experiences, and help one another to get wherever they’re trying to go.

AW: Do the guys themselves do their own choreography?

MW: Yeah, and that's another difference that we have from other step teams. We know that young people have the most creativity that's untapped. So, we've created a rigorous audition type of situation where guys make up choreography and we — like executives — we just shoot down what we don't like, and we approve what we do like, or we tell them, "It's all not up to par. Start over."

The process has gotten so complicated that a lot of the stuff that they present is next level. We have a style of step that's not seen anywhere on the planet because we challenge them to think outside the box; to not do what they see, to do things that's in their minds, that they don't even think could work. Imagine different things and create your step with things that have never been seen before.

That has gotten us to a place where… like I said, the steps look so… I would say futuristic, next level, creative. It's something that wouldn't even come from our [the coaches'] minds. So, the model is to challenge them, to give them ownership of the steps and give them the responsibility to create. And it's also really teaching more than that lesson. It's teaching them that they can create things from their minds, that they can complete things, that they can use their creativity to take things to the next level.

AW: It also gives them more ownership over it.

MW: Absolutely. Yeah, total ownership because, “I created this.” So, now when it's time to be at work and we have to create new systems to work, “I know how to brainstorm. I know how that to plan and implement things that come from my mind.”

It's all of this kind of stuff that really ends up in forms of leadership and character development. They start to believe, they start to get confident in all processes. It just really starts with step and little things, but we're asking them to do that in the organization, too, because [this is] a self-governing group. So, they have elections, they have a president, vice president, et cetera, and they run their own meetings. It’s like creating their own little society where they have their own structures in place and they're holding each other accountable.

A group of young men dance on stage – they're wearing letterman jackets, black pants and boots.

Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Marlon Wharton that will be released on Friday, August 21.

Watch Marlon Wharton and the Gentlemen of Vision on WORLD Channel's America ReFramed.