"Going online with education is a bigger challenge for districts and neighborhoods where there's already a digital divide." Marlon Wharton explains to me. "We're trying to offset that by purchasing what we can, to make sure that the guys that are in our program have what they need to still be able to be academically successful."

The program in question is Gentlemen of Vision, a step team that serves as the focus of 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.

You can read the first part of Marlon Wharton's Interview here.

AW: You started Gentlemen Vision before the murder of Michael Brown. While that’s obviously not the sole incident of its kind, that specific incident brought a national eye to St. Louis. I'm wondering if that national eye had an impact on GOV or on the students that you work with in Riverview Gardens?

MW: Yeah. Yeah. We actually — and this is a strange story — when the Mike Brown incident occurred we were actually less than two minutes away, performing in Ferguson. We saw a million police cars flying around the corner and we were like, "I wonder what's going on," not knowing that, that particular day that he was murdered. We were literally two minutes away from that scene.

I mean, you have all these parents that know that they're raising African American men in a system where they're at an increased likelihood that they can be murdered at the hands of police. And so, they turned to us for guidance with their young man and even in the schools. I think it's a lot of trauma can go with this, because a lot of people and parents are worrying about this, worrying about what could happen.

Until we can get a hold of this systemic racial profiling, and police brutality, and all of that on top of all the other social problems… it's just a time where — yes, it's increased awareness but there’s also lot of trauma behind it too.

AW: How has the pandemic changed how you're working with your students and the young men in the group? How is it affecting the community and affecting yourself working with that community?

MW: Places like the Urban League and Better Family Life… the school systems have been given more resources. And I don't know that it's enough, but [they’ve given] more resources to address all of the social issues that communities face.

So, it's been one of those things where the digital divide is now a focus. Going online with education is a bigger challenge for districts and neighborhoods where there's already a digital divide. So now we're trying to offset that by purchasing what we can, as an organization, to make sure that the guys that are in our program have what they need to still be able to be academically successful.

Because of the different barriers that already exist — poverty for one — there's going to be neighborhoods that are affected differently because, again, they never had the best resources, the best facilities, the best equipment. So, that's where we are. We're just trying to, again, find a way to stand in the gap, to level the playing field, to make sure that all of our students have what they need to be successful. It's been a huge challenge because we're used to those touches, we're used to the weekly meetings, and now everything is via Zoom or via Google Platform or something like that, and it's changed. But again, we're in it for the long haul. We are committed to serving our community.

AW: I feel like society struggles with the idea of not having access to technology. Most people feel like everybody has access to technology, and that's not true.

MW: It's not true. A cell phone is definitely not a computer.

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

AW: I wanted to close out with a follow-up on the men who were featured in the documentary, to find out what’s going on with them. Darian, who’s step name was Prodigy?

MW: He was in college at Lincoln University for some years and then he came back home and now he's pursuing photography and going to a community college. Photography, videography… and he’s interested in music as well. So he's just pursuing his dreams, his goal.

AW: Mar’kel, who went by CA$H-U? I know he was one of the kids who was really having some trouble during the filming.

MW: He's doing wonderful as well. He is working. He was at technical school learning a trade so he got a job working with Home Depot where he travels.

AW: Fantastic. How about Tevin, Half-pint?

MW: Tevin actually is in an internship at the Nine Network. And he's also at Harris-Stowe State University in college and he's also a step team coach. He has his own girls step team.

AW: That’s great. How’s Michael, whose team name was Harry Potter?

MW: His dream was to be a Marine — so he did the Marines, and now he's out… and he's working a job in his field. He also learned a trade in technical school, so he's doing [his] trade out of town, right now.

AW: Cameron, who went by Tin Man?

MW: Tin Man is currently in college in Kansas City. He changed his major to education, with an emphasis in science. He’s in his third year, going to his senior year.

AW: Nice. How about James, also known as Drumline?

MW: He was in a music program at a community college and now he's back working at T-Mobile as a manager and he also is an assistant coach for Gentlemen of Vision. He's a professional drummer, too, so he's also traveling at times with different bands.

AW: And finally, Daniel, whose step name was Dance Machine?

MW: Daniel is... We lost contact with Daniel but he's going through some real challenges adapting to the adult life is what I understand. So, we just know that he is working, but we don't know any specifics or details.

A man walks toward the camera, slightly smiling. On either side of him, a line of young men in suits and ties stand at attention.

AW: One of the things that really impressed me in watching the documentary is that it feels like you never stop moving and you never stop working. Why? What drives you to do so much?

MW: Yeah. That's a good question. I feel like it's my calling. I feel like… I've been an elementary counselor, middle school counselor, high school counselor, and I feel like counseling is my calling. But also the mentorship in Gentlemen of Vision is my calling. It's just so ingrained in who I am that I don't know where I get the energy from… but it's provided every day. And if it's provided I'm going to use it to, again, just try to help change the narrative and help save some of these young men from a life of trouble, hardship.

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