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Visionary Arkansans 2018: Lorenzo Lewis 

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Lorenzo Lewis says his narrow escape from the school-to-prison pipeline was a testament to the importance of equipping marginalized men of color with coping skills and resources to manage their mental health. That's why in 2016 Lewis founded the Confess Project; its mission is to bring mental health and emotional awareness education to men and boys of color.

Lewis was born while his mother was incarcerated. He said behavior and anxiety issues in his early childhood led to his two-month stay at a juvenile facility in Pulaski County at age 10. He wasn't encouraged to talk about his feelings or trauma and almost re-entered the juvenile system at age 17.

"Emotionally, I wasn't validated as a young man," Lewis said. He was told that God heals everything, "but [that's] not practically looking at what helps and digging into the issue." The Confess Project advocates for psychological therapy and medication management. "Some of these different tools that you need to understand, through the process of healing and growing, [are] really important to getting on the right track. And I think those were not the things that were pushed in front of me."

The Confess Project offers monthly empowering sessions, community forums on social and emotional issues; 90-minute workshops for marginalized men and boys ages 10-40 on character education, academic improvement and life skills; and the Confess College Tour, which travels to different campuses with a curriculum focused on mental health education, prevention techniques and open dialogue.

The Confess Project also travels to barbershops in the South and Midwest as part of its "Beyond the Shop" series to meet men and boys where they are. Lewis said the "Beyond the Shop" model is intended to initiate conversations that spread further into the communities the nonprofit serves.

"The model of 'Beyond the Shop' is really meant to let this conversation start here, but blossom into our communities, into our homes, into our families, to help our children, to better our relationships," Lewis said. "So that's why it's called 'Beyond the Shop,' to say that it starts here but it revolutionizes throughout the places we live, work and play in."

Confess Project facilitators provide pamphlets on counseling services at the "Beyond the Shop" meetings. Lewis said that these efforts come full circle when he learns of someone who attended a session and went on to begin counseling, or quit smoking, or otherwise take better care of themselves.

"That is why we do what we do. ... I think it's the ultimate feeling as a founder of this organization," he said. "You intend for that to happen, but you don't always see it happen as rapidly, so when you see that happen, it really gives you a lot of satisfaction. At that point, you know that they have a larger chance of transforming their life, more than what they had before."

The Confess Project also trains barbers to become mental health advocates. Lewis said it intends to train 700 barbers next year through webinars, online video training and follow-ups.

Healing is at the root of what the Confess Project does. The curriculum guides men and boys through three archetypes of masculinity: provider, protector and priest. Lewis said once men and boys are able to identify the harmful constraints and pressures of these archetypes, they're able to gain perspective on the unhealthy behaviors they engender.

"Once you get men to understand that, I think they will begin to live a better quality of life," Lewis said. "We also ask, what is the speed of healing? But we let them know that time to heal and grow is different. ...

"A lot of the conversation is about manhood. It's mental health, but it's also about manhood. We have to dig deep into identity, and social skills, and building relationships. A lot of stuff comes up about divorce, and girls, and domestic violence, and child support. You're really dealing with men from the things that affect men."

According to Lewis, the Confess Project is built on the testimony and storytelling of facilitators with stories like his — stories like those of the men and boys in the barbershops and college campuses and community spaces they visit. Lewis said the resonance is crucial to the fulfillment of the organization's mission.

"I think it's important, because it allows them to really see the bigger picture," he said. "It allows them to see accelerated growth, and it's also just transparent, because it's someone who looks like them and comes from the same neighborhood, or went to the same high school as them, may have had failing grades just like them. ... Our facilitators and staff with the Confess Project all harness stories of power. ... It's a mixture of guys from different walks of life and professions who can relate to our key mission that helps us develop a bigger narrative."

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