Matt Driscoll

They wanted to change black kids’ lives. Over time, they’ve come up with $1M to do it

‘This is the big payoff’ – youth incentive program aims to help teens stay in school

The Elizabeth Wesley Youth Merit Incentive Award Program has been helping to inspire and motivate African American students for nearly a quarter century. The program has given out more than $1 million in incentive awards..
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The Elizabeth Wesley Youth Merit Incentive Award Program has been helping to inspire and motivate African American students for nearly a quarter century. The program has given out more than $1 million in incentive awards..

At first, Jim Walton and Tom Dixon thought a plaque might do the trick.

But Walton, Tacoma’s first black city manager, and Dixon, the first executive director of the Tacoma Urban League, were quickly rebuffed.

In 1995, Walton and Dixon were both searching for a way to honor Elizabeth Wesley, a founding member of Shiloh Baptist Church on Tacoma’s Hilltop.

Wesley — who was well-known at Shiloh Baptist and throughout Tacoma’s African American community for her years of grassroots, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer efforts to help individuals and families in need — deserved something special, they were repeatedly told.

A plaque, the two leaders quickly learned, simply would not cut it.

“I thought we were going to need escorts to get out of the room,” Walton recently told The News Tribune, laughing at the memory.

So the two men went back to the drawing board, and by the following year the Elizabeth Wesley Youth Merit Incentive Award had been created.

The award is now in its 24th year and supported by organizations like the Tacoma branch of the NAACP, the Tacoma Pierce County Black Collective, the Urban League and the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance.

Like the woman it’s named for, the award is straightforward and intensely community driven.

Each September — on the third Saturday of the month — the award provides a $350 incentive to black students in grades nine through 12 throughout Pierce County. It’s intended to recognize black students for their academic performance as well as their community engagement and leadership.

Student applications require a written essay as well as at least three letters of recommendation. There’s a minimum grade point average requirement, Walton says, but the program strives to go beyond just grades when assessing the applicants.

Back when it started, Walton, who still serves as co-chair of the Elizabeth Wesley Youth Merit Incentive Award, said the goal was to improve graduation rates and help more of Tacoma and Pierce County’s black students make it to college.

“The idea was to encourage African American students to do better in school, so they come out in a good position,” Walton says. “We wanted to elevate academic achievement, and we wanted to focus on the African American community because then — and now — our students are not faring as well as others. We’re getting better, but that was a big issue.”

The clear proposition behind the endeavor was equally evident. This was about the black community coming together to stand behind — and in support of — black students.

“That’s the base of the program, and why we came into existence,” Walton explains.

Things have certainly come a long way.

In its first year, the Elizabeth Wesley Youth Merit Incentive Award honored five students. More recently, that number has annually topped 200.

Over nearly a quarter century, more than 3,000 students from seven participating school districts have been recognized, and more than $1 million has been distributed in awards. Additionally, the program has awarded 167 college scholarships, totaling more than $200,000.

Today, sustaining the youth merit incentive awards alone requires more than $70,000 in annual fundraising — largely from small-time donors, Walton says.

The ultimate goal, as it’s been every year since the award was created, is to honor every black student who applies and meets the criteria, according to Wayne Williams, the chair of the award’s executive committee.

Initially, that wasn’t a problem. But as the award’s notoriety and prominence grew, so did the need to raise funds, Williams says.

“We became a victim of our own success,” he says.

In recent years, the award has come close to achieving its objective of honoring every eligible student, but Walton and Williams are clear about their desire to make it a yearly reality.

Make no mistake: This, too, serves as a reflection of the award’s namesake Elizabeth Wesley — who Walton describes as “a one-person movement.”

In more than 42 years of attending Shiloh Baptist, Wesley grew to be revered for her tireless efforts to lift up those around her. Sometimes this meant scrounging donations to purchase back-to-school supplies for a child in need. Sometimes it meant helping a family put food on the table.

Walton looks back at Wesley’s tireless and persistent efforts and laughs again.

“She was thought of as ‘the mother of the church.’ Just highly respected,” Walton recalls. “She raised so much money. She’d come to people like me and others, but it wasn’t that she was asking me to give … it was almost a mandate. It wasn’t an option.”

Tafona Ervin, now the executive director of Foundation for Tacoma Students, is one of many former merit award recipients who recalls the difference it made in her life. During her time attending Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Ervin received the award multiple times.

Being recognized, Ervin, 34, says, “made me feel as a black young girl in Tacoma that I’m so much more than what society might label us to be.”

Ervin, who says she grew up in a low-income, single-parent home, also remembers how much the $350 meant to her, in practical terms — and her family.

The first year, Ervin says, most of the money went to pay the family’s electricity bill.

The second year, Ervin says she kept $20 or $50, and gave the rest to her mom.

“I share that because while it was an accreditation of the work I had done socially and academically, it really was an incentive for my family to see the value in education,” Ervin says.

Ervin also recalls the positive impact that having the support of prominent members of Tacoma’s black community had on her and other award recipients back when they were just teenagers. At the time, the annual award programs was held at Allen AME Church on Hilltop.

“There was power in that, absolutely,” Ervin says of the yearly gatherings, which continue to be attended by many prominent members of Tacoma’s African American community. “It gave us this sense of belonging … That was enough to help instill the confidence that I needed to go on and do the things I did.”

The same holds true for Jamilia Sherls-Jones, a Wilson High School graduate who is now director of the MultiCare Center for Health Equity and Wellness.

Sherls-Jones, 35, also received the incentive award multiple times during her high school career. Her first job was as an intern, at age 16, for the health care organization she now helps lead.

“I felt (the incentive award) really helped me,” Sherls-Jones says. “It made me believe that my community — the African American community — was behind me 100 percent.”

That, of course, is precisely the idea — and the big reason why such a unique award was created to honor such a unique woman in Tacoma’s history.

So, if Elizabeth Wesley was alive today, what would she say?

Walton has little doubt.

“I think she would say, ‘You can do more,’” he says, with yet another knowing chuckle.

“She would keep pushing.”