Kweli Kwaza’s goal is simple—to push Chicago’s inner-city youth beyond their imaginations.
Kwaza, ’87, is the founder and executive director of the Talented 10th college prep and career mentoring organization in Chicago, and the NIU Alumni Association is honoring his work this year with the F.R. Geigle Service Award.
Since 1983, Kweli has led the effort in assisting inner-city youth to navigate the college admissions process, and Talented 10th uses college students to mentor high school students. It is estimated that over 3,500 students have graduated from Northern Illinois University since the birth of the Talented 10th.
The work is personal to Kweli who was one of seven siblings raised by a single mother in Chicago in the 1960s. As a boy, he admired Black Panther leaders who taught him at the local youth center.
“They taught us we could be young men and future leaders. For me, they adequately filled the gap of the father when I was at an impressionable age,” Kwaza said.
As a teenager, Kwaza became involved with the Project Upward Bound Program at Northwestern University in Evanston, forging his mother’s name so he could attend. One spring break, one of the counselors in the program invited him to visit NIU.
“That is when I got my ‘ah-ha’ moment,” Kwaza remembered. “I sat in on a class and I understood the professor and knew I could do the work. That was the moment I decided that I was going to go to college at NIU.”
At that point, though, Kwaza was a senior in high school and had never prepared for college.
“The only thing I was ready to do was to go to prison or the grave because of my gang activity,” he said. “I never imagined going to college. In fact, I didn’t even imagine life beyond 19.”
As a high school senior, Kweli had a 14 ACT score and a 2.3 GPA at a poor-performing school. The Assistant Director of the Upward Bound Program made a phone call to NIU’s C.H.A.N.C.E. program, and the rest is history.
“I believe in our youth today because somebody believed in me, even though every indication said, ‘No, don’t let this one in.’ NIU gave me a chance in spite of myself.”
Kwaza has also founded Club 21 out of the need for neighbors to participate in reducing crime and beautifying neighborhoods in Chicago’s 21st Ward. Club 21 also serves as a platform for the Talented 10th college students to perform community service. To date, 321 Block Clubs are participating in Club 21.
Five years ago, Kwaza started the Young Inventors Program for 4th to 8th-grade students. The young Inventors benefit from doing hands-on S.T.E.M. projects, but the true goal of the program is to develop leadership skills.
“A long time ago, I learned that I could not have much impact on our youth unless I am also working with parents and siblings, too,” Kwaza said. “So, we teach the parents how to raise their leaders and encourage their sibling to join our program.”
With so much to be proud of, Kwaza’s favorite thing is coming back to the NIU campus. When he comes to NIU for a prospective student tour, he is bombarded with college students who feel an obligation to participate as college mentors because they were once in our program. This kind of “pay it forward” mentality has made a lasting impact on the students who participate in the Talented 10th and changes their lives in the process. Kwaza meets graduates of his program everywhere he goes.
“One of my favorite things is when a new college graduate calls me to help them find a job or a past student calls me to give their child the NIU/Talented 10th experience,” he said. “The other day I had to negotiate using space at Kennedy King College with one of our past NIU mentors who is now the dean of students there.”
Kwaza, himself, has gone on to great personal success, having earned his B.A. in political science from NIU, his master’s in social work from University of Chicago, and he is pursuing his doctorate degree from National Louis University in community psychology. He practices what he preaches, continually trying to improve himself and the world around him.
“I believe in the (students), and I appreciate the attention and respect I’m given,” he said. “I only ask them to give back to the community, not only in the future but right now. This service award encourages me to be more energized and focused when it comes to uplifting our community. I only wish that it could open more doors at NIU for black students.”