Not many have brushed shoulders with presidents, and fewer still have been inspired by them personally to start an organization. Both are true for Tony Gunn Jr.
Gunn, who met former President Barack Obama and his team in 2019, later was contacted by the Obama Foundation expressing interest in his past working at nonprofits and writing books.
“They wanted and then went forth with training me in young leadership equity. After completing that training, I went on to create my nonprofit initiative, Project You Belong,” Gunn says, noting his organization “focuses on planting and cultivating the seed in the minds of young men of color that they belong in every opportunity afforded to the rest of society.”
Project You Belong facilitates conversations surrounding mental health stigmas, as well as expression via literary mediums.
“We successfully conducted rounds of workshops with boys from St. Louis, Missouri, all the way to the Ozarks,” he says.
An early hurdle came when Gunn was unable to execute on many of the plans for Project You Belong’s short-story contest. So, Gunn and team went back to the drawing board.
“This is when the decision came to instead of just having Black boys and young men from St. Louis and the Ozarks working on the short-story contest, we can have Black boys and young men from all over the world participate,” he says. “With this decision, we ended up receiving short-story submissions from boys from as far as Nigeria to New Jersey.
“It was really eye-opening for myself and my team.”
Gunn has his own inspiring stories that back his nonprofit work.
From growing up in the impoverished north side of St. Louis, he went on to graduate from Missouri State University with three bachelor’s degrees in computer information systems, information technology infrastructure and business analysis.
“When I was a boy, no one could have ever told me that I would go to college, let alone graduate with three bachelor’s degrees,” Gunn says.
At age 14, he had his son, Travis, and the two were apart briefly when he went to school at MSU. He says testimony of traumatic experiences for his son was revealed in court, and Gunn was granted full custody last year.
“After my son came down to live with me, I continually worked on his confidence, studied with him in subjects he struggled in and worked on life skills in general relating to him, his individuality, friendships, etc.,” Gunn says. “Travis has now fully embodied a healthy environment, has increased his grades across the board, has gained more confidence all around and, most importantly to him, has made friends he wants to be friends with forever.”
Beyond his work with Project You Belong, Gunn is involved in the Ozarks Literacy Council as a member of its board of directors, and he’s a website support consultant for the Saint Louis Mental Health Board. Additionally, he’s been invited to speak around the St. Louis area to a few young men about college and his time at MSU.
“These relationships and conversations resulted in many of them coming down to join this community and the community at Missouri State University,” Gunn says. “I hope that future endeavors will include them in many ways, as the young men I’ve grown to know will be a great asset to the community.”
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