Damario Solomon-Simmons helps a generation of boys through his MVP Foundation and Manhood Summit.
Damario Solomon-Simmons, center, speaks with students at Monroe Demonstration School who attended this year’s MVP Foundation Manhood Summit. Solomon-Simmons founded the MVP Foundation with his wife to create a mentoring program for African-American boys growing up without a father.
On a fall morning, a group of African-American men and adolescent boys gather in and around the Cox Business Center in downtown Tulsa and begin shouting.
The sounds are audible from blocks away. Patrons at the DoubleTree Hotel across the street gather outside to witness the ruckus.
The closer you get, the clearer their words become: “All in,” shouts one man in a black tracksuit and white baseball hat. “For young men” comes the resounding response from 70 men waiting inside the building.
Outside, the eighth-grade boys stand with looks of surprise. As they enter the building, the men surround them, holding signs that read, “Your life matters” and “We love you,” and giving pats on the back.
Then, the boys proceed through the line and begin the registration process for the fourth annual MVP Foundation Manhood Summit, the legacy of Tulsa attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, TulsaPeople’s 2017 Tulsan of the Year.
Filling a void
If you ask anyone who knows him to describe Solomon-Simmons, they will undoubtedly use one word: passionate. He even uses it to describe himself. He is “passionately in love with his high school sweetheart” and now wife, Mia Fleming. He is passionate about law, justice and history. He is passionate about sports. He is passionate about the north Tulsa neighborhood he grew up in and the families who live there and on the entire northside.
But for all that passion, Solomon-Simmons also is remarkably likable.
He takes his hat off to pray silently over his food and has a strong handshake. In the course of a casual conversation, he smiles easily and often, revealing straight, white teeth that he attributes to his mother’s dogged determination to ensure her son had all he needed, including braces. This also was an era “when it was noble for government to invest in poor people,” he says.
He has a self-deprecating sense of humor most noticeable when he talks about his high school GPA. However, he still feels the most at ease in a three-piece suit. He has the ability to make the person he is talking to feel comfortable and heard, but he also can command the attention of a room full of 70 eighth-graders with cell phones or make an argument to a jury in a courtroom.
But Solomon-Simmons’ infectious smile fades when talking about the challenges facing African-American youth. “I’m concerned for black boys,” he says. “Unfortunately, dysfunction is the norm for most families in America. When you add in rampant poverty, racism and injustice, you get what you get.”
The added impact of absentee fathers creates another pain that Solomon-Simmons is all too familiar with. “There’s a void,” he says, “It’s real, and it’s painful.”
And so, in typical passionate fashion, Solomon-Simmons set out to do something about it.
A native Tulsan and a proud Booker T. Washington graduate, Solomon-Simmons was raised by his mother, Kathy L. Brown-Banks, with his younger brother, Damen Banks.
Both sets of his grandparents were the first black families to move into the Tulsa neighborhoods they called home in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Sadly, both sets of grandparents had a similar experience. Verbal and physical abuse, school integration clashes and property damage, all motivated by racial hatred scarred Brown-Banks’ childhood.
As an adult single parent, Brown-Banks moved in 1978 to a predominantly black neighborhood near East 36th Street North and North Peoria Avenue, when Damario was 2 years old.
At the time, a Dillard’s department store, a bowling alley and various major retailers were nearby. But “by the time I was 10 years old, all of that was gone,” Solomon-Simmons recalls. The neighborhood is now home to an inordinate number of churches, nonprofits and vacant buildings.
Brown-Banks has cerebral palsy, so the family income was limited to Social Security benefits of around $550 a month.
Solomon-Simmons remembers growing up in the age of high-dollar designer sneakers. “I was probably in fifth grade when Filas were really hot,” he remembers. On a family outing to Promenade Mall, Solomon-Simmons saw the shoes of his dreams. They cost $79.
When Brown-Banks declined to buy the shoes, her son got mad. “I thought she was so unfair,” he says. As an adult, “I realize I was asking her to spend basically one-fifth of her income on a pair of shoes.”
Despite other, more major challenges, including a speech impediment and life-threatening asthma, Solomon-Simmons says, “We never went without,” thanks to the support of his grandparents and uncles.
Their support was especially significant because, like many other young men in his neighborhood, Solomon-Simmons was, essentially, a boy without a father. The two never lived in the same house. His father moved from Tulsa to St. Petersburg, Florida, when Solomon-Simmons was 12 years old. For the next 12 years, he saw his father only a handful of times.
An estimated 24.7 million children live in a home without their biological father, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Fifty-eight percent of black children — compared to 21 percent of white children — are living absent their biological fathers, according to a 2012 Family Structure and Children’s Living Arrangements report.
The National Center for Fathering reports that these children are four times more likely to live in poverty, are significantly less likely to graduate from high school and are more likely to experience or witness violence in the home. The “epidemic of fatherlessness” has inspired speeches from President Barack Obama, social media posts from LeBron James and an Oprah Winfrey Network special broadcast.
When Solomon-Simmons was growing up, however, this was a personal problem, albeit one he shared with many of his peers. To his knowledge, fatherlessness was not the subject of national conversation.
A sporting life
As a child, Solomon-Simmons was drawn to sports. His mother says football was his “first word,” and he began playing the sport in fourth grade.
Years later, 13-year-old middle school student Mia Fleming saw Solomon-Simmons’ photo in a friend’s yearbook and thought he was cute — and might be good high school boyfriend material. At her best friend’s request, Solomon-Simmons gave her a call. When she answered, he mispronounced her name, got flustered and hung up the phone. The next semester, they both began their freshman year at Booker T. Washington High School and Solomon-Simmons saw Fleming for the first time. “I was like, oh, man! That’s Mia?” he remembers. The two began “going together” intermittently for the next five years.
Solomon-Simmons credits his admission to Booker T. to his athletic prowess. It certainly wasn’t his low grades in middle school — which didn’t improve in high school. After graduation, he enrolled and promptly dropped out of both Northeastern State University and Tulsa Community College.
He and Fleming started dating (again) on Christmas Day 1994. The two have been together ever since.
The couple moved to Dallas, where Solomon-Simmons experienced an epiphany. “I had wrecked my car, was living in a crappy apartment and was making about $10 an hour,” he says. “I realized there was more for my life than that, but that I had to have an education.”
It marked a turning point in his life.
At each phase of the academic and professional career that followed, he credits mentors (ranging from Edward Perkins, the first black U.S. ambassador to South Africa and a professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma, to a pizza delivery guy with a fortuitous aptitude for math) with helping him gain vital experiences and opportunities.
The couple moved back to Tulsa in 1996, and Solomon-Simmons went on to earn an associate’s degree at TCC, then a bachelor’s degree from OU, where he walked on to the football team and worked his way onto the field for the Sooners. The Sooners beat Texas Christian University 10-9 his senior year by scoring 10 points in the last minute of the game. “As a former walk-on and career backup, I had my best game, finishing with four tackles and a sack,” Solomon-Simmons says. He stayed at OU to earn a master’s degree in higher education and his juris doctorate in 2004.
In 2005, he opened SolomonSimmonsSharrock with partner Susan R. Sharrock. The practice grew to be one of the largest majority black firms in Oklahoma. He has represented dozens of professional athletes and served as counsel on consequential cases relating to racial injustice. He joined the Riggs Abney law firm in 2015 and is now lead counsel representing the family of Terence Crutcher. He also is lead counsel representing the family of Monroe Bird III, as well as the Tulsa Transit 6, and is co-counsel for six sexual assault victims of former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw.
Although Solomon-Simmons has grown more successful over the years, he has not forgotten where he started. And his passion for helping youth has not waned.
“To go from a low-income black boy to travel the world and be part of what I think is the best firm in Oklahoma, working on consequential cases and making a difference is possible because I was given mentorship and access to resources,” he says. “And when I did mess up, I wasn’t thrown away. I was given opportunities to learn from my mistakes.”
A foundation is born
In 2009, Solomon-Simmons and Fleming founded the MVP Foundation as a fund through the Tulsa Community Foundation. They partnered with Solomon-Simmons’ high profile NFL clients to offer a free elite football training camp for hundreds of boys from north Tulsa. The events incorporated academic encouragement and life skills for boys and single mothers alike.
After three years of this camp, Solomon-Simmons was still frustrated. “All these boys said they wanted to be professional athletes,” he recalls. “If that’s your ‘Plan A’ and you don’t have anything to fall back on, that causes a big problem.”
He complained about it to Fleming. “Mia was like, well, you know … you do football academies.” Knowing the pain her husband felt not having his father, Fleming had always thought it would be good for him to help other young boys going through what he had experienced.
That’s when Solomon-Simmons turned his attention to mentorship and finding ways to provide young men with father figures. He contacted David Miller, founder of Dare to Be King, an international organization aimed at engaging boys and men of color for emotional development, familial reconciliation and academic success. Solomon-Simmons and his assistant, Darrell Mercer, began offering a curriculum, written by Miller, to about 30 boys at KIPP Tulsa College Preparatory.
Miller describes the curriculum as “life lessons” but admits the course is really a supplement to the relationships that develop between the adult males facilitating the curriculum and the adolescent boys who often have no positive relationships with adult men.
According to Miller, the course “dramatically reduces suspensions and behavioral challenges” by “creating relationships that these boys desperately need and that they yearn for.”
Unfortunately, in 2016, these courses have been suspended due to Solomon-Simmons’ busy schedule and lack of funds to hire and train additional mentors.
But the MVP Foundation continues. In 2013, the foundation hosted the first Manhood Summit as part of a larger weekend of events for eighth-grade boys from single parent households.
Solomon-Simmons asked his longtime friend, Phil Armstrong, chief operations officer for restaurant development of Subway in eastern Oklahoma, to prepare a presentation that he could share with the boys. “I said, ‘I bet these young men have never had a father teach them how to tie a tie or shake a man’s hand and look him in the eye,’” Armstrong remembers. “So, that was my presentation.”
After giving the presentation for the fourth year, he admitted that from the outside, a tie or handshake lesson might seem less than thrilling to an eighth-grade boy. But it’s more about the connection between adult and teenager. “If you’ve never had that before, it really plants something,” Armstrong says. And each boy is given his own tie. “(When they receive the tie) you would think we’d given them a million dollars.”
Eric Teeson, a student at Monroe Demonstration School, says the hardest part of the Summit was learning to tie a tie, but once he got it, “It felt good.”
NBA veteran and Booker T. graduate Etan Thomas has spoken at three Manhood Summits. “Guys like Wayman Tisdale, Lee Mayberry, John Starks and Clint McDaniel spoke at my school,” Thomas recalls. “I listened to every word they said. I remember the lessons learned, and I carried them with me.”
Over time, MVP began partnering with schools that serve its target demographic. Schools identify students who would benefit from the Manhood Summit, coordinate permission slips and provide transportation.
In 2016, the Summit included candid conversations with officers from the Tulsa Police Department and inspirational messages from sports stars like Thomas and Titus O’Neal. It culminated in a meet-and-greet with Oklahoma City Thunder players and seats at the team’s exhibition game in Tulsa.
“(The Summit) taught me a lot of things about what I’m going to do in the future, how I’m going to act,” says Teeson, one of more than 200 Summit attendees this year. His future plans now include wearing suits, shaking hands, looking people in the eye and taking care of himself financially.
Many Summit participants found it easy to open up and absorb the lessons due to the unique atmosphere. “It kind of brought us closer, like family, just getting to know each other,” says eighth-grader Tyree Brooks.
“I actually comprehended the material,” says Monroe eighth-grader Terrieon Buckley, “because everybody was actually getting along. We got in touch with kids from other schools, made friends.”
Since 2012, the Manhood Summit has been made possible through the support of organizations including Metropolitan Baptist Church, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, the Walton Foundation, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., Bank of America and Westview Medical Center.
Ray Owens, senior pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, says he sees the church’s involvement not as a gift but “as an investment in the boys who will grow up to be men in our community.”
Owens believes in the power of mentorship because he also grew up in a single-parent home and was mentored through most of his junior high and high school years. He admits, “There are a lot of things we could do with the kind of money (we invest in MVP’s Manhood Summit), but I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than raising young men who learn stability and how to engage in meaningful conversation and develop a strategic plan for life.”
“Damario is a remarkable man with enormous energy, talent and a committed heart,” says Ken Levit, executive director of GKFF. “He is dedicated to lending a hand to others, always brave and true to what he believes is right.”
Andrew McRae, principal at KIPP, says, “I don’t see (the Manhood Summit) as a day away from learning. I see it as a day of learning differently. Our students appreciate the opportunity to be vulnerable and honest in a non-judgmental environment.” He hopes spending the day with men from similar backgrounds helps students “gain a sense of what’s possible.”
With increased funding, Solomon-Simmons sees limitless possibilities for MVP, including programs and training for parents and year-round, in-school mentorship.
“If I can have the success that God has blessed me to have, then I think anybody, given the right opportunities and resources and support, can do the same thing,” he says. “So, I’m always looking for ways to give back and touch that population of kids.”
“He’s a good role model,” says Buckley of Solomon-Simmons. “He tells us what to do right, and that you can choose the right path no matter what happens.”
Healing for himself and others
In April 2015, Solomon-Simmons was at his uncle’s funeral. He hadn’t spoken to his father in several years but was sitting right next to him. As his cousins stood to eulogize his uncle, each one described him as a wonderful father. Meanwhile, Solomon-Simmons’ heart was breaking. “I wish I had that,” he thought, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with his dad.
When the service was over, his father turned to him. “I’m sorry,” he said, crying. The two men stood in the parking lot hugging and crying for a long time. “From that day on,” says a teary Solomon-Simmons, “we have been father and son. I have a father. That’s the best feeling ever.”
Solomon-Simmons knows he cannot create a moment like that for each of the boys with whom he interacts. But by sharing his life and taking steps to heal the hurt that he understands so well, he is interceding for a generation of boys.
Since 2013 the MVP Foundation has provided the following:
- Intense manhood training to over 400 boys
- Dedicated mentoring training to over 75 men
- Mentoring opportunities to over 200 men
- Parenting training to over 40 single-moms/women raising sons
- In-school mentoring programming to over 200 boys
- Hosting and facilitating community-wide fatherhood panels attracting over 1,200 attendees
MVP needs: mentors, funding and support
The MVP Foundation currently has a database of approximately 115 mentors ranging from ages 16-70 that they can call upon to participate in different activities. How many more do they need? Solomon-Simmons says, “You can never have enough positive, successful men available to deploy to other organizations or participate in our events.”
Those interested in becoming mentors can visit solomonsimmons.com to learn more. The organization also needs funding and technical support to hire a program director and build on-site facilities to scale up the operation and fulfill the vision of an organization that, in addition to the Manhood Summits and Fatherhood Weekends, provides: training for men wanting to specifically mentor boys from single-mother households, on-going training for women raising boys alone and year-round school-based mentoring services.