More than a decade ago, Atlanta’s most notable photographer of African American family portraits was on the West Coast trying to heal from prostate cancer when he felt a certain calling on his life. He had already closed down his successful business, Dorsey Photography, and wasn’t really looking for a second act in life.
“Stuff starting coming to mind, and I began to write it down,” recalled Tom Dorsey about the 2006 burning-bush-like revelation. “I believe God told me that he had gotten me to this point to help children. But I didn’t know how.”
Dorsey shared his epiphany with one of his best friends — retiring DeKalb County social worker Richard Morton — when Morton called to check on him. Dorsey said God wanted him to help young black boys through mentoring, and he asked Morton to assist.
“I had already made my decision to leave social work, but when Tom made an appeal to me, I couldn’t say no,” Morton said.
Dorsey, an 82-year-old widower, has been at it ever since. It’s what keeps him working a younger man’s schedule: constantly writing and updating his mentoring program to pass the hurdle of a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude in today’s impulsive youth.
“You have to have it where a 15-year-old feels strongly that, ‘there’s something I want, or otherwise I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about,’” Dorsey said.
His revamped program, Brother 2 Brothers, is ready to be re-introduced as a drop-out prevention measure for male students, and this fall, he shopped it around to several area high schools. He’s also looking for men to volunteer as mentors.
He designed Brother 2 Brothers to be played like a competitive game, where teen boys can learn and practice making good life decisions about school, health, work, and family.
His first venture in mentoring came in 2007. Dorsey, Morton and a few other men started by answering questions from 12th-grade boys at Atlanta’s West End Academy. They didn’t even call it mentoring; it was just a two-way conversation. They kept getting invited back, week after week.
“The boys were not used to an adult male talking to them the way I did, and it just opened up their heads,” Dorsey said.
The men continued mentoring male students at several metro Atlanta high schools and were asked to expand to include middle school students. They dressed in identical suits, shirts and ties, which helped to garner more respect from teachers and students.
“He had a unique way of mentoring that really got through to the boys, and I was very impressed with that,” said Morton, who mentored with Dorsey for seven years.
The group of men worked with students at the all-male Fulton Leadership Academy for several years, said founder and superintendent Richardean Golden Anderson.
She said Dorsey “contributed much valuable time in mentoring and encouraging” scholars at the charter school.
“I guess what’s important is he wanted to make a difference in this all-boy setting, to turn this around. We would definitely welcome him back,” Golden Anderson said.
Dorsey said he cares about “confused boys” because he was once one himself.
He grew up in a poor neighborhood of Chicago and dropped out of high school at 17. He also had severe memory problems because of a concussion he received in the sixth grade.
“I couldn’t talk to anybody who would understand what I was going through,” he said.
To adjust, he would gather as many details and facts as he could in seeking to understand whatever he faced. He’s used these same techniques throughout his life and teaches them in his mentoring program.
After a stint in the Air Force, he woke up to the value of an education. He was in his mid-30s, married with kids, when he stumbled upon photography as a career. He had gone back to college for an art degree.
Dorsey had a long and distinguished career as a portrait photographer for well-known African American families in Chicago and Atlanta.
In Atlanta, young people made his business soar. Morton remembers that during prom season, many students, both black and white, would get dressed up and come to Dorsey Photography to have their photos taken. He got a lot of business shooting graduation and wedding portraits of young people, too.
Select photos from his work were recently on display at Fulton County’s Southwest Art Center in the exhibit, “Pride, Dignity, and Togetherness: The Legacy of Tom Dorsey.”
In each image, Dorsey said, he saw the “positive potential of the human spirit.”
He says he sees the same potential in each young male he mentors and hopes to draw it out through Brother 2 Brothers.
“Whatever school we end up in, we’re going to jam,” Dorsey said.
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