By Micha Green, AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor, [email protected]

Minister, Grammy- nominated Gospel singer and U.S. Dream Academy Founder Wintley Phipps has spent 20 years dedicating his ministry to the children of incarcerated parents, identifying the school to prison pipeline and trying to change the narrative through inspiring children to dream.

As U.S. Dream Academy celebrated 20 years of building up, tutoring and mentoring youth who have incarcerated parents, throughout the country, they held their 18th Annual Power of A Dream Gala, with this year’s theme, “Dream Forward.”  

“Power of A Dream,” gala keynote speaker, Makala Graham, U.S. Dream Academy alumna from Washington, D.C., learned the gala attendees rallied to pay over $25,000 in her fees for her first-year tuition as a student at Clark-Atlanta University. With her are U.S. Dream Academy Founder Wintley Phipps (left) and Executive Director C. Diane Wallace Booker. (Photo by Rob Roberts).

Despite the glitz and glam of the star-studded evening, there was one clear vision, helping the youth to dream and achieve their goals.  

Throughout the gala, hosted by actors and husband-wife duo Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Ari Parker, audiences were reminded that U.S. Dream Academy pushes an importance of education, mentorship and even the arts as a way to succeed.

In an exclusive with the AFRO, Phipps explained the transformational nature of ministering the importance of dreaming.

“I am first and foremost a minister of the Gospel who tries to make ministry relevant, practical and transformational in the lives of people,” Phipps said.

Indeed, through U.S. Dream Academy, Phipps has made his work, “relevant, practical and transformational,” by identifying the problem of incarceration in the Black community, creating programming to help children of imprisoned parents, which in turn transforms the lives of young people, their families and the community at large.

“Prison has almost become a right of passage for many Black people,” Phipps told the AFRO.  “I call it the ‘normalization of incarceration.’”

Phipps worked in prison ministry with Charles Colson,  who served as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon and was formerly imprisoned after the Watergate scandal.  The minister had an even further wake up call about the normalization of incarceration, when he encountered he met his wife’s pregnant niece in prison.

He further began to think about the children of incarcerated parents and from that spawned U.S. Dream Academy.

Twenty years later, U.S. Dream Academy is in “Dream Cities” all over the country, including:  Washington, D.C., Baltimore, MD, Houston, TX, Orlando, FL, Indianapolis, IN, Philadelphia, PA and San Bernardino, CA. Soon U.S. Dream Academy hopes to open a Chicago location.

A U.S. Dream Academy alumna, Makayla Graham, was the keynote speaker for the evening.

“My journey has been a lot like a marathon race.  I can remember the starting line,” the eloquent high school senior said.

“Little did I know, the smooth-long distance race I thought I was running, had a lot of hurdles in it.  I lost my dad at a young age, while he was incarcerated. I grew up in a single-parent household in Southeast, D.C., where the violence is often talked more about than the success. The hurdles in my life seemed massive,” the U.S. Dream Academy alumna told the audience.

Along with her mother, grandmother and education, Graham thanks the Washington, D.C. center of the U.S. Dream Academy for helping her succeed.

“Being a part of this program, made me feel like there was someone in my corner to comfort me and trust in my abilities to become accomplished,” she said.

During her speech, Graham mentioned she still had to scrape up $27, 382, for her to attend her dream college- Clark- Atlanta University. After her speech, Phipps and U.S. Dream Academy Executive Director C. Dianne Wallace came on the stage to congratulate Graham with a $5,000 check from Amway, U.S. Dream Academy’s major sponsor. Then something even more beautiful happened. With Phipps encouraging the audience to donate, Graham received enough funds for to cover her first year of college at Clark-Atlanta University– her dream school.  

The Honorable Judge Greg Mathis, Heritage Foundation President Kay Cole James and Ndaba Mandel, CEO and founder of Africa Rising Foundation and grandson of activist and former South African President Nelson Mandela were all honored for their work and dedication to helping others and young people.

Mandela received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Award.

After his father died as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, he and his grandfather became activists in the forefront of the fight to combat, educate and cure the deadly disease.

When Mandela started Africa Rising, he decided, he felt the young people needed to be targeted most.

“So we started Africa Rising about nine years ago, to work with the most impoverished young people in the rurals of South Africa,” Mandela said accepting his award.

“It’s important in the work that we do to inspire these young people, to give them the skills and tools that they need- because  kids in my village finish high school without touching a computer. Now how are we going to raise the new generation of African leaders, who are to stand at the forefront of the development that’s taking place?”

He shared some of the principals he’s pushed in his work.

“Protect your loved ones.  Protect yourself. Protect your dreams, because if you do not protect your dreams then you cannot have hope and dreams of a better world.”