Pictured from left: DSS participant Manuhe Abebe, DSS Founder Derek Rhodes, restaurant owner Leonardo Williams, and DSS participants Xavier Nonez and Caleb Vandenburg. Photo courtesy of DSS Summit. 

Duke University graduate Derek Rhodes was interning at the public affairs office of the U.S. Department of Justice when he heard that self-appointed vigilante George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

It was the summer of 2013. Rhodes grew up in Durham. He was a junior at Duke University and manager of Duke’s men’s basketball team that won the NCAA championship in 2015.

“I was shocked,” says Rhodes, who told the INDY that he strongly identified with Martin. Their birthdays are a couple of days apart. The hoodie the teen wore when he was shot dead was similar to the ones Rhodes liked to wear. The soon-to-be, newly-minted college graduate thought that a guilty verdict was forthcoming.

Instead, the acquittal “left me in a daze about my own life,” he adds.

On that day, a seed was planted inside of Rhodes’s mind, heart, and spirit. The seed took root and on Saturday, the Durham Success Summit, founded by Rhodes in 2018, will host its fourth annual event at the W.G. Pearson Center “to uplift and empower young Black college-aged men, between ages 18-24, to take the critical first steps in their unique paths to success,” according to a DSS press release. 

The Summit began with a Friday night reception. Saturday’s workshops will kick off with a keynote speech by Reggie Love, a former political aide and “body man” to President Barack Obama.

Love also has Duke roots. He was a two-sport athlete, playing wide receiver in football and a walk-on with the men’s basketball team, and the team’s captain his senior year, in 2001, when the Blue Devils won the NCAA Finals.

DSS board member Nolan Smith also has Duke roots. He, along with Rhodes, was a member of Duke University’s 2010 NCAA championship team. Rhodes jokes that the event will feature a trio of Duke champions

After a professional career that includes stints with Google, the NBA’s Miami Heat, and Microsoft, Rhodes founded DSS with the aim of shepherding community awareness, career and leadership development, networking, and mentorship opportunities for young, college-minded men of color.

“I was at a turning point in my life,” Rhodes says. “I was tired of seeing men like me be treated as if our lives didn’t matter. Now, three years later, I am happy to have created an event that uplifts and supports young Black men. I wanted to prove that with the right tools and the right people, historically excluded communities can have their untapped potential unleashed, benefiting families, businesses, and the local region’s economic status.”

According to the DSS website, the non-profit has served more than 150 young men of color, and partnered with 50 speakers, mentors, and coaches, plus 10 community partners, including N.C. Central University.

One DSS participant, Caleb Vandenburg, graduated from Elon University with a public health degree in May. Vandenburg, 22, grew up in Durham. He now works as a program coordinator with the non-profit, and teaches science and coaches basketball at the Burlington School in Alamance County. Vandenburg first became aware of DSS two years ago, when he and his friends attended a “community pop-up talk.”

“[Rhodes] and other community leaders ran the talks and listened to the young attendees’ concerns,” Vandenburg says. “We were going so much that [Rhodes] took notice. We were coming every week.”

Vandenburg says DSS interacts with 15 to 30 young Black men each day, and has had a huge impact.

“DSS is like an outlet for so many Black men in our community,” he says. “It gives us chances to give back to our community.”

Another DSS alum-turned-program coordinator, Xavier Nonez, is working for Visa in San Francisco. Nonez, 22, grew up in Durham and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May.

Nonez says he’s known Rhodes for nearly a decade, and “knew he had the potential to bring great things to the community.”  

Nonez became involved with DSS last summer. 

“He was sort of the only one doing things in the community, in-person,” Nonez explains. “He was like a breath of fresh air for me because I was interning at Amazon, inside all day, looking at spreadsheets.”

Prior to graduating, Nonez says he helped organize DSS college tours for high school students at N.C. Central and Duke universities. The non-profit also hosted fun events: renting out a movie theater to watch the premiere of Space Jam II, an NBA Finals watch party, attending a Durham Bulls game, and a late-summer golf outing in Pinehurst.

“I still help out as much as I can,” Nonez says. “I’m coming back for the big event this weekend.”

Rhodes says the summit in South Durham’s historically Black Hayti district is taking place at a much needed time. He says only one-third of the Bull City’s Black residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to more than 60 percent of the city’s White residents. That’s significant in a high-tech region where a college degree often translates into a living wage and enhanced quality of life.

The DSS website notes that over the decades, Black men have struggled to achieve equal opportunities, particularly in the workforce. Here in Durham, even though Black men and boys account for 38 percent of the city’s population, “they have been historically excluded from contributing to the economic future of our city.”

Rhodes knows about being excluded. While growing up in Durham, he didn’t step foot on Duke’s campus until he was a student. 

That seed that was planted inside of him after Trayvon’s murder began to germinate when he looked at the communities and neighborhoods where he grew up. He wondered what might be going on with the young men who lived there.

“Durham was changing and growing in a crazy way,” he says.“I honestly felt like there was a kind of once in a lifetime opportunity to not leave folks on the outskirts.” 

For the past three years, the Summit was a day-long event in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods. The event gained traction as a back-to-school affair where, along with lunch and student giveaways,  professional mentors offered to read the older students’ college and course essays. 

In 2019, just before the pandemic, Rhodes partnered with the N.C. Central University’s African American Male Initiative.

Roderick Heath, director of the AAMI, told the INDY that DSS’s mission is not unlike the charge given to college students enrolled in his program: return to your communities and help other young men like yourself.

“[Rhodes] is very ambitious,” Heath says. “He goes out into the community to see these young men. He shows up. I knew this was an organization I needed to be connected with. I told him, ‘I’ll do the higher-ed portion. You bring the community to higher-ed.’”

Rhodes was working as chief of staff at Microsoft for a little over a year in April when he decided to resign. He was on edge again, this time working in Seattle while awaiting a jury verdict for Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murder in the shooting death of George Floyd.

And after wrestling with whether he should leave what he describes as “a dream role” with Microsoft, he decided to return home and mentor young Black men in his hometown.

He flew home in May on Mother’s Day with his mother, Carolyn Rhodes, a long time social justice activist and diversity consultant who works with senior leaders. Carolyn Rhodes was in Seattle for a 30-day visit with her son.

“When he told me, ‘I’ve resigned to work full-time with DSS,’ I said, ‘you’ve found your purpose,’” Carolyn Rhodes told the INDY. “It was almost like a calling since he was a boy growing up and coming into his own.”

“I knew I wouldn’t be of value to Microsoft,” Derek Rhodes says, “if my heart wanted to do something bigger and better with the world.” 

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.