SIOUX CITY | When Leonard Bingham arrived as a freshman at Briar Cliff University two years ago, he felt detached from the rest of the college community.
While he was at ease on the Chargers wrestling team, the Jacksonville, Florida, native couldn't connect with life on or off campus.
That is until Bingham and his best friend and fellow Chargers wrestler, Isiah Lysius, discovered Brunch with Black Men, a group then being organized by Briar Cliff's multicultural affairs director Jay Rhodes.
"The group was originally designed to be a support network while raising the GPAs and graduation rate of our African-American students," Rhodes recalled. "Instead, Leonard and Isiah wanted the group to be more inclusive."
"We wanted to connect with our new community through volunteerism," Bingham said.
"Plus we wanted to dispel some stereotypes along with way," Lysius added.
Like Bingham, Lysius enrolled in a college that was far from home.
"Now, I'm originally from Miami," Lysius recalled. "The first time I actually experienced snow was on campus and that was pretty brutal."
Still, he wanted to serve and educate as a way to connect with the greater community.
With Rhodes' help, Lysius and Bingham organized a group of more than 20 students from all backgrounds and nationalities. Born of a desire for inclusiveness, the organization advanced leadership while preparing members to become socially responsible citizens.
However, Rhodes said the new organization's name immediately proved controversial.
"We called ourselves Men of Color or MOC for short," he explained. "People asked did that mean only African-American could become members? Of course not. There are more colors in the world than just black. Our membership criteria was based solely upon attendance and involvement, not skin color."
But Lysius, a kinesiology junior, was adamant about keeping the group's name.
"(Men of Color) raises awareness around issues of educational access, social justice and political interests of underrepresented people," he said. "It also starts a conversation about race. You can't change perceptions without honestly talking about race."
Since Men of Color began at the start of the 2016-17 school year, the group has partnered with LaunchPAD Children's Museum to sponsor a Christmas party for Native American preschoolers.
"Each of the preschoolers was given a chance for free time at LaunchPAD in addition to receiving two presents, collected from donations by Briar Cliff students and personally wrapped by Men of Color members," said Bingham, the group's vice president.
"Let's just say that gift wrapping didn't come naturally for many guys," Lysius, the group's president, said with a laugh. "Hopefully, the gifts were better than the packaging."
In addition, Men of Color was one of the groups participating in the Faces of Siouxland Multicultural Fair, held in April at the Sioux City Convention Center.
"Our focused mission is to raise the status of men of color in our community," Rhodes said. "That includes events held both on and off campus."
This year, he said the group is planning another holiday partnership with LaunchPAD. Before that, it will be working with the Council on Sexual Assault and Sexual Violence (CSADV) for a campaign to educate students and the community about domestic violence.
Rhodes can't help but smile when talking about Lysius, Bingham and the other Men of Color. "It just goes to show the powerful changes that a group of dedicated men can make to themselves and their community."
Lysius is also quick to point out that Men of Color has even motivated a spin-off group.
"The Women of Color (WOC) is just starting out and I'm sure they will do a great job," he said.
Perhaps Men of Color's biggest success story, so far, is Bingham, now a Briar Cliff behavioral analysis junior.
"When I came to college, I didn't fit in because I didn't have a community," he said. "It affected my grades and I didn't know if I could make it work."
Through his leadership role in Men of Color, Bingham now has a community and a new goal as a role model.
"I'm an academic peer mentor for students coming into Briar Cliff," he said. "And I couldn't be happier about it."