Carl Cunningham with Kappa League

Carl Cunningham with Kappa League

On this week’s podcast, Marcus sits down with Carl Cunningham Jr., Ph.D. A Mobile native and a Murphy graduate, Carl went on for a continued education in Mississippi until he was 28 graduating with his PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi. Tune in to hear about how Carl is changing young men's lives every day through serving as the Guide Right/Mobile Kappa League Director for the Mobile Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.


Carl: My name is Carl Cunningham. I am a native of Mobile, Alabama. I'm a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated, where I advise the Mobile Kappa League.

Marcus: Awesome, Carl. Well, it is really good to get you on the podcast.

Carl: Thank you. Thank you.

Marcus: Yeah. So, you and I are both in Order of Fuse and we're not allowed to talk about Order of Fuse, so ... It's just a joke, people. But, we were at the spring event, and I recognize that we were ... We're not just Order of Fuse members together, but we've known each other on social media for a while. I'm very admiring of your work in the community, not just with Kappa League, but a lot of the things that you're doing, so I'm glad that you're here on the podcast

Carl: Thank you. Thank you.

Marcus: But, to get started, why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you're from. I mean, you mentioned that you're from Mobile, but give us some more of the background: where did you go to high school, what's your college education look like, anything that you might want to share with us.

Carl: Absolutely. I grew up in the midtown Maysville area, right there by Crystal's, Cherokee Street. Then my family later moved to Broad Street, to the so Oakleigh Historic District, so I've always been a midtown, downtown type of guy. So I've enjoyed living and running the streets of the Oaks on Government Street and walking every day, for the most part, to Murphy High School. So I'm a graduate of Murphy High School, had a great time at Murphy. I was involved in the marching band, I played the trombone and ended up being second chair out of 25 trombones so that was really big.

Marcus: Wow.

Carl: Yeah, Murphy. So I'm a musician as well and so I went to college on a music scholarship to Jackson State University, home of Walter Payton, in Jackson, Mississippi.

Marcus: I was actually a huge fan of Payton when he played and he was one of the guys that I really looked up to.

Carl: Absolutely. So homecoming we got a chance if they didn't have a game to see Walter and his wife, his wife also is a graduate of Jackson State. So just great being around that family in college and they would, again, come home and give their well-wishes to the students. It's very cool.

Carl: So at Jackson State I majored in city and urban planning. I changed my major three times.

Marcus: Really?

Carl: Yeah.

Marcus: Nobody ever does that.

Carl: I did. History major the first time, I didn't want to take this teacher again so I was like, “Forget this teacher, I'm changing my major.” Then criminal justice, all the football players were in criminal justice, I'm like, “No, this is not for me.” So then I found a major with city and urban planning that I really fell in love with and I like geography and that was my minor too, was geography. So in four years I completed Jackson State University and then decided to go and get my Master's from the University of Southern Mississippi. So I did that and majored in geography at the University of Southern Mississippi. While there, I had a friend of mine that said, “Hey, you do an outstanding job working in the department in geography. Why don't you stay and get your Doctorate?” Now at this time, Marcus, I am 24 years old, 25, and ready to go out into the world.

Marcus: See the world.

Carl: See the world, you know, save up money. Next thing I know, I enrolled in to get my Ph.D., stayed at Southern Miss, and became involved in Greek life and student affairs. It became a passion so I worked in Greek life at Southern Miss for the next three years and completed my Doctorate there in higher education administration. At the age of 28, I have to tell you Marcus, I still was not ready to be called Dr. Cunningham because the night before I partied and I had a major hangover during graduation and my mom was like, “You're not taking this serious.” And I was like, “I don't care what you say.”

Marcus: "I'm done.”

Carl: “I'm done. I know I am.”

Marcus: “There's no more education in my future.”

Carl: There's no more, I had been in school since kindergarten 'til I was 28 years old and my mom, we had a big blowout that day at commencement but at the end of the day, I was hooded and walked across the stage and became Dr. Cunningham. And so at that time, while at Southern Miss, I was really involved with my fraternity in the graduate chapter and the Kappa League program and I would mentor.

Marcus: Yeah, why don't you describe what Kappa League is because I think many people are probably going to listen to this not understand what that is.

Carl: Yes, Kappa League is part of our Guide Right Program in Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated. So I'm a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, and Guide Right is our national service program, our national mentoring program. Under Guide Right, we have our Kappa League Program, which was founded in 1970 in Los Angeles, California right after the Watts riots. During that time the Los Angeles alumni chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi saw a need to mentor young men after the Watts riots and so they started this at Alain Leroy Locke High School. But the Fraternity nationally said, “This is a great idea, why don't we encourage other alumni chapters in other cities to begin a Kappa League Program.” So that process began in the 70s, in Mobile the Kappa League started in 1979 at Toulminville High School which is now LeFlore High School. So since '79 to now, the Kappa League has grown. I became the advisor in 2002 when I moved back to Mobile.

Carl: I was living in Hattiesburg and still working with the Kappa League, and again it's a leadership development program and the purpose is to develop young men to become leaders.

Marcus: So my first experience with Kappa League was we have held some networking events here and one of those networking events, we had two young gentleman and I remember Paul's name and forgive me, the other guys name is I can't remember it, do you know who I'm talking about?

Carl: No.

Marcus: Anyway

Carl: Okay

Marcus: I'm sorry that I don't remember your name if you're listening to this. I hate it when I do that. But I have to tell you that these two young men, I never would have said they were high school students. They held themselves in conversation with adults in the business community like they belonged there. They were dressed to the nines. They listened, they spoke with a vocabulary that was much greater than their age.

Carl: Right.

Marcus: I mean it was just absolutely phenomenal, so when Paul, I think, was the one that I engaged with the most, when he said, “Oh, well I'm only 16.” And I was like, “Get the bleep out of here. You're 16? What planet did I just arrive on.” And of course this was, I think, the summer, maybe the summer before his senior year and he's now know that he graduated - we're recording this on the 17th.

Carl: Right.

Marcus: Oh my gosh, today's my anniversary.

Carl: Oh. Happy Anniversary. Uh-oh.

Marcus: Yeah I know, I better make a text here after this podcast. So anyway, we're recording this on the 17th, so he graduated yesterday.

Carl: Correct, from Murphy.

Marcus: And so we're hopeful that he'll be able to do an internship with us this summer. But he and the people that I have interacted with from Kappa League have just so impressed me and I have to give kudos to you because I know some of these young men definitely would not have turned out the way that they have turned out ...

Carl: Correct.

Marcus: ... were it not for your guidance and leadership.

Carl: Correct. Well we have a great time, I have a great team that works with me and really engage and teach these young men starting in 9th grade. We have a middle school program now, that we started as well in 6th grade. So some of our young men have been with us from 6th grade 'til 12th grade. Our second cohort is graduating this year. So it's been amazing Marcus to watch these young men come in from various backgrounds, single parents, incarcerated parents, and so they come in and we just take them and mold them. And they're hungry to be fed and to be mentored. I have to give them kudos because ...

Marcus: They do a lot of work

Carl: They do a lot, Marcus, I could not be in the Kappa League. I could not be in the Mobile Kappa League. I would be kicked out immediately if I was their age.

Marcus: The standards are too high.

Carl: The standards are too high.

Marcus: Raised too high.

Carl: So I give the guys so much credit to sticking in there man.

Marcus: So how many guys are in that program right now?

Carl: We currently have 90 guys. We have 17 seniors that are graduating, 19 I'm sorry, this week. Graduated from almost every high school.

Marcus: And is that predominately out of Murphy or is that ...

Carl: No they are across the board. We have guys in Mobile County and we have a couple at Spanish Fort High School as well.

Marcus: And give people an idea of the types of topics that you cover with these young men.

Carl: Absolutely. We talk about self-identity and that's the first job that we really tackle, is the self-identity piece. Getting them to self-identify as young men and what does that look like. So self-identity is very important. We do a lot of training, of course. That's what you see when you meet the young men. A lot of training in regards to speaking engagements, how to hold adult conversations when they're in a setting, table manners of course, and presentation is everything.

Marcus: Right. Even how to dress.

Carl: Even how to dress. Seasonal dress, seasonal tie, all those things Marcus we go over. But they said, if it wasn't for the Kappa League, we would never know. And these are things they take with them when they start their own families. So that's self-identity training. Competition, it's a competition to be in the Kappa League. A lot of times the parents sometimes get upset with me about the competitive part of the program, but I'm from the old school Marcus. Because we're old school Marcus.

Marcus: That's life.

Carl: That's life Marcus. Everybody now...

Marcus: We're the same age, so we're commiserating about this at the event a couple weeks ago, that we're the same age, and we grew up, I think, probably listening to a lot of the same music and stuff like that.

Carl: Correct

Marcus: And so it was just kinda of funny. But I think that it's interesting you say that because there's so much now, the competition has been pulled out of things. Competition is life.

Carl: It's life.

Marcus: And so you're teaching them not about competition, you're teaching them about life.

Carl: Correct.

Marcus: But the other thing that I also wanted to touch on is these young men are getting scholarships to college, and I'm betting a good portion of these guys wouldn't have even ended up at college.

Carl: Correct. Yeah, last year man there was a record-banner year, we had 23 seniors and they received 12.2 million dollars in scholarships. Unbelievable. Now I saw this coming in 9th grade because I just saw the making of that class coming together so we really worked and worked with them and by the time they became seniors, they blew us out of the water with their scholarship offers. So our goal is, even though the majority of them may come from single parent or low-income, it's to make sure college cost is cut as low as possible, so we really work with them on ACT, the community service aspect, so like the summer they all have to do a minimum of 25 to 30 hours of service. I don't care if you play football, I don't care what your coach says, you have to give me 25 to 30 hours of service work. So you will see a lot of the young men in the community really engaged, like you've seen them at The Exchange or different places around the community.So that gives them an opportunity to shake hands with people in the city as well.

Marcus: Now it's ... I offer full disclosure, I offered Paul a job and he turned me down because I was just so impressed. But he was like, “No, I got a full ride to Morehouse.” And I was like, “Alright, I can't compete with that.”

Carl: You can't compete with that one.

Marcus: Why do you want to go to college, man? And I completely get it because I mean if college is paid for then the connections he's gonna make are definitely benefit him. But I just, you are the rubber meets the road. This program, there's no doubt that this program is rubber meets the road.

Carl: Correct.

Marcus: These are individuals that never would have been given these opportunities, and you are engaging them in such a way. Just being completely transparent, most of it, is it an all-black or mostly black or what's...

Carl: Primarily African, 99% African-American.

Marcus: Okay, so you're speaking to them that only an African-American man can speak to them and showing them that there is light at the other end of this tunnel that if you do these things that you are going to be successful.

Carl: Correct

Marcus: These guys are going to grow up and they're going to do things.

Carl: Correct. They are. And the great thing about this is even though it's predominantly African-American, I still pull from the entire community. Like if Paul is hired for you, you would be his mentor.

Marcus: I hear that.

Carl: So I'll pull anybody that says, “What can I do Carl to help?” I don't care if you're Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, there's an opportunity for you to mentor because I look at the guys as part of the fabric of Mobile and these are all of our kids so why not mentor one of yours? I know that's not biologically your son but he's your neighbor so that's how I look at it.

Marcus: I just think that it's stellar. I have three young boys and, you know, I know that I would want, if something were to have happened to me years ago and they were growing up without a fatherly figure or somebody, men, that could guide them in the right direction and teach them what it means to be a leader, a man, treat woman with respect.

Carl: Right.

Marcus: Go after your dreams and achieve them and stuff like that. I just think the program is phenomenal so. You've been involved in this program for quite a while.

Carl: Twenty years

Marcus: Twenty years.

Carl: Yes

Marcus: So do you remember the first time that you actually caught a glimpse of this program and you thought, “Ah man, there's something to this. I really want to be, I'm bought in. I'm gonna do this.” Because it's not a small amount of time on your part either.

Carl: Right well when I was in Hattiesburg working on the doctorate, I visited a school and one of my fraternity worked at the school and I kept passing the retract or the suspension room, whatever it's called, and I kept seeing the same guys in the room. And I'm thinking like, “This is not normal” or “What can I do to help this situation?” So I went back to my apartment and I just thought about “What can I do?” And I can remember in our fraternity, we had this program so that's when I asked my fraternity brother, “Hey, we need to restart this Kappa League Program in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.” He was like, “I don't know if it's gonna work.” And I thought, “I have to do something.” So I was not from Hattiesburg. Again, I'm only a transplant enrolled in school there but he said, “You know what, I'll gather some guys up and we can see if can start a program.” So ever since then, I was going to do it for two years, leave Hattiesburg ...

Marcus: Two years, yeah, twenty years later.

Carl: Twenty years later Marcus and I'm still knee-deep in it. So when I moved to Mobile, my dad was the advisor of the Kappa League Program here in Mobile and he said, “You want to do it?” I said, “No, you're doing a great job.” You know, once your day asks you to help, I began helping and the next thing I know it was kind of transferred over to me and here I am.

Marcus: That's really cool. Now, imagine that you were, I know you're not necessarily in business but imagine that you were talking to someone that was wanting to get started running a similar type of organization.

Carl: Absolutely.

Marcus: Right? What wit of wisdom would you impart to them?

Carl: You're personal life and understand the expectation of what you're about to jump into. I'm a very organized person and so organizing my life to fit this part of my business or mentoring into my life, I think that was very important. So I've kind of organized the program around my personal life, if that makes sense. So it fits into my football life, it fits into my vacation time. Then from that, the branding piece was very important. So once I had a vision and wrote down my goals of where I wanted to be in three years, four years, five years, my ultimate goals and I asked to guys here in Mobile, “Do you want to be the number one Kappa League Program in the country?” And once they said yes, then we had to develop a plan.

Marcus: How do we get there?

Carl: How do you get there. And so we developed a plan, I can remember in two weeks we developed an action plan. We met goals and we kept, the presentation was important. I had to change ...

Marcus: Stop, just a second. These guys are in high school and they're learning about action plans and setting goals, and three and five year plans?

Carl: Yes.

Marcus: You know that there are literally business owners that don't have those.

Carl: Wow. You have to have those plans. That's why you see the success of the program and they're an award-winning program. They pretty much win all the awards every year because there's an action plan in place. So when I go to talk around the country about mentoring and other programs, even my fraternity brothers that have Kappa League Programs, that's the piece that's missing. They don't have an action plan. They jump in, mentor, want their program to be like Mobile Kappa League ...

Marcus: But don't have the steps that it's gonna take.

Carl: ... but don't have the steps.

Marcus: Well and also I think they probably never envisioned what it's gonna be like so let me take a tangent here for just a second because this is really a business podcast but here is a business truth that you're bringing to light even though this isn't necessarily a business, this is ... Are you guys a non-profit?

Carl: Non-profit, yes.

Marcus: Okay, so in order put that three to five year plan together, often times as a business-owner, we're responsible for envisioning what our lives are gonna be like in five years.

Carl: Right.

Marcus: What do we want to be doing? What do we want from our organization? What do we need from employees, staffing, and stuff like that as well as infrastructure, software that we may need, and all of those things in order to achieve that goal. And then you start to back out of that, what steps am I gonna need in order to get there. And most people don't ever really take the time to dream about what it's gonna be like in three years or fives years because they're so consumed with what's going on now, they're so worried about the now that they can't get to three years from now. But the truth is, if they don't get to the three years from now, the current status that you're in, if it's existence strange as it's classically defined, if you're currently in an existence phase of a business then you'll never get out of that existence phase because the action plan, the vision is what gets you there.

Carl: Correct.

Marcus: So if you've taken those business principles and applied it to ...

Carl: Exactly.

Marcus: ... this organization.

Carl: To this organization and gets me excited about your plan. I think the guys brought energy and a lot of times when I see people developing business plans are trying to start their companies, their excitement lasts maybe two, three weeks or maybe a month and then after that, the work kicks in, it goes down. But you really have to be excited all the time and pushing that brand out. If you're trying to get those goals, those three to five year goals.

Marcus: Wow. That's really cool.

Carl: Yeah, we just taught the young men how to do that.

Marcus: So I interrupted you, you got them, you sat them down, and you guys came up with an action plan and was there anything else that, cause I did cut you off, and I apologize for that, but I'm just blown away that you're teaching high schoolers about business principle that some business owners don't know.

Carl: Yes. I mean we have guys that own their own companies, businesses now. Had a one young man, he's opened up his own pharmacy and he said, “I credit learning these skills in the Kappa League.” Marcus, they were bringing in ... They used to have parties, I can say these social events, so they created a business plan to do social events. They were bringing in $7000 in events.

Marcus: Wow

Carl: And that was unheard of for high school boys to be doing in Mobile. And those young men have taken those principles, they work for Google now, they're doctors, own their own pharmacies. I had a one young man call and said, "I made a million dollars."

Marcus: What?

Carl: Yeah. He's like, “Carl, I've made a million dollars.” And I was like, you know, he said, “I've learned all of this from Kappa.” That's where I said, “Can I get a loan?” He was like, “Where do you want to go on vacation?” I said, “Let's go to the Bahamas.”

Marcus: That's really, I mean ...

Carl: So the whole, the purpose is to really change the trajectory of their families, so you're moving young people from poverty to middle to upper-class.

Marcus: Absolutely.

Carl: And so you have to plan those stages out. It's fascinating to me now, when I was knee-deep in it, I'm still, but now I can pull back and really see it. But when you're in it, you have to stay focused on the goals and the vision that they've set.

Marcus: Yeah. Now I just think it's phenomenal because in the world that we currently live in, there is a lot of discussion, “Well something needs to be done. Something needs to be done.” You know? I mean this is a tried and true program, you've been doing it for twenty years, it's been in existence since for much longer than that. And so, the fact that you're seeing the successes, it's amazing to me that, I don't know. I just, I would love to see more of this. So that's why I'm glad that you're here.

Marcus: So, if you were to look to the business world, is there a person or maybe a group or something that like that that really inspires or that you look up to?

Carl: Business world. I'd have to say, Google, and let me tell you - Google changed the game for me as a mentor, quote unquote “business person”, and just Google providing access to really organize and easily organize your thoughts with Google Docs, surveys that you can instantly use, and just able to get information to put into your company, or your business, or your branding. And so I really look at the company, look at Google as being transformative for me regarding my businesses and in the business world. I use Google a lot.

Marcus: Because when we grew up, there wasn't a Google.

Carl: There wasn't, right. Google Docs is like, I mean the best thing, you know, for me.

Marcus: Right. Now I can see what you mean there just because their products have been ... I mean, we're not saying anything that people don't already know, but I mean some of you may not realize but there was a time before Google, you know? So now we walk around with computers in our pockets that are more powerful than the first ten years of computers that I had that were desktops.

Carl: Right, I mean Marcus, not to cut you off, I can remember having to dial every young man in the program and now I can do ...

Marcus: Just a mass email or something.

Carl: A mass email or Remind Me app, those type of things with a link in it. I mean, that has really transformed what you can do in the business world.

Marcus: It allows you to be more productive.

Carl: Yes and faster.

Marcus: Are there any books, podcasts, people, or organizations that have been helpful in moving you forward?

Carl: Oh yes, my church in Mobile has been very supportive.

Marcus: Which one?

Carl: Both Good Shepard Episcopal Church, the church I grew up in and Christ Episcopal Cathedral have been very supportive of me and the young men in our program so I'm very faith-based when it comes to that and so they've been really supportive of it.

Marcus: Yeah. No, that's awesome. And what's the most important thing that you've learned about running an organization like this.

Carl: Time management.

Marcus: Yeah.

Carl: I've learned, and making time for me and my personal time. This morning I just left the gym at 7:20 and I had to carve that time out, you know Marcus, we're reaching, you know, 45.

Marcus: Hey, hey, hey. Shh. I don't know what you're talking about.

Carl: Right. So my health is very important. I think I've given a lot to my businesses and to my mentoring program. I think I have to really focus on me as well, so anybody that's running a business, your health is very important so make sure you put time in there to take care of yourself. Because if you're not good, then your company, the energy that you're giving off won't be positive.

Marcus: Absolutely.

Carl: It's important that you be that positive agent within the company.

Marcus: Couldn't agree more man. What do you like to do to unwind?

Carl: I play the trombone. I play in the Excelsior's brand band.

Marcus: You are?

Carl: I am, I'm an Excelsior.

Marcus: Really cool.

Carl: I've been playing with them for ten years now, ten plus years now.

Marcus: Nice.

Carl: So I play the trombone. I used to play the Mobile Symphonic Pops Band but the rehearsals got kind of busy and with the Kappa League Program, I had to pull away. But I'm gonna keep my Excelsior's tag. I like ...

Marcus: There you go. That's not a bad group to be associated with. They're pretty impressive so.

Carl: Right.

Marcus: I don't know that I mentioned to you, I was actually a music major in college for a while.

Carl: No, you didn't.

Marcus: Until I realized that I didn't want to teach.

Carl: What's your instrument?

Marcus: Voice.

Carl: Wow. Uh-oh.

Marcus: Yeah, so, don't let that ... Those days are long gone.

Carl: Can you sing or sang?

Marcus: Exactly. I like to make a joyful noise.

Carl: Make a joyful noise. Amen.

Marcus: What can people do? Is there anything that, I mean, you have people listening to you here on the podcast and reading this on the website. What can you, is there anything that you need as an organization? Is there anyway that they can be involved? What can they do?

Carl: Well, two things. Go to the Mobile Kappa League website if you want to make a donation, that's always helpful because we do college tours, ACT prep, and that website is So those contributions, $10, $15, or more, will be great. Also if there's a program or internship opportunities for the young men in the city, that would be great. You can email me as well and that would be great for them to be apart of. And I've written a book.

Marcus: What?

Carl: I've written a book.

Marcus: Tell me about this book.

Carl: The mentoring program of the Kappa League is called, A Kut Above: Results of Positive Male Mentoring, so I talk about the importance of mentoring, as well as having stories of the young men I've mentored. So I love the personal stories that they tell the importance of this program and why the program helped them. So you can go to my website at Again, So you can purchase a book and a lot of what I've talked about today, you'll read in the book as well.

Marcus: Very cool, I definitely need to get a copy of that.

Carl: Absolutely.

Marcus: Well I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. We'll wrap up any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share.

Carl: Absolutely. Be a mentor. If you own a company or a business, allow local students, young people in your community to come in and if they are just able to make copies or just come in for a couple of hours, that would change their lives. You'll actually change the life of an entire community if you open up and allow those young people to come in. So I encourage if you're a business owner to make that happen.

Marcus: Yeah, a lot of people don't know this but one of the main functions of the Chamber is work-force development.

Carl: Right.

Marcus: And so they have all kinds of programs that are geared towards helping students get more information about what it's like to work in an office environment and stuff like that. But that's a fraction of what is needed and so, we're actually starting to kind of think through, now that we've achieved a certain of size and capability as an organization, we're starting to look at well how do we do that? I agree, so the more people can open those doors, the better off we'll be all as a community because one of the things that we suffer from in this area is the flight of our brain power, leaving this area and going to Atlanta or Birmingham.

Carl: Or Houston.

Marcus: Or New Orleans or Houston. Yeah, I mean any number of places except coming back here. And the more that we can show them that there are opportunities here and that they have a future here, and that there's things that are greater than, for the common good, but there are great things to be done here then the more those young people are going to stay and be a part of this community. We need those young ...

Carl: We need that energy.

Marcus: We need that energy to advanced to the next level. Anyway, Carl, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a Kappa League mover and shaker.

Carl: Thank you

Marcus: Man, it's been great talking to you.

Carl: Great, thank you Marcus.

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