When Kevin Benoit was 15, he found himself fighting the system — and paving the path to what would become a 20-year-old publication — over a story on Ashanti and Ja Rule.
At the time, it was slightly less epic. He just wanted to give his classmates the entertainment news of the week and, maybe, if the stars aligned, engage them in a larger conversation.
Writing in “The Wingate World” had been on his wish list ever since his sister, three years his senior, started bringing home the school paper. He would flip through it and imagine being a part of those pages. While George W. Wingate High School — a now-defunct high school with classrooms in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens and Wingate areas of Brooklyn — wasn’t his choice of school, he knew that if he ever ended up there, he would write for the paper. When he eventually transferred, he did.
At his previous school in Rockaway Park, the aspiring professional basketball player had been lured by the only program he could find designed to prepare students for a career in sports. Disillusioned with a curriculum centered around sports medicine and management, and still bearing the scars of being bullied in middle school, Benoit vowed things would be different at Wingate. He would make them so — starting with becoming very involved in his new school, and ending with standing up against censorship.
The record label Murder Inc, founded in 1998, was on the rise when Benoit was in high school in the early 2000s. He thought it merited a story focused on its flagship artist, Ja Rule, and Ashanti. To him, it was a flavor “The Wingate World” had always been missing.
“It just didn’t make sense to me that this was a publication for Brooklyn students about the Brooklyn high school experience and we weren’t talking about Hip-Hop music,” Benoit said.
But by the time the story was published, it wasn’t in his words anymore. The article had been severely edited.
“The story was probably a little too gangster … they just didn’t like how ‘hood’ my voice was,” Benoit told Epicenter, referencing his background growing up in pre-gentrified Crown Heights. “I come from Brooklyn, I am of Brooklyn, so my stories were always going to have a different type of lens.”
Struck at how his voice had been muted, Benoit decided to start a competing publication: “The Wingate Voice.” He recruited two classmates to the cause: Nickson Toussaint and Jacquelyne Jarvis. And though they “didn’t know what [they] were doing,” they knew what they wanted. They created a section called “16 Bars” for students to craft raps and battle on the back page, and another section for horoscopes. They also called Universal Press Syndicate, which owned the rights to a favorite comic strip of theirs, The Boondocks, and won approval to publish the comics in their paper (that comic strip was what first got Benoit interested in newspapers and ultimately journalism).
“As far as I can remember, Boondocks was the first time I opened up the newspaper and saw Black kids,” Benoit said. “And it wouldn’t be because we were arrested.”
Benoit also put in hard work in a place infamous for its culture of students cutting class, a standard he said contributed to Wingate’s eventual closure. Even while attending night school and summer school to graduate in three years, even when facing down the few expectations and little faith some staff had on his prospects, he never stopped working on the paper. Benoit would go to class and then head to his unofficial office at school, converted from a former law teacher’s workspace. It was small yet one of the few spaces that felt big enough for what he was building.
“No one expected [it],” he said. “We have such low expectations of our Black and Brown teens … that we leave them in these positions of just not growing. We should be trying to help them advance. We should be exposing them to more.”
After graduation, he returned in a student advisory role to help keep the paper going, but the school administration shut it down. It might have gotten too “hot” or controversial for school leadership. He and students were publishing stories that pushed the envelope. At a time when frank conversations on gender and sexuality were rare, “The Wingate Voice” put out an interview with a girl on the basketball team who had come out as gay.
It was time to start his own venture: Parlé Magazine, an outlet serving up entertainment and lifestyle news for Black consumers. Benoit started off with little business knowledge or professional journalism experience. But his lived experience guided his moves for the next two decades as he assigned articles to youth who, like him, had had few opportunities to create content.
Throughout major changes in the media ecosphere — from the humble print issue still framed in his current office to glossier pages followed by the switch to digital, and from major advertising revenue to a greater reliance on philanthropic funding — the crux of Benoit’s drive has been the lack of faith from the education system, the lack of representation with which he had grown up.
During low revenue cycles at his publication, Benoit started working at various schools and nonprofits in the city. He developed a zest for education policy, zooming out from his classroom time to break down what was wrong with the system. He wanted the youths he worked with to see themselves as entrepreneurs, as media professionals, as students for whom there was no question whether they would graduate from high school early if they wished.
“In so many of these spaces you don’t get to see a Black man, especially as a Black boy, a Black young man,” Benoit said. “You can take advice from anyone. But when you get that from a Black man, hopefully it sticks a little harder … You come across someone like me, hopefully you see we have the exact same journey. I come from the same hood, the same block. There are conversations I can have with you that hopefully resonate in a different way and unfortunately are missing.”
To help close some of that gap, Parlé Endeavors was born — a nonprofit supporting youth development and fostering empowerment in the media, arts and business industries, with a focus on Black and Brown youth and first-generation students. Youths are paired with mentors who might mirror the career path they see for themselves or would like to explore. They’re also pushed to express themselves through the arts.
Last July, Benoit hosted teens from all five boroughs to showcase their slam poetry at the iconic Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side. He remembers the nerves from students who suddenly felt the need to read off their phones the poetry they had memorized. But the response to students’ efforts was warmer than the stage lights, larger than the venue’s legend. While the café is temporarily shutting down for repairs, they would always have the Nuyorican Poets experience. Their next might be as big as the Apollo.
“That exposure was the important part for me,” Benoit said. “I want to put you on this [stage] so that you don’t have to wait until you’re 25 to be there.”
This post has been updated to reflect new information.