Name: Leonitha “Leah” Francis
Profession: Founder & Entrepreneur
what area of the BX are you from?: West Fordham Road & 183rd St., Loring Place North to be exact
current location: The DMV (DC/Maryland/Virginia), Silver Spring, MD
IG: @beingleah, @urbanmentor
Leah is my godsister! Our fathers were great friends growing up, so when we were born, it was only right that we became family. Thankfully, we reconnected as adults and I have proudly watched Leah's entrepreneurial journey and her service to youth through her organization, Urban Mentor. (see the link above for her website!)
Tell us about yourself:
This is always the hardest question for me to answer in any setting, interview, date, etc. I prefer to think of myself as experienced, one’s encounter with me will tell them all that they need to know about me. Simply put, I’m a Pentecostal girl from the Bronx that loves Jesus.
What are your fondest memories of growing up in the Bronx?
Definitely “going up Fordham”, which was shopping and window shopping up Fordham Road. My mother was strategic in starting at the farthest store and working her way back towards the block. She taught us the art of comparing prices, going in and out of stores and we developed relationships with store owners and vendors. Summers were always exciting with Mister Softee rolling through the block, fire hydrants blazing, double dutch contest, Skellzies games, bodega runs up and down the block, walking over to other blocks just to strut through to be seen LOL, and waiting until night fell to play massive block-wide games of Manhunt several blocks over.
Do you feel as though being from the Bronx has heavily influenced who you are today?
Absolutely, there is a unique hustle that growing up in the Bronx gave me along with a curated lens for how I view the world. Growing up in the Bronx, I had diversified friends from the moment I knew how to make friends; my best friend in 2nd grade was Vietnamese, by 8th grade my closest friends ranged from Vietnamese, Cambodian, Dominican and Puerto Rican, outside of my Black friends. These early interactions with other cultures helped me to celebrate and appreciate the differences of people in the world around me. For everything the Bronx gave me, there were some things it couldn’t give me, like Jack & Jill or debutantes or music programs I was interested in, to that, it has ingrained a passion in me to be that difference in many urban communities like the one I was raised in. I’ve recently launched a non-profit organization, Urban Mentor, which seeks to be a resource to help build and equip mentors to serve in urban communities through programs and presence. It is my ultimate goal to bring the accessibility of a cotillion and beautillion to the urban neighborhoods like my beloved Loring Place.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
My grandfather, Dr. Thomas E. Shuler; my mentors Terrie M. Williams, Karen Abdul and Wendy Petties; The Bella Mafia: Erica Pittman, Marilyn Van Alstyne and Dia Simms (the women who are entrusted to run Diddy’s companies).
What has been your greatest accomplishment to date?
I honestly don’t know. It is very hard for me to rehearse “accomplishments” because I’m such a giving and serving worker for that which I believe in. I would say every child that I’ve mentored or has considered me a mentor that has graduated college and become productive contributors to society or just become a greater person that I consider myself to be. My goal is to instill in my mentees the need to be better than me and go farther than I’ve ever gone using the wins, losses and lessons in my life that I’ve shared with them.
If you could, in what ways would you give back to your community?
Through my nonprofit organization, Urban Mentor, I am impacting communities like the one I grew up in through mentorship. Giving of my time, resources and experiences to seed into the lives of teenagers as they mature into young adults. My vision is to bring a Cotillion-Beautillion to the community I was raised in because it was the one thing I always wanted to participate in as a teen, it was just never available.
If someone were visiting the Bronx, where would you tell them to go?
Stroll up and down Fordham Road to shop and stop by the pizza shop on the corner of the Grand Concourse by the D train, make sure to get an icee from your nearest corner with someone shouting “cherrycocorainbow”, and end up somehow at Dallas BBQ or Johnny’s on City Island for cheap drink and a good time. Also head up to White Plains Road to eat at the Mom & Pop West Indian restaurants and to get bread from the bakery on on White Plains Road between 221st and 222nd Street. And if its the holidays, stop by the house just off of Pelham Parkway for their “Christmas Spectacular” that stays up all year long.