Jordan Bankston of Forever Kings

Helping young men reimagine what their lives can be

Jordan Bankston Forever Kings photo by Wendell Gibbs Jr for Movers and Makers April 2023
Jordan Bankston of Forever Kings (photo by Wendell Gibbs Jr. for Movers and Makers April 2023)

Generations of families have found comfort in packing up the car, hitting the open road and going to grandma’s house. The tradition is such a part of Americana, songs and books have memorialized it.

For a 5-year-old Cincinnati kid named Jordan, trips to the place where his grandmother lived for a time went something like that, a drive southward, away from the city, on to country roads and ending in Kentucky. 

Redefining the outcome

Jordan Bankston, 27, emerges from a back entrance of Horizons Science Academy in Bond Hill. Bespectacled, he looks professorial. He could be the good-guy uncle, a researcher, or – tall and big-shouldered – an edge rusher. His high-top fade hairstyle is as popular today as it was in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Meet the founder of Forever Kings, a nonprofit launched in 2019 to fill what Bankston saw as an important need. He wanted to provide young men of color the tools to “redefine, reshape, and reimagine outcomes for their lives.”

It is a lofty goal, but Bankston is up for it. After all, for years, friends and relatives have often praised his entrepreneurial mindset (he owns and operates a Fairfield frozen yogurt shop). 

Certainly, he has put in the time. Definitely, the life he has lived has given him a world of insight.

Bankston is aware of all the data that show disparities between Black men and white men regarding incarceration rates, educational attainment, health and economic prosperity. Bankston counters. The seeds of those disparities are planted early in a child’s life. An initiative like Forever Kings seeks to change the narrative and improve long-term outcomes.

“These young people are often exceptional young men who get lost. They may not be academically advanced, or never been a scholar, but there are many things they do well. I wish I had someone to tell me that when I was growing up,” Bankston said. 

For young Jordan, those family road trips became more frequent and familiar for over 10 years. They would end at the same rural, small-town destination where his grandmother lived: a federal prison. 

“For the first half of my life, I visited people in jail. I thought that’s what everybody does,” Bankston said. 

Until he became a teenager, young Jordan’s family frequently visited other incarcerated relatives, too, including his brother and father. Bankston’s brother served a 10-year prison sentence. His grandmother served a 17-year prison sentence. His father has been in and out of prison.

Jordan Bankston and student by Wendell Gibbs Jr.
Jordan Bankston and student (photo by Wendell Gibbs Jr.)

Destined to mentor youth

It’s normal for kids to celebrate important milestones with close kin: birthdays, bar mitzvahs, graduations and proms. That wasn’t the case for Bankston. He understood the challenges of growing up in a tough neighborhood, where trouble was easy to find. Yet, by the grace of God, he said, he was not ensnared. 

“I think if I didn’t know my purpose at a young age (to touch young people), I could have spiraled and strayed. I always tell young men, ‘I’m blessed that what was around me didn’t get inside of me,’ ” he said.

Bankston seemed destined to help young people from an early age. He spent more than 10 years mentoring young people. He was a Cincinnati Recreation Commission lifeguard. He was a church youth pastor. When he speaks, he frequently credits his faith as a guide for success and sees the formation of Forever Kings as divine intervention.

“I can’t describe it any other way than to say there was an awakening,” Bankston said. “I felt for the first time that I was fulfilling my purpose. It was confirmation from God that I am doing what I was called to do.”

Sometimes lending an ear to a child who wants to talk can be life-changing, and Bankston is always looking for opportunities to listen and hear. He recalls the story of a 12-year-old who missed his ride home and inadvertently joined an afterschool meeting of Forever Kings in his school building. 

Things were tough at home for the child. His single mom was raising him and a sick sibling. 

“It was a freak accident that he was there, but I felt he received a connection that he probably never had,” Bankston said. “I tell our staff here that (listening to a child) may seem like the silliest thing in the world, but it can mean so much to the person sharing it with you.”

Today, Xander Wynn, that 12-year-old, is 19, thriving and credits Bankston for saving him at a critical moment.

“Jordan has meant everything to me. It was by pure coincidence that we met and it was a gift from God, honestly. I was in a very dark place, struggling with anger and very lost,” Wynn said. “Jordan was the first person who took a chance on me and thought I could be something. He welcomed me into his life as if I was his son. We bumped heads many times but seven years later I couldn’t have dreamed of a better role model and father figure to lead me in life. I owe everything to him and God who have allowed me to become who I am today.”

Kelly Gunnels Valines, a local business owner who met Bankston at church, calls him her “little brother.” She said she marvels at his capacity and willingness to help others.

“He has an opportunity to plant seeds of hope, acceptance, love and legacy,” Valines said. “He is an educator in a system that was leaving our brown and Black children behind, and he did something about it. He is an unselfish man of God, and he pours out his heart, time and energy to those in need while seeing himself in the very struggles of others.”

Seeing and filling a need

Bankston’s benevolence and entrepreneurial mind emerged in the earliest days of the global pandemic, not long after he founded Forever Kings. People needed food and essentials. Bankston partnered with La Soupe and the Freestore Foodbank to deliver food to Cincinnati Recreation Centers and feed those in need.

Valines said Bankston sees a need and seeks to fill it as soon as possible. “He does not sit back and speak about the issues and then wait for someone else to take hold of the reins,” she said. “He moves with the vision God has given him to show up for our children and to give them hope and a place in this world where they can learn their value in the kingdom of God and in life.”

While Bankston seeks to provide a better future for young men, he is not oblivious to contemporary challenges in the city, where nearly 9 out of 10 homicide victims in 2022 were Black. While the City of Cincinnati recently declared gun violence a public health crisis, Bankston believes kids need a champion early in their lives who can change the trajectory of their lives. They need learning intervention to address any academic deficiencies. And they need to know what winning feels like, he said. 

“I believe our young men are misunderstood, and we just don’t have enough people to work on their behalf,” Bankston said.

Participants and staff at Forever Kings retreats. (Photos by Wendell Gibbs Jr.)

About Forever Kings

Jordan Bankston founded Forever Kings in the summer of 2019 on the premise that young men of color in Greater Cincinnati needed a safe space to learn, grow and thrive with like-minded peers.

On the surface, the concept of Forever Kings may seem similar to other programs aimed at uplifting youth, such as the MORE initiative offered by Cincinnati Public Schools or YMCA’s Achievers program. However, Forever Kings primarily competes with sports programming directed at young men.

Headquartered in Roselawn, Forever Kings’ program is divided into three areas of focus: 

  • A nine-month personal development support program called Boyz II Kings.
  • An academic support program that includes tutoring and ACT and SAT preparation called Every King Succeeds.
  • An optional Christian discipleship program called Kings for Christ. 

The cost of the program is $100 per year. Prospective participants pay a non-refundable $50 application fee. 

Four schools have school-based Boyz II Kings programs. Participants (Kings) meet after school once a week. The nine-month program serves these students in its headquarters, the King’s Palace. The space has large classrooms and meeting spaces. Its walls are painted deep purple, which is associated with royalty. “ ‘Forever Kings’ is meant to remind young men of the greatness inside them, that they are indeed Forever Kings,” Bankston said.

“Our program is focused on building their self-actualization, how do we get them to see who they really are,” Bankston said. 

Programs are implemented by paid mentors (impact coordinators). These are all Black men who have worked in youth development for a minimum of five years. All curriculum is created in-house and tailored to the needs of members. 

Learn more about Forever Kings and how you can support its mission:

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