For 13 years, the idea of a mirror image persisted in Gregory Bradley’s mind.
“It was a thought about mirror image and that my assignment in this world was to help people see themselves the way that God created them to be,” Bradley said. “And I really didn’t know what to do with that.”
Bradley, a Gainesville native, was a busy and successful consultant in Atlanta, but the idea persisted in his mind. He even created a small business consulting firm as a way to live out that assignment. But he wanted to do more, so in 2018 he moved back to Gainesville and soon outlined a model for an academy: Mirror Image Leadership Academy.
Mirror Image now has 51 scholars participating in a three-year program, with second-year students visiting Atlanta this week and third-year students traveling to Ghana in late July. Bradley says funding has grown to nearly $400,000 in three years.
The academy focuses on five pillars: self-image, purpose, faith, character and work ethic. Bradley said exposure trips help accelerate growth—local trips in the first year of the program, a national trip in the second year, and an international trip in the third year.
The goal is to develop leaders.
“We started Mirror Image Leadership Academy on the premise that you’re already a leader because you’re created in the image and likeness of God,” Bradley said. “So, what we want to do over a three-year period is help these young men discover the leader that God created them to be.”
Bradley, an Eastside High School graduate, reels off Alachua County statistics to set the backdrop: eight out of 10 African Americans born into single-parent homes, one in three black males going to prison at some point in his lifetime and, depending on the source, about a 40% poverty rate.
Following a pandemic delay, Bradley launched in 2021 with 12 scholars on their way into seventh grade. The next year, Mirror Image added 18 new first-year scholars as the original cohort became second-year scholars. This year, 22 first-year scholars joined to create the first full complement of three classes.
The academy connects with the school system to find black scholars entering seventh grade and then extend an opportunity to learn more and join. The program consists of meeting monthly during the school year and Monday through Friday during June.
The scholars work through a biblically-based curriculum that touches on the five pillars. Executive director James Miller said Mirror Image and its staff are unapologetically Christian, but not all scholars come from that background.
“We try to live out the Christ in us and let that be the display as opposed to beating them over the head with the Bible,” Miller said.
Besides the curriculum, exposure trips form a crucial part of Mirror Image.
Trips remain local for first-year students, from the A. Quinn Jones Museum and the Cotton Club Museum to the Greater Gainesville Chamber, Sweetwater Wetlands Park, Scorpio Construction and the Cade Museum.
“We try to take them and talk to someone whose story is going to align to one of the pillars on our model,” Miller said. “What they go see is important; who they go see is just as important.”
In the second year, scholars leave Florida and travel to Atlanta. Visits include the World of Coca-Cola Museum, a Braves game, a nationwide marketing agency and Delta Airlines, where the students see planes being built, engine tests and airliner takeoffs.
For the third and final exposure trip, the 12 soon-to-be-freshmen will head to Ghana.
Miller said it’s a lot of moving parts. Just in June, he’s coordinating three classes for 20 programming days that each have an exposure trip attached to it.
“We didn’t think it was gonna be fun, but like, it’s fun and learning,” scholar Travis Carter said. “So now we love it.”
Carter said his mother pushed him to join the program, and he went along. Kwamane Nichols, another third-year scholar, said he wants to stick with Mirror Image past three years and until he finds a job.
They agree that the program has been worth it as they learn from teachers and trips.
“They give us more things to learn about now, instead of us having to learn on our own in the future,” said Juju Ross, another third-year scholar.
Ross, Nichols and Carter will all attend different high schools in August. They said the close-knit relationship with everyone will shift.
“We’re just not going to see them as much next year as we do now,” Ross said. “And I’m kind of going to miss everybody because a lot of people are going to different high schools.”
Bradley, owner of G. Bradley Allstate Insurance Agency, has stepped away from Mirror Image daily operations, leaving that role to Miller, while he focuses on fundraising. Scholars pay $50, $100 and $150 each year of the program, but Bradley says that’s to gain their commitment. It takes a lot more to run the whole organization.
He said several families and churches have supported Mirror Image, standing behind its five pillars and vision statement: positively impact the generational trajectory of black families.
“The way that the business community and individuals have responded to this need and to this vision—it’s hard for me to put words around it because it’s almost a miracle every day that happens. That we are able to keep this thing going,” Bradley said.