Dedan Bruner, president of the D.C. chapter of Concerned Black Men, a local mentoring group. (Kem West/Kem West)
Columnist

When the D.C. chapter of Concerned Black Men was founded in 1982, membership in the mentoring group quickly grew to dozens and then to hundreds. The roster included Eric H. Holder Jr., then a D.C. Superior Court judge who went on to become the nation's first black U.S. attorney general, and Broderick Johnson, then a congressional legislative counsel who became an assistant to President Barack Obama.

"We wanted to provide black boys with role models and positive examples," said Donald Temple, a D.C. lawyer who founded the group and became its first president.

Now, in its 35th year and with an anniversary celebration planned for January, membership is down. Way down — to 15 men.

The group's highly touted reading and mentoring programs have been sharply reduced. Hundreds of boys, many from single-parent households, had joined. Now, only 15 boys are enrolled.

Two of the organization's signature events — the Martin Luther King Jr. oratory contest and the African American History Bee — were canceled last year. Not enough men to organize it. The International Awareness Program, which takes kids on trips abroad, has been curtailed for lack of money and chaperons.

"With fewer people doing more work, there's a lot of burnout," said Dedan Bruner, a 41-year-old lawyer and the group's president. "We had a treasurer that was in place for over a decade because nobody wanted to step up. Nobody wants a lifetime appointment as treasurer."

The first chapter was founded in Philadelphia 40 years ago, the brainchild of Temple's brother, who was a city police officer, and a friend who was a city firefighter. The group put emphasis on developing reading skills and self-development programs that taught boys how to dress professionally and speak effectively.

Other chapters followed, including groups in Prince George's and Charles counties in Maryland.

Reginald Broddie, president and chief executive of Concerned Black Men of America, said the struggle to increase membership and bring in younger members has been "across the board."

"At one point, we had more than 70 chapters," Broddie said. Now there are only 14.

The Prince George's chapter has 39 members, with the average age of 55, he said. The Charles County chapter has 15 members and the average age is above 60.

When he took over as president of the national organization 15 months ago, CBM's chapters had a combined membership of 350, Broddie said. Since then, the organization has changed the membership rules. Now, anyone can sign up for a "national membership," and those new members will eventually be deployed to local chapters.

The result has been an increase in membership to 2,414, he said. But the three chapters in the Washington area have not seen the fruits of those efforts.

The D.C. chapter had always been one of most highly touted.

The membership was a diverse mix of white and blue-collar men , young and elderly, wealthy and those of modest means. During the 1980s and early '90s, when homicides and crack cocaine were ravaging many black neighborhoods, hundreds of youngsters were finding safe haven and guidance in Concerned Black Men.

"Few of the boys we mentor have a safe place to work out problems they may be having, say with girls at school, or talk about how they perceive their future," said Bruner, an employment attorney who has been a member of the organization for seven years. "They want to talk about the news and how to think critically about what is going on."

The program caters to boys ages 9 to 15. They meet for workshops on the first and third Saturdays of each month. The sessions last five hours and usually involve reading and discussion groups. They also take trips throughout the city.

"Last year the boys bought food and prepared bag lunches," Bruner recalled. "Rather than just feeding themselves, they took the lunches to a homeless shelter and distributed them. Even guys who can be hard to reach sometimes, hard to get through to, they really step it up when it's time to serve others."

Bruner attributed the membership decline in part to the people moving out of the area — mostly college students who left after graduating and military personnel who were transferredto other posts.

He added: "I think the definition of activism has changed and not perceived as rolling up your sleeves and getting involved in neighborhoods. It involves Twitter and social media. Not in a bad way, but it's moved online and deals mostly with isolated events — a march for this or that. It's not necessarily about investing in the lives of young people."

As for Holder and Johnson, Bruner said they are still members. "They fall into the group that writes the checks," he said. "We need that. But we also need more boots on the ground."

One group trying to fill in the gap for Concerned Black Men are black women.

"Women have always expressed an interest in our mission," Bruner said. "So, about three years ago, we began to welcome them as volunteers. Now women are serving in vital roles on all of our committees."

Still, he is hopeful he can find a new generation of men to step up. After two years as president, Bruner was ready to step down and last year he decided not to seek reelection. But he still ended up as president.

Nobody else wanted the job.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.