During his 2014 State of the Union Address, President Obama stated, “I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential.”
The new initiative was prompted by the myriad of barriers young men color face—both educational and societal. From pre-K through postsecondary education, African American males experience educational environments that are not nurturing and conducive to their specific needs. Numerous studies show that Black males are regularly targeted and viewed as a threat in school and out of school settings. According to the noted Educational Consultant Jawanza Kunjufu, many African American males stop caring about their education as early as elementary school. Moreover, University of Southern California’s Professor Shaun Harper pointed out in a 2012 article that African American males are suspended and expelled at higher rates than any other group, more likely to be placed in remedial education or labeled as having a learning disability, least likely to be enrolled in advanced placement courses, and least likely to enroll in college when compared to their White male counterparts and same-race female counterparts. African American males are approximately 6% of the U.S. population and account for approximately 33% of all student dropouts. To make matter worse, according to a 2011 study by education researchers at Columbia University—Teachers College, it is estimated that 42% of African American males will have failed a grade level before entering high school. In a 2010 report published by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, they noted only 47% of African American males graduated from high school in four years.
Despite the negative connotations of African American males and the economic and societal hardships they experience, there are many examples of successful African American males who have persisted through the educational pipeline in stark contrast to the negative stereotypes and statistics. In various cities throughout the US, African American males are showing what is possible when we provide them with the resources and support needed to be successful. Organizations such as Student African American Brotherhood (SAAB), Brother-2-Brother (B-2-B), Boys 2 Kings, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Higher Achievement, have a wide array of goals that are accomplished through different programmatic features. However, we would like to highlight an initiative birthed in Milwaukee, WI that has transcended expectations and significantly impacted the lives of its Black male participants. This initiative is called the MKE Fellows.
The MKE Fellows initiative was launched in 2012 in partnership with Morehouse College. Due to the program’s instant popularity and success, it was expanded to serve participants who do not attend Morehouse. The purpose of the MKE Fellows program is to encourage Black males to graduate from college and return to Wisconsin post-graduation to increase the city’s economic capacity and diversify its workforce. To accomplish these goals, the program partners with local companies and organizations to provide the young men with summer internships. Also, each Fellow is paired with a professional mentor and attend professional development sessions hosted by various corporate partners throughout the summer months. The participants who excel academically receive book scholarships and stock options for successfully meeting all standards and attending required events. To date, more than 130 participants are enrolled in college, while more than 65 have successfully completed internship. Moreover, participants have a graduation rate far exceeding the national average for Black males.
The foundation of the program is its mentoring effort. According to a recent report by the Urban Leadership Institute, mentoring “may be the most important strategy in ensuring the successful development and maturation of young African-American males into a generation of men who will be loving fathers to their children, faithful husbands to their wives, and leaders for their community.” Mentoring breaks down preconceived notions and builds cultural affinity based on trust, and it aids in counteracting what the Urban Leadership Institute referred to as the “tragic plight” of black males.
While the aforementioned programs are notable, there is evidence more needs to be done. According to the MENTOR—the National Mentoring Partnership— “nearly 17.6 million young Americans need or want mentoring, but only 3 million are engaged in formal, high quality mentoring relationships. This leaves 14.6 million young people still in need of mentors.”
In the words of Tim King “It’s tough to be what you never see.” The time is now to provide more positive examples for young African American males to aspire to be. Four years ago, President Obama provided the charge, and now it is up to us to act. The MKE Fellows program is living up to the challenge.
Donald D. Dantzler, Ph.D candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis and Assistant Research Scientist at the LEAD Center.