One of the success strategies that emerged from documentary and the panel discussion that followed was the need for successful students – regardless for their race – to be surrounded by a support network of peers, parents, teachers, and other adults in the community who encourage students to value education and support their efforts to develop the skills necessary for them to be successful. Students have to be surrounded by an environment, both within and outside of school, which is conducive to studying. Various participants in the conversation called this a “nucleus of support” or a “cocoon of insularity” against anti-intellectualism in the social environment.

This peer and mentor-driven approach, which sees racial identity as being a resource to deepen school engagement – seeing education as a form of racial uplift, just as it was 50 years ago – is essentially the approach that seems to drive the Heinz Endowments’ funding for programs.

The Endowments are funding research and a number of programs, under its “African American Men and Boys Initiatives,” that focus on structural and systemic problems that prevent young Black males from fulfilling their potential. These programs include the Uzuri Think Tank, the Black Male Leadership Development Institute (BMLDI), also at Robert Morris and coordinated with Pittsburgh area social service agencies, and a series of guest speakers and community conversations such as the one held last Thursday night.

There were a number of BMLDI participants in the audience during the preview of the documentary. They were identifiable by their blue T-shirts. They came to the community conversation primed to network. As everyone was queuing up for refreshments before the film one of the young men came over to me, introduced himself, and gave me a firm handshake. After this happened several times I couldn’t help asking them about the program they were in and giving them my business card in case I could help to them in the future.

As it turns out, the BMLDI is a year-round program for Black males in grades 9-12 to prepare them for academic excellence and community leadership. This is yet another initiative that is funded by the Heinz Endowments.

Focusing on models of academic success for young Black males comes from other Pittsburgh institutions as well. Last month, Duquesne University’s School of Education hosted the Barbara A. Sizemore Conference. Shaun Harper, PhD., of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education presented the findings of his recently completed study of successful Black male students in higher education.

Harper suggested that new research should explore these questions: How did those who are enrolled get to the colleges and universities that they are enrolled in? What can we learn from students who were retained and successfully graduated from higher education? What can we learn from educational environments that produce students who thrive in higher education?

While Harper was reluctant to draw definitive conclusions before he has had time to mull over the data, it appears as though that same nucleus of a social support network – both inside the classroom and in the Black community – is emerging in his studies also. Harper noted that skills, financial resources for education, and social connections appear to be consistent factors in the successful outcomes of students his research team has interviewed. He said that his future research will include a closer examination of the role of community-based institutions and resources.

As the community conversation at the August Wilson Center drew to a close, and the members of the BMLDI trooped out of the auditorium, wearing their high blue T-shirts, I wondered how the pressing questions about Black male education would eventually be answered.

What mix, between integrated schooling and racial identity will provide a constructive support network to students? Will it still be necessary for students to make trade-offs between academic excellence and peer acceptance among other young Black males? Will there still be a sharp dichotomy between focusing on the preparedness of Black male students to learn and the flexibility of school environments to find more effective ways of engaging them?

How successful will we have been in creating the nucleus of support that encourages young Black males to develop as scholars, rather than merely jumping through the hoops to get a degree? How successful will we have been in creating the cocoon of insularity against influences, within the surrounding community, that would destroy the life of the mind?

We will not find answers to these questions right away. The anti-deficit approach to re-framing our research questions and designing programs for intervention will have to take root. However, Pittsburgh, due to its unique combination of foundation-funded initiatives and innovative universities, seems poised to be the cutting edge of the next chapter in the history of African American education.

C. Matthew Hawkins teaches in the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and is a consultant on curriculum development. His research is on the relationship between racial identity and schooling.

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