Black Male Institute: Researchers, Community Leaders Work to Improve Education and Professional Success
August 1, 2012 - Straight talk, important research findings, and tough love were the order of the day at the 4th Annual Black Male Institute (BMI) Think Tank Conference, hosted this spring by the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and Center X at UCLA. The day-long event, which was also supported by the Department of Education at Occidental College, brought 150 middle and high school students from throughout the Los Angeles area to the UCLA campus for a glimpse at university life.
BMI’s signature event brought together researchers, practitioners, educators, and youth to discuss issues affecting the academic and professional success of Black males today. Activities included talks by UCLA undergraduate students, a campus tour, and college prep workshops. Keynote speaker Gloria Ladson-Billings, Kellner Family Professor of Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children.”
Ladson-Billings, who was featured earlier this year on CNN for her use of hip-hop pedagogy with other UWM faculty to integrate history and politics with art, culture, and performance in the classroom, presented a talk in the Charles E. Young Grand Salon at Kerckhoff Hall on “From Old School to Hip-Hop: Transforming Teaching for the Sake of Our Children.” When discussing her reasons for researching the needs of African American students, Ladson-Billings noted that, “I study black students because they should not exist. They come from a people stolen from their native land. I study black students because they are so interesting… I study black students because for once in their lives, they deserve to be the stars of their own show.”
Conference participants O-Jay Hardy, who graduated from UCLA with honors last year with a double major in African American studies and anthropology, and Eric Lambkins, an undergraduate who double majors in African American studies and political science, shared their accounts of growing up in South Los Angeles and the challenges that led them to pursue higher education.
Hardy grew up in Compton, but moved with his family several times, acquiring most of his education at high schools in Hawthorne and Lynwood.
“I moved around and went to four different high schools,” said Hardy. “But it taught me a lot of lessons. Moving around to different neighborhoods put me in many places with unfamiliar situations that I had to quickly learn to navigate in order to maintain self-preservation. Moving to different schools gave me the experience needed to deal with a variety of situations and people, whether friendly or as in many cases during my youth, hostile.
“I didn’t have no Pops, so I looked to the people who were around me,” recalled Hardy. “These men gave me the only true skills they had to offer, which were commonly survival skills. They taught me how to maintain physical freedom while doing what you must to survive and escape from mental shackles.”
Hardy, who was disabled by a gunshot wound six years ago, told the roomful of students that living amid violence ultimately propelled him to go to college.
“I was always a good student in high school, I had a 3.5 and up all the time,” noted Hardy. “But I got sidetracked by my environment. In that environment, I suffered a gunshot wound that put me in this wheelchair. Six months out of the hospital, I was back on the street, hustling. But I realized that I couldn’t [survive doing] that. That’s what made me want to continue my education. I’ve always been smart, so I went back to school.”
Hardy transferred to UCLA from El Camino College in Torrance. He said that despite his academic ability, he felt that certain aspects of the academic system served as barriers to the success of students of color from predominantly urban environments, and that he worked to find ways to get around these obstacles.
“Many of the people in my community have no idea [how to] access higher education,” asserted Hardy. “Many are in situations so dire that something as promising as an education contains less appeal than a paycheck at the week’s end. Although an education is promising, it does not guarantee us the necessities to survive the situation we face today. So learning the ‘system’ lends an opportunity [for me to] return to my community with two plans: one to show people they can educate themselves no matter what the obstacles and the second, to show people how to survive and navigate the educational system [toward] a tangible ending.”
Hardy is studying to take the LSAT in preparation to attend law school. He looks forward to giving back to his community through a career in the legal profession, which he says he was compelled to pursue because of his exposure to critical race studies, which showed him “the direct connection between the ills of communities of color and [the] hegemonic structure.” He also cites a more personal reason for his ambitions.
“When it gets this close to home, your path is sometimes chosen for you,” observes Hardy. “When I attended UCLA as an undergraduate, my youngest brother was incarcerated and sentenced to more than 20 years imprisonment. As an attorney advocating for communities that are indiscriminately policed and harassed, I can curtail some of the hardship caused by the criminalization of poverty.”
Lambkins grew up in Watts, but was bussed to schools outside of his neighborhood. A natural athlete, he had his sights set on a career in pro basketball. He kept his GPA up at Hamilton High School just long enough to make the team each season and garnered several scholarships that would have sped him on to college.
“After basketball season came and went, I was chillin’,” Lambkins admitted. “Not going to school, ditching, drinking. But in my senior year, I started having seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy. They put me on medication called Dilantin, but I had an allergic reaction and almost died. I lost 50 pounds in two weeks.
“Those scholarship offers got snatched. I had a cumulative 1.9 GPA; I had graduated from high school, but I wasn’t college-bound. So I hung out with my homeboys.”
As a result of Lambkin’s association with drugs and gangs, his family’s house became the scene of a shooting and his parents told him he would have to move out.
“I was 18 years old, with no real education, no real skills,” he said. “So I went into the Army. This was June of 2001; September 11 hadn’t happened yet. I thought, ‘I’ll travel the world, get some money, and I’ll be straight.’ Sept. 11 happened when I was in basic training. My drill sergeant was telling me, ‘Man, they just bombed the Towers.’ The only towers I knew were the Watts Towers.’
“I didn’t believe him, I thought it was one of those tricks that drill sergeants play to get you to work a little harder. I snuck out the next morning and stole all the newspapers to pass out to my platoon. On the front page, I saw the explosions at the World Trade Center. It was real.”
Lambkins was deployed to Iraq in 2003 to serve in the infantry. Although he had initially planned to pursue a career in the military, he said that the conditions he witnessed while in that country led him to choose college instead.
“I wanted to be a Special Forces soldier,” Lambkins remembers. “But going to Iraq opened my eyes on a lot of issues. Some of the social and political ills prevalent in Iraq were similar to [those in] the community in which I grew up. I wanted to understand some of the economic and political quandaries that beset both communities.”
Lambkins left the Army with a medical discharge due to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He enrolled at Los Angeles Southwest College, transferring to UCLA in 2008. His involvement with BMI began after meeting its director, Dr. Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UCLA. The institute’s mission was of interest to Lambkins, who looks forward to teaching in the social sciences and mentoring young men of color in the future.
“My involvement with BMI has inspired me to become a role model and to help future students learn from their experiences,” says Lambkins. “I've struggled with making it through because I had to learn how to juggle being a father, homelessness, and being a full-time student, as well as coping with my mental illness. I want to show young black men that they don’t have to have a great jumpshot or a killer crossover to escape their surroundings if they choose to. Hard work and tenacity will smash all obstacles if they commit their minds and lives to an ideal greater than themselves.”
Formed in 2010 with a $150,000 grant from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, the Black Male Institute examines the challenges that impact the academic and professional success of Black males, including economic, social, legal, or health-related issues.
Howard, who also directs Center X, UCLA’s signature urban schooling institute, oversees the State of Black Male Education Project, which has documented the educational outcomes of African American male students in LAUSD’s K-12 over the last 15 years. In addition, he leads the Brothers Reaching Out Project, which provides information on available resources for Black males and the broader Black community in California and nationwide, while seeking to develop partnerships among these programs and organizations.
The BMI is nearing the end of its three-year study, “Saving Our Sons: An Examination of Black Male Academics in Los Angeles Schools.” Howard, his students, and colleagues have analyzed how Black males perform in single-sex classrooms across Los Angeles County.
“What we have found has been both promising and disturbing,” he says. “We have been encouraged by some schools’ willingness to create spaces for Black males in an attempt to give them something different. Some of these sites have been amazing with incredible teaching, young men defying the odds, going to college, and disrupting stereotypes about their promise and potential. On the other side, several of these sites have not thought about a real, clear theory of change, and of how and why they have created single-gender classrooms. The most notable finding is that what works best for Black males are committed, culturally competent, and skillfully trained teachers who build authentic, caring relationships with them.”
Another BMI program is Project Lumina, which supports Black male retention at UCLA. A four-year project that examines the impact of an intervention course designed for African American men who are first-time freshmen and transfer students, the course works to inform Black males about resources on campus, and to provide a safe space for them to engage in dialogue that is relevant to their successful transition to university life.
“What we are finding two years into this project is that many Black males come to UCLA and are overwhelmed with the size and the pace of [it],” says Howard. “Many are also unaware of how and where to seek support academically, financially, emotionally, and psychologically. We are encouraged by what we have discovered: that by providing exposure and awareness to students early in their time at UCLA, we significantly increase their chances of graduation. Thus far, we have not lost a single student.”
- Joanie Harmon