It’s my first time at the New Schools Venture Fund conference, and I’m excited to exchange ideas with entrepreneurs, educators and policymakers. The day will be brimming with innovative approaches to transforming public education for underserved students. But what strikes me first is that, for once, my reflexive search of the room for brown and black faces comes up full.
The conference won’t necessarily be better or worse, the discussions more or less fruitful, but that simple moment of recognition, the feeling of an invisible but meaningful weight lifted off of my shoulders — that I don’t have to represent, and I can, just a little more than usual, simply be— gives me a powerful moment of connection with a subject never far from our minds at Summer Search: reaching and serving more young men of color.
Despite our best efforts, Summer Search, a national non-profit focused on creating opportunity for low-income and underserved students, has enrolled only three males of color out of every 10 students. Over the last two years, we have focused on recruiting and retaining more of these young men through pilot programs and innovative strategies, but it remains an uphill battle.
At Summer Search, we are steadfast in our efforts to empower these students to become the college-educated leaders we know they can be. As the events in Ferguson continue to unfold, the entire education community must recognize the challenges facing young men of color and renew our commitment to them.
These four points from the conference keynote resonated powerfully with me:
Hope: Hope is essential to changing lives and communities. Young men struggle disproportionately at every stage of the educational system. Summer Search helps them achieve success through professional mentoring and through summer experiences like outdoor expeditions and international trips, which help build leadership skills. Combined, these elements help our young men realize the potential they have always had within, and foster hope that a brighter future is within reach.
Proximity: Proximity and time with these young men is one method in addressing a disturbing statistic: One in three black males born today will spend one year or more involved in the justice system, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. At Summer Search, we engage with our male students and alumni as often as possible as we strive to better understand their needs and provide the support and resources for them to thrive. We must get close to be effective.
Challenge the narrative. When first addressing our male student challenge, we considered it a recruiting problem. This was our working narrative, based on the observation that boys in our program do as well as girls once admitted. But we also considered how we focused on supporting our small male population by implementing black male leadership groups and mentoring sessions just for boys. This collective effort is what it took to increase the number of males entering and completing our program.
Be uncomfortable. We must stand in those uncomfortable places, because they are essential. Coming on the heels of a charged diversity conversation with our leadership team, this message thrums through me. We shared personal stories and tackled issues of race head-on. It was uncomfortable, but in order for Summer Search to support more male students of color, we must embrace these challenging conversations. It’s essential to growth.
In summary, we need to do better. Better, not just for the young men who drop out of our program, but also for our entire community. Let’s push each other to challenge these results, avoid glossing over mistakes and have uncomfortable conversations. Our young men depend on it.
Amy Saxton is CEO of Summer Search, a national youth development organization dedicated to helping low-income students become college-education leaders.