The students at the Feb. 22 Black Teen Summit were chatting and goofing around, when civil rights activist Nekima Levy-Pounds stood up.
Levy-Pounds, a former St. Thomas law professor and current Minneapolis mayoral candidate, asked her fellow members of the lunch-hour panel to listen. I hear a lot of chitchat and disrespect, she said to them. Would she have to put on her “hat as a black mama” and let the students know they could do better?
Her admonition got the students’ attention. Levy-Pounds went on to tell them of her experience growing up in south-central Los Angeles, of seeing police come through her community and people strung out on drugs. It was the lawyers she saw on TV as a 9-year-old, she said, that inspired her to go into law and change her community.
“Latch onto whoever is pouring good things into your life,” Levy-Pounds told the students. “… It’s about all of us coming together, doing our part and lifting each other up.”
Levy-Pounds and the other panelists, Minneapolis Chief of Schools Michael Thomas and Minneapolis NAACP President Jason Sole, talked about their formative experiences, their mentors and their thoughts on being black leaders during the discussion. It came during MPS’ first-ever Black Teen Summit, an event intended to give students a greater knowledge of past African-American leaders and connect them with current black leaders, said Michael Walker, director of MPS’ Office of Black Male Student Achievement.
The summit started with students giving presentations on African-American leaders not traditionally talked about in curriculum, such as Medgar Evers and Fred Hampton, Walker said. It also included the lunch-hour panel, an afternoon leadership session from the YMCA and speeches from Mahmoud El-Kati, a lecturer, writer and commentator on the African-American experience, as well as Superintendent Ed Graff.
About 350 students attended the event, held at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union.
Learning the system
The summit was a microcosm of what the Office of Black Male Student Achievement does each day, said Education Equity Coordinator Corey Yeager.
The office offers a daily elective class called, BLACK, which stands for “building lives, acquiring cultural knowledge,” in four middle schools and four high schools. There’s also a weekly pullout class that serves about 30 students at two elementary schools, Walker said.
Walker and Yeager’s office also offers professional development to staff, during which they try and help teachers become aware of and override their biases, Yeager said.
The goal of BLACK is to give black male students a broader and deeper context of how they fit into the American education system, Yeager said. The students learn how African-Americans didn’t come to the U.S. with the opportunity to pursue education and how their voices were absent in the education system.
The hope is that knowledge gives them a greater chance of success, Yeager said.
Students of color in Minneapolis and statewide graduate at lower rates than white students, are less likely to be “on track for success” and are less likely to meet state academic standards, Minnesota Department of Education data show. They are also suspended at higher rates and are less likely to enroll in college.
“Once you learn the system,” Yeager said, “then you can play better within that. That’s what our students have missed.”
A key point for Yeager and Walker is that black men are the ones who teach the class. The teachers teach the boys “what manhood (and) being a black man looks like,” Yeager said.
“We become uncles in the classroom,” he said.
He said that the students might not have that understanding of manhood. Research says about 70 percent of children of color are raised in a one-parent household, he noted, adding that those kids are mostly raised by mothers.
South High School 11th-grader Roy Holliday said he feels like the BLACK program needs to be in every school, saying that it pushes him to do better. He said the class provides him a safe haven to talk and speak his mind and that it’s given a lot of black males hope and confidence.
“We’re all a family,” he said of the students and teachers in the program. “It’s like half mentor and half, ‘I want you to succeed.'”
‘Thousands lifted me up’
Levy-Pounds, Thomas and Sole all stressed that theme of mentorship during the panel discussion, noting the people and moments that inspired their paths in life.
Levy-Pounds said she had strong black female teachers in Los Angeles who treated her like she was their daughter and “looked at me and saw my potential.” They told her she could rise above the challenges she faced in her neighborhood.
Thomas, the chief of schools, noted an experience in his early 20s that he said profoundly shaped him. He was working a part-time job in an afterschool program when a 10-year-old boy said to him, “I wish I had a dad like you.”
“You have power beyond your own belief sometimes,” Thomas told the students during the panel discussion.
Sole said the people in his life believed in him despite his felony convictions. He said he had to make changes in his life to get to where he is today.
He added that leaders have the job of showing their friends and family what they are good at, noting that everyone has a purpose in life.
“We need to lift our brothers and sisters up,” he said.
Seventh-grader Lorenzo Doby said he liked that the speakers told the students to fight for what they think is right. Doby, who grabbed autographs from Levy-Pounds and Thomas after the discussion, said that he hopes that at least one of them decides to run for president in 2020.
Doby said he strives to get good grades and that the forum inspired him to possibly consider a career as a lawyer, something in politics or an author. He said liked that the panelists overcame adversity and challenges early in their lives.
Visit blackmales.mpls.k12.mn.us to learn more about the Office of Black Male Student Achievement.