Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.
– Wilma Rudolph
Systemic racism and bias impacts how Americans perceive African Americans in countless ways – economically, politically, socially – but it also impacts the perceptions African American children, and later adults, have of themselves and what they can achieve.
A group of children were asked if white or black dolls were good or bad in an iconic racism study by Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s. As you will see in the video replicating the original study, even today most children perceive the white dolls as “good” and black dolls as “bad.”
If you accept that conscious and subconscious beliefs impact your life decisions and choices, this video will bring you to tears. If some of these African American children believe that they look like “bad people,” how can they have a vision of a successful life for themselves?
This concept is further illustrated in a Philadelphia Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study that included racism and discrimination as an ACE category. Researchers have been expanding ACE categories as they work with cities and developing countries worldwide to address abuse, bullying, peer-to-peer violence, forced marriage, and war experiences. By including racism as an ACE, Philadelphia’s study equates the trauma, and therefore the results, experienced by racism and discrimination with that of poverty, abuse, and violence.
Note that the results of ACE trauma in previous studies generally included high school non-completion, unemployment, and living below federal poverty level and other negatively impacted life opportunities. The impact of ACEs can also reverberate across generations.
I talked to 3 organizations in the DC area who are helping African American youth see a future that they may not have previously believed possible, shift their perspectives of themselves and their capabilities, and get on a path towards success. These organizations leverage a shared approach that includes:
- Helping youth get a future vision for themselves
- Shifting their perception of themselves, what they are capable of, and how to be successful
- Understanding of what it means to succeed in a white majority culture with racism and bias
- Providing role models and mentors that these kids can relate to and inspire them to reach higher
Quitting college simply can’t be the easier option
Gaea Honeycutt, founder of the Hypatian Institute, a nonprofit business that offers fellowships to high potential college freshmen and sophomores, is very excited about 2017. Not only is it the second year of her fellowship program, but her program has grown to include 3 students (in 2016 she saw her first fellow). She has started planning her program for 2017 and it includes:
- Speakers who are local politicians and department heads, a financial advisor, a CEO and a chamber of commerce executive
- A trip to the Smithsonian African American Museum with a focus on learning the history of Black Wall Street
- Mentors matched with students based on background and interests
- Homework that includes TED talks, podcasts, and other materials to encourage them to think more broadly about themselves, their goals and what they can contribute
- Individual coaching sessions
By the end of the program, these students will understand how to build a path to success and have the tools to get there.
Related article: “TACKLING SYSTEMIC RACISM AND OUR BIASES THROUGH EMPATHY“
Gaea created the program because she believes that these students, “need to see that opportunities are there for them. The fellowship will help them learn how to plan strategically (financially and socially), how to use their networks, and introduce them to influential people who can help them. It will help them understand the architecture of power, and how to build and leverage a network.”
Gaea worked in fundraising for a similar program at Bentley University. That program increased the retention rate for Black and Latino students to 75 percent.
Gaea learned about the power of networking while in college. Gaea told me that she wouldn’t have found her first job at her professor’s wife’s company nor secured her first apartment without the contacts she made in the administrative offices or with the professors. In many ways, networking kickstarted her own career – and life. “If people had not been looking out for me, I may not have succeeded,” Gaea said.
Gaea also shared with me a second story that inspired her to create this fellowship program. While she attended the Northern Virginia Urban League Gala a few years ago, one of the scholarship donors shared his story. One day, he had to decide if he would take his test at school or eat. He didn’t want to give up on school, so he chose to take the test hungry. After the test, he saw a classmate who looked well fed and not super stressed. He asked him how he was able to look so good and he said: I have a fellowship. He learned the details and applied. He went to submit his application, but he was a couple of days after the due date and it was almost rejected on the spot. He broke down; he just couldn’t keep choosing between food and school anymore and didn’t want to be another dropout statistic. The administrator he met with wanted to help, so she pre-dated his application to the due date. He got the fellowship and the assistance he needed and set him on a success path so he could now provide scholarships for others.
He’s not the only student to have experienced something like this. Gaea shared other stories about student struggles around affording books or food. These challenges seem minor to most adults, but they are overwhelming to a student who doesn’t know where to turn for help. And over time, these challenges discourage the student from staying in school because it’s just too much stress all day, every day.
The Hypatian Institute College Fellowship goes beyond financial assistance for incidentals and books, academic help, vision and mentorship. It also provides the insight and tools needed after graduation when the student enters the job market. “You don’t realize how rigorous you have to be when you conduct yourself as a person of color in a work environment. People will question you in ways that they don’t question other people in the room,” Gaea stated. Gaea helps her Fellows understand how to persevere against the racial biases colleagues subconsciously (or in some cases, consciously) have that undermine their success.
As an example, Gaea shared how she was traveled for a meeting with her colleagues – a white man and woman. After meeting with the group they came to visit, Gaea and her colleagues formed a receiving line of sorts to say goodbye to everyone. Some of the people at the site walked past Gaea and didn’t bother to shake her outstretched hand. They did shake the hands of her colleagues. Unfortunately, these events still occur in offices today, but students need to be prepared to address them.
I look forward to hearing more about the Hypatian Instititue College Fellows ‑ their achievements during the program, the improved retention rate at college, and the contributions they will make to society and their community. By knowing how to leverage their networks to access the right opportunities and how to navigate any work environment, these fellows are already steps ahead of their future colleagues and on a path for success.
Transforming how youth perceive their community contributions
Phil Lartigue, currently a Case Supervisor for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates, Prince Georges County) recently a Career Pathways Advisor at the DC government, worked with DC youth in their late teens. Many of these kids didn’t finish high school and claimed they had few, if any, skills to start a career. Others claimed to have been in over 17 schools in 4 years or in the Foster Care system for over 10 years, hoping for their families to reunite. Sadly, some didn’t have much of a vision for themselves beyond being in jail within 5 years.
Phil has an inspiring job – he helps youth determine their strengths to find a career path. He won’t let them leave a meeting until they mention a skill that they can offer an employer. He helped one young person who only had work experience as a Starbucks barista reframe his experience to see that he didn’t only make coffee; he provided customer service that could be used somewhere else.
Phil also has more visionary conversations with these young people. He often hears how they want to be a rapper when they “grow up”. He doesn’t belittle their dreams; instead, he gets them to dig deeper to see if the dream is feasible. He’ll ask if they have a demo CD, have written some songs, or have started creating an album. Two percent say yes and he finds those kids mentors in the music industry. But for the 98 percent who say no, he presents them with other music career options like a producer, songwriter, or composer. He does the same for other career interests as well – help these young adults brainstorm career paths to determine feasibility and possibility. He teaches them how to think about their future.
Phil believes that, “it’s important to give young people opportunities as soon as possible. Give them a sense of who they can be as well as a sense of how we see them.”
Once they express interest in a career path, he helps them take the next step by finding a mentor in that field. He’ll contact professionals in his network or, what he finds works better, contact the young people who aged out of the program (individuals and professionals 21-28 years old). These adults are more than happy to mentor a youth experiencing similar challenges and give them advice based on their own experiences.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tookapik / Pexels
He encourages the kids he works with to attend college because it does increase their income potential, but at the same time he does recognize that it’s not for everyone. He mentioned how some kids have gone through the HOPE Project, which provides IT training for young adults. After completing the program, some get a job with a starting salary of $45K/year and the potential to make as much as $100K/yr within 5 years. It’s a huge shift for some who barely had a future vision of themselves in 5 years, nevermind 20.
No matter what the career choice, in addition to getting a mentor, there is also training or an internship offered, which is helpful, not just for getting work experience. “These jobs and internships keep them from sinking into the chaos of their own lives and stay above ground,” said Phil.
These kids are also aware of the biases they face in society. Phil noted how young black males have it the hardest, especially if they have committed a crime and have charges against them. It may have been a single mistake, but for some it is irrecoverable. Sadly, most people only see what’s on the outside and allow negative stereotypes to drive judgement the identity of these men and their potential. However, some are fortunate enough to find a mentor who believes in them and are willing to work with them for a second chance.
Dreaming about a potential future shifts the mindset of these kids from accepting incarceration as their fate to making a living and building a life. Phil has had countless successes with his approach – giving the youth a vision for the future, a mentor to guide them, and then training, a job or internship to learn more about the career choice. He sets them on the course for a success journey.
How playing Chess can open opportunities
PHOTO CREDIT: Pexels
Chess is perceived in the West as being the ultimate strategy game. Its origins are unclear – the game originated in possibly India or China, made its way to Persia and later Arabia and Europe. It became the strategy game of the European elite, often becoming a metaphor for war strategy. Chess competitions are frequently dominated by white men; it is rare to hear about a woman, nevermind a person of color, winning.
There is an organization in Washington D.C., Chess Girls, that is shifting that perspective with a mission to improve girl’s confidence through chess. I had a conversation with Robin Floyd-Ramson, Executive Director. Her vision is
“to teach chess to girls who have never played chess, support girls who currently play chess with resources, transportation coaches, equipment and activities that build confidence, foster leadership skills, improve science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) learning and direct girls toward chess scholarship opportunities.”
Imagine being a little girl going into a room and seeing other little girls just like you playing chess – such a sigh of relief. That’s what Chess Club is. It is a highly supportive environment that teaches kids, mostly African American girls and other girls of color, to play chess and think strategically. The organization also encourages the girls to participate in chess competitions. After a girl participates in her first competition, whether she wins or loses, there is a celebration supporting that she showed up to play.
Additionally, this organization also hosts guest speakers that show girls the possibility and potential to be a leader. They have been visited by Ms. Donna Cooper, President of PEPCO Holdings and Admiral Michelle Howard, the highest ranked female in the Navy –role models for these girls to see what they can aspire to achieve.
Robin’s vision is to provide college scholarship opportunities in addition to a safe space to build confidence and leadership skills.
All of these organizations work with kids to help them shift their perspectives of who they are and what they are capable of, proving to these kids that they can achieve whatever they want. Mentors and networks help them learn more about their goals and help them find the right opportunity to get them started on their success journey. These approaches help students break free from self-perceptions imposed on them by systemic racism and bias. They overcome challenges and create a new story for themselves, where they aren’t “bad people.”
But it all starts with someone caring and looking out for them. As Gaea said: “If people had not been looking out for me, I may not have succeeded.” Luckily for the Hypatian Institute fellows, the kids in CASA Prince Georges County and DC, and the girls in Chess Girls, someone is looking out for them. And these African American youth are succeeding.
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