I had the opportunity and pleasure to participate in the Beyond The Bricks Project (BTBP) in Greensboro, NC at NC A&T State University in November, 2011. On this particular Saturday, more than five hundred people from around the Triad region were in attendance, representing a cross section of students, diverse ethnic/racial and cultural groups, business leaders, community organizations, secondary and higher education leaders, elected officials and community residents. You could literally feel the excitement and anticipation in the air about what the day would bring. There was in fact a sense of community in the air, or as some would say, ‘in the house’. Participants were there by choice; ready, willing and waiting to discuss, share and engage in a process designed to bring attention to and ‘lift up’ the need to address a common and pervasive concern, the status and well being of Black males in their schools and communities. Serving as a facilitator for the day offered a vantage point of being inside and outside the process at the same time. Through conversations with Derek and follow-up communications, he invited me to write a review of BTBP with an emphasis on leadership and community/civic engagement.
Purpose of Review
This review has two primary purposes: 1) provide a brief overview and selected analysis of the BTBP documentary, tool kit and on site program, 2) To focus on two frames of reference for discussion: a) understanding the psycho-social context and differences in how individual African American’s view, experience and negotiate participation in the mainstream of American society and b) the need for community/civic engagement.
Brief Review of BTBP
BTBP was conceived, designed and implemented as a community engagement vehicle with an intentional focus on Black males. From a process perspective, the accompanying BTBP tool kit and materials used to prepare a community for a one day program is clearly user friendly, easily organized for implementation and inherently requires a network of diverse community stakeholders and partners to be successful. The onsite program includes multiple points of engagement for different stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, faith-based organizations, non-profits, businesses, parents and students. The structure and formatting of the program offers participants a flow of engaged experiences and access to new knowledge about challenges facing Black males and their communities. By combining the knowledge, wisdom and insight of notable scholars and leaders with the practical views and experiences of the audience, BTBP offers a viable, flexible and needed documentary and community engagement model as a foundation to build from.
In viewing the documentary, there were many images, themes and important moments that captured my attention and interest. In particular, the variations in imagery of Black males that presented a more realistic and insightful sense of the lives of Shaquiel and Eric. Unlike, other film portrayals of Black youth which introduce in the opening moments a philosophy grounded in the negative imagery associated with ‘blackness and maleness’ in the United States. In terms of impact, BTBP accomplished its objective of generating energy and creating discussions in the community around the status of Black males. The program (onsite) created the climate necessary to engage a community in an intentional, meaningful and substantial dialogue about Black males.
Understanding the Psycho-social Context: There is an inherent complexity to negotiating the African American experience in America (Toms, et.al 2012). W.E.B. DuBois captured the essence of the African American experience, he states, “One ever feels his two-ness - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder” (DuBois, 1903). He described this two-ness as, “double consciousness”, the reality of having to negotiate no less than two different and competing psychosocial realities at the same time. A. Wade Boykin (1983), Professor of Psychology at Howard University, builds on the early work of Dubois by suggesting that African Americans in fact must negotiate no less than three realms of experiences. Boykin’s offers a framework that posits African-Americans face a “triple quandary” in terms of their ethnic/racial group status in the United States. Boykin asserts that African-Americans must negotiate different, and not necessarily interchangeable, realms of psychological experiences as an ethical/racial group in the United States. These experiences are believed to be products of the interplay among three realms of experiences: the mainstream, the minority, and the Afrocultural (Boykin, 1983; 1986; Boykin and Toms, 1985; Boykin and Ellison, 1995). Using this frame to view the documentary, you can see and hear both Shaquiel and Eric referencing how they perceive, experience and attempt to adapt to this ‘twoness’ they are dealing with on a daily basis.
Shaquiel, for example, appears to have adapted an emerging balanced approach, behaviorally and psycho-socially, to negotiating the school experience. He appears to have a broader view of the context of schooling, the challenges he face with authority figures (e.g. what he has to do to successfully negotiate daily), and the roadblocks and challenges of negotiating his own community and peers (e.g. “you can’t be black, male, like school and smart”). Yet, you can also hear the struggles he face daily trying to walk the line of balancing multiple psycho-social realities.
Eric’s story is different as he recalls and reflects on more negative experiences associated with negotiating the mainstream of the schooling experience. He describes how these experiences resulted in him adopting more ‘reactive coping strategies’, more negative feelings, behavioral out breaks and resistance. He was not excited about school and how he was perceived and treated. He provides a powerful description of how and why he internalizes his feelings, not sharing with anyone until he felt like he just had to ‘go off’. Erik generally showed a less adaptive approach to dealing with the social structures of the educational system. However, by the end of the documentary, with the help of the Dr. Clifford Janey and the Performance Learning Center he is beginning to acquire the vision, adaptive coping strategies, and skills needed to more successfully negotiate in school and life. Observing and listening to Shaquiel and Eric provides us with just a ‘peek’ into why we must take a closer look at and develop strategies to better understand and address the psycho-social challenges of Black males
The Need for Community Engagement: A central theme throughout the film was the need to get the community engaged in discussions and organizing to address concerns related to Black males. Reverend Al Sharpton, Drs. John Jackson, Pedro Nuguero and Ivory Tolson all mentioned various aspects of community engagement in their comments as a critical need. Nationally, this is a concern and challenge for African American communities. In a national study, Putnam (2000) noted that although African Americans have traditionally had very distinctive norms with regard to civic participation, since the 1980s their rates of group membership have fallen to approximately those of white Americans. The sharpest decline has been within communities of the less well educated and suggests serious questions about the transmission of participatory norms that have characterized past African American civic life (Putnam, 2000; Payne, 2003).
The following section offers insights into two aspects of community engagement, (1) participation in civic affairs with local elected officials to impact policy and resources distribution (External Community Engagement) and (2) programs and services designed and implemented to address specific needs of children and families (Internal Community Engagement).
In terms of external engagement, Toms, et.al (2007) conducted a series of community needs assessment and research with more than 150 participants, members of the Community Empowerment Network, from approximately ten counties in eastern North Carolina regarding the community engagement activities of faith-based and community leaders.
Results indicated that:
• Less than 20% wrote letters to public officials or editorials on community or health topics over the past year; 80% had no contact with elected officials in the past year; 68% did not engage city councils; 84% did not engage county commissions; 68% had no contact with public health or mental health agencies and schools systems; Only 20% had direct meetings with state elected officials.
As a follow-up to the needs assessment, a six month External Community Engagement pilot program was implemented in three counties, Participation Engagement & Practice (PEP), as part of a leadership and civic engagement training program (Toms, et. al 2010). Participants observed the consistent lack of representation of African Americans at meetings and a general lack of knowledge and skills on the part of community members and elected officials to effectively impact decision-making and resource distribution. Bodies Salient quotes from participants included the following:
• What concerns me is that I don’t know enough information to actually get involved.
• We have to prepare ourselves to become involved in civic government and be able to sit down at the table when decisions concerning our lives are being made.
• First African Americans will need to develop a trust among and between different community leaders and come together on issues. Next African Americans will just need more encouragement to get involved in the community so that those who represent us can voice the opinions of the people.
The assessment results provide insight into the actual breath and depth of the lack of intentional engagement with the governing bodies. If we are to change the context and outcomes of Black males in schools and communities, a concerted effort must be employed to prepare individuals and groups to tactically engage the leaders of these governing bodies.
Internal Community Engagement from a program and services frame can be seen through the work of Pastor Thomas Reddick, Sr. and son Thomas Reddick, Jr. The Renaissance Center’s programs are excellent examples of what community engagement (within African American communities) entails in its basic form, it ‘fills’ needs and build capacity on all levels. Pastor Reddick’s most powerful statement, to me, in the documentary centered on the thought, “if it takes a village to raise the child”, “where is the village”? He pointed out that from his perspective, “the villagers in the village are not participating”, ‘why aren’t they stepping up teaching and nurturing our children’? In the case of the Renaissance Center, internal community engagement started with mentoring youth, youth programs, academic and social support for students. However, in time it became clear that a more holistic approach was needed that included reaching out to parents, helping parents address their own personal/family needs. By taking a holistic approach, the Renaissance Center intentionally initiated a community engagement building process as part of the infrastructure necessary to change the lives of children and families in the community.
Internal & External Community Engagement A group of community residents in Shelby, North Carolina, known as ‘the Core Group’, was initiated by three Black males, a retired human resource executive, a corporate banker and a businessman/school board member. It includes Black Elected Officials, educators, businesses and residents. The Core Group provides an example of a sustainable internal and external community engagement strategy. The group organized more than ten years ago to address achievement gap disparities. Over the years they have successfully provided leadership to help close the achievement gap in target areas. They have targeted and placed more black students, males included, in advanced placement through middle school programs, organized community education forums, held breakout discussion groups three times a year with black male and female students, sponsors an honor’s banquet for Black students with the highest GPA’s, developed a scholarship fund and started a math academy in the community. The group’s commitment of time, preparation and hard work has yielded many positive outcomes with students and decision-maker in terms of policy and resources.
Discussion. It was the intent and goal of this review to offer observations and analyses of the BTBP, provide a frame of reference to understanding and addressing the psycho-social context of Black males in schools and their communities and focus attention on the need for community/civic engagement as a core strategy for changing the outcomes and experiences of Black males. These two focus areas approach community engagement from an internal and external perspective. The ideal would be to have both engagement strategies operating at the same time, however, this takes a lot of time to organize, recruit, plan for and implement. It is a process, one which through participation you develop relationships, partnerships, experiences and competencies gained from successes and failures. The process requires that participants make clear distinctions between events, programs and processes (Toms, 2010). Events bring people together, many times celebrating, recognizing, supporting people and groups. Or, they can include information meetings, church programs, etc… Programs provide needed services (e.g. tutoring, academic support), education and training for students, parents and community residents. But, processes are the critical link. Processes include thinking about the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘when’, methods of identifying and recruiting key stakeholders and coordinating activities, to name a few. Processes, in fact, serve as the engine for change and innovations through which events and programs become the vehicles and tools of effective community engagement.
To be clear, we share Goode’s definition of community engagement as the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people (Goode, 2007). The “with” of community engagement suggest that elected officials, community leaders and other stakeholders must seek to include community representation in all aspects of civic and political engagement. The “through” of community engagement implies working relationships and partnerships with communities to ensure participation and engagement of issues and policies affecting their wellbeing (Toms, 2010; Toms, et al., 20 11).
As we continue discussions about the experiences and outcomes of Black males in our schools and communities, many questions must be asked and posed for public discourse. The extent to which these questions are asked or not asked, explored or left unexplored will largely determine future outcomes of Black males. The question to be asked include, (but are not limited to) the following: what programs, services, systems and processes do we have in place to provide the support and direction, psycho-socially and systemically, for Black males to help them better understand and successfully negotiate in our schools and communities? Keeping in mind, I am asking, internally within black communities, what are we engineering, creating, constructing for the ‘intentional purpose’ of building infrastructures to support and expand the psycho-social and adaptive coping skills of Black males and all children? Preparing them to negotiate what Dr. Marie Peters describes as the ‘mundane extreme environmental circumstances’ that black children face in our schools and communities (Peters, 2007). At the same time we must ask, are their support mechanisms both internal to and external of black communities that will address and support the psycho-social needs of Black males? Likewise, what leadership and community engagement mechanisms are in place to organize individuals, groups and organizations to participate in a process to develop strategies and actions designed to intentionally engage elected officials and human services agencies around policies and resources related to Black males?
After many years working with communities to build the capacity of citizens to participate in civic affairs by engaging elected officials and governing bodies, several fundamental principles of community engagement emerged from observations and investigations.
Fundamentals Principles for Civic Engagement
• Integrity – developing credibility based on honesty, fairness, truth, service and conviction.
• Respectability – developing and sustaining a reputation grounded in performance and consistency.
• Trust – someone people can have confidence in, sure, trustworthy, character.
• Work Ethic – working on and leading efforts to accomplish goals – sharing the workload – “being a doer versus a talker”.
• Consistency – in performance, decision-making and actions. Can be counted on to attend meetings and work to produce results.
• Persistence – sticking to and completing assigned task without being prompted and/or contacted repeatedly.
• Follow-up – “do what you say you will do when you said you will do it”.
• Knowledge – understand the “civic service game” and how it works and is played in different context/settings – knowing how and when to get issues on the table.
• Social Comfortableness – understand the social etiquette and being comfortable in various social/political settings.
• Communication skills – oral and written
This list of fundamental principles is not exhaustive, by any means. These principles will serve as a foundation for individual and groups to expand and specify core principles and practices relative to their community of ‘place’. Individuals and groups currently involved in community/civic engagement activities or planning to in the future should consider the content and intent of these principles as requisite values for initiating any efforts. These principles and others will help us all to better understand that unless we impact policies and decision-makers, little gain can be made to change outcomes for Black males. The fact is we can’t program our way out of the current challenges Black males face. However, what we can do is intentionally and tactically identify policies and practices known to be harmful to Black males, organized stakeholders to draft concerns and recommendations for presentations to appropriate governing bodies and official, and follow-up with face to face meetings and communications. If this is done on a consistent and persistent basis over a period of time, change can and will occur. Imagine, the impact if organized and implemented across numerous geographical areas. We will finally be able to say to Black males everywhere - “We Got You”.
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Toms, F., Lloyd, C., Pullen-Smith, B., Burgess, S., & Ellison, C. (2012). Leadership and Civic Engagement in the African American Community. (unpublished ).