Collegiate black men build support network
While Minnesota’s Private Colleges support diversity as a whole, our campuses also promote culturally-specific programming that meets the unique needs of different groups.
One such effort was the second annual Kente Summit for Collegiate Black Men, which took place at Macalester College, Nov. 9-10. The event featured speakers, discussions, breakout sessions and networking opportunities for black men. It was sponsored by the Minnesota Private College Council.
The event’s goal was to create a supportive space for black men at Minnesota’s Private Colleges, said Carlos Sneed, assistant dean of diversity at Hamline University and a co-chair of the event.
“Many black collegiate men do not have peer support groups, faculty and staff role models or a family history of college attendance or degree attainment,” he said. “They may also face self doubt and dilemmas around issues like academic preparation, financial aid or careers, in addition to campus climates that are not completely hospitable or welcoming.”
Sneed said that hiring and retaining diverse college faculty and staff and creating a culture of inclusion where discrimination, marginalization and oppression are addressed head-on are key parts of improving the college experience for black men. Events like the summit, which aim to provide networking and community development opportunities, as well as supportive spaces and resources, are also essential.
Sneed noted that there are plans to reconvene the group in the spring.
We asked two summit participants about their experiences and the significance of the event. Here’s what Sherick Francois ’14 from Gustavus Adolphus College and Cyrus Hair ’15 from Macalester College shared with us.
Q: So, neither of you is originally from Minnesota. What was it like starting college here?
(Francois is from the island nation of St. Lucia, but his family now lives in New York. Hair is from Georgia.)
Francois: Coming to Gustavus was definitely a culture shock. When I first got here, I was not too happy and kept to myself. Eventually I found a group of people I hang out with. There are obstacles and it isn’t easy being one of the few African-American males on campus, but it’s from these obstacles that you learn, grow and figure out who you are. Coming to Gustavus was one of the biggest decisions of my life and I don’t regret it.
Hair: Last year when I came up to Minnesota, especially coming to a private school, it was a real culture shock. I wondered if I’d be able to fit in here. There aren’t many African-Americans at Macalester, though there are a lot of international students. I come from a family that doesn’t make a lot of money, so I don’t have the same amount of money as many students here. I did meet a few people who came from a background similar to me and now they’re my friends.
Q: Was the Kente Summit meaningful to you personally? How?
Francois: It was important because it allowed me to be able to come together with a group that I feel comfortable with, with my brothers, to talk about things that are important to us. Even though it’s uncomfortable at times, we have to keep our heads up and maintain our identity.
We talked about how we, as African-American men, tend to change who we are, to be “nice” so that people think positive things about us. We discussed how we can still be ourselves in these situations.
The conference also explored prejudice and racism on campus. Though it’s not as prominent or in-your-face as it was in the ’60s, it still exists. The conference was a place to speak about this. Many of the men said there wasn’t a place to do that on their campus. We vented our frustrations, had fun and talked to each other, with the goal of accepting the idea of what it means to have a black male identity.
Hair: I went to the summit last year and loved the whole concept. This year, because it was at Macalester, I knew I wanted to be involved. I was in a volunteer role where I helped set up and worked the registration table. I was also involved because I‘m a co-facilitator of the Men of Color Collective at Macalester, a group that helps facilitate campus conversations about race.
When they asked me to give a speech at the summit, I thought, “Wow, why did they choose me to do this?” It was an honor. My speech was about our ideas of black masculinity and how as black men, we’re not alone and shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. Since one of the things about black masculinity is that we’re afraid to express our emotions or say, “I love you,” I turned to my friend and mentor, Sedric McClure, on stage and told him I loved him. I also talked about how we have to keep the conversations going even after the summit and how we can make a difference through mentoring.
We talked about how there were still only about 65 of us from eight private colleges in Minnesota there. Many of us came from high schools where there were many black men, so it was pretty sad to see our numbers. Increasing the representation of black men in higher education was definitely a goal.
Before I went last year, I didn’t know what to expect because it sounded a little radical and intense. I was also afraid I’d get there and people wouldn’t think I was black enough, because I look different. I’m mixed; my mom is Micronesian. I was bullied about this in high school. But everyone was all smiles and so supportive. I thought, “This is a good group of kids. I fit in here.”
It’s been great both years. A lot of us came away wanting more.
Q: Why are events and programming like this important for African-American men at Minnesota’s Private Colleges? Are there other events or programs that have been helpful to you?
Hair: Efforts like the summit definitely give you a support system. This was a refresher to remind us that we’re capable of pursuing our dreams. We’re here already — we just need to keep on going.
Francois: Gustavus has been doing several things to help students. For instance, there are group sessions called “Breaking Barriers” in which students have the opportunity to speak about issues of race and orientation. Also, we have the D Center, which students can always visit and have discussions not necessarily pertaining to race, but just general conversations about issues of life.
Q: Now that the summit is over, has anything changed for you? Has anything new or interesting come from the experience?
Francois: I believe that the summit has allowed me to funnel my anger better and respond to certain questions differently than in the past. In addition, I think it has enabled me to realize things won’t always be easy, but at the same time one must make the best of the opportunity he or she has.
Hair: Right now I’m working with some African-American men who attended to create a Kente Brotherhood group. We’ve got students from several private colleges interested and we’re writing up a mission statement. Then we’ll try to get everyone together to discuss the group in the spring over Skype.
Also, I connected with someone on the summit planning committee and I’m going to start working for a new nonprofit called New Lens next semester. Along with students from four private colleges, I’ll be mentoring 8th grade African-American males in the Twin Cities.