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The place of Black men in higher education, both as students and as educators, has always been precarious—even before the pandemic. A U.S. Department of Education report found in 2016 that Black men made up just 2 percent of the nation's teaching workforce, representing the lowest population group in education.
As the realities of the pandemic set in last year, many school districts in the South were chastised for taking a lackluster approach to ensuring safe reopenings for their students.
For Everton Blair, an educator and the first Black member of the Gwinnett County, Georgia, Board of Education, openly addressing the risks and the realities was a priority in his district.
"There was a reckoning [in that moment]—that we all needed to do—where we admitted that even if we were confident that the virus or the pandemic wasn't going to cause illness or fatality in our community, we weren't even saying that… [It] was like the elephant in the room," Blair said. "We were going to end the meeting like nothing was happening."
In contrast to many Southern school boards and predominantly white institutions, historically Black colleges and universities are addressing head-on the issues of pandemic safety and racial representation—and are training the next generation of Black educators in the process.
"We had to figure out how to recalibrate, said director and founder of The Morehouse Center for Excellence in Education (MCEE), Dr. Nina Gilbert. "If there is a silver lining, [the pandemic] has allowed us to rethink in innovative ways… We have to do things a different way now; we have no choice."
Dr. Gilbert founded MCEE at Morehouse College, the nation's only HBCU for men, in 2019. Her hope is to develop a talented pipeline of Black practitioners, innovators, policymakers, leaders, and researchers who are equipped to improve educational outcomes in underserved communities and increase the number of Black men in the field.
During the pandemic, in attempts to meet the needs of their fellow classmates, we—the center's student fellows—turned to Morehouse alumni and other Black male educators like Blair to learn how they were advocating for students of color in both K-12 and higher-Ed.
Here's what we learned:
Priority number at Morehouse was mitigating the spread of the virus by any means necessary—which has been true for most, if not all, HBCUs. HBCUs have seemed more willing to disrupt traditions and norms than their predominately-white counterparts in order to effectively stop viral transmission, despite the disappointment from students.
North Carolina A&T State University elected to hold classes on holiday breaks to deter students from engaging in group gatherings. Howard University was among the many HBCUs that canceled beloved homecoming traditions and Morehouse canceled its sports season.
As Marjorie Valbrun, Managing Editor of Inside Higher Ed, wrote in September: "Several predominantly white institutions, or PWIs, had to shut down their campuses within days of the start of their fall semesters and switch to remote instruction after major outbreaks of COVID-19. No HBCUs with in-person semesters have yet [to do] so."
The fall semester at Morehouse was 100 percent remote. To welcome freshmen, the college improvised a virtual new student orientation, packed with social activities so that students could feel connected to the school and each other while maintaining social distancing mandates. But the shift away from campus life left many students from working-class families without the technology and educational resources needed to thrive in a virtual setting.
According to a survey conducted by MCEE at the beginning of last summer, 25 percent of Morehouse students were struggling to obtain access to reliable internet and/or a computer. Through the nine-month lock down, Black educators have been working diligently to remove these educational barriers for students.
See also: How HBCUs are keeping us safe
This commitment to innovative thinking led Morehouse to experiment with virtual reality: If we have to learn digitally, then why not create an entire digital universe? The college partnered with Qualcomm, a tech company, in order to teach our men's health class in virtual reality. Qualcomm also provided every student in the class with a virtual reality headset which granted them access to a virtual version of the Morehouse campus. Recreating our familiar classroom settings helped restore a sense of normalcy in these unstable times.
The impact of social distancing and the extended isolation of quarantine has created a need for online school communities to cultivate strong values through community engagement and organizing.
Steven Adams II, chief of staff of Morehouse's Student Government Association, managed the totally remote but successful campaign for the college's incoming student body president.
"My goal was to get the students at Morehouse more engaged. Being virtual really took a toll on students' engagement, and I wanted to bring the excitement back with SGA elections," Adams said. "Social media is cool, but it doesn't equate to votes. We utilized phone banking as our organizational tool so that we could have genuine conversations with other students… That's how we won the election."
Through organizing, students are also leveraging collective power and enacting change in their own communities. And when young Black men are facing dual health threats from a virulent pandemic and from violent policing, it is imperative that we develop the skills to effectively advocate for ourselves within our own communities.
"For a community-based educator to cultivate leadership, they need to [understand] the community," Rev. Dr. Lukata Mjumbe told MCEE students. He is a veteran grassroots community organizer, public policy advocate, interfaith leader, and community pastor. He's also a Morehouse alumnus. "If you're teaching sociology, then you need to be engaged within the community so that you have an understanding of the people who live there."
See also: Student journalists at an HBCU campus newspaper took on racist local media—and won
In predominantly Black spaces, educators understand they have the responsibility to develop impactful relationships with their students that extend beyond the classroom and out into their communities. Mjumbe focuses on strengthening the community through the close knit bonds of neighbors, elders, and other adult figures in the community. As a founding member of the Black Alliance for Peace and an advocate for racial and environmental justice, the protection of immigrants, cooperative economics, and the development of strategies to abolish mass incarceration—Mjumbe shows us that organizing not only leads to deeper intimacy within our communities, but also to critical changes in policy.
Dr. Artessius Miller translated similar organizing tactics to the realm of K-12 education. The Morehouse professor and founder of Atlanta charter school Utopia Academy for the Arts discussed new policy wins during COVID-19 that could lead to positive outcomes for students and teachers alike. Along with the state board of education, Georgia's School Superintendent Richard Woods submitted a request to the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of Utopia and all public schools and districts in the state to waive mandatory participation in the Georgia milestone school testing.
Ultimately, the tests results from the Georgia milestone assessment contribute to teachers' and school leaders' evaluations, and if students don't score well then, could negatively impact school funding and reputation.
Dr. Miller stressed that "the uniqueness about [this change is] that if students score well on the exam, the school can opt to keep the results, which would benefit the institution. Similarly, if the students scored poorly on the assessment, then the school could opt to waive the assessment, thus being non-impactful to the school's reputation. This is unique because prior to this year, all schools have had to have a 95 percent student participation rate in the state assessment."
This type of advocacy at the policy-level speaks to a collective need to recognize that education is about more than test scores—It's about giving students all the tools they need to thrive.
MCEE conducted extensive surveys throughout the pandemic that highlighted students' needs for resources that addressed the mental, physical, and emotional realities that young Black men experience. According to a report from Chegg.org, 56 percent of college students reported being "moderately," "very," or "extremely" concerned about their mental health.
"As professors, educators, and staff at Morehouse College, we have an understanding that we are in a pandemic, and if we don't have [mental health] conversations, we just don't know what [good instruction] looks like. I really do feel like Morehouse is pushing to educate the whole student," Miller said.
Holistic education is indispensable if we are to create safe environments for students who continue to be disenfranchised by Eurocentric models of education."Authentic engagement has to do with belonging. Students have to feel like they belong and that their absence will be missed," said Anoop Patel, a New York-based educator interviewed by the MCEE. "Lately, I have heard a lot of people say regarding culturally responsive teaching, 'OK, if I throw an ethnic name in a math problem, I'm practicing culturally responsive teaching.' No, I totally disagree with that. It's about making a student feel like they belong somewhere."
For 153 years, Morehouse College has reminded young Black men that we not only belong in the storied halls of academia but that we can redesign those spaces into communities of innovation, social responsibility, and holistic care. Morehouse is more than an institution; for many of us, it's our home.
What does the future look like for Black men in education? It is clear that national and state level policy changes have monumental effects on school leaders and workers. There is movement at the state-level in Georgia to grow the number of educators in the field by offering $1,000 bonuses to those working in the school system. "Clayton County doubled that, giving $2,000 to all school educators in their county," Miller said. That's a big win, but we need more.
Our hope in sharing how Black teachers and professors continue to press in despite the difficulties of virtual learning is to inspire other Black men to join in this work. Despite making up only 2 percent of teachers and professors nationally, Black male instructors continue to set the standard for how education should be presented to all students. Their willingness to go above and beyond to create equitable spaces for students—even in a pandemic—is an achievement worthy of recognition.