In the wake of President Barack Obama’s call to action for education reform, about 300 Baltimore City community leaders, educators, students and concerned citizens gathered, Oct. 9, at Morgan State University. Their goal: To address the consistently low rates of African-American males’ performance in school.
The idea for the forum began a few years ago, when the two documentary filmmakers that make up Washington Koen Media birthed “Beyond the Bricks,” a two-fold project that includes a documentary about two African-American teenagers and a 10-city community engagement tour with the goal to cultivate solutions for the “disappearing Black male.”
“We wanted to bring communities together because we are all stakeholders,” said project co-founder Derek Koen. “We all have a role to play and need (to) create a stronger, healthier environment for our children.”
Baltimore was the third stop on the “Beyond the Bricks” campaign tour, which will include Oakland, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston and more.
Conversations in the Baltimore town-hall meeting were led by Dr. Ray Winbush, director of Morgan State University’s Institute for Urban Research. Del. Jill P. Carter, Joe Jones of the Center for Urban Families, Kirk Gaddy of Bluford Drew Jemison STEM Academy and two students were panelists.
Joe Hairston, superintendent of the Baltimore County Public School system, which is among the nation’s highest performing districts, gave remarks detailing that, “We are all in this together.”
Participants noted illiteracy, poverty, shortage of role models and a fragmented education system as leading factors for troubled youth. One young female researcher said Black men “eternalize and externalize issues.”
All brought unique perspectives.
“Outside experts set the standards for achievement in our community,” said Towson State student panelist, Dayvon Love, adding he often felt inadequate in school because he didn’t look like the ‘smart’ children. “Why can’t we set the goals for how the public education system should be run, so we can set the measures of what constitutes an educated person?”
Del. Carter urged participants to hold politicians accountable. “Don’t settle for a mayor that doesn’t care about the education of your children,” she said. “Elect one that does.”
One point continued to come up in discussions – how the fate of struggling Black males can be changed when they aren’t at the table to defend themselves.
“This forum of experts is talking about a population they aren’t even addressing,” argued Emmanuel Jackson, an Americorp volunteer and inspirational hip-hop artist.
“There is a big disconnect. They need to go where the population is and get in their faces. That panel is up there talking about these issues and half of them don’t even live in Baltimore City.”
The other “Beyond the Bricks” co-founder, Ouida Washington, said this is the very reason she created the film. “Too often they [young Black males] are left out of discussions and decisions are made for them,” she said. “That is why we want people to hear the voices of these young men themselves … so they can share their stories in film.”
The town-hall meeting included a screening of the documentary, which chronicles two young men from Newark, N.J. that lose interest in school because of the fear and the distraction of gangs, drugs, long commutes and removal from their homes.
The film also weaves in commentary from some of the nation’s renowned educators, scholars and intellectuals including the Rev. Al Sharpton, Newark Mayor Cory Booker and, sociologist and professor, Pedro Noguera.
Following the screening, students, community members, parents and educators adjourned to three separate rooms to brainstorm.
The student-led team, primarily made up of young Black males, seemed the most productive. While sitting in an intimate circle, the young people wrote their collective notes on a large sheet of paper taped to a wall.
Scribbled under a section titled “What can we do,” the students wrote: educate themselves, unite against racism and, reevaluate public policy and how local mentorship programs are run. The group’s success might reiterate Gaddy’s view that, “young people need to be the ones to evangelize their peers.”
After working separately for two and a half hours, the participants regrouped for a culminating town hall meeting. At the conclusion of the event, facilitators encouraged all to continue discussions on the “Beyond the Bricks” web portal.
One participant says the web portal is pivotal, as the true test of the event’s success will come in the days that follow. “It’s fantastic that we were here today sharing ideas,” said James Dow, a retired corrections officer and youth mentor. “But the true test comes later. It all depends on if we actually move forward with action and take this into the community.”