Artist Amber Newsome renders words and images that she overheard in the "global cafe" discussion at the GradNation Summit.

GradNation Summit promotes academic success for young men of color

on November 14, 2014

De’Aunte Jackson wears a white collared shirt, black pants and a plaid purple-gray bow tie. He is articulate and confident. His thick-framed glasses are for style, not utility. Jackson is a 16-year-old junior at Oakland Technical High School. “My main goal is to empower myself and then empower others,” he said.

That motivation brought him to last Saturday’s GradNation event at Laney College. The summit hosted young men of several ethnic minority groups, as well as parents, teachers and administrators. Participants heard from panelists and discussed their commitments to increasing graduation rates for young men of color, whose “graduation rates are lower than what we’d like and what they should be,” said Tanara Haynes, who works in communications at the African-American Male Achievement (AAMA) Office. The event was hosted by AAMA, an Oakland Unified School District initiative to increase the academic success of African-American male students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The goal of the GradNation summits is to increase high school graduation for all US students to 90 percent by 2020. The nonprofit America’s Promise Alliance, headed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife Alma, created GradNation, and plans to hold 100 such summits by the year 2016. GradNation organizers approached AAMA and its director Chris Chatmon to see if they would host the first of these summits in Oakland, which Chatmon called “an honor.” He worked together with Laney College and sponsors like YMCA of the East Bay and AT&T to pull off the event.

The summit, which attracted about 300 people, began with a student panel, then transitioned to having adults from education, faith, and policy groups sharing their experiences, and rounded out with a “What can I do?”-themed exercise. Spoken word performances, drumming, and visual art pieces were woven into the day. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Oakland schools superintendent Antwan Wilson, and school board director Jumoke Hinton Hodge all attended for parts of the day. “The theme was working together to increase graduation rates for boys of color,” Chatmon said while seated in the shade in Laney College’s quad, pausing on occasion to talk with people and thank them for attending.

The day’s final event was a keynote speech by Dr. Tyrone Howard, a professor of education at UC Los Angeles with a focus on the educational experience of African-American students. Howard encouraged the audience to change the negative media and social narrative about young men of color. “Most of our young men are not in jail. Most of our young men are not committing crimes. Most of our young men are not here to rob, steal and kill,” Howard said. “But the narrative will have you believe that we’re all locked up, that we’re all committing crimes, that none of us can read, that we’ve all got ten different children by ten different women, right?” But, Howard said, “Most of our young people are not what society would have you believe.”

Chatmon said that while his office targets improving educational outcomes for African-American males, and is sometimes criticized for its “laser-like focus” on the achievement of this specific group, GradNation presented an opportunity to work with Latino and Asian-Pacific Islander students. The summit also opened a space for teachers, administrators and students to share best practices about preparing for careers and college. Chatmon said students were the center of this event, and that organizers hoped it would give students the opportunity to speak about their experiences, “expand the network of adults that they have access to” and recognize “that there’s power in your voice.”

Taking a break from the programming, 12-year-old Tre Germany played in the quad with some young friends. Germany is in the 7th grade at Claremont Middle School and participates in AAMA’s Manhood Development Program, a class that focuses on identity, African-American history, being mentored by the adults who teach the course, and life skills, like how to tie a tie and how to tell your personal story through social media. Instructors guide students to think about college and careers, too. Germany is also on AAMA’s student leadership council, a group that meets twice a month and represents their schools and what they’ve learned through the program.

Germany was excited to talk about AAMA. “It’s pretty cool. We do some field trips and do different things,” he said. With his class, he’s visited UC Berkeley’s campus and a dance and poetry show about the African Diaspora. The dancers “told a story through the dance,” Germany recalled. In the manhood development program, he learned that many African-American last names are derived from slave owner names. He made a drum on which he wrote words that represent him: “funny” and “creative” were the two he remembered. And Germany loved talking about the rules. “If you miss a [student leadership council] meeting, you’re out,” he said. “If you misbehave, you have to do 25 push ups!”

De’Aunte Jackson, the junior at Oakland Tech, had a more grown-up view of the program. “It’s making me more prepared for the outside world,” Jackson said. He always knew he would go to college, but now Jackson feels he has better connections and opportunities, as well as better skills to use when talking to adults and his parents about issues affecting African-Americans. Jackson, who sometimes pauses thoughtfully in between sentences, said he is well-spoken thanks to the training provided in his manhood development program, where he learned to speak with emotion and think through what he says in advance. So when asked what effect programs like AAMA and GradNation have had on him, first he paused. Then he nodded thoughtfully, scanning the large hall where the afternoon’s events took place. The programs, he said, “made me realize who I am as a person and where I came from.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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