“Usefulness and service to our brother is the supreme end of education.” This quote, from Booker T. Washington’s 1896 commencement speech at the Tuskegee Institute, serves as the motto of the Black Male Initiative in the University of Virginia’s Office of African-American Affairs.
Dion Lewis, the assistant dean who directs the Luther P. Jackson Black Cultural Center, envisioned the initiative two years ago “to enhance the academic and social experiences of black male students,” he said.
Lewis said he wanted to create a forum where African-American men could share their ideas on how be successful in higher education, at U.Va. and ultimately, on how to contribute to society in better ways. Discussion topics have included making the transition from high school to college and the importance of getting involved in academic and social activities to feel more connected to U.Va.
The initiative has led to the development of several programs, including a book club, monthly meetings, other events and an annual conference, “Conversations in the Commonwealth: A Forum for Black Men,” held last Friday. Group membership tops 100 students.
Plans for the spring include participation in a National Black Student Leadership Development Conference and establishing an outreach program with Charlottesville High School.
Colin Williams, a third-year government major from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, is the group’s spokesperson and serves on its steering committee. “The idea behind the meetings is that our combined wealth of experiences and our personal backgrounds will foster conversations that challenge us to think about our position in the University, the surrounding Charlottesville community and the nation as a whole,” he said.
He added that although the Office of African-American Affairs is always available to provide for these needs, some students felt they needed “a space completely no-holds-barred,” he added.
The annual conference with students from other universities grew out of the U.Va. group’s regular meetings.
“We have enjoyed very fruitful conversations in our meetings, so naturally we sought a way to expand and include other black males from neighboring universities,” Williams said.
The recent forum, with support from the U.Va. Parents Committee, featured guest speakers David J. Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans; Matthew Horne, author of “Choices: The Young Black Man’s Guide to Successful Living”; and U.Va. professors Derrick Alridge, Curry School of Education Professor of Social Foundations, and George Mentore, professor of anthropology, plus Michael Mason, a staff psychotherapist at Counseling and Psychological Services and faculty adviser to Project RISE, an African-American peer counseling group also located in the Office of African-American Affairs.
More than 100 U.Va. students and about 30 from Virginia Tech, George Mason University, Howard University and Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. attended the forum, Lewis said. When the first one was held last year, Lewis said the Virginia Tech representatives were so impressed with the program, they started a similar initiative at their school.
“We are pleased to say that the forum this year was a rousing success, but most importantly, we were able to forge new relationships with our fellow brothers at the nearby schools,” Williams said in an email. “The experience was something I will not forget, and I look forward to the next opportunity to convene again.”
The book club provides another way for “black male students to put their thinking caps on and begin to think critically and analytically about written works for and about black men in America,” Lewis said. Some recent readings include “Black Leadership,” by Manning Marable, and “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” by civil rights leader and U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
Participating in the book club has been a transformative experience for Cecil White, a third-year student in the McIntire School of Commerce from Arlington majoring in finance and management.
“The Black Male Initiative has been essential to my successful matriculation here at U.Va.,” wrote White, who also serves on the initiative’s steering committee.
“Reading books, such as ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ (by W.E.B Du Bois) and ‘Choices: The Young Black Man’s Guide to Successful Living,’ has provided me with the cultural confidence that I have needed to progress academically, personally and professionally,” he wrote.