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Rising From Poverty in Baltimore, Reginald Benbow Offers a Hand Up to Others

May 6, 2011 — Reginald Benbow knows his story is the exception rather than the norm – and he plans to continue working to change that after he graduates May 22 from the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences.

The Baltimore native grew up in a poor neighborhood, his mother working and raising two boys while his father served nine years in prison. Crediting his mother and his fifth-grade teacher, especially, for his educational success, Benbow will return to the city this fall in the Teach for America program.

"I want to ensure that youth from low-income communities like me receive an excellent education in order to achieve their goals of college admission and personal success," he wrote in applying for his teaching post. "Every day, failing education systems across the nation impede the success of children from low-income backgrounds, leaving them at a disadvantage compared to their higher-income peers.

"I was always motivated by a desire to transcend my surroundings and succeed," Benbow wrote. "That drive, which was nurtured by my mother, who dreamed of a better life for her sons, and by caring teachers, propelled me to the University of Virginia."

His mother often took him to the local library, cultivating a love of reading, he said.
Patricia Brown, his fifth-grade teacher, gave him the impetus to become a teacher.

"Pat Brown challenged us to succeed," he said. "She gave us rigorous assignments and had us read novels and poetry. We also did a science fair project. It was great preparation."

Having benefitted from AccessUVa – U.Va.'s student financial aid program – and other scholarships, Benbow will be the first in his family to graduate from college when he walks down the Lawn to take his degrees in African-American studies and political and social thought. Beyond Teach for America, his long-term goal is getting involved in politics.

When choosing his major, he said the interdisciplinary political and social thought program allowed him to pursue his interests in the intersection of politics; African-American studies; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues; and social movements. He added a minor in Middle Eastern studies and learned Arabic, influenced by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when he was just 11 years old.

"Reginald has proven himself to be a well-rounded individual, well-respected by his peers," said Kimberley Bassett, assistant dean in the Office of African-American Affairs and director of its nationally recognized Peer Advisor Program.

"He is recognized by administrators, as well as his peers, as a campus leader," politics professor Lawrie Balfour added. As his political and social thought thesis adviser and teacher of his "African-American Political Thought" and "Feminist Political Theory" courses, she said, "It was clear from class interactions that Reginald was regarded as a role model by his fellow students."

Another thing that was clear, she said, was his intellectual acumen and contribution to class discussions, which she called "consistently original."

"His capacity to connect readings from one week to the next and from course to course marks him as a real scholar," Balfour said. "Although Reginald handles abstract materials with ease, his academic interests are always connected to a concern for conditions of the 'real world' outside of academia. Nowhere is this more evident than in his thesis project, an ambitious study."

Benbow's thesis, "California Fault Lines: Black Americans and Proposition 8," examined why LGBT activists lost the black vote in California's ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in 2008. He conducted research for the thesis in San Francisco last summer, with the support of a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award and the Summer Research Opportunity Program at the University of California, Berkeley.

The popular notion in the media claimed that black homophobia and religiosity accounted for the lack of support, but Benbow probed further. He argued that many African-Americans oppose same-sex marriage because they think they must adopt mainstream white values? to advance the race, what scholars call "the politics of respectability." Anyone outside the norm threatens progress. Along with that idea, he found that predominantly white LGBT activists did not look beyond their culture to develop strategies to reach out to black voters.

Benbow has also excelled in service. After participating in the Rainey Academic Program, a summer transition program designed to help low-income students adjust to college, he threw himself into life at U.Va. to become part of the community and to help others. He explored different avenues of interest to widen his experience, from serving on the Judiciary Committee to restarting a group called Minority Squared for black gay students.

Benbow spent countless hours mentoring and tutoring minority students as a peer adviser  and at Albemarle and Monticello high schools with BUCKS – Brothers United Celebrating Knowledge and Success. He joined the Black Student Alliance and co-chaired its leadership development committee. He was a member of the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, where he addressed issues ranging from the Harlem Renaissance to the 2008 presidential election.

Through BUCKS, he wanted to motivate teens to improve in school and attend college, he said.

"I've raised awareness and stimulated community discussion by hosting forums on health care reform, racial profiling, colorism and other topics," he said, "and I've have helped unite students of all backgrounds by hosting receptions and cookouts, drawing diverse attendees."

Another focus is promoting awareness and understanding of LGBT issues.

"My position as a black gay man, a minority within a minority, has empowered me to see how forms of oppression are linked and to cross boundaries to unite groups for change and social justice," he wrote.

Black individuals who are gay are usually put at the bottom of the social pole, Benbow said. That led him to revive Minority Squared to provide a safe space and network for his peers. Seeking to educate the community, he produced public events, such as "Beautiful Bottom," in which queer black students shared their stories and discussed related topics to a standing-room-only crowd in the Newcomb Hall Kaleidoscope Center.

Benbow was selected to live on the Lawn this year, an honor reserved for fourth-year students who have made exceptional contributions to the University.

Bassett commented that Benbow has accomplished so much in his four years at the University, "because he is willing to roll his sleeves up and do the work; I believe this is the mark of a true leader."

— By Anne Bromley

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