Special Education Opinion

New Research Shows Young Men of Color Thriving

By Charles Taylor Kerchner & John McDonald — December 13, 2016 5 min read
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At times in California, as well as in other states across the U.S., it seems there is a cottage industry churning out grim statistics about the lives of young black and Latino males. From the educational achievement gap to higher rates of unemployment and incarceration, the data paints a pervasive and troubling picture. Needless to say, these challenges are real, persistent, and require intense intervention.

But recently, a team of researchers at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies led by Professor Tyrone Howard has challenged that singular portrayal. It’s not that they believe the data is inaccurate. It’s that it is incomplete and fails to account for the success and achievement of young men of color.

The Counter Narrative Project

As a counterpoint, Howard and his colleagues have conducted and published new research—The Counter Narrative Project—that goes beyond a compilation and analysis of negative data points, to explore and highlight the success of young black and Latino males in Los Angeles County.

The research, Howard says, “takes an unapologetic stance in stating that there are young men of color who are thriving in their homes, taking on leadership roles in their schools, and making a difference in their communities.”

The Counter Narrative Project observed and conducted interviews and discussions with more than 200 Black and Latino Males attending urban high schools in Los Angeles County. The research shines a spotlight on resilient, intelligent, and caring young Black and Latino men across the county.

Their stories provide a fuller picture too often missing from mainstream portrayals.

The average grade point average for these young men was 3.6; most were college bound, and many played leadership roles in their families, schools and communities. None had been arrested, and many held jobs to help support their families.

Words Like ‘Hardworking,’ ‘Determined Leader’

In describing themselves, they used words like hardworking, determined, leader, respectful and responsible. The research revealed young men who assist their peers, demonstrate leadership, and thrive in a multitude of extracurricular activities. And they were involved in and took pride in their communities and helpful with their families. Many talked about their willingness to support their mothers and grandmothers, assist with younger siblings, or help elderly citizens in their neighborhoods.

“In their responses we see young men striving to be the best they can be in school, at home, and in their communities, " says Howard. And perhaps most importantly in these troubled times, we can see their humanity.’

In examining the lives of these young men, the project highlights factors that have contributed to their success.

Teachers, administrators and others in schools play important roles in aiding the success of the young men by demonstrating care, offering guidance and serving as role models. School-based extra curricular activities and access to team sports and university and community programs encourage academic success, offer opportunities for leadership, and provide social and emotional support. Rigorous teaching, mentorship and caring adults make a difference.

Safety and Empowerment at Home

Home served as a source of safety and empowerment where education is valued and there is access to adult and family support. While many young men lived in single-parent households where fathers were not always present, they benefitted from the support of other men: uncles, grandfathers, cousins and older brothers. Siblings also played an important role and many linked their success to the achievements of others in their families. Among Latino youth, stories of migration served as inspiration and incentive.

Community plays a critical role in the lives of young Black and Latino men as part of their identity as people of color and their aspirations to help others. They take pride in and care about their communities and contribute through various service opportunities. While they talked about how their communities present challenges, the young men used personal experiences and places such as churches, community pools, parks and Boys & Girls Clubs to develop resilience, focus on long-term goals, and avoid gangs and/or violence. Many volunteer through school clubs, local churches, and community centers.

These opportunities offer new perspectives and help them to understand their role in improving their communities. Additionally, access to older male figures and involvement in organized programs provided a “sense of safety” from potential involvement in trouble.

“The stories these young men tell of their lives shine a light on the common elements of their success,” says Howard. “It’s not rocket science, young men need access to good schools, caring adults and supportive communities. I hope we can use these findings to inform and guide efforts to further the success of young men of color and expand their number.”

Teaching Beyond the Classroom

The Counter Narrative Project report offers specific recommendations. Among other ideas, schools are encouraged to expand teacher and student relationships beyond the classroom. Students praised teachers and staff that cared about and helped them, and their care and commitment made a real difference. School-based and community organizations also offer important means of support and access to them should be expanded.

In the community, safe spaces such as parks, churches and community centers and access to mentors make a difference for youth and access to them should be expanded. Opportunities to volunteer in structured school or community based programs are vital, especially those tied to efforts to improve their communities. Access to team sports is also viewed by youth as critical to their success and should be expanded and supported.

Howard, who grew up in Compton, also points to the importance of the report in view of recent violent events between police and Black and Brown males that have resulted in the death of unarmed young men.

“Too often, people have limited experience with young men of color and have negative views reinforced by a constant drumbeat about academic failure, crime and violence, he says. “There is a real and important need to better understand the lives of young men of color and to humanize them in the eyes of a wider society. Hopefully, our report can help to do that.”

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John McDonald is director of the Sudikoff Family Institute on Education and the Media at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.