The beat of hip-hop music and the buzz of excited conversation resound in Hopwood Hall on a hot June morning. It's the opening session of the Black Male Leadership Development Institute and the 75 young men who make up this year's class are finding their seats.
Some are bleary-eyed, having found it difficult to sleep with the excitement of meeting new friends and spending the night in a college dorm. They are still adjusting to the rules and expectations laid out by program Co-Director Rex Crawley, Ph.D., RMU assistant dean and professor of communication, such as, "If you're walking into the room on time, you're late." In the weeks and months ahead, they will be challenged to grow into leaders while remaining grounded in culture and community.
A collaboration between Robert Morris University and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, the BMLDI was designed to help young men ages 14-18 develop the skills they need for personal success, expose them to a network of black male role models and surface the leadership potential within. Starting with a weeklong, on-campus summit and continuing through monthly development sessions, the participants will work under the guidance of successful black men from different walks of life to identify their individual leadership visions, chart a path for success, and achieve their goals. At the center of it all is Rex Crawley. A community leader, mentor, and scholar on black masculinity, Rex is passionate about helping other black men realize their full potential. He worked with Sabrina Saunders, director of education at the Urban League, to expand the BMLDI from its initial form – a one-day summit – to today's year-long program. Rex has also been at the center of several RMU initiatives to promote African American achievement on campus, including service on both the Council on Institutional Equity and the Black Male Excellence Network to improve academic achievement among enrolled students. Thanks to a landmark grant from The Heinz Endowments, Rex and RMU are poised to make an impact not only on the local community, but also on the national stage, with the establishment of the RMU Research Center on Black Male Educational Student Success.
The statistics are oft-repeated: Only 47 percent of black men graduate high school, and just 22 percent who start a four-year degree program graduate. Yet relatively little is known about the black men who do succeed, because traditional scholarship has focused on identifying the deficits within the African American community. "There is a model that exists that hasn't been adequately researched and hasn't been documented as a black male leadership development model," says Rex. "I have a 4-year-old son, and in my mind, I am preparing a development strategy for him. When I search for research and information about what I should be doing to prepare this 4-year-old for success now, I come back with few hits."
"We feel like we have spent enough time identifying the problem," Rex notes, "so RMU and The Heinz Endowments have decided that it's now time to move closer towards solutions." The Heinz Endowments grant creates the second endowed research center (the first was the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management) and the first endowed chair on campus, where Rex will serve as the inaugural chair. Rex plans to staff the center with a program/research director and research support staff experienced in both quantitative and qualitative methods.
The Research Center on Black Male Educational Student Success will be positioned not only to do longitudinal tracking of BMLDI participants, but also to undertake research to explore how black males successfully matriculate through the educational system, including higher education. While laser-focused on success factors, the scope of the center is purposefully wide, leaving room for issues and research topics to emerge. Consistent with RMU's mission, initiatives emphasizing black male achievement expand upon RMU's existing commitment to multiculturalism and diversity and contribute to RMU's reputation for identifying talented students with great potential and allowing that potential blossom. Sabrina, who also serves as one of the few female speakers at BMLDI, notes that RMU consistently demonstrates "leadership from the top" in their support of African American men, with the president and the provost both taking time to speak with BMLDI participants who pepper them with questions about what exactly a provost does, and what it takes to become president of a university.
By conducting primary and secondary research to build upon the body of knowledge around black male educational success, Rex is aiming to make the Research Center the "go-to" resource for anyone seeking credible information on African American male experiences. In his vision of success. "You will see us quoted by major national media and research outlets. When an issue happens in American society that centers on African American male success, the first resource that should comes to mind is RMU Center on Black Male Educational Student Success " When asked if he thinks the Research Center would gain enough prominence that President Obama would accept an invitation to campus, he pauses and says, "I think this program is going to be so dynamic that Barack Obama's team will contact us about visiting Robert Morris."