BY AMY SCANLON
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 teenagers 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 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. For instance, "If you're walking into the room on time, you're late," says Crawley, professor of communication and assistant dean of the School of Communications and Information Systems.
A collaboration between Robert Morris University and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, BMLDI is designed to help black teens develop the skills they need for personal success, while exposing them to role models and helping them discover their own leadership potential. Starting with a one-week summit on campus and continuing through monthly development sessions, participants 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 Crawley. A community leader, mentor, and scholar on black masculinity, Crawley is passionate about his mission. 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 yearlong program.
Now, thanks to a $900,000 matching grant from The Heinz Endowments, Robert Morris University is poised to make an impact not only locally but nationally, with the establishment of the RMU Research Center on Black Male Educational Student Success. It is the university's second endowed research center (the first was the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management) and its first endowed chair.
Crawley, who occupies that inaugural chair, envisions a center whose director and staff will be experienced in both quantitative and qualitative research. The center will perform longitudinal tracking of BMLDI participants, and also will undertake studies 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 wide, leaving room for issues and research topics to emerge.
The problems facing young black men are well-documented: A 2010 College Board report found that black men are far less likely than their female or white counterparts to attend college or even finish high school. The U.S. unemployment rate among black men is currently 13.4 percent, compared to 7.8 percent for the nation as a whole, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But while many researchers have examined these problems, few have focused on isolating the characteristics of those black men who achieve educational and economic success, according to Crawley.
"I have a 4-year-old son, and in my mind, I am preparing a development strategy for him," Crawley says. "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, so RMU and The Heinz Endowments have decided that it's now time to move closer towards solutions."
Crawley has 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. By conducting primary and secondary research to build upon the body of knowledge around black male educational success, Crawley is aiming to make the center the "go-to" resource for anyone seeking credible information on black male educational success strategies.
Keilynn Burkes moved through several school districts during his formative years, and while he was always eager to learn, he was hesitant to stand out in a group. Recruited by a BMLDI program manager in 2010, Burkes had an experience that changed him from a shy and quiet student into a leader. "BMLDI gave me the necessary tools I need to succeed in life," he says. "It's given me networking, communication skills, understanding, and experience executing goals." Now a cluster leader at BMLDI, Burkes is an intelligence and national security major at Point Park University.
Crawley has ambitious plans for the new center. "This will position us as a national leader," he says. "My goal is that Robert Morris becomes the definitive resource for information on the positive black male experience in the United States."
WEB VIDEO EXCLUSIVE - Black Male Leadership Development Institute
Find out about the Black Male Leadership Development Institute, a collaboration between RMU and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.