The graduation rates for blacks, who comprise 13.6 percent of the U.S. population, continue to lag behind those of most racial groups. Phillip Jackson, founder and executive director of The Black Start Project, launched a mentoring project in 1996 to improve high-school and college completion rates for African-Americans. The program has since evolved to provide math and English tutoring, college preparation assistance, and parenting courses for the area's black and Latino children and their families.
Jackson, who was raised by his grandmother, said he wanted to offer young people the services he lacked while growing up. A Chicago native, Jackson said as a youth he rarely felt safe in any of the 11 public schools he attended. Through his program, he hopes to spark more community and parental involvement as one way to reduce violence in schools.
In the past 15 years, more than 2,500 middle and high-school students have received mentoring and tutoring through his program. "Any time children can identify with a strong positive role model, you've done your work for that day," said Jackson, who has identified several key areas that he believes will propel black youths to academic and professional success.
Jackson has been a labor activist and worked for Chicago's city budget, schools, and housing divisions. In his Chicago-based nonprofit, he is recognized for refining the Black Star Warrior, Scholar, Healer Mentor Program, in which a mentor meets with a group no larger than four boys four times a month to emphasize respect, leadership, and self-discipline, among other traits.
The following interview witih Jackson was edited for brevity and clarity.
What prompted the creation of this program?
Unfortunately, the same things that are happening today were happening in 1995 — everything from the school failure, a lack of viable employment, broken families, and lack of positive role models to the violence in the community. In 2012, however, those issues have escalated.
Why have things deteriorated?
A two-parent household is becoming an oddity in the black community, and college-attrition rates are dismal, at best. The current hyper-violence and massive incarcerations are all predictable. Unless you can get your arms around the major factors that can stop these types of behaviors, these trends will continue.
How do you tackle this?
- Rebuild the family: If you can't rebuild the African-American family, you can't successfully educate the masses of children, you can't stop the violence in the communities, you can't get viable economic opportunities for these young people.
- Role models: We need positive role models to encourage, engage, and direct young people. Right now, the best mentoring entities in the African-American communities are the street gangs. They get young guys, as young as 3 and 4 years old, and teach them gang colors, gang culture, gang history. By the time these same young boys are 10, 11, and 12 years old, they are willing to kill for the gang. Now, that's some excellent mentoring. The only problem is that it's for a negative cause. There needs to be counterforce against that kind of mentoring, such as Little League baseball and Boy Scouts of America. We don't have that in the black community. So when young black men decided they want to be part of a gang, it's not a real choice, it's a default choice.
- Economic alternatives: We have to provide reasonable and viable economic alternatives. Unemployment for black males between the ages of 16 and 64 who are not institutionalized — those who are not in prison, college, or the military — is 52 percent. For young black men between 16 and 21 years old who are not working, it is 90 percent. That means not engaged in a constructive employment. Now, a lot of young brothers are doing something. That's what you need. Everybody's got to get paid. And if the only thing you know is how to make money or if the only option that you see is participate in the black market "“ meaning selling drugs, robbing, or selling stolen merchandise "“ that's all you see as a viable opportunity, then there's something wrong with you or the society in which you live. I would say at this point, it's probably both.
- Education: The way things are being framed now is that you won't even be able to work at a McDonald's unless you have two college degrees and have two languages. These young people drop of high school. How are they going to be able to compete in the global market? The answer is, they can't. That forces them into this black market. If they're not reading at grade level by third grade, the game is over. They never fully read at grade level; they probably won't graduate from high school; they will probably end up incarcerated, especially African-American boys. If these children are not getting a high-quality elementary-school education, and most of them are not, it is predictive they are not going do well in high school and they're not going to get close to a stone's throw of a college.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.