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“Changing the Narratives that Sustain Injustice” for Boys of Color

In September 2017, Adriana Villavicencio and I co-convened researcher-practitioner partnerships (RPP) from seven districts focused on Black and Latino males at a lively, warm, provocative AERA-sponsored two-day conference to share stories, hear the wisdom and questions of renowned scholars, and make new connections. Against the national backdrop of racist, xenophobic rhetoric and state sanctioned violence against men of color, we aspired to uplift a narrative of commitment, thoughtful expertise, and hope.   

A surprising, unspoken given among the thirty participants, most of whom had never been in the same room, was the common embrace of targeted universalism, a framework that acknowledges an educational goal for everyone (such as college and career readiness) with different, or targeted, pathways to the goal. The strategies that leaders from each RPP described for improving opportunity structures for young men and boys of color focused on disaggregating data by race and gender, naming racist and patriarchal practices to be dismantled, creating culturally responsive environments to nurture masculine identities, and fostering trusting relationships among students and adults.

A recurring theme was the laser-like focus not on the deficits of Black and Latino male students, but on the responsibilities of the adults to disrupt legacies of oppression in a systemic way. In Minneapolis, a concerted effort to recruit Black males as teachers of an elective for Black male middle and high school students has led to a shift in belief systems and improved GPAs and progress to graduation. In Boston, leaders are providing system-wide professional development on competencies related to culturally and linguistically sustaining practices. In Guilford, NC, restorative practices lead to greater facility among teachers in addressing discipline incidents and improved school climate with safe spaces for boys of color. In New York City, the Expanded Success Initiative documented improved socio-emotional outcomes for students due in part to culturally responsive curriculum and instruction as well as an emphasis on relationships.

Targeted universalism was also a theme among the scholars who recommended: greater attention to the diversity of Black and Latino males of color; fighting systems of white supremacy, white hegemonic masculinity, and anti-otherness; focusing on transformative hope; and developing non-traditional measures of success such as critical consciousness, vulnerability, and humility.

Within the confines of our two-day conference, we achieved our goal of sharing asset-focused stories and evidence of the connection, resilience, and educational engagement that are possible when targeted universalism guides policy and practice. These districts are closing opportunity gaps, and from them, we should learn how to collectively “change the narratives that sustain injustice” (Bryan Stevenson).

For more about the conference, see this Storify.

Note: The author led a set of studies documenting the systemic opportunity gap facing Black and Latino male students in Boston Public Schools in 2014 and 2015.

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