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Crosscurrents

Taking African American Male Achievement to the next level

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Courtesy OUSD African American Male Achievement office
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Young African-American men in Alameda County face a lot of serious challenges -- things like high rates of incarceration, homicide, poverty, and low academic achievement. In 2010, the Oakland public school district became the first in the country to create an office dedicated to addressing some of these issues.

Now, as the Office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA) steps into its fifth year, the group is celebrating growth. The number of students in their keystone “Manhood Development Class” has dramatically increased, with programs now in elementary through high schools. And the office is considering what it wants in the future.

At Oakland’s Montera Middle School, posters of influential black men -- people like Barack Obama and Michael Jackson -- hang on the walls of a portable classroom. Sixteen eighth grade boys are focused on teacher Kevin Jennings.

“We’re about to watch this video first and then we’ll have a reflection,” Jennings says. “This video is called Dear John.”

The lyrics are a letter to African-American young men and their fathers. The chorus echoes, “So you wanna be ballers, shot callers/ Dippin’ in the Benz straight lawless/ Or would you rather be fathers to your daughters?”

The video shows smiling black men hugging their kids, and flashes through famous faces of people like Cornel West and Frederick Douglass.

Jennings asks his students, “Can I get a couple hands and somebody tell me what they just saw in this video?”

A student named Jaylin says, “I saw happy black people.”

“I like that you said happy black people,” Jennings responds. “I like that you said that.”

Then Jennings asks, “Do we see videos like this often?” After the students debate a bit, he says, “No, we don’t.”

This is a Manhood Development Class, a course created for African-American boys in Oakland’s public schools. It covers a range of subjects, from history to literature to current events -- all from an African-American perspective. Beyond pure academics, the course is also about learning to tie a tie, what to do when approached by a cop, and creating a sense of brotherhood.

This class is one of 44 offered to elementary, middle, and high school students in Oakland Public Schools. It’s part of the district’s African American Male Achievement initiative. Today’s class is about the importance of media images on behavior. Their teacher, who students call “Mr. Kevin,” prompts the young men to write in their journals.

“If more videos like Dear John were displayed, what type of influence do you think it would have on black males?” Jennings says. “I’ll give you guys about six minutes.”

The students hunch over their notebooks. At the back of the classroom, alongside a large stuffed bear and a fish tank, a sign reads, “Mr. Kevin loves order and structure.”

He also loves journal sharing. He calls on student Michael Johnson, who reads from his notebook.

“The influence would be amazing,” Johnson says. “If we saw in the media males taking care of their kids and taking the responsibility and owning up could change what black people are persuaded to be.”

Things run differently in these classrooms. Students are called “kings,” and teachers are “brothers.”

In 2011, the first year these classes were offered, 50 students enrolled in three schools. Now, there are 450 students in 15 schools all over the city.

In January, to mark the program’s fifth year, the AAMA hosted hundreds of students, parents, teachers, and funders in downtown Oakland. The event featured student performances and Powerpoint presentations, including one summarizing a new report called “Black Sonrise” a retrospective on the Manhood Development classes.

The report’s author, UC Davis professor Vajra Watson, asked students in Manhood Development classes to describe what it’s like to be a young black male in America. She projected their responses on a large screen.

A young man in the audience read the words, “Very stereotyped, feared not respected.”

Then another young man read a list of how students in the program see themselves: “I am a diamond in the rough, I am a miracle in disguise.”

But self-perception isn’t all that’s changed. Grade point averages are up 25% for boys in the classes. Since the initiative started, suspensions for African-American boys in Oakland have fallen by 43%.

But there’s still room for improvement. Some community members interviewed in the study think the classes are “fluffy” -- lacking in strong academic content.

Chris Chatmon, the director of AAMA, encourages the skeptics to come to class. 

“We front load heavy on relationship and on creating a culture and the conditions necessary where kids feel safe, where they feel they have a voice, where there are routines and rituals,” Chatmon says. “Then we go all in on the academic piece.”

Once the culture of the class has been set up, students start in on more traditional academics, like reading Malcolm X’s autobiography, or learning about African civilizations.

Apart from academics, the office also gets pushback from other minority groups who’d like to be part of something similar.

“Focusing our attention and efforts on the needs of black boys doesn’t stop any other subgroup or anybody else from supporting black girls, Latino/Chicano boys and girls, American-Indian/Indigenous boys and girls, and Asian-Pacific Islanders,” says Chatmon.

He thinks there’s much more than that to be done, too. Chatmon says that 76% of all OUSD teachers are not people of color.

“The next deep dive needs to be around implicit bias,” he says. “It has to be around our own ‘isms.’”

The event is coming to an end. The poetry group Young, Gifted and Black, led by young adult artists, closes out the event.

A handful of fifth graders crowd around me, all wearing the program’s trademark hoodies -- bright red ones with an image of a raised fist holding a diploma on the front.

“On the back it says AAMA,” says 10-year-old Wendell Lewis , “and on the front right here it says Manhood because we’re men and we learn how to be mature.”

Currently, there are just a handful of young boys like Lewis in this program, but in the future, the AAMA hopes these numbers will increase. They also hope to apply what they’ve learned to help other minority groups struggling in Oakland’s schools, with the aim of creating a department of Racial Equity and Healing within the district. The AAMA would be housed under this larger entity.

“Equity does not mean equal. We’re all located very differently in the city of Oakland,” Chatmon says. He says the idea of universal education approaches won’t meet the needs of all. “If we haven’t learned that that doesn’t work,” he says, “then shame on us.”

Chatmon’s been spreading the word, advising school districts that are addressing the needs of African-American boys in San Francisco, Antioch, Minneapolis, and Atlanta. What started as a project in Oakland schools is now spreading nationwide.

To listen to this story, please click on the audio player above.