Using education to overturn effects of racism

The name instantly sets the organization apart.

African American Male Scholars.

"Scholars" is the operative word, representing members of this St. Louis University group. The words "African, American and male" merely serve as adjectives.

First and foremost, they're scholars, pursing bachelor's degrees at SLU. Perhaps they're the first in their families to attend college; or perhaps they're following in the footsteps of college-educated family members. Either way, they've probably dealt with what Archbishop Robert J. Carlson has called "systemic racism" in our society.

Through their education, as scholars who happen to be African-American males, they hope to turn "systemic racism" on its ear.

"It's going to be education that helps solve these problems," said Stefan Bradley, the adviser and a co-founder of the scholars initiative as well as an associate professor of history and the director of African-American studies at SLU. Bradley came up with the group's name, shining a different light on its members.

"You think of the rappers as thugs, and people you see on the news are oftentimes criminals," he said. "We wanted to show a different side of African-Amercan males."

Funded by the division of student development, the scholars initiative started humbly as a two-year pilot program in the 2011-12 school year, following on the work of the Brother Initiative and the Brother-to-Brother group. AAMS's goal is to retain "one of the least retained demographics on any university campus," said Bradley, who estimated the retention rate of black males nationally at 30 percent. He described that number as a "tragedy."

Bradley's righthand man currently is graduate assistant Joshua Jones, who's brother, Mike, was a leader in the Brother Initiative. A product of Catholic education, Joshua Jones graduated from Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in his hometown of Ferguson. He then graduated from Lutheran North High School and Depauw University, a rigorous liberal arts college of about 2,400 in Greencastle, Ind. He's pursing a master's in social work at SLU.

Jones hit the ground running in his first year at SLU, starting his work before the semester even began because of circumstances in his hometown. By now the story is well known: An unarmed, black man, Michael Brown, 18, was shot to death by a white Ferguson police officer, prompting weeks of protests, initially -- and sporadically since then -- outright violence and an over-the-top police response.

The protests continue in the wake of another officer shooting in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis, not far from SLU. OccupySLU camped out at the lighttower on campus for five days before reaching an agreement with new SLU president Fred P. Pestello for more educational opportunities and programs for African-Americans.

At those protests, Jones gave witness to what young black men encounter in their daily lives. For instance, how to behave in a routine traffic stop -- hands on the wheel, no sudden movements, etc.

"This isn't unique to Ferguson," Jones said. "But it's come to light now and white people understand that when they're raising their children, there's certain aspects they don't have to worry about that black parents do."

Likewise in college with issues for blacks that are non-issues for whites. For instance, at SLU, black students amount to only about five percent -- roughly 550 -- of 13,00 students

AAMS helps offset that by offering encouragement and support to its scholars/members, acdemically with mentors among alumni, faculty and staff, progress reports, etc., and socially with bowling outings, movie nights and the like.

"We have a whole bunch of people looking out for them," Jones said.

Membership isn't mandatory, but a selling point is that "Scholars" tend to have a higher GPA -- upwards of 3.25 -- than non-Scholars among black males at SLU.

"Our unofficial motto is 'good to great,'" said Bradley, who tells members, "You're good enough to get in SLU, and now we're going to make you great. We'll show you the best of SLU, we'll show the world the best of SLU, and you will be there to represent us."

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