What We're Missing Through the Absence of Students Like Michael Brown

There are too many young people in this country who are not given the opportunity to rise to their full potential with a college education. What are institutions of higher education missing through the absence of students like Michael Brown?
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As summer comes to a close and fall is upon us, I remain deeply impacted by the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri. The senseless shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, and the protests, rallies and discussions that it ignited have shocked the community of Ferguson and our nation. This heartbreaking event reminds us of complex issues around race, marginalization, and activism that are not easy to solve. The events that unfolded in Ferguson, and around the country following Mr. Brown's death were both troubling and inspiring. I was appalled to see armed troops and tanks patrolling the streets of Ferguson, yet inspired by the peaceful protests and actions taken by many citizens of Ferguson and other urban areas.

Michael Brown would have been starting his first year of college this month, gaining new knowledge and forging lifelong connections. There are too many young people in this country who are not given the opportunity to rise to their full potential with a college education. What are institutions of higher education missing through the absence of students like Michael Brown?

I am reminded that 50 years ago this summer, students -- black and white -- participated in the Freedom Summer Civil Rights Movement. Today, students and adults are strategizing and organizing powerful actions to create a safer and just society for young black males. Tremendous progress has been made in our country because of the commitment, passion, and actions of so many in the summer of 1964, and I am optimistic that we will all benefit from the efforts of thousands of citizens -- black and white -- to reduce gun violence and senseless acts of violence in this country.

Each day as I read about the tragic events Ferguson in the news, there are many messages of strife, injustice, and conflict. As communities and the nation work to understand these events, I urge you to look to the voices of the community. Amidst the protests, Michael Brown Sr., a father in grief, has a powerful message as he urges for peace over violence. The Brown family is taking a critical role in advocating for the healing process.

The issue of the plight of young black males is not new to our community at Wheelock College, where I serve as President. In 2006, we partnered with the Delores Walker Johnson Center for Thoughtful Leadership to host a three-year series of public lectures titled: "Educating Black Male Youth." This lecture series predated My Brother's Keeper, the five-year initiative that President Obama announced in February 2014 to address the persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color. The issues and challenges identified in 2006 remain, and the findings and recommendations from this lecture series continue to be relevant, such as:

We must set high expectations for our young black males. Educators, parents, and other supporters must approach the learning, growth, and development of our young men from an asset-based approach; not a deficit-model. We should work to make academic excellence (i.e., academic achievement, advanced placement, gifted and talented), leadership and engagement an important part of the formula for success.

Parents/guardians and members of the community must play an active role in the education of young black men. Parents can play a pivotal role in the lives of their children. As the Family Handbook from Boston Renaissance Charter School states, "We believe that parent involvement is everything you can do to support your child's education. This participation includes what you do at home to foster good study habits and love of learning and, when possible, your active involvement at school."

Policy needs to be an integral element in ensuring success. Social policy and school district policies need to be examined to ensure that they promote excellence and educational quality. We need polices that support effective discipline; that help with early identification and early intervention strategies; that support the scale and replication of effective schools; and that support schools' and school districts' efforts to focus on young males of color.

Wheelock College began our academic year with a commitment of renewal and rededication though a daylong schedule of discussions about our summer reading, Notes from No Man's Land by Eula Biss, a book about complex and complicated issues of race in America. Biss's essays are stimulating, thought-provoking, and very powerful. The rich conversations that took place on campus about how race and culture influence our society refueled my commitment to maintain the legacy of Wheelock College to improving the lives of children and families. Instead of being disheartened by the events in Ferguson, Missouri, I hope that they will inspire you to seek the good in others and our national value of liberty and justice for all.

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