By Joseph Gerics
Fourteen young men sit in clusters around the perimeter of the classroom. They are meeting in a new location after school at Bunnell High School, and the room is alive with their conversations as adults enter. They quickly settle as Assistant Principal John Ramos II rearranges their seating and calls the meeting to order, and are soon joined by two more students.
These young men constitute a new group formed at Bunnell, the Men of Color Leadership Group (MCLG). Back in October, Mr. Ramos recruited eighteen male students of color for a leadership conference sponsored by the Connecticut Association of Schools. This statewide conference tapped an unmet need for the students chosen to participate. While Bunnell’s enrollment of 1,100 is 65% Black and Brown, the staff, with only two Black male professionals, does not reflect the school’s diversity.
Following up on the students’ enthusiasm and desire to meet weekly, and with the encouragement of Principal Dr. Katie Graf and Superintendent Dr. Uyi Osunde, Mr. Ramos, who is himself a young man of color, organized this new extracurricular group at Bunnell. Its mission statement, generated by its student membership, states that “As the Men of Color Leadership Group, we want to give back to the community, inspire our youth, and give men like us a voice.” In broad terms, MCLG promotes the social and emotional health of its male students of color, organizes them for volunteer opportunities, and develops their leadership capabilities.
MCLG combines elements of group guidance, leadership training and community service. Over the course of the school year, Mr. Ramos has led them through discussions of Black and Brown history, appropriate use of social media, the importance of networking, and how to “brand” oneself and one’s associations. The students have taken a field trip to the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum. They have done community service at Sterling House, a Stratford not-for-profit, and have just begun a mentoring program for 6th graders at a local elementary school, Johnson House of Stratford Academy.
A meeting in May begins with a host of housekeeping details. A few students fill a visitor in on the group’s rules and mission. Another student reports on a financial literacy workshop. Mr. Ramos briefly reprises the responsibilities of the mentors in the new program; then five students leave the meeting early to catch the bus for this activity. Next is a brief discussion of a Mothers’ Day flower distribution, followed by a fuller discussion of the upcoming MCLG banquet to be held at Housatonic Community College, including honorees and the rationale for their selection.
The heart of the meeting is a substantive discussion of the day’s topic. At each meeting students write out on an index card their response to a prompt Mr. Ramos has chosen. This day’s prompt is, “What advice would you now give to yourself when you were in sixth grade?”
The discussion is wide-ranging and revealing. Students are eager to volunteer their answers. They speak of the challenges they had to overcome in order to achieve the successes they had, how they had developed self-confidence, and how to deal with disrespect appropriately. Mr. Ramos’ rapport with these students as well as his background as a guidance counselor is evident, and he is similarly forthcoming and personal in his comments.
Other meetings revolved around similar prompts to stimulate sharing: “What do you want others to say about you when you’re not in the room?” “Name two things going well for you this week, and two things not going so well.” “What does it mean to be a man of color?”
High schools do not generally provide many avenues for students of color to discuss the unique challenges they face. Male students of color in particular, especially when they are working class or poor, face additional preconceptions and stereotypes. MCLG provides students a space in which to discuss their lived experiences and how to confront such prejudices. Mr. Ramos is explicit about MCLG as a safe space in which students can be open because their confidences will be respected.
Students from professional or otherwise privileged families enjoy a host of advantages unavailable to minority students. MCLG, a promising program in public education that helps male students of color identify and confront appropriately some of the cultural obstacles to success which they will inevitably encounter, is one step toward levelling the playing field.
Dr. Gerics is a retired Catholic school educator.