Creating powerful stories and humanizing education with young men of color: Tyrone Howard
John Rogers: In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois writes that African Americans are often faced with the unasked question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Your new research flips this question on its head. You ask young men of color: What does it feel like to be a success? Why was it important to ask that question?
Tyrone Howard: I think, when talking about young men of color, they’re always situated and seen through this problematic lens—as a deviant or defiant persona. So the idea was, how do you begin to change that conversation? If we allow these young men to define themselves and their successes in their language, with their words and stories and experiences, then perhaps that becomes a small part of the process of redefining the narrative.
As you know, John, you’re in schools and communities just like I am, and you see as I do that most of the young men are not creating problems. Most of the young men that I come across are not disruptive in classrooms. Most of the young men that we see are not difficult to deal with. Oftentimes those accounts are not heard. So, you’re right in your framing of the question. The idea was, how do we take the notion of “How does it feel to be a problem?” and challenge it, and sort of re-craft it in a manner that asks, “How does it feel, and what does it mean to you, to be viewed as a success?”
With that reframing, though, comes some pushback. Even with this report, I’ve had folks ask, “Do you not think you’re now promoting the ‘bootstraps’ approach—one that reasons that, since these young men did it and since they were successful, then those other young men who are not as successful given the same circumstances, they’re the problem. So, you’re kind of just sweeping structural inequality, along with racism and oppression, under the rug. You hold up these young men who are coming from challenging circumstances as exemplars, and you’re not critiquing structural oppression.”
And to that, I’ve said, “Well, you know, so much of my work, and a lot of other folks’ work in this area has taken into account issues of inequities and exclusion, and I’ll continue to do that because that work needs to be done. But it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision. It doesn’t have to be seen as, ‘We tackle structural inequality,’ or ‘We look at cases of success.’ I think we’re telling a more complete picture. It’s possible to talk about both.”
You do suggest the nature of this structural inequality, though, by speaking to the pervasiveness of deficit ideas that are, to some extent, products of that inequality.
There’s a certain kind of dissonance that we are living within, and I’m trying to make sense of: this report, which highlights the negative stories that are often told about young men of color, is introduced by four men of color who are extremely successful, powerful people. You have the head of a foundation, you have a dean, you have a county supervisor, along with a renowned professor. So how is it that these ideas coexist; there are very successful men of color who were presumably young men of color at one time, and yet we are all aware of negative stories about youth of color (and particularly young men) that continue to persist?
So, that’s the paradox that we live in; it’s central to the complexity of this phenomenon. I struggle with it myself, because what happens is, for men of color who have had degrees of success—however we want to define it—for many of us and at least for myself, there’s this sense of being grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had and that I continue to benefit from, though there’s still this part of me that feels angst, dissonance, or a need to respond to those individuals who look like me, or come from those same kind of humble beginnings, who have not been able to travel a similar road.
And that’s the tension, right? The tension is that you can have these degrees of social and economic mobility, but you also have these real deep-seated and deeply rooted structural inequalities that have made pathways of possibilities incredibly difficult for young men of color as well. These two realities can coexist, unfortunately, but what I think we cannot do is look at cases like the four men you highlight and say, “See, we’ve solved the problem.” Because we have not. For every one of us, there are countless others who have just as much potential, just as much intellect, and just as much promise, but for reasons that you and I both know and have studied for a long time, those realities never come to the forefront.
Part of this research is trying to help the public come to a more complex, mature understanding of the diversity that exists.
Yes, because again, there’s a tendency to want to singularly define any group of folks, and in this case, it’s young men of color. And it’s always more nuanced than that; it’s layered, it’s messy, and at times even seemingly contradictory. If we’re trying to talk about this in its totality, we’ve got to understand the ways in which some cases give the appearance that the system is really working; but at the same time, you’ve got cases where the system is obviously deeply flawed. And those two can coexist in the same strata, if you will.
Let’s turn to the stories that the young men are telling. How do they describe themselves?
The part that was really eye opening for me was the fact that a lot of the young men, when we first approached them, they were surprised that someone had even recommended them—that someone suggested their name, or suggested we talk to them. So, we had to craft the “why” to explain that we wanted to talk to them, and explain that someone identified them as an individual on their particular campus who is doing some things right. And further, that they are doing some things that need to be told and understood. So, that gave some of the young men some pause, but when they described themselves, they talked about the fact that they saw themselves as having a responsibility for people who had come before them and who had made sacrifices. A lot of them described themselves as hard working individuals who just wanted something better for their families.
Part of what was a bit troubling for me was that for some of the younger men, maybe fourteen or fifteen year olds, their sense of themselves was about, “I make good decisions. I make good choices. I abide by the rules. That’s why I’m where I’m at. And those young men who don’t do this, that’s why they are where they are.” Now, we didn’t delve into this too deeply, but I just don’t think they have more complex or mature understandings of opportunity, and where it manifests and how it manifests. But nonetheless, in some ways they still saw the fact that they were doing some things that they needed to do to get where they wanted to get, to make people proud, and to show gratitude. For some of them it was just, “I’m just doing what I think I’m supposed to do. I’m involved at my school. I help out my community. I help out in my neighborhood.”
I’m struck by the fact that some of the young men face the same challenges that society writ large does: they only have a narrow set of stories to draw upon to make sense of what success means or how it is created. To what extent is it the role of educators to help young people understand the complex ways in which stories can be told, and the more affirming ways that stories can be told?
I think educators have a big role and responsibility to do that. I don’t think we give enough license and freedom and liberties to educators that are needed for them to do that very thing. And I think this is especially the case at secondary school levels. Secondary teachers are thinking, “I’ve got my content, my standards, and I’ve got x amount of minutes per period. I’ve got to plow through this as quickly as possible.” But I do think, educators can play a huge role in this, and they are, in many instances, by helping young people understand the messy terrain that young folks of any particular background are trying to navigate. There’s not a singular way to define our stories.
I know one of the young men we talked to, he talked about the fact that in his sophomore year, his grades didn’t really pan out as well as he’d hoped, because his family had been going through some issues. I think his dad was incarcerated for a bit. He ultimately turned it around the following year, but he had a sense of shame about what had happened the prior year. He talked about not wanting that situation to define him when he applied to college.
It’s almost like there’s a stigma, or an embarrassment, tied to setbacks or challenges. I think that is why it’s important for educators to help students in those situations, to help them understand that they don’t have to be defined by those moments of setbacks, or even in those moments of setback, there’s lessons to be learned which oftentimes serve as springboards to move forward, if you will. But I think educators should be helping to craft those narratives.
Your point resonates with Claude Steele’s notion of the stereotype threat.
Exactly: the idea that once you become labeled in a particular way, you start to fight internally with yourself to not reinforce the stereotype, as opposed to recognizing its roots. One of the things that Steele talks about is disarming the stereotype by recognizing the things that one has done successfully. So, for students it’s important for them to understand you can have 10 or 11 years of schooling where they’ve really mastered this process, and then they have one year, or one semester or even one class, where it doesn’t go the way they had hoped; and that one instance really becomes mentally encapsulating for the student. They forget about the other 10 or 11 years when they were not defined by that struggle. I think it’s important for us to help students keep the big picture in mind, and to not define themselves solely in those not-so-ideal terms.
In the report, you discuss the conditions and opportunities that are necessary for more young men of color to experience success—to make this commonplace. Can you describe for us what some of those conditions are?
For one, schools have to create these cultures of success. Schools have to create environments of affirmation, because these young men consistently told us that it was, say, “Mrs. Johnson in Room 12”—when you came into her class, you felt different being in there. I remember one of the young men we talked to at King Drew High School said that the one place he felt most affirmed was Mrs. Golden’s College and Career class, because there was an expectation for everyone to be on a college track and to be talking about career readiness. It’s just unfortunate for me, John, that these examples were isolated spots. Except for the Social Justice Humanitas Academy–that was probably the prime example of where the entire school environment seemed to embody a sense of possibility, and a sense of promise and potential.
At almost all other sites, there was only one teacher here, or a program there, or an after school event; really isolated cases. Some of the recommendations we came up with are to broaden notions of school success, and to create environments where every student in the school shares a goal of success. Students need to feel like everybody in the building is reaffirming those messages—ideas about their promise and their potential.
Another insight that I didn’t expect was the ways in which masculinity gets unpacked, defined, and redefined. A couple of the young men talked about the ways in which these narrow notions of masculinity carried the day in terms of how they play themselves out in the wider society. At least one young man I can think of who identified as queer said, “But I still saw myself as brave, as strong,”—I’m paraphrasing here—“I’m just as masculine as anyone who is not queer.” I think that was an eye-opener for me, because I’ve read Lance McCready‘s work, and I’ve read Shaun Harper‘s work, where they talk about developing these notions of masculinity, and I think that response from that young man took me there. I think schools have to be more mindful of the ways in which non-gender-conforming identities and behaviors are seen as part of a more acceptable framework; they have to be much more mindful and thoughtful about how they create the conditions that allow these young men to be who they are. And they don’t have to somehow check their identities, if you will, at the door.
I’m struck by this point, and one you made earlier, that schools—much like larger society—construct very narrow boxes in which young people are asked to place their own identity, and we need to open those up and give young people space to grapple with who they want to become.
That’s right, and it’s such a big issue, because we are getting better in terms of understanding that these boxes don’t fit everyone. But we still have a long way to go. These young men kept coming back to the idea that, in some ways, “I don’t fit in this box. There’s a space and a place and a time where someone was willing to say, ‘To hell with the box, you be you,’ and I got affirmation and encouragement for that.” And I think it’s those spaces that we have to find ways to replicate.
Another repeating theme of the report was the importance of humanistic, caring relationships. It brought to mind an analysis that Rhoda Freelon and I did a couple of years ago using the Healthy Kids Survey , where we looked at the responses of young men of color in California. And they often said that they were more likely than their peers to say that there was no teacher at their school that “Really cares about me,” “Notices when I’m not there,” or “Listens to me when I have something to say.” How do you make sense of the fact that a disproportionate number of young men of color responded in that way?
I think this is all tied together, and it speaks to one of the goals of the project: how do we help to humanize these young men? I think society writ large has put many of these young men in these boxes we were just talking about. They’re seen through this deficit lens, and therefore if we, as a wider society, have put these young men in these boxes then it doesn’t surprise us when teachers don’t see them as worthy of their time or their investment or care or affirmation. It doesn’t surprise me that your analysis found those kinds of things.
For five of the six schools we were at in this study, the young men didn’t talk about the school as being an affirming place; it was individual teachers, or individual places and spaces, that offered affirmation. In my thinking, that’s where we want to leverage this work and encourage schools to be more reflective spaces; they have to ask, what is it that we are doing that creates these frequently hostile spaces for these young men? What is it about these spaces where young men get the sense they’re not wanted because they’ve been placed in these boxes? If you humanize these young men to a greater degree, teachers might begin to respond in ways that would challenge or disrupt the data that you found. We’re aiming for more young men to be able to say, “Now, someone notices when I’m not there. Someone remembers my name after two months being in this classroom. Someone takes the time to explain how I can do better in a particular classroom.”
But right now I think that so many young men feel like they’re kept at a distance by teachers. And I want to be clear about this, because it holds across the board, racially, ethnically, and gender-wise. These young men said, “It’s not always teachers of color or men of color who were there. There were folks who connected to us who didn’t look like us.” I was really impressed with the abilities of these young men to identify their true advocates and supporters, and to base it on the ways in which those teachers and coaches and folks in the communities responded to them, as opposed to just sizing folks up and concluding that based on his or her gender, or his or her race, that he or she is a supporter or not a supporter.
For educators who want to do better, who want to create these humanizing spaces, what steps can they take to move their schools in that direction?
Some of this stuff isn’t exactly rocket science; we’ve been talking about it for years. The steps that educators can take are to stop, listen, reflect, and think about what young people are saying. I’m always mindful of Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, where he states, “We teach who we are.” The question that I always ask in response to this is, “Who are we, and how does who we are coexist or stand in relation to those that we teach?” I think that’s what teachers have to think about. “What do I really think about the community where I work? What do I really think about the students in from of me, and the families that they come from? Because if I don’t have a real clear sense in my own political clarity, I’m going to reinforce and re-inscribe the deficit notions about them and their ways of being that lead right back to where we currently are.”
So I think, ultimately, it’s about relationships. And that’s what these young men told us time and time again. It’s relationships, investment, and listening. It’s challenging when students feel like they need and want to be challenged. Teachers have to know who they are, and they have to hear their stories. That’s why we wanted situate so much of this report in the students’ voices and perspectives, because they feel like that’s the point: they want their teachers to know more about those very things.
A few times in the report, young men talk about their service—to their families, their communities, and to their schools—in terms of how they related to other young people. Are there structures that we can put in place, so that schools and educators can hear those stories as a way to re-humanize these students?
One of the goals and big takeaways I hope stick with folks from this report is to redefine “success”; we throw this word around a lot in schools, and we rarely unpack what it means, but part of what we want to disrupt is the idea that success is tied only to how you are measured by test scores. Or, how high your GPA is, or how many AP and Honors classes you passed, or how many AP exams you passed, things like that. That is an indicator of how well students do, but it’s also tied to a whole lot of other opportunities that students have that give them advantages over others. So part of what we want to do is begin to reframe and rethink who and what determines success, however it may be defined. Part of it is that these young men were shown that they were making a contribution, and they were receiving affirmation and praise in other spaces that they wished they had gotten in school.
One young man said that he had worked for Habitat for Humanity. He’d been doing this for six or seven months, and he was appreciative that it did a couple things for him: first, it gave him a way of giving back, because he cared deeply about his community; but at the same time, he said that because of his consistency, the kind of praise he got from the folks who worked there was the kind of praise and attention and support that he never received in school. So this question is a particularly good one: what is it that we can do in the context of schools to help these young men, and young people in general, find opportunities to get the same kind of laudatory comments and high praise that they get in other spaces? It’s possible that this can be a way to re-shift the way that young people think about schools. To that end, I think the more we bring co-curricular activities into the classroom, and the more we have students use their outside interests as starting points and catalysts for how we think about particular types of classroom content, the more likely it will be for them to receive these kinds of laudatory comments from teachers.
These young men are getting high praise in other spaces; they’re highly competent in these other spaces, but they find, for whatever reason, they’re not able to bring that set of experiences and capabilities into the classroom. Teachers have to find ways to connect their content and curriculum with those things outside of the school walls. When we see teachers doing this, it’s a really powerful thing to see, because students don’t tend to feel a disconnect between their lives outside of school and their experiences inside of school.
For all of this talk about a more humanizing education, you have County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas talking in the introduction of the report about the ways that some of the recent election’s rhetoric reinforced negative stereotypes. And since the election, there have been more threats, in terms of hate speech and other acts, which are placing young men of color, their families, and their communities at risk. What is needed at this moment?
That’s a great question. The research team talked about this after the election. It would have been ideal to ask some of those very questions that you just posed to our young men. I think that for educators in general, but especially for educators in the communities that we care deeply about, we’ve got to double down on a lot of the things addressed in the report—the humanization, the care, and strengthening the relationships of our young people. We must understand their challenge. I think it requires us to help them understand that their stories are important, that their struggles are real, and that their day-to-day challenges are realities that people care about. Right now, a lot of young people are questioning their sense of belonging, and not only in schools but in the nation writ large. They’re questioning if they will ever be seen in holistic and humanistic contexts, and if their families will be seen for the sacrifices they’ve made to better their lives and those of their siblings. They’re questioning if they will always be labeled as folks who were undocumented, or seen as “problems” to the country.
I think we have to further affirm for these young men, that they and their families matter, that they’re important, and that they have an important place in the fabric of who we are as a nation. I think if we don’t do those things, all the goodwill these young men are building is in jeopardy, because the political rhetoric has created, in some spaces, a very toxic environment that can turn any goodwill on its head. These young men are now saying, “I play by the rules. I did the things you said to do, and this is the way that folks didn’t respond to me, my family, my community.” That’s dangerous and really depressing, because that is the way that some young folks could interpret the current climate and place that we’re in right now.
So, what sorts of roles do you envision for educators, in light of the dehumanizing effect that so many young people—and young people of color, especially—experience in schools?
Educators have to see their roles stretching beyond just teaching content; they have to be connected to young people, and care deeply about them and inspire them to understand the historical moment they’re in right now. I think if educators don’t see themselves as change agents in that way, they’re losing out on a great opportunity to make a real impact on young people.
In my work with educators, I see how so many of them are really inundated and feel beat down. They’re demoralized and feel like their work is constantly being de-professionalized. I get that. So the goal here is not to beat up on educators, but rather to really help them remember why they chose to do this work. And despite all the bureaucracy around them, despite all the noise that shapes their day-to-day, our goal is to help them come back to what it is that defines why they chose this profession in the first place.
It seems like what you’re offering is a pathway forward, because educators want to respond in a positive way in this moment. What better way to respond than creating the sorts of humanistic spaces that you are describing?
Absolutely. These humanizing spaces have to be one of the reasons why folks went into this profession in the first place, right? I understand that the needs and demands that students have when they come into classrooms today have changed dramatically from years past, and teachers feel like they’re under duress, and not supported as much as they’d like to be. But when you create these humanizing spaces, and create these opportunities for students to feel whole again, it can help to block out all the pressures and all the noise that too often is a part of the realities that teachers and students find themselves in.
I think it hopefully empowers teachers to say, “I’m well within my rights and my roles and responsibilities as an educator to create these spaces where students feel loved, cared for, where they feel whole and they can be who they are without feeling that they have to apologize. Students can manifest their humanity in a multitude of ways and should not feel judged according to how they do it.” If that’s one of the takeaways for teachers, then I think we’ve made a small dent in this challenge that we face.
Those humanizing spaces for young people become humanizing spaces for educators, too.
Oh, absolutely. That reminds me of one after school club. One of the teachers said that he did this program for young men for two days a week, and it was the highlight of his day. In that space, he said, “I take these young men and we delve into a whole range of issues, from current issues to their classes.” And afterward, he said, “I just feel so recharged,” and that he felt like that is what should be happening in his classroom, but it wasn’t.
It’s amazing how teachers can form these kinds of spaces, where they get that sense of being revitalized because they feel like they’re not being restricted by standards and testing and accountability and all those things. They can just really get to know young people, communicate with young people, hear their dreams, talk about their own life challenges, and have those young people walk out of there feeling a renewed sense of hope. And the educators feel the same way. This teacher talked about how, for him, that was supposed to be a 90-minute timeframe, but he says easily two and half, sometimes three hours would go by, because the students don’t want to leave and he doesn’t want to leave because he always felt such a renewed sense of why this work matters.
It occurs to me that if we were to think about creating those sorts of experiences in classrooms, inserting the voices of young people into decision-making structures and spaces where educators are trying to make sense of their work would be enormously beneficial. Because then, once young people’s ideas are being treated seriously, and they genuinely feel that their full humanity is not only respected but that it’s being actively engaged, it’s very hard to go from that point back to reducing one’s instruction to the narrow transactions that currently play out. Now, we need conditions in place so that can work; we need more time, and we need services from school psychologists and other health care providers, for starters. We need to create schools that are structured for success. But part of that—and a large part of that, I think you would agree—is having the voices of young people centrally involved.
I don’t know why, at the systemic level, we just do not value the voices and insights of young people. These are the individuals who experience schools every day, after all. Their voices have been, by and large, conspicuously absent from this conversation.
I think part of it are the contradictions of our public school system; our schools are simultaneously spaces about control and sorting on one hand, and democracy and voice on the other. And when we add an overlay of racism and inequality, the goals of sorting and control become more and more prominent. We need to push back and make sure that the goals of equal opportunity and democracy move more towards the center.
That’s right, and that is the very issue I have my undergraduate students try to grapple with. They recognize it and deem it an inherent contradiction in our educational system. How can we say on the one hand we’re about egalitarianism, equity, justice, fairness, and democracy, yet at the same time, you only have to look at the conditions in our schools and how poor children or undocumented children or children of color are treated, and it obviously doesn’t align with the ideals we claim to have and practice. Yet, we continue to say that schools are the proverbial equalizer, while students from certain communities challenge us with a fundamental question: How can these be equalizing spaces when they don’t even affirm our humanity? We’ve got to come to grips with that.
And part of coming to grips with this is to say that schools are not equalizers, in and of themselves; but they can be spaces in which we’re struggling for that to occur—for this better sense of who we are and who we want to become. And more than this, they can be spaces where we actually realize who and what we want to become.
Yes, certainly, but is that realistic?
I think no social movement is ever realistic at its moment of inception. We have to have unreasonable goals to look toward a different future.
Well said, John. As educators, we have to believe in the feasibility of these ideals at some level—as wild, outrageous, and crazy as they might seem. If we don’t imagine it and at least put it out in the universe, how do we ever expect it to become practical at some point in time?
Right. Which is also why we need the voices of young people, because they keep us honest, and they challenge our sense of timidity when faced with considering the constraints and potential of what is possible.
Yes. And as we look at many social movements we’ve had, young people and young voices have historically been the real catalysts behind these movements. They pushed and challenged despite resistance from previous generations and their talk about who and what can or can’t happen, and what is or isn’t possible. Young people are not as defined by restrictive experiences, and not limited by the restrictions of “what can’t be.”
I recently dusted off an essay Walter Mosley wrote for The Nation 10 years ago, “A New Black Power.” In it, he says that we need to remember that young people are always at the forefront of every movement, because they’re pushing us. This is obviously before Black Lives Matter. What stood out to me wasn’t that Mosley was more prescient than others—although he clearly was—but that he was tapping into this reality, and this reminder, that social change always requires us to be open to the ideas of young people.
That’s right. I think in part it’s not only because they agitate, but they also have less invested in the system or the status quo than older generations do. I think that’s why they are in unique positions to agitate. They’re in unique positions to see other possibilities and they often view themselves as having less to lose, because they’re less invested in the system. That’s a valuable thing to be able to tap into. I listen to my own college-aged kids now, and in terms of what they think, I have occasions to think to myself, “Wow, I don’t know if I can go that far, but …” Yet I always admire their willingness to push and agitate in ways that I know I did many years ago, and in ways that wasn’t very different from their thinking. Because they’ve got less skin in the game, if you will.
So maybe this is the next report from your institute: from the stories of successful young people to the voices of those who are engaged in struggles to move us forward.
Yeah, that’s powerful. I like that. We’ve got to do that one together.
Now, that’s a plan.
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