Q&A with Shaun Harper: Fix the System, and Black and Brown Men Will Follow

A new national collaborative explicitly aimed at improving outcomes for boys and men of color pivots from the current narrative and focuses on institutions that reduce the quality of life of black and brown men.

Rise (Research, Integration, Strategy and Evaluation) will “identify best practices and opportunities for new research that can inform equitable policies, and ultimately create positive change in communities across the United States,” addressing four key areas: education, health, criminal justice as well as economic opportunity and workforce development.

But why should we trust this initiative differs from others that view black and brown men as problems needing to be fixed?

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Rise receives support from members of the Executives’ Alliance to Expand Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color, which includes Atlantic Philanthropies, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (also among the various funders of The Hechinger Report), and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, all of which have agreed to devote $8.5 million into this $10 million three-year effort.

Shaun Harper

Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (Penn GSE) and Sharon Norris-Shelton of project co-leader Equal Measure (formerly the OMG Center for Collaborative Learning) will co-direct the initiative.

In a statement, Rise said it planned to convene researchers, evaluators, practitioners and community activists to share knowledge. It plans to fund new research and evaluation projects that are solution driven. Rise seeks to build an easily accessible Web portal that establishes “a virtual community of practice.” In addition, Rise will disseminate best practices and policy recommendations from the work of researchers, policymakers, practitioners and community stakeholders.

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However, what good is research if it accepts the same belief systems of institutions that limit the outcomes of men of color? What good is research if it’s “complicit in promoting the verbal and statistical rhetoric that avoids the problem of institutional accountability?”

To dig into this and other issues, I asked Rise’s co-director Shaun Harper a few questions.

AP: Many public sector leaders have claimed their particular problem to be the “next civil rights issue of our generation.” Why does Rise look for multifaceted solutions that are inclusive of education, health, criminal justice, as well as economic opportunity and workforce development?

SH: The systematic miscarriage of justice as well as inequities in schooling, housing, health care, and the U.S. labor market comingle to cyclically disadvantage particular Americans. Attempting to address any one of these issues without fully recognizing its interconnectedness with the others will continually lead to incremental and unsustainable gains. Rise will unify experts within and across each of these areas to identify policies, practices, and conditions that are most likely to improve the lives and experiences of boys and men of color.

AP: In spite of evidence that structural inequalities in schooling, criminal justice, health care and employment negatively impact the life outcomes of men and boys of color, the narrative of thrift, drive, dress and home training still seem to resonate. How will Rise shift blaming individuals to holding structures accountable?

SH: Rise is most committed to evidence-based systemic and structural change. Its funders have empowered Equal Measure, the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, and our lead partners to search for solutions that extend beyond mentoring programs and other important activities that only affect a few. Rise is about interdisciplinary collaboration, community engagement, capacity building, and rigorous program evaluation. We envision this leading to more-integrated policymaking and strategic investments.

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AP: You’ve been critical of the ways researchers employ deficit models in their examinations of student success. How do you see research on boys and men of color changing in the next 10 years?

SH: We are firmly committed to changing hopeless, one-sided narratives about boys and men of color, as well as their families, schools, and communities. Rise will fund several solutions-oriented research and evaluation projects. Assets and replicable, scalable strategies will be identified. Over the next decade, I am hopeful that more researchers will pose anti-deficit questions that yield powerful and practically useful insights into what helps Asian American, Black, Latino, and Native American males succeed. I also hope policymakers and powerful others will come to recognize how scaling effective programs and practices that positively affect these populations ultimately benefits our entire society.

AP: How will Rise attend to the inextricable linkages to girls and women of color? Sexuality?

Sharon Norris-Shelton, the person with whom I am co-directing Rise, is a woman of color. We will be thoughtful and intentional about fully engaging women scholars in our interdisciplinary network. Women will be at our convenings, they will be among our grantees, and we will aggressively highlight their research. Furthermore, Rise will challenge researchers and others to make clearer how race, class, gender, language, and sexualities uniquely converge for boys/men of color and for girls/women of color. This has not been done well in the existing literature. For example, we do not know enough about why outcomes are so different for boys and girls who live in the same homes, attend the same schools, and have the same access to resources. We will urge scholars and advocates to consider the full range of statistics that separately highlight success and disadvantage for both sexes. We will also invite and support studies that consider whole persons, including their sexualities, spiritual and religious orientations, etc.

AP: How can those who are interested get involved?

SH: This summer we will launch www.RISEBMOC.org, our virtual community of practice. We will host monthly virtual engagement sessions for those who are interested in joining strategic conversations with others who are committed to improving the lives of boys and men of color. Also, there will be a discussion board on which community agents (e.g., nonprofit leaders and youth-serving organization staff), parents and families, teachers and others can post questions and problems of practice and receive advice from virtual community members. Additionally, we will post requests for grant and evaluation proposals, as well as ‘ideation’ challenges, to the site. There will always be something happening in the virtual community for those who are interested in being involved; it will not be a static website that only occasionally gets updated. Lastly, families, community agents, practitioners and policymakers will be invited to various in-person Rise convenings over the next three years.

Finally, researchers and advocates who aren’t so invested in finding “truth” and “innovation” as much as they are in finding justice and inclusion for men of color.

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).