TR: Why do you think people aren’t aware of how much success blacks are having in academia?
MG: All too often, we operate from a deficit model. For example, we might report that the dropout rate is XYZ, but we won’t report that the graduation rate is whatever it is. I think we have to change the paradigm so that we start looking at statistics about black people in a different, more balanced way that stresses our successes as well as our problems. If Pookey shoots Tyrone, it’s in the news, but if Pookey gets an A in organic chemistry nobody knows about it. We need to re-examine how we talk about our people.
TR: Where did you find financial support for your effort to organize the network?
MG: (chuckling) To be frank, student loans. We’ve gotten support for the conference from foundations, but the development of our website, the organization, the network — that was me taking my student loan money and reallocating it to something I really believed in.
TR: How much money are we talking about?
MG: Maybe $30,000 or $40,000.
MG: Yeah, and it’s not just my money. I convinced other people, family members to chip in. We now have support from the Knight Foundation to support the conference and from the BMe organization, which is interested in improving the opportunities for young black men.
TR: You now want to make this a permanent organization. What’s its mission going forward?
MG: To continue to create spaces for the black intelligentsia to share, network and develop and — and this is the key component — to reach back into the community from which we’ve come and have a quantifiable effect on the graduation rate, the dropout rate, the achievement gap. Black people are doing great things academically, but there’s a huge disconnect between these high achievers and the community we describe as being at risk. If we can get these brilliant scholars connected to the high school students who are having trouble, we can have a huge positive effect.
TR: Does your own background play a role in defining your mission?
MG: I grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in a single-mother household in which education was very important. I’m pretty clear on how I made it. I had a strong family support system and a whole laundry list of people who believed in second and third and many more chances, and I needed all of them. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brooklyn College, both in sociology, and I’m pursuing a doctorate in criminology from City University of New York.
This is where it gets personal. I’m studying black males who have Ph.D.s or are pursuing their doctorates who came from impoverished communities. I’m looking at how these individuals defied the odds, and didn’t drop out or wind up in jail or fall into any of the other traps. I want to find out what the similarities are between these individuals who made it when other people don’t and see if there is some way we can start expanding those kinds of opportunities to many more people.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.