Clemson Seeks to Increase Awareness, Close Achievement Gaps Via Diversity Summit

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On April 27, approximately 2,000 individuals will gather in Greenville, S.C., for Clemson University’s Men of Color National Summit. A first-time event for Clemson, the Summit will promote the importance of education and encourage collaboration on closing achievement gaps for African American and Hispanic men.

Lee Gill

“National and state data on high school achievement and graduation show that African American and Hispanic males lag behind [other groups],” says Lee Gill, JD, chief inclusion and equity officer at Clemson. “By sharing what works, and what does not, educators at all levels, national thought leaders, and researchers who attend the summit will return to their school districts and universities with new ideas and innovative strategies for closing the achievement gap.”

The Men of Color National Summit will host and highlight Clemson’s newly formed “Tiger Alliance,” a group of 400 African American, Hispanic, and first-generation male students in grades nine through 11 from Greenville and other area high schools. After the summit, Clemson will remain engaged with Tiger Alliance members to “demystify the college experience and help [the students] see that higher education is not beyond their grasp,” Gill says.

“Every student who attends college adds to the ‘talent dividend’ of the state, region, and nation. They will pay taxes, have productive careers, start new businesses, and become job creators.”

Summit themes will include identity, personal and professional development, social justice and engagement, mentors and role models, health and wellness, family, and fatherhood. The list of speakers includes high-profile personalities and accomplished professionals from diverse industries and backgrounds, such as Travis Smiley from PBS, ESPN college football analyst and former NFL player Desmond Howard, founder and CEO of the Student African American Brotherhood Tyrone Bledsoe, and more.

Roy Jones, EdD, executive director for Clemson University College of Education’s Call Me MiSTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) program, will also speak at the summit to encourage young male attendees to consider becoming elementary school teachers. “Call Me MiSTER was founded in 2000 with a mission to change the face of South Carolina’s and America’s classrooms to reflect its student demographic,” Jones explains.

Jones estimates that two-thirds of South Carolina’s elementary schools do not have a black male teacher and that 40 percent of America’s schools do not have a teacher of color. “You cannot be or aspire to be what you do not see,” he says.

Since 2004, Call Me MiSTER has helped nearly double the number of African American men teaching in South Carolina elementary schools.

“Many Hispanic males [at Clemson] are first-generation pioneers. [They] wrestle with the cultural pressures and expectations to take a leading role in helping provide for their families.”

Julio Hernandez

Julio Hernandez, Clemson’s associate director for Hispanic outreach and a member of the summit leadership team, says that Hispanic men also face significant educational challenges. “Many Hispanic males [at Clemson] are first-generation pioneers,” he says. “Some have not seen what attending college looks like [from] their family, and [they] wrestle with the cultural pressures and expectations to take a leading role in helping provide for their families. The summit can send the message that black and Hispanic males are not alone and that choosing an education will help them and their loved ones for years to come.”

Although the summit specifically focuses on men, Gill says the event does not detract from the university’s commitment to women of color or any other underrepresented group.

Notably, Clemson’s Men of Color National Summit comes nearly a year after student protests over racism on campus. Gill acknowledges Clemson’s “complex racial history,” pointing out that the university did not enroll its first African American student until 1963 — because of a court order — and that the campus sits on the site of what was once a slave plantation owned by Vice President John C. Calhoun, whose daughter Anna married Thomas Clemson. The university’s first building, erected by African American convict laborers, is currently named after Benjamin Tillman, who Gill says was a 19th century South Carolina governor and U.S. senator who was known to be a violent white supremacist.

“Rather than run away from [this] history, [the university is] facing it head-on,” says Gill. At the behest of the board of trustees, Clemson created a task force that has begun finding ways to transparently tell the entire Clemson story.

Gill also credits the university’s president, Jim Clements, who Gill says has a strong track record of creating diverse and inclusive university environments, with understanding that in addition to recognizing history, Clemson must also make history.

“At Clemson, diversity and inclusion is a way of thinking,” Gill says. “[We] define diversity holistically, as the differences that make each person unique and give each individual a valuable perspective to contribute.”

For Gill, who also serves as special assistant to the president for inclusive excellence, inclusion is a distinct but important concept. “I like to say that diversity is being invited to the dance, but inclusion is being asked to dance,” he says.

Embracing this philosophy, Clemson recently created the Institute for Leadership and Inclusive Excellence. It will be a driving force for education and advocacy, as well as for identifying and developing best practices in regard to hiring, recruitment, retention, and inclusive curriculum development. Additionally, the institute will serve as a regional and national think tank, speakers’ bureau, and information clearinghouse and will offer training and emergency response assistance on issues involving race, gender, religion, and ethnicity.

Gill believes that closing achievement gaps for underrepresented groups is crucial not only to Clemson University’s becoming a true leader in inclusive education, but also to improving our nation’s economy.

“Every student who attends college adds to the ‘talent dividend’ of the state, region, and nation,” he says. “They will pay taxes, have productive careers, start new businesses, and become job creators. Over time, these students will be healthier, happier, and more engaged in their communities. Their children will in turn go to college [and continue a positive cycle]. In that way, [working to] close the achievement gap is a sound investment in our future and a win-win for the student, the college or university, the community, and the state.”●

Kelley R. Taylor is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.