Salem State University’s ‘Brotherhood’ Empowers Male Students of Color to Overcome Adversity

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College completion rates for African American men are the lowest of both sexes and all racial and ethnic groups, and two-thirds of Latino men in America have no college education at all. While numerous studies detail the systemic causes of these educational disparities for young men of color — which include the school-to-prison pipeline and a lack of positive role models — the data indicate that colleges and universities can be doing more to support these students on campus.  

Lisa McBride

In an effort to do just that, Salem State University (SSU) in Massachusetts started a black male initiative in 2012. This program — which came to be known as The Brotherhood — is geared toward African American, Caribbean, and Latino male students, many of whom are first-generation, low-income, and from underserved backgrounds, says Lisa McBride, PhD, vice president for diversity and inclusion. The Brotherhood follows a multi-tiered model of best practices for helping young men of color succeed. This includes academic support via advisement, tutoring, and study skills training; opportunities for leadership and community engagement; and career preparation. Perhaps most important, says McBride, the program provides the Brothers, as they are called, with a close-knit, highly dedicated network of faculty and peer allies.

[Above: Members of Salem State University’s Brotherhood]

“The Brotherhood is a family,” says Armando Martinez, a SSU sophomore who joined at the beginning of his freshman year. Martinez, a double major in psychology and sociology, likens the way The Brotherhood prepares its members for life after graduation to the way a family unit equips children for adulthood. “It has the love and comfort aspects of a real family and serves the function of a family by preparing you for the real world.”

For D-Shawn Caraballo, a junior psychology major who joined The Brotherhood during his second year at SSU, having the support of his fellow Brothers has made a huge difference in his life and academic aspirations. “Initially, going to college was not something I was comfortable with, especially leaving home where all my friends looked like me and it was easy to blend in,” says Caraballo. “[At SSU,] I initially felt like I not only stood out, but I was also isolated.”

Between working full time and attending classes, Caraballo felt as if he had no real support system on campus until he joined The Brotherhood. Being a member, he says, has not only empowered him to take control of his education, but also take advantage of opportunities he wouldn’t have otherwise had.

One such opportunity was the Black, Brown, and College Bound (BBCB) Summit, which Caraballo, Martinez, and nine other Brothers attended this past February in Tampa, Fla. Hosted annually by Hillsborough Community College, the BBCB brings together thousands of administrators, faculty, community leaders, and male students of color from colleges and universities across the country for a three-day conference focused on one goal: ending educational disparities for black and Latino men in America.

McBride, who has been actively involved with BBCB since it began in 2006, encouraged the Brothers to attend, despite the fact that the group initially lacked the funds to do so. “I knew that in order for [them] to go to the next level, [the Brothers] had to see … that there are men of color who have the same goals and aspirations,” she says. “Those types of interactions would really give them a sense of pride, self-esteem, and identity.”

Because of the cost of travel and lodging to attend the summit, the Brothers were incredulous that any of them would be able to go, says Martinez. “Nobody believed it was actually going to happen,” he says — a belief compounded by the fact that some of the Brothers had never traveled outside of the state or been on an airplane. McBride, however, refused to let the obstacle of funding stand in their way. Under her guidance, the SSU Office of Diversity and Inclusion launched a campaign so that a minimum of 11 Brothers, along with McBride and other staff members, could make the trip. In order to attend, each member had to fill out an application, participate in an interview, and agree to conduct an oral presentation about their experience to campus groups and the SSU Board of Trustees.

When Co-publishers of INSIGHT Into Diversity Lenore Pearlstein and Holly Mendelson learned of this campaign.— after which Pearlstein met many of the Brothers during a visit to SSU in early January — they decided to personally contribute the $10,000 needed for all of the young men to be able to attend BBCB. The money also allowed McBride and her staff to plan special outings, such as a boat ride, so that the Brothers could enjoy new experiences while in Tampa. “Some of our Brothers had never seen a beach or sand or been on a boat before,” says McBride. “We wanted to expose them to these things, to take them out to restaurants and teach them about etiquette, and to just open up a whole new world to them.”

SSU Brothers attend the Black, Brown, and College Bound Summit in Tampa, Fla.

The BBCB summit included special events for the students to socialize and network with peers, university presidents, employees of Fortune 500 companies, and professional athletes from similar backgrounds.

“The summit was phenomenal, but what had the greatest impact on me was meeting Johnny Johnson,” says Denzell Huggins, a junior at SSU. Johnson, a former professional football player, introduced himself to the Brothers and talked to them about what it takes for a young man of color to succeed in school and in business, says Huggins. “You could tell that he really cared about us,” he says, adding that Johnson gave them his phone number and they still keep in touch. “Just having someone stick their hand out to let you know we’re all in this together is what really affected me the most.”

John Legend delivers the keynote address at the 2017 BBCB Summit.

The importance of encouraging others was a common theme throughout the summit, including the presentation and musical performance given by the keynote speaker, R&B artist John Legend. Legend, a Grammy award-winning alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania, spoke about the difficulties of growing up as an African American man from a broken home and described the impact that one teacher had on his life by encouraging him to write poetry and songs. “It just shows how one person can change a young man’s life,” McBride says. “Our hope is that the men who are now in The Brotherhood [will] one day be the influence on another young man’s life to do better and defy stereotypes.”

Upon their return, the Brothers gave their presentations to the SSU Board of Trustees and talked about the life-changing effects the summit and The Brotherhood have had on their lives. One young man from Boston told the board that he had considered not returning to SSU for the spring semester after losing four friends at home to gun violence; however, he changed his mind after learning that he would get to attend BBCB. “The conference taught him that he wanted to live and see all the opportunities in front of him rather than look behind at the past,” says McBride.

Other Brothers reported that getting to go to the summit demonstrated that other people, including Pearlstein and Mendelson, have faith in them. “They talked about the experience of never having anyone believe in them and wanting to plant a seed of hope in their future,” says McBride, adding that the Brothers all expressed the desire to pass that hope on to other young men of color.

After learning about the tremendous impact BBCB had on the Brothers, Pearlstein decided to create an endowment so that members of The Brotherhood could attend the summit annually. “I was able to meet with the boys before and after the summit, and when they told me about the effect it had on them, I thought, ‘I need to do this every year going forward,’” she says. “So I worked with Dr. McBride and the development office to create an endowed fund so that myself and others can contribute, and many more young men would have the same opportunity to have this life-changing experience.”

The endowment — the Rubin Sztajer Holocaust Survivor Fund — is named for Pearlstein’s father, who grew up in Nazi-occupied Poland and, at age 16, was taken from his family and sent to a concentration camp until he was liberated in 1945. He later immigrated to the United States with a fifth-grade education, no money, and no knowledge of the English language.

Members of The Brotherhood with Holocaust survivor Rubin Sztajer during his visit to SSU

Sztajer and Pearlstein recently traveled to SSU, where Sztajer spoke of his experience as a Holocaust survivor. He ended with a heartfelt message to the audience — which included many of the Brothers who attended BBCB, along with politicians, students, faculty, staff, and members of the local community — that if he could survive and make a wonderful life for himself, so could they. His story and encouragement, many of the Brothers said, touched them and gave them more confidence to continue their education and work even harder.

Before Sztajer’s presentation, McBride hosted a luncheon for him and The Brotherhood, where he and the Brothers talked about the similarities of their struggles as young men from disadvantaged backgrounds.— including facing discrimination, losing family members, and enduring poverty. “To be able to come to America with nothing in his pockets and never give up fighting — from a concentration camp to a successful man — spoke volumes to me,” says Huggins. “It shows that no matter what, if I keep working toward my goals, it will pay off.”

Caraballo agreed, adding that being able to speak with Sztajer was a life-changing experience for all of the Brothers. “Having him come here and talk with us just made it feel like our struggle is not going unheard and we can overcome our obstacles no matter what we’re going through,” says Caraballo. The endowment, he says, means that the hard work the Brothers have put into growing SSU’s black male initiative and spreading the word about BBCB will benefit future members of The Brotherhood.

“Having the scholarship shows that we have allies who are willing to use their resources to push us in the direction of success and our goals,” says Martinez. “At the end of the day, we want people to see that success can be found from all walks of life, from all corners, and from all neighborhoods.”●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Lisa McBride is a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.