Black Male Institute: The Color of Change

Professor Tyrone Howard leads BMI, which focuses on the recruitment, retention, and success of Black men in college.

Sy Stokes is a third-year student majoring in Afro American studies at UCLA, and an undergraduate researcher in the university’s Black Male Institute (BMI).  As such, he works with Professor Tyrone Howard of UCLA’s Department of Education, in finding ways to propel Black male youth to college, retain them, and prepare them for success in academia and professional life.

“The BMI was founded to address concerns around equity and access for Black males in education,” says Howard. “Its primary goal is to conduct reliable research, practical interventions, and effective programs that enrich the educational experiences and life chances of Black males in the United States.”

“I have been in BMI for a year now and it has completely altered my perspective of UCLA in a positive way,” says Stokes. “To be in a room with driven, accomplished Black men each week really motivates me to continue to succeed at this university.”

Stokes, who says that he initially was very enthusiastic about attending UCLA, learned that the campus had a very small Black population and more emphasis on Black male students as athletes than as scholars. Last fall, he decided to inform potential students, based on data that was collected in the course, about these issues at UCLA, and point out the low numbers of Black students in general at the university.

Stokes enlisted the help of other students in a BMI course titled, “Lumina,” and its companion course, “Blacklimated,” which is designed specifically for first-year freshmen and transfer students to get acclimated to UCLA and learn about the resources available to them on the campus. The group created a video titled, “Black Bruin,” which was released on YouTube last November. To date, the three-and-a-half minute video, which features Stokes describing the conditions that Black students face on a campus that showed a four percent Black representation in both undergraduate and graduate student populations in the fall quarters of 2011 and 2012, has had 1,704,265 views, and attracted widespread interest from national media. Stokes and some of his fellow students were interviewed for numerous outlets, including MSNBC, USA Today, The Huffington Post, and Inside Higher Education. A spoken word artist for the last four years, Stokes says that he wanted to combine his passion for performance and overcoming the challenges of being a Black student at UCLA to reach his audience.

“I knew the statistics would shock people, but I needed to do it in a way that would catch their attention,” says Stokes, who used YouTube and Facebook to publicize “Black Bruin.” “It’s a humble reminder to me that there truly is power in words, more than we think.”

Brian Woodward, a graduate student in the Urban Schooling Division, has been working with students in Lumina to create an executive proposal to establish more support for Black male students at UCLA. He says that the project has helped to develop and enhance the students’ research skills, especially in data collection and writing.

“The video was the impetus for resurgence on national debate about Black male retention, not only at UCLA, but post-secondary institutions nationally,” says Woodward. “This prompted the BMI staff and students to develop written proposals, as numerous individuals and organizations wanted to aid us in our efforts.

“I think the students have learned a variety of lessons,” says Woodward. “First I think they have learned the salience of working under a time constraint. The video was produced in November and it is nearly February. If the students do not want the momentum to wane, it is imperative to produce proposals emphasizing both current and future interventions that the university and organizations can support.”

Alexander Mercier, a third-year political science major who minors in Afro American studies, was one of the students who participated in Stokes’ video. He says that he did not expect the media backlash that resulted from the clip going viral, but feels that due to the widespread publicity that it received, “We are finally able to make a difference.” One result was that the students have since met with university administrators, including Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Janina Montero and Associate Vice Chancellor of Enrollment Management Youlanda Copeland-Morgan, to voice their concerns.

“I never expected it to go worldwide and that we’d get all the media attention we’ve had, it’s truly humbling,” says Mercier. “Although the video has gotten a lot of negative response, we’ve also gotten a positive response from those that matter. Being able to have one-on-one meetings with administrators is monumental for us because these are people that really care about the issue of diversity and are willing to put in the hours to see change. On a more basic level, even their willingness to meet with us says a lot, and has been greatly appreciated.”

Stokes says that BMI has created an official proposal for potential donors who may be able to revive programs for Black students at UCLA.

“We do have various programs that focus on access, retention, outreach and pipeline at UCLA already, but lack of funding has held us back from any dramatic improvements,” he says. “I have met with a few donors that have shown interest in helping out, but at the end of the day it all comes down to who can write a check and truly invest in this movement along with us. We hope to work with administrators again to help us out as well.”

Mercier says that BMI’s short term goals are to meet with UCLA administrators to further discuss programs and ideas, such as new outreach programs to get Black youth interested in college, and initiatives for researchers from BMI to visit high schools and assist students with their college applications, as well as workshops for college applicants, to be held at UCLA. He also says that the creation of a Black Resource Center with access to information about scholarships, internships, and jobs, as well as a gathering place, and the development of a Black Womens’ Institute are part of BMI’s vision for the future.

“Being a part of BMI has really opened my eyes and given a name to the things I experience,” says Mercier, who enrolled in the Blacklimated course in his freshman year. “It has ultimately encouraged me learn more about the systems that influence us on a daily basis. I hope that people become more educated on the world around them, but more importantly, see how every child is worthy and deserves an education.”

This month, the University of California’s Office of the President released data on increases in diverse populations among applicants for Fall 2014. Of 86,472 freshman applicants to UCLA, 4,640 are Black, representing a 5.8 percent increase over 2013 applicants. Other data shows that 42 percent of UCLA’s freshman applicants would be first-generation college students and 37 percent come from low-income families. The academic quality of the applicants is measured by high school grade-point average, admissions test scores and the number of academic courses completed, and according to university officials, remains high.


Above: UCLA junior Sy Stokes (in foreground) created the “Black Bruin” video with the help of classmates in the Black Male Institute and the “Blacklimated” course at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.

L-R: Davontae Foxx-Drew, Mike Bailey Jr., EZMoney Harper, Amir Ali, CJ Okoye, Oz Azubuike, Donte Miller, Alexander Mercier, Mike Wamungu, Aaron Willis. Not pictured: Will Edem.

Courtesy of Sy Stokes