Tyrone Howard: UCLA Ed Professor Pays it Forward With Mentorship, Propelling Students Toward Research

Director of Black Male Institute recognized for mentorship of students, focus on multicultural issues by UCLA and AERA this year.

Upon his recognition with the Dr. Carlos J. Vallejo Memorial Award for Lifetime Scholarship from the American Educational Research Association (AERA), Tyrone Howard – who received his first AERA honor in 2007 – quipped that the prize had a conclusive ring to it.

“What’s kind of funny to me is that we’ve jumped from an Early Career Scholar Award not that long ago to a ‘lifetime’ award,” says the UCLA professor of education. “It seems like there ought to be something in the middle.”

Something – or someone in the middle of it all – is a good way to describe Professor Howard, who in 2008 founded the Black Male Institute (BMI), a research cohort of UCLA Ed & IS. Projects led by the BMI focus on issues of education for Black and other young males of color. Earlier this year, he was also recognized with two UCLA awards – the university-wide Distinguished Teaching Award and the Harvey L. Elby Art of Teaching Award. These honors are in no small part due to his teaching in the Urban Schooling Division, the Teacher Education Program, the Educational Leadership Program, the Education Studies Minor, the BMI research seminar , as well as his successful mentorship of countless undergraduate and graduate students at UCLA.

A faculty member in UCLA’s Teacher Education Program (TEP), Howard also serves as faculty director of Center X and has an appointment as an associate faculty member at UCLA’s Bunche Center for African American Studies. In 2007, he received the Distinguished Teaching Award from UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. Before arriving at UCLA in 2001, Professor Howard was an assistant professor in the College of Education at The Ohio State University. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Washington, his master’s degree in education from CSU Dominguez Hills, and his bachelors of arts degree in economics from UC Irvine.

Best known for his scholarship on race, culture, and education, Howard is one of the most renowned scholars on educational equity, the African American educational experience, and urban schools. He has written extensively on topics including educational access for African American students, educational equity, and culturally responsive pedagogy for numerous journals, book chapters, and publications. His most recent book, “Black Male(d): Peril and Promise in the Education of African American Males,” (2014), is published by Teachers College Press, and became a TC Press bestseller last year.

Ampersand had the opportunity to speak with Howard this quarter, as he prepared for his new research project, CounterNarrative, which will examine the success stories of Black and Latino youth in Los Angeles schools, and to present the BMI’s Think Tank. This year, the annual event will be presented at UCLA in June, in tandem with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. Professor Howard shared his perspectives on the growth of scholarship on multiethnic and multicultural scholarship, building understanding between African American youth and police, and how he teaches his students to continue the legacy of mentorship that propelled his own achievements.

Ampersand: Your Vallejo Memorial Award for Lifetime Scholarship was bestowed by AERA’s Multicultural/Multiethnic Education Special Interest Group. What do you think about that kind of a label for your work, which ideally affects all of us?

Tyrone Howard: That is the paradox we struggle with. For years, there were scholars whose work around issues of access and equity was not recognized by more mainstream entities, so there was the creation of these multicultural, multiethnic kinds of awards. But at the end of the day, you want this to be seen as an award that really affects all people across the spectrum.

&: What has changed the most for Black males since you founded the BMI?

TH: I think there is much more attention focused on Black males and other males of color now than there was six or seven years ago. Initiatives like the President’s “My Brother’s Keeper” which has generated millions of dollars for research and policy intervention, were not in place when we started this work. So now, there is at least a spotlight on the fact that issues within this population need to be examined and understood, so that more viable interventions can be identified. I think it has also broadened the scope for other males of color. People have begun to realize that Latino males and certain Asian American males have similar challenges. We are even seeing more of a focus placed on girls of color, who have similar kinds of challenges. So I think it’s opened up a number of inquiries that ten years ago were not as exposed to the same degree.

&: Do you think having a Black president has fostered this new awareness?

TH: It’s a paradox because symbolically President Obama represents something that many people in my parents’ generation did not think was possible. But it’s lulled some people into thinking with the election of a Black male as our president, we don’t have to worry about these issues, and that is just not the case. There is a lot of data that should raise concerns.

The reality is that for Black males and other young males of color, the conditions have gotten worse over the last six years in regard to unemployment rates, incarceration rates, certain educational attainment rates, and the quality of health indicators.

&: What have been some of the most significant achievements of your students within BMI?

TH: Firstly, we’ve used it as a venue to open up a dialogue around educational access and equity for males of color, and for Black males in particular. Last year’s “Black Bruin” video went viral in a matter of days. Our students were the first ones to use that format to present the data they collected on conditions for Black males on college campuses, and it sparked a number of efforts from other college campuses that began to use that kind of a format to begin to talk about the conditions [for Black students] on their campus – students from Michigan, Harvard, Princeton, and Oregon State did similar videos.

The other thing that BMI has done is that it has sparked an interest in research for undergraduates. We now have young men and young women who have taken BMI courses and are now pursuing doctorates and master’s degrees at places like UCLA, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, USC, and UC Santa Barbara. That was really my goal: that students would come together and learn about research, and that they would see it as a way to discover and help produce new kinds of knowledge around issues that they care deeply about..

The BMI Think Tank is a one-day event, but I was struggling with how to do something that is more sustainable [for] students here who want to do this kind of work and who want to learn at the same time. That’s why we began to offer “Blacklimated,” the first year course for Black male students. Upon completion of the course, the students still wanted to do more, so we created a research seminar. Then last year, a group of young women wanted to do a similar course for African American women and we helped them with the creation of what became the “Sister-to-Sister” course that is now offered as a counterpart to the “Blacklimated” course we offer in the winter.

A number of young African American women were saying, ‘Why don’t we have a similar course for us?’ “We need a space to discuss and research our issues.” They were asking me if I would offer a course, and I didn’t feel like I was equipped to do that. But after urging a few of my colleagues on campus – Samarah Blackmon, Jonli Tunstall, Michelle Smith, and Maisha Beasley- to consider it, they started teaching “Sister-to-Sister” last spring. They have a plan similar to the Think Tank for outreach with schools that have a large number of young African American women and other women of color. So, it’s kind of nice how these projects parallel with each other. I never imagined it would take off like that.

&: How has BMI affected conditions for African American students across the UCLA campus?

TH: It’s been a space where students not only come to learn, but a place for social and emotional support as well. Janina Montero (UCLA Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs) has come to speak to the group to get a pulse on several issues on campus. In February, we had a really powerful session with representatives from the UC Police Department because there was some tension in relationships between the campus police and African American students. I thought it was a really productive forum because the officers got to hear how the students feel. But the other powerful part was that the students heard from the police officers about how they go about doing their job.

The students poignantly gave their experiences of what they felt was being racially profiled and being in some cases, treated unfairly. To the officers’ credit, they heard it, listened, and gave their accounts on why they do what they do. They tried to assure the students that they don’t racially profile or attempt to discriminate. If students feel they are being targeted unfairly, there is a process they can go through to express those concerns and file complaints.

&: Were any of the officers African American?

TH: Two of them were African American. I think it took a lot of courage on their part to show up and to hear what I have to imagine they knew they were going to hear. They gave their own experiences of being civilians in certain communities where they felt like they were racially profiled, and talked about how they understand how the students felt. But they also tried to explain that they have a job and only respond to what people call and complain about. The meeting was very tense at times, but it was a good first step toward communicating, and I hope we can continue to have this dialogue. We’ve had a long history on this campus where there has been a lot of mistrust on the part of African American students and other students of color toward law enforcement. It’s complicated. I think we have to create a space for both sides to hear and learn from one another.

&: What is your basic teaching philosophy?

TH: Teaching should be about engagement. When I was in college, the one thing that would make it hard for me to learn was having a professor who stood up in front of the class and just lectured non-stop for an hour straight, never asking if we had questions or disagreed – just talking at us instead of engaging us.

Teaching and learning is a back and forth process, a two-way street. I try to make my approach one that is engaging, one that is relevant. I encourage dissenting viewpoints. I try to get students to think in non-traditional, critical ways, because I think that is how we all learn – when we are pushed in our thinking. And I always tell my students, ‘I’m the instructor, but I don’t know everything.’ There are other ways of knowing and interpreting information that I’m not aware of, and I encourage students to put them on the table because I hope to learn from them just as much as I hope they learn from me.

&: You’ve been a mentor to so many students, both at UCLA and the schools and organizations that BMI partners with to improve the life trajectories of males of color. Who were your greatest mentors?

TH: Mentoring to me is an investment in people – it’s an investment in their growth and development. It means having someone who pushes you, who believes in you and gives you confidence – that could be life-changing. I think about the moments when I’ve had my own insecurities and doubts, but had mentors who would give me encouragement when I needed it.

I take mentoring seriously because I know how much I have been a beneficiary of the mentorship of others. That is the same thing I try to do with the students I work with. For them to be at UCLA, you know they’re smart, you know they’re bright. But this journey of going through undergraduate or even graduate education can make them wonder, ‘Do I belong here?’

First, my parents were my greatest mentors. My mother always had this belief that I could do anything, she still tells me that to this day. My father mentored me with his work ethic that I always learned from. Professor Thomas Parham, who is at UC Irvine, inspired me with the importance of research and teaching. Geneva Gay was one of my most influential mentors in graduate school who told me what I was capable of doing. James Banks, my academic advisor, was also an important mentor for me.

It’s that whole notion that “it takes a village.” The things I learned from my parents were critical while growing up. But once a student starts on a professional trajectory, it takes other kinds of mentors who understand that world in ways that perhaps parents don’t understand. Even to this day, when I have professional dilemmas, I pick up the phone or send one of my mentors an email and ask if they have time to talk because they’ve always been there for me.

Those kinds of exchanges and those relationships are the models that I use when working with students here. When my students thank me, I always say, “The only thing I ask of you is that you pay it forward. When you work with your students, give it the same time, attention, and mentorship that you’ve had from me, because I give it to you because I received it from others.”