By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
In 2019, Milwaukee Succeeds embarked on a strategic planning mission. The organization wanted to help combat the decreasing high school completion rate, but then things changed. The COVID-19 pandemic followed by nationwide protests forced the group to rethink its approach and who had a say in its strategic process.
It was during the protests that Clintel Hasan, the strategic initiative manager for Milwaukee Succeeds, noticed something. Many of the protests were led by youth leaders, yet when it came to certain issues that Milwaukee Succeeds was tackling, youth didn’t have a seat at the table.
Milwaukee Succeeds is about equity, Hasan said. So, the group decided rather than telling youth what they needed it would ask them.
Through its Youth Forward MKE initiative, Milwaukee Succeeds asked Black male youth the question: “How would they rethink high school education to improve outcomes for Black males?”
The data shows that Black male youth are either left behind or over-represented when it comes to disciplinary measures, Hasan explained. The graduation rate for Black males is around 52%, Hasan said, and while its only slightly higher for other minority demographics, the fact remains that graduation rates for Black males is the lowest in the nation.
After asking the question, the organization took it a step further – it offered these youth an opportunity to make their voices heard.
“It is not enough to say you want people at the table, if you don’t change how you operate,” Hasan said, adding that adults have to be willing to adapt and change.
Earlier this summer, 60 Black male youth ranging in ages from 13 to 20 joined Design Your Future, a Milwaukee Succeeds’ fellowship program. The program is six weeks long and completely virtual.
At the end of the fellowship, the six cohorts will each present an idea that will implemented in the schools. Each participant will receive a $2,000 stipend and each project will receive $10,000 in funding.
The funding is provided by United Way, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Northwestern Mutual and Herb Kohl Philanthropies.
Participants meet with mentors, discuss statistics, share their experiences and more. David Castillo, who works with Equitable Systems Consultants, is the primary facilitator of the fellowship and the mentors were trained by UBUNTU Research and Evaluation.
The fellowship aligns with the goals of Youth Forward MKE: to create a space for youth, build relationships and shift the power, Hasan said. Maybe not everyone turns their camera on, but everyone is participating, Hasan said, noting the many chat notifications she had.
The fellows are bonding over their shared experiences, she said.
One statistic the youth are looking at is the suspension rate. According to Hasan, Black males in ninth grade make up 25% of all high school suspensions. Nine grade is a critical year, Hasan said, and can impact a student’s chance at graduation.
The group is discussing how Black males are over disciplined due to racist and implicit bias, strict disciplinary regulations and school policies. These students don’t have behavioral issues, rather they’re being punished for things such as uniform infractions, Hasan noted.
The six cohorts are just starting to identify potential solutions to the obstacles facing Black students. The focus of the fellowship is the lived experiences and taking an approach that reflects the students’ point of view, Hasan said.
Some of their ideas are in alignment with ideas already in place, but Hasan is looking forward to what they come up with.
“We’re not going against the research, we have the research but we’re going a layer deeper,” Hasan said.