SAAB Tackling the Black, Brown Male Crisis
By David Pluviose
Increasingly, dropping out of high school is a one-way ticket to prison for Black men. Recent research conducted by sociologists Becky Pettit and Bruce Western indicates that 3 percent of Whites and 20 percent of Blacks born between 1965 and 1969 had served time in prison by their early thirties. Among the Black men in the group, 30 percent of those without a college education and 60 percent of those who had dropped out of high school had gone to prison by 1999.
The crisis among Black and Hispanic men mobilized Dr. Tyrone Bledsoe to found the Student African American Brotherhood Organization, or SAAB, on the campus of Georgia Southwestern State University in 1990. SAAB’s mission is to foster academic excellence and a spirit of community service among its members, who are primarily Black men, and its growth has been explosive. SAAB chapters, sometimes called Brother-to-Brother when serving Hispanics, can be found at more than 50 universities and colleges across the nation. However, community colleges are now the fastest-growing segment of SAAB, Bledsoe says.
“Engagement, particularly at the two-year level, is a real important piece, particularly for young men of color who come into these two-year situations and don’t have a real sense of direction and guidance,” Bledsoe says. “They’re stopping in, they’re stopping out and so forth, so I think the community colleges are really embracing SAAB because we provide an opportunity for these young men to be connected to something immediately.”
Many of the community colleges that have started SAAB chapters serve Black and Hispanic students from impoverished, inner-city neighborhoods. Many of these students grew up without a sense of how to navigate the world of higher education, raised by parents who may have dropped out or didn’t go to college. Stephen Mitchell, the advisor for the SAAB chapter at two-year Foothill College in California, says many of these parents are “just so proud that their kid is not dead, that he’s not out there gangbanging. They’ll accept that. [They say,] ‘He’s in school, he’s doing great.’ No, he’s not. He’s playing college.
“The hardest part here is to get the guys to stop playing college and to really understand what they’re here for,” Mitchell continues. “When they don’t see a lot of females, there’s a reason why — they’re inside the library. It’s OK to study, it’s OK to be smart.”
Kristina Henderson, the SAAB advisor at two-year College of DuPage in Illinois, says the organization aims to counter the “negative stigma associated with being educated” among many minority males. She says it makes a huge statement that SAAB members are able to uplift and motivate each other and declare, “This is important. It’s important enough to me that I’m willing to invest part of my time and energy in you getting there.”
Brotherly love is a key component of SAAB, as evidenced by its motto, “I am my brother’s keeper and together we will rise.” Bledsoe says the epidemic of minority males joining gangs is fueled by a sense of not being loved or wanted and searching for a sense of belonging. Colleges “have to create a culture where these young men feel cared for and get the love that they desire, because they do want to be loved,” he says.
“I tell White teachers all the time that the Black males they work with in the classroom don’t join gangs to bang, they join gangs to get love. I don’t need help to kill someone else, so that’s not why I join a gang. I join a gang for these guys to embrace me,” he continues. So when predominately White colleges interested in starting SAAB chapters invite Bledsoe to campus, he says one of the first things he does is an environmental audit to assess if these colleges have fostered a campus climate that is inviting to young minority men.
Annie Pettway, the SAAB advisor for the Community College of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, says she works for SAAB “because I don’t think it’s an option. … As a country, we should feel an obligation that we must do something. To lose the amount of lives that we’re losing is not acceptable.”
Through SAAB, Pettway says her students get the opportunity to mentor each other, meet politicians and get guidance on how to navigate the higher education system. She also says the organization helps its members navigate the “system of maneuvering themselves through life, especially in corporate America. That is just something that is foreign to our students.”
Bledsoe says that though SAAB started on college campuses, his strategy has been to connect all levels of education, from grade school to college, as problems with Black male academic achievement take root early.
“One of the neat things about SAAB that’s been very intentional is that it’s a very comprehensive, culturally sensitive, academically focused mentoring program. We’re in the high schools, the two-year and the four-year schools — we’re creating a synergistic model to get those three levels connected,” he says.
Pettway says spirituality is a key component of SAAB, noting the organization’s “brother’s keeper” motto. SAAB aims to spiritually ground young minority men who feel disconnected to and disenfranchised by society, she says.
“That’s something that’s generally not seen at universities or colleges, but it is obvious that Dr. Bledsoe has a deep belief and a faith that is very firm and he gives back because he knows how important that is for students in order for them to achieve,” she says.
“I’m appreciative of that because I think that African-American males need to see that that is very prevalent and it lends itself to success and a sense of being, that we know who we are and through that process we can become even greater.”
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