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Giving Back to the Future

Giving Back to the FutureSouth Carolina’s Call Me Mister program has a huge task at hand. Not only has it taken on the shortage of teachers in general, but that of Black teachers and Black males in particular. It is an issue that stretches across all disciplines and harbors far-reaching societal implications as the gender gap between Black males and females in higher education widens. Jeff Davis, the program’s field director, has been at the forefront of the program’s success so far in recruiting and motivating its participants. But Davis does not only herald the program for its potential to put more Black males in the classroom, but its potential to improve the African American community and the nation as a whole. Black Issues sat down with Davis earlier this year to discuss his involvement in the program and his expectations for the Misters. The following is excerpted from that interview.BI: How did you get involved with the Call Me Mister program?
JD: I’ve always been familiar with the plight of the African American male, but when I was given the information, the research that Clemson University had done regarding the African American male in South Carolina, there was one statistic that really just blew me out of the water — the fact that there were more African American males in prison than in college. …So I couldn’t imagine, as a people, how we were going to be productive as men, how we were going to be productive as fathers, as husbands, as good citizens, if we don’t have the education, and we’re in prison, not in college. So, it was an opportunity for me to come back to my alma mater. It was also an opportunity for me to address a great need, not just for the state of South Carolina, but all over the nation. …
Being a former professional athlete and experiencing some of the things I’ve experienced — being a good father, being a good husband, I felt that I could really be a role model. Not because I’m perfect, but because I can be perfectly honest. I can talk about the good and the bad, but yet I can talk about my stability and my perseverance, things that are not easy, but can be fulfilling if you stay in it, believe that you can make it. So, I was not only bringing a perspective just from research. I’m bringing a life perspective to the table. And basically I am telling these young men, ‘use me.’ Look at my life and know that you can be whatever you want to be.  BI: And how have the Misters reacted to your personal experience?
JD: I think it’s really refreshing for them, because I can relate to what they experience in life. I also think it’s my delivery. I’m not trying to be cool. I’m not trying to be accepted by them. I’m telling them that you need to follow my lead. I think that confidence and the expectation of excellence is encouraging to them. Not only that, I put them in situations and expose them to people to the different environments where they have an opportunity to see the value that other people place in them. That’s what happened to me as a young man, as a student-athlete. …They also know that what I’m saying is not something that I just read about, or something that I’m not really interested in. Because they also know that I have many other opportunities to do other things in life. So why am I doing this? I let them know that it’s not about money and it’s not about me, it’s all about you. It’s all about giving you the sources and power that you need, because you are our future. And we cannot have a great America if any segment of people have more males in prison than in college.  BI: What is expected of the Misters?
JD: Our first priority is for them to go back into the communities that they have come out of, and say, “Hey, I’m back.”  Because that’s what it’s all about. 
It’s all about giving back.  It’s all about, “I made it. You know me. I was raised with you, in the same neighborhood that you go to, so no excuses. So here I am, and I’m in the classroom. I want you to understand that education is a priority, should be a priority in your life, even before that dream to be an entertainer, even before that dream to be a great athlete or an attorney, you’ve got to come the way of education.” So when they go back into these neighborhoods to create some enthusiasm, that also creates an expectation. That creates the mindset of “if he can do it, I can do it.”  BI: How have you been able to recruit these young men? 
JD: Well, I think when you start talking about recruiting in any arena, the way you package it and the way you deliver it is so important.  In many arenas, as far as educators are concerned, many of them don’t have the enthusiasm. Some of them feel burned out, they are tired and worn out, and it is very hard for another person to get excited about something that you are not excited about.
 Actually, I think that is one of the reasons that I have been so successful is that I guess sometimes ignorance is blissful. I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to be excited about education and that you are supposed to be beaten down and worn out and telling young men that they can’t make money. That wasn’t my perspective. My perspective was that when you look at the statistics and there’s more of us in prison than in college, it’s not because we’ve taken advantage of those other options.
But I think that the collaboration between Clemson University and the three private Black colleges is unique in and of itself.  It’s a reciprocal relationship and so you have a predominantly White institution working with three private Black colleges and so that projects an image in itself that it’s not about us. It’s about these young men becoming teachers. So whatever differences, whatever weaknesses, whatever strengths we all have, when we come to the table, let’s bring what we can bring, let’s take those best practices and let’s produce these teachers. … 
HBCUs have been producing teachers for years, so many of the young people are already aware of the HBCUs. But the collaboration adds even more benefits. We’re talking about helping you with tuition. We’re talking about putting you in a pool where your peers, the young men that aspire to be in the same profession that you are in, they are going to be in there with you. You’re going to live together. You’re going to work together. You’re going to play together. And if you do what you’re supposed to do, before you know it, when you pick up the phone for another job in the education system, you may be talking to your own.  Your own may be the next superintendent or the next principal. So that’s how we project it. We tell them that you’re guaranteed a job. There are not many college graduates that are guaranteed a job. You’re in demand.
We also help them to understand that education is important and that everything that is important in life doesn’t always pay you well. But we help them understand that you know what type of a situation you were raised in. Is it more important for you to be rich, or is it more important for you to help those young people who have gone through the same struggle that you have gone through?  — By Robin V. Smiles

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