Black Male Initiative: A Student Group Making a Difference

By April Simmons ‘12, receptionist, Brooklyn Unit

April 25, 2013

This past fall, the Black Male Initiative (BMI), a student group at the college’s Metropolitan New York Center, organized and presented its first panel discussion to a standing-room-only crowd at the center’s Brooklyn Unit titled, “Today’s Black Men and the Business of Prisons.”

panelClub president Lawrence H. Johnson and club faculty advisory and mentor David Fullard assembled a panel comprised of elected officials, members of law enforcement, the legal community, a college alumnus and member of BMI, as well as ex-offenders.

“I brought up the subject ‘black men in jail’ at one of our BMI monthly meetings and discovered it is a hot topic that many have an interest in,” said Johnson. "I have friends in law enforcement that are attorneys. They, too, were very much interested in the topic. In fact, all the people who participated in the panel were extremely passionate about the subject matter.”

 "The event explored a vitally important issue of social justice," said Cynthia Ward, at right, dean of the college's Metropolitan Center. "An impressive group of panelists presented diverse viewpoints, the audience was at full capacity, and the question-and-answer session was impassioned. These events contribute to student academic success and the vitality of our community at Metro. The members of the Black Male Initiative can take pride in bringing forward important issues to the college community and organizing such a successful event."

Student life at the college reflects the interests of adult learners. In addition to participating in groups and clubs like BMI and veterans, students produce The Student Connection, an online newsletter, which provides a venue for student journalistic and creative written and visual art. The annual Student Academic Conference highlights the academic work of the college’s students and provides a showcase for their academic accomplishments.

“The success of the event is a reflection of the rich student life available at the college,” said Fullard. “As a group, the students of the Black Male Initiative have taken the important step beyond that of mutual support by taking what is important to them as an organization, what they have learned and experienced, and sharing that with the greater college community. Judging by the dialogue and the question and answer session with the audience, this event had a very positive impact on the college community.”

In fact, the NAACP reports that about $70 billion dollars are spent on corrections yearly.

 As the evening progressed the topic of “stop and frisk” emerged as an important area of discussion. Proponents characterize stop and frisk, where police officers confront persons they believe are suspicious, as preventive. Opponents describe the process as an unwarranted invasion of privacy and an act of racial profiling.

Some members of the panel have firsthand experience with stop and frisk and shared their own personal feelings of shame, embarrassment and paranoia during stop and frisk encounters, along with the embedded message and belief of being devalued, ultimately leading to diminished thoughts of police legitimacy over time.

 State Sen. Eric Adams (D-Brooklyn), pictured on the left, a former New York Police Department captain and co-founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, indicated that while it is true that stop and frisks are intended to bring a stronger sense of safety and security to communities, it almost appears that embedded within the heart of a black male are feelings of fear and insecurity while walking their neighborhoods. This fear does not only result from the chance of being in harm’s way or actual danger, but from the likelihood of being stopped by police officers and  treated as guilty before it is proven.

Panelist Glenn Martin, director of public policy at Fortune Society, who has experienced several stop and frisk encounters, suggests that the real problem lies with how stop and frisks are applied.

He said, “It (stop and frisk) is almost as if this has become the norm or accepted way of living in the streets.”

Conversation also centered on the transition of ex-offenders back into the general population. Panelists described barriers faced by black males wanting to better themselves after prison.

Ex-offenders on the panel expressed deep concerns that the quality of services offered within prison systems no longer provides an adequate means of helping a former offender to become a successful and productive member of society. These panelists say inadequate or incomplete transition assistance, combined with rigid screening systems, often lead ex-offenders to struggle to find a place in society through employment and education.

However, at the conclusion of the session panelist, alumnus and an original BMI peer coach Ronald Day ’09, shared that he is thinking about creating a continued and more focused panel discussion in the future, saying, “I hope to generate more discussion in these areas. I was truly impacted after hearing about the commonality of such issues among black males in the prison system.”

More information about BMI is available in the spring 2011 edition of Connections magazine.

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Students Participate in "Visible Effects" Photo Show at SUNY Adirondack; Artists' Reception April 24, By Helen Edelman, manager, Exchange

Empire State College Open House Features Workshop on Beer During "Troy Night Out" Friday, April 26 at 7 p.m., By Susan McFadden, special events coordinator, Office of Communications and Government Relations

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Article Contributors

Helen Edelman

Elizabeth Locke

Susan McFadden

Mary Caroline Powers

April Simmons