*This blog is now defunct. I have moved to A Voice for Male Students. See you there! Thanks for your support. - TCM*

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Project MALES - a New Hope for Latino Male Students

Due to the entrenchment of gynocentrism and the permissiveness of misandry in our colleges and universities and the disproportionate influence that these institutions have on our culture, education is one of the most difficult, yet most important, areas to advocate equality for men and boys. Thus it beneficial to be aware of developments in the academic world that work toward this ideal. Before I publish more content on what I call The War on Male students, I would like to give credit to what I believe to be an exception to the rule in academia by raising awareness of a team whose compassion and understanding toward male students as a group has already positively influenced the discourse on gender equality in public education.

Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success) is a new program hosted by UT Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. It is directed by professor Victor Saenz, whose is increasingly the nationally-recognized “go-to” authority on Latino male underachievement in education. The approach of the program, which aims to eliminate the cultural and structural barriers Latino males face in educational achievement, is twofold: a research team, and a parallel research-based mentoring program. What follows will largely be a first-hand report of two Project MALES symposia I attended in June 2011 and May 2012.

I became aware of Project MALES through a college friend of mine who eventually became a member of the staff. Through this link I was able to get an insider perspective on the nature of the group. Those at Project MALES are not Men’s Rights Activists. They do not paint broad ideological pronouncements across the canvas of historical human interaction, for example, by advocating the perspective that both sexes were historically privileged and disadvantaged, each in different ways. Nor are they NAACP activists. 

It is well-known among men’s advocates that society’s neglect of men’s issues usually (though not always) tends to more sorely affect men and boys of color, whether it is false rape accusations, job-related injuries and deaths, the sentencing disparity between the sexes, or underachievement in education. And yet, as we have seen in the ideology of the American Men’s Studies Association (AMSA) and the National Organization of Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), many in academia who claim to support men – even men of color - are only interested in providing support inasmuch as it helps solve racial gaps, or in judging males rather than understanding them; thus gaps due to ignored gender issues persist when other concerns are ameliorated.

This is why attending the two symposia hosted by Project MALES was like a breath of fresh air. For while I saw many who did focus on the needs of Latinos as people of color, it was just as common to hear phrases like “underrepresented males” or “underachieving males,” and to hear advocacy for Latino males as males. The first symposium, which over two hundred attended, was primarily devoted to raising awareness of the issues and establishing a common ground among faculty and academic officials. Upon signing in, attendees were given folders and handouts which contained graphs and other data on educational underachievement, classified by sex and race, from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

According to the NCES, Latinos are 42% of enrolled Hispanic undergraduates, and 39% of Hispanics who earn degrees (73% of Latino students graduate from high school, compared to 77% of Latinas. In addition, “In 2008, among all races, Hispanic students from 16- to 24-year-olds had the highest high school dropout rate (19.9% males, 16.7% females).” The educational underachievement of Latinos is also of economic concern to the general populace, given that, according to the 2010 Census Bureau, “Over the last decade Hispanics have accounted for most of the nation’s growth – 56%.” These statistics were later displayed on a large screen in UT Austin’s Union Ballroom and interpreted by the passionate Luis Ponjuan. As he was mentioning how achievement gaps contribute to the socioeconomic stratification of various demographics, I noticed he took time to stress that this was a problem “among all races of men - including Black men, Hispanic men, and even White men.”

Professor Saenz set the tone of the event when he took the mic. While applauding the work done for women and girls over the past decades in education, he also addressed anti-male attitudes that had become prevalent in academia, including the belief that any concern for the needs of male students, no matter how justified, would somehow unjustly take away legitimate gains for females. “I believe there is room in the discourse to address the needs of both sexes,” he said. “It is not a zero-sum game.”

Alphonso Rincon later spoke to the audience to represent his affiliate group, Fathers Active in Communities and Education (FACE), which advocates the greater presence of male role models in lower education, where they are most strikingly absent. Being more involved in Fathers’ Rights in 2011, I was hoping to see some sort of acknowledgment of the concerns of the movement. Perhaps FACE would advocate for more government assistance for non-custodial parents, who are overwhelmingly male? Perhaps they would raise awareness of the barriers non-custodial parents face in regard to parenting their children? This was not the case, as FACE primarily works with fathers who are currently active in (i.e. not yet excluded from) the family. Based on their presented work, however, FACE has done much to vocalize the idea that male role models – men, in other words – are every bit as capable of taking on parental roles traditionally held by women.

The keynote speaker was Shaun Harper, a well-respected and charismatic professor who authored the National Black Male College Achievement Study, which the symposium program cites as “the largest-ever empirical study of Black undergraduate men.” I was unfortunately absent for much of his speech (I confess, I was eating Mexican food and schmoozing in the dining area just outside the Union Ballroom), but managed to attend the last portion, during which he declared that given its influence, academia had a responsibility to work toward ending all forms of prejudice and oppression, including racism, patriarchy, and (believe it or not) misandry.

The audience was later asked to retire to the adjacent Union Quadrangle room, where we divided into small groups and brainstormed about effective strategies for addressing male underachievement. As a volunteer for Project MALES I was asked to be a note taker for our small group, where I was to ask a set of pre-determined questions provided by the Project MALES staff. One such example follows:

Many young men, but especially minority men, struggle to succeed in higher education environments.  Choose a segment of the 'education pipeline' (ex: elementary school, high school, community colleges, four-year colleges). Identify 3-5 key areas where men need additional support, describe 3-5 initiatives that could help men succeed in education, and identify key players who could help with these initiatives"

Here were some other great questions note-takers were to ask the small groups:

1.      “Your district has decided to create an all-male high school OR an all-male college support program.  What would this program look like?  Describe the components that are most critical to making the high school/program a success.

      "Create a list of potential partners and their potential contributions that could be leveraged to re-imagine Latino male success.

3.     "Policy makers and educators often say that male incarceration, particularly the imprisonment of Latino and Black men, is a critical issue in America.  Do you agree/disagree, and why?  What do you think contributes to this high incarceration rate and what can schools, communities, and businesses do to decrease the number of young Latino men who are send to prison?"

The 2012 symposium was held at UT Austin’s Alumni Center. Since last year, Project MALES had conducted research and interviews at numerous colleges and high schools and presented their findings at conferences around the U.S. It also seemed their volunteers had doubled in number. At this symposium attendees were given twice the length of time between registration and the start of the event to schmooze, and I took as much advantage of that as I could. It was now that I became aware of their partnership with XY-Zone, a mentoring program that promotes “job readiness services, support groups, mentors and community service projects” for male students regardless of race, and advocates a curriculum suited particularly for boys which incorporates differentiated learning styles based on gender.

I was formally introduced to its coordinator Robert Bachicha, who surprised me by lending me a copy of the XY curriculum and letting me read it during the event. Due to a confidentiality agreement I cannot give extensive details on its contents, but I can safely say it contained numerous open-ended questions that allowed male students to explore their own ideas about masculinity. While the possibility exists for an individual instructor to adopt an Men’s Studies approach by answering these questions for students by framing masculinity in negative terms, there did not seem to be any bias in that direction in the curriculum itself.

I also spoke with Janie Mendoza from Capital Idea, an organization that delivers financial support for low-income adults seeking associates degrees, many of whom are people of color. “We have problems recruiting males,” she said. “They start classes, and then boom - someone offers them a $12 an hour job, and they’re gone. And then they’re back after 6-7 months when that job dries up. They feel like they can’t take the time to invest in a career. I think it’s an ‘I have to provide for my family right now’ mentality.” She spoke that this was more common among men, given that they are expected to be the primary breadwinners, and that a proud, go-it-alone subculture of machismo also deterred young men from asking for help or developing the necessary support networks to succeed academically. 

When the event began, Professor Saenz spoke again on the need for compassion for male students, and reiterated that gender advocacy was not a zero-sum game. But this time Professor Saenz brought down the rhetorical hammer, indicting the academic establishment for knowing about the problems faced by young men in education but failing to act. “I do not believe that indictment is too strong a word, and I do not use that word lightly,” he said. “What we are ultimately doing is diverting young men from paths of success. Not enough of us are doing the work of researching this issue.” Equally damning was research coordinator Sarah Rodriguez’s presentation, which contained quotations from interviews of students, teachers and administrators in schools around Texas. One administrator, when asked about the educational crisis among Latino males in education, was quoted as saying, “We don’t acknowledge it because to acknowledge something means that you have to do something about it.” She also quoted interviews from Latino students who reported feeling “out of place,” and cited not only the absence of support structures within academia, but also the isolating pressures of machismo culture.

The keynote speaker Judith Loredo, the Assistant Commissioner for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, opened by declaring that Hispanic educational achievement has not remained proportionate to their demographic growth, and Texas must develop further initiatives to remain globally competitive economically due to a projected 62% of jobs requiring some postsecondary education by 2018. She also commented that while “most Hispanics enroll in community and technical colleges, more than 50% leave the community college system with no degree or certificate,” and listed several programs the THECB launched programs to help Hispanics.

Her keynote address, while compassionate and overflowing with data and advocacy on needed changes for the well-being of economics and Hispanics, unfortunately addressed little on the needs of male students, and to my knowledge she mentioned no initiatives concerning male needs sponsored by the THECB. In Why Boys Fail, Richard Whitmire argues that the rates of U.S. educational achievement look poor primarily because we are failing males. That gender gap cuts across racial and class lines. This is increasingly understood on a grassroots level, and is evident in the rhetoric of groups like Project MALES and XY-Zone, but in my years in academia I have never seen it reflected in any initiatives sponsored by the upper echelons of academic power, including and especially the Department of Education. So long as the Boy Crisis in education is left unaddressed by high-ranking institutions, comprehensive educational progress will remain elusive.

In two short years Project MALES has made more positive contributions than I could hope to document here, and they have fought tooth and nail for every inch of turf they have gained. When I first heard of the group I was concerned for its future. Many a good-faith attempt to help men and boys has been shut down or marginalized, while others have been hijacked or perverted from their original courses to suit political conveniences or misandric prejudices, and subsequently put to destructive ends. If Project MALES and its partners remain true to their mission to help male students by continuing to understand the pressures they face and responding with compassion, they stand a better chance of making not only local but national change. If anyone in is interested in advocacy for Latinos in education, and especially if you live in Texas, I encourage you to support Project MALES. Great minds, and more importantly great hearts, are its driving force. I wish them all the best.

Sí, se puede.

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