BMQFG Celebrates 4th Annual Retention Conference
Black Male and QUEENS Focus Group members, Retention Conference, April 7, 2023, Henry Ford College, Dearborn, MI. Photo by Ashley Davis.
The Black Male and Queens Focus Group (BMQFG) hosted its 4th Annual Black Male Retention, Success and Best Practices Conference on April 7 on Henry Ford College’s main campus in Dearborn. Established in 2019, the event seeks to address the academic barriers and challenges that black men face while pursuing higher education.
Though African-Americans only make up 15% of HFC’s campus population, they have the lowest graduation (3%) and transfer (31%) rates at Henry Ford College.
Student and BMQFG member Alicia Jackson says the disparities were evident once she began visiting campus. “When I came to Henry Ford, it was hard to find people that looked like me.” The same data reveals female students are more likely to graduate and transfer, creating an overlapping disadvantage for black men in particular.
“Well, it’s unfortunate, but Henry Ford College does not have the best retention rate and outcomes for our black students, particularly our black male students. And it’s not just a Henry Ford College problem. It’s something that a lot of colleges and universities struggle with,” says Chardin Claybourne, Faculty Director of HFC’s Learning Lab, advisor of Phi Theta Kappa’s HFC chapter and co-advisor of the BMQFG.
Claybourne continues, “So to have a conference that’s specifically focused on topics of retention, completion, success [and] best practices for our black students, male and female, [is] vitally important, it’s the mission of higher education.”
The conference aims to provide black male students with the tools to navigate any matters they may encounter on the path to their degree by “identifying best practices, challenges and solutions” related to financial aid, class preparation, transfer options and professional development. The event featured a variety of panels on topics such as: educational strategies, personal development, branding, STEM, health and political involvement.
Charles Brooks, a speaker at the conference, is a current HFC student, president of HFC’s Phi Theta Kappa - Alpha Xi Mu chapter and member of BMQFG. He spoke about why he felt compelled to participate in the event: “I identify with grassroots politics, and I’m very good with community outreach. So my platform gives me the opportunity to speak to my brothers and sisters.”
Brooks continued to discuss why efforts to confront educational disparities for black men are especially important: “In society, we are made to be strong and stand on our own. I’m a loner, but by networking and [participating in] extracurricular activities, I opened up and was able to strive.”
The event’s keynote speaker was author and motivational speaker Adam Harris, who is currently the director of the Federal TRIO Program at Grand Valley State University. Jackson is a University of Michigan-Dearborn and University of Detroit-Mercy alumnus, earning degrees in business administration, African-American Studies and Counseling. He is a recipient of the Spirit of Detroit award and continues to serve the community through educational initiatives and mentorship programs.
Harris talked about how volunteering in New Orleans after the devastation left behind from Hurricane Katrina inspired his decision to walk away from basketball in his final year of college. “I did an alternative spring break in Louisiana when the hurricane hit. That experience alone kind of transformed my life because I was able to kind of see that there’s so much more to life than just playing basketball. I was able to broaden my perspective on life in terms of how I can be of service, not only to my community, but also to others that are across the country. And so from there, I quit basketball my senior year. Didn’t even play my senior year, man,” Harris shared.
From there, Harris decided to give up his scholarship money and began coordinating with United Way to bring Alternative Spring Break, an initiative allowing students to engage in public service during their break, to the City of Detroit and other urban areas.
Harris explained “I was able to do some work with United Way, which [brought] alternative spring break to Detroit for the very first time. I was able to kind of motivate the CEO at the time, Michael Brennan, and the national organization to focus on these urban zones, which are across the country now.”
In his keynote address, Harris talked about how his own life challenges, like dealing with depression, the loss of a father and even considering suicide helped him understand the importance of knowing who you are and the power you possess to choose your own path.
“If you don’t know who you are, someone will create that definition for you, and whatever words [that] follow you can define your reality,” Harris added.
Through the use of encouraging biblical texts and The Matrix references, Harris described how the process to progress can manifest in the educational journey as confidence, achievement and personal sacrifice.
Harris said, “The processes in life are what make us who we are, and we can look back and be grateful for the experiences.”
Harris proposed that educators in attendance change their perspective and approach to meet the unique needs of African-American students on campus: “Are you building unity and creating spaces where people feel they can belong? Whenever anyone at your institution feels they cannot exercise [the ability to] believe, belong and become, you risk losing them.”
Harris says, “As black men, [we have to] understand that there’s something that we have to offer the world. There’s something we have to give, not only in terms of our individual talents, but also investments in our community, supporting our women and supporting our families. We have to be engaged. We have to make sure that we are involved in different spaces [so] that we can add value where we are. We [also] have to master ourselves and be willing to be of service.”
The main goal of the conference is to create a state network to improve the overall success of African-American students on college campuses. Additional goals such as networking between institutions, mentorship and assembly for training and discussions are also a priority.
“It’s not just to have students come to the institution, but it’s also to help them get their degree, get their certificate, or just complete whatever the goal is that they want, successfully utilize the resources here and help them move on,” Claybourne said.
Harris expressed how meeting the needs of black students should be part of an institution’s commitment to retention.
“I think that society is changing right now, as well as our young people are very aware of what’s happening in our country and also within our communities. And if we don’t meet the needs, being able to care for them, build relationships with them, being able to provide them the support and the resources that they need, young people are leaving, or they’re making choices as to where they want to go, particularly for higher education and also these different spaces and institutions. And so we have got to do a better job, I believe, as educators and as administrators, to make sure we are meeting the needs of students that are coming in, not just financially, socially, and emotionally, health wise, and making sure that we’re giving them everything that is going to make them a well rounded individual,” Harris said.
The conference was developed by HFC’s Black Male and QUEENS Focus Group, whose purpose is to “challenge and change the accepted narrative regarding Black academic success.” Led by faculty members Dr. Kalvin Kalvin Harvell, Dr. Courtney Matthews and Chardin Claybourne, the group is a space for students to find community, support and guidance through peers and advisors to advance their academic and professional careers.
Claybourne shared his feelings and experiences while working with the focus group. “It’s fantastic! My position doesn’t necessarily put me in direct contact with students as much as if I was in the classroom. So, by being an advisor for the focus group, I get to have intimate conversations with students. I get to understand even more deeply what their needs are, hear their successes, and just kind of be a champion for them and help them navigate what can sometimes be a very complex and confusing process, even for me. I’ve been in higher education for over 20 years, and sometimes I don’t know what’s going on. So, I can understand that our students may really have some struggles with that. So, it’s just great being able to work with our students and help them see it through.”
Other focus group members discuss the impact participating has had on their student experience.
Jackson, a Liberal Arts and Political Science student, said “When I came to the Black Male and Queen’s focus group, I was just so amazed to be a part of it. They’re not just a group. It’s like my family. I can feel comfortable around them. I think that is really important for other black students to feel comfortable wherever they go.”
Jackson continued, “It has opened me up to many opportunities, like research and internships and just being able to feel comfortable in public spaces. That wasn’t something that I was used to or speaking. They have really been a big part of my development as a student.”
Brooks, a nursing student, expresses his gratitude as well, discussing how a group reading is what initially got him involved.
“I give so much thanks to Dr. Harvell. I came to the focus group when the community read was the Miseducation of a Negro by Dr. Woodson. And I love books. I am a book fanatic. Four weeks of reading that book and having real conversations with real people, my people, gave me a sense of belonging,” Brooks said.
To celebrate the graduation of African-American students at HFC, the BMQFG is hosting a “Rite of Passage” graduation ceremony on the evening of April 26 in the Forfa Auditorium (Building L). Rite of Passage is a reference to an African diaspora tradition that celebrates the transition from one milestone to the next. The keynote speaker is HFC English professor Dr. Courtney Matthews.
For information on the Black Male and QUEENS Focus Group, visit: hfcc.edu/BMQFG.