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Over the past few weeks, the tragedy of Trayvon Martin has gained attention for many reasons. At Coaching For Change, one of the conversations we have been having is about image, stereotypes and perceptions of our youth.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, one of the reasons George Zimmerman pursued Trayvon Martin was because he saw a young, Black male wearing a hooded sweatshirt (a “hoodie”) and perceived him to be a threat (as reported by his multiple phone calls to 911). But, why did he not simply see Trayvon Martin for what he was — a young Black male who was just walking from one place to another?

At a follow up panel discussion of Black college males, many of the students revealed that they, too, had been pre-judged in their lives, simply for being Black. One student shared that his bags were searched upon leaving a clothing store after the security alarm went off; only to find out that his white friend had actually stolen an item but was left un-searched. Another student shared that he had been physically assaulted by police officers because they believed he was involved in a shooting — despite the fact that eyewitnesses stated he was not the suspect nor did he even closely resemble the suspect. Another student shared that his guidance counselor in high school told him that he should plan on attending community college because a 4-year school would be “too hard for him”; that same student is now an honors Biology student at a competitive 4-year college who is in the process of applying to medical school.

Dr. Claude Steele, a social psychologist and Provost at Columbia University, coined the term “stereotype threat” after examining why the national college dropout rate for Black students is 20-25 percent higher than that for whites even when those students were just as well-prepared for college, had no socioeconomic disadvantages and managed to get excellent SAT scores (which are risk factors we identify for students dropping out of high school). And among those Black students who did finish college, their grade-point averages were consistently lower than white students. Why is that?  Dr. Steele identified that this lowered achievement can be due to “stereotype threat”, or the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype. Essentially, young black and brown students — even with strong educational and economic backgrounds — perform lower when they experience anxiety about the stereotype.

In an effort to not reinforce the stereotype, they reinforce the stereotype. 

So, in order for our young people to achieve to their potential, we must create the conditions by which they believe that we believe in them.

What do we see when we look at young, Black males? Do we see smart, talented, engaged leaders? Do we see future doctors, CEO’s, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and teachers? If not, why not?  If we do not see them as capable of these roles, how will they learn to see themselves?

While Coaching For Change offers opportunities and programs, what we achieve is providing a space where young people are seen as leaders. We take them seriously, and we expect them to believe in their abilities, the contributions they make to our community, and the responsibility they have towards one another. Yes, they arrive in hoodies. Yes, their skin colors are all on the spectrum of black, brown, and tan.  They come from different family structures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and beliefs about their abilities. And, when they walk in the program each day, they are treated as leaders and as creators of change. They are teachers. They are entrepreneurs.

They are Game Changers.

Teach to reach.

–Liza

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