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Tyrone Bledsoe’s Student African-American Brotherhood (SAAB) is ensuring that significantly more black men graduate from college and is empowering them with the tools necessary to set a higher standard of achievement among African-American men. SAAB teaches “the spirit of caring” to the next generation of black male citizens and leaders.
The New Idea
In 1990, Tyrone Bledsoe founded the Student African-American Brotherhood to create a positive peer community for upwardly mobile young African American men based on a commitment to a spirit of caring. Tyrone recognized that to care for others, one must care for oneself—this is the key to social responsibility. He also knew that those who most credibly communicate and illustrate this message to African American males are their peers. Therefore, SAAB is structured to help young men self-organize around the principle, “I am my brother’s keeper, and together we will rise.”SAAB is distinguished from other minority student programs in three ways. First, its success rate: 86 percent of its members graduate from college, compared to a national average of 42 percent among black men. Next, to become a member one must accept the charge to act as a role model—polite, sincere, hardworking, and encouraging (counter to the pervasive and offensive perception of young black men in America). In addition, members are required to tutor and mentor high school students as a way to nurture the caring spirit that SAAB seeks to instill. Compared to other fraternal organizations appealing to the same population, SAAB maintains strict membership requirements unrelated to entertainment or sports. Campus chapters are formed when a 15 member leadership council gains school endorsement and participates in a 3 month training program—made possible by paid dues. Weekly study groups, business meetings, support of volunteerism and community involvement are also required of all SAAB chapters. Campus chapters must adhere to annual membership requirements to remain part of the national network.
African American men experience such a litany of social ills that in 1990 civil rights leaders began to openly refer to them as an endangered species. In the U.S. economy, college degrees are increasingly a minimum requirement for employment, only 48 percent of African American males graduate high school. While African American males constitute only 6 percent of the total U.S. population, they represent 50 percent of the prison population. On top of these material challenges, African American males experience a special type of social isolation because they are raised with social messages that continually suggest they are undeserving or dangerous. Television news is replete with stories about “unidentified black men” committing crimes. This depiction of young black men injures and ostracizes them; breeding a resentment of their own skin color. A tragic consequence is that youth say the number one reason why they join street gangs is because the gang “cares about me.” While some social programs focus on high school, preventing gang adherence and ensuring graduation, there is an acute need to ensure college graduation and success for the few who do attend; they will be the role models for the next generation. College graduation rates are only slightly higher than high school statistics. Fraternities and sororities, which still fill a useful social role, are failing to guarantee their members emotional or academic success. Civil rights leaders fought for quality in education specifically because they understood that educational opportunity was the key to all other freedoms. Yet two generations after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, African Americans are still under-represented in colleges and universities. Of the African Americans in college, only 38 percent are male. College graduation needs to be ensured for social mobility but also increased self-confidence and broad social impact.
As a senior academic administrator for 23 years, Tyrone built early iterations of SAAB on each campus where he worked before dedicating himself to the organization full time. Positioned from inside the academic world ensured that he develop a model easily adaptable by administrations and designed to be supported by institutions that welcome this approach as a solution to their African American enrollment and retention challenges. In a college or university setting, SAAB competes with or is set at odds with fraternities and other student organizations; although SAAB does not require members to forgo membership in other groups. Indeed, SAAB is designed to work as a partner with other student organizations, leveraging their networks, and complementing their programming and activities. Once the students have met the minimal requirements to found a SAAB chapter, it is funded by the school administration. The first requirement is to identify 15 student leaders in different stages of their college careers to take responsibility as the founding council. This number has proven effective for continuity and program planning. The 15 are trained by the national headquarters on the principles and practices of SAAB and are tasked with organizing the initial campus recruitment events. When enough members have been recruited, they can be certified as a SAAB chapter. Instead of fostering affinity around religious activity, sports or entertainment, SAAB rallies students around the spirit of caring and mutual responsibility—to oneself, to each other, and to society. SAAB has young African American men teach social responsibility through peer mentoring, mentoring younger students and in belonging to an intentional community of empathetic black men. Their motto: “I am my brother’s keeper, and together we will rise.” The former part of the phrase reverses a Biblical betrayal, referencing the story of Cain and Abel. When Cain kills his brother Abel and is asked of his whereabouts by their father, he replies, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” SAAB members declare that they are responsible for one another. A sense of belonging is emotionally stabilizing and acts as a motivation. The latter part of the phrase is an affirmation of that togetherness and a denial of the death knell sounded against African American men in the early 1990s. The image of rising is synonymous with achieving true freedom, which may seem unattainable in the current culture. SAAB members live this creed through regularly scheduled committee activities such as weekly study sessions, teachable moments and community service projects.Currently there are SAAB chapters in 25 states. For the last several years SAAB has convened a national conference in Toledo, Ohio. The conference serves to unite chapters, increase the sense of brotherhood beyond each campus, and reinforce the cultural shift SAAB seeks to achieve. Tyrone has added four regional conferences to engage more students on campuses at the regional level to work together throughout the year. The expansion of SAAB will be systematic, but change within the organization will be organic. By impacting a culture that is in many ways bereft of leadership and positive peer modeling, SAAB graduates are active and empowered citizens willing to share their gifts of care and responsibility with others. They are new role models and a source of promise.
Tyrone Bledsoe grew up in a small town in Mississippi that instilled in him a deep sense of empathy and conviction. A pivotal moment for Tyrone was the experience of marching in the streets of his hometown with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others at age 7. He and his three brothers constantly experienced love and care—from his father and mother but also from the community. The untimely death of his mother at age 45 caused Tyrone to re-evaluate his life and vow to make the greatest impact he could for all people.In 1990, while an associate dean at Georgia Southwestern State University, he authorized a student conference on the state of black America. Several student leaders and student-led organizations worked together to make the conference successful. The participants were so thrilled with the event they continued to meet after it was over. Tyrone participated and later dubbed the group the Student African American Brotherhood.Continuing throughout his career, Tyrone established SAAB on two other campuses. After the second group formed he decided to formalize the chapter structure and incorporate as a citizen organization. After a 23 year career as an educator and scholar at seven colleges, he took a leave from his current position as Special Assistant to the President at the University of Toledo to devote himself to the growth and spread of SAAB. The University of Toledo has graciously donated office space and resources.