Black Male Empowerment takes on the U.K.: A research immersion

| Denise Olson

Sometimes a really good idea becomes hard to contain — it can take on a life of its own.

Just such a ripple effect seems to be happening with the Civil Rights Pilgrimage at UW-Eau Claire. The premise of this unique immersion experience through the Deep South of the U.S. has begun to spread, first to the inclusion of Winchester University students and faculty taking part in the CRP over four years, and now to the creation of a reciprocal immersion exchange taking Blugolds to the U.K. to experience the locations and history of the transatlantic slave trade and conduct collaborative intercultural research at Winchester University.

In May 2018, under the direction of Jodi Thesing-Ritter and Dennis Beale of Blugold Beginnings, 15 members of the student group known as Black Male Empowerment (BME) became the first participants in an intercultural exchange to Winchester. The group spent 18 days in the U.K. and three days in Paris, with a main purpose of conducting a trio of collaborative research projects with faculty members at Winchester University.

This pilot immersion experience, funded in part by UW-Eau Claire's International Fellows Program (IFP), aims to address the following:

  • According to the NSSE High-Impact Practices 2013, of all underrepresented student groups, African Americans are the least likely to engage in both faculty-student collaborative research and study abroad.
  • According to Harper & Davis (2012), one of the most alarming trends in higher education is the lack of engagement of black males on college campuses.
  • African American men, whether gifted, high-achieving, or unengaged, wrestle with negotiating and developing both academic and black male identities. These challenges stem from the high levels of hyper surveillance, stereotype threat, and gender role expectation placed on black male college students (Harper, 2012).

The BME student group, mentored by Dennis Beale (see related story), seeks to offer social, academic and cultural support for black students at UW-Eau Claire. The pillars of BME, according to Beale, are responsibility, accountability, character, service, integrity, loyalty, respect, brotherhood, equality and honesty.

This cohort made an ideal pilot group for this program, composed of all students who had not previously planned to study abroad.

The research projects

Collaborating with American studies faculty from Winchester, three student teams conducted research into the flowing projects:

  1. A qualitative study exploring the impact of negative portrayals of black people in the media, specifically BBC television shows, in comparison to those seen in American television shows.
  2. A mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) study of the factors contributing to low representation of black men in higher education from a global perspective in London, England, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
  3. A qualitative research study of six black-owned businesses in the London area, compared to six similar businesses in the U.S., analyzing financial statements for the selected businesses and assessing potential barriers to success.

Findings of the projects will be shared during UW-Eau Claire's 2019 CERCA celebration in the spring, but representatives of each research group were able to discuss some of the most valuable aspects of their project and immersion experience.

Findings and takeaways

Media research group
Jefferson Hall
Jefferson Hall

Jefferson Hall, a senior business major, was a member of the project examining media representation of black people in the U.K., in comparison to those in the U.S. Hall explained the similarities they found between the cultural representation, in which both systems tend to portray both a higher percentage of main characters who are white, and a tendency to portray black characters with a layer of negativity, if at all.

“One former director in the industry told us that it was common when he pitched a show with an all-black cast, the question was always ‘what’s the twist?’ In other words, it can’t just be a happy family; there has to be something negative,” Hall said. “It’s a lot like it is here, but it helped to see it from that perspective.”

About the whole experience, Hall identified the networking opportunities for his team as one of the most valuable outcomes, saying that they ended up with media connections across a broad spectrum, all of whom said they would be available to the students for future research or career input.

Education research group
Jalen Thomas
Jalen Thomas

Jalen Thomas, a junior liberal studies major, took away an unexpected lesson from his group project examining higher education experiences of black students at predominantly white institutions in the U.K. compared with experiences of those in the U.S.

“It really taught me the power of perception,” Thomas said. “I had always assumed that the experiences we have would be the same as what they experience over there, and that isn’t really the case. Overall, the males we interviewed don’t tend to feel as marginalized as we do in the U.S.; it’s a system that is more welcoming and they say they don’t feel much discrimination.”

Montrell Johnson
Montrell Johnson

Thomas’s research team partner Montrell Johnson, a junior criminal justice major, discovered similar sentiments from their black counterparts at Winchester.

“They seemed to find it much easier to fit in over there. They told us that they don’t have immersion experiences specifically for students of color, but that they don’t need them — they have a more positive experience in general at the university because the society is generally less discriminatory,” Johnson said.

Business research group
Leeshaun Evans
Leeshaun Evans

For Leeshaun Evans, a junior kinesiology major, and Lewis Balom, a senior communication major, examining black-owned businesses in the London area let them make some high-level societal comparisons as well as those looking specifically at the businesses themselves.

“With all the people we talked to, we could see a difference in how the citizens (not just business owners) were more informed about the world, more invested in society. We could tell that through just talking with them,” Balom stated. “It was an interesting difference to notice.”

Lewis Balom
Lewis Balom

In terms of how the businesses themselves differ between the two countries, social media played a key role in the findings. Evans said their research indicates that a different type of small-business climate is at play in that noticeable distinction, showing that small business in the U.K. relies less heavily on social media advertising due to the less "cut-throat" atmosphere.

“It’s a much friendlier economy over there, less of a competitive feel between businesses,” Evans explained. “They all support and encourage each other much more. It's more about success for everyone. The whole experience made me more willing to try to start a business of my own.”

What’s next for the Winchester immersion?

Jodi Thesing-Ritter of Blugold Beginnings has dedicated her career to bringing more opportunity and success to students of color at UW-Eau Claire, which has taken many forms. Successfully creating and launching this Winchester research immersion is the second of three main goals Thesing-Ritter has for EDI immersion, the first being the Civil Rights Pilgrimage.

“It is my hope,” she said, “that we will be able to create a third immersion experience that allows us to study apartheid and the slave trade in Africa. Ideally, a student could participate in the Civil Rights Pilgrimage to learn about slavery and racism in the U.S., study the transatlantic slave trade and colonization in the U.K. and finally study these issues in Africa. These immersion opportunities paired with our campus courses would allow a student to have a strong educational experience in studying black history, the exploitation of black people, and the roots and residual effects of racism.”

If the impact on faculty partners at Winchester is a measure of success, the program got off to a very good start last spring.

Winchester faculty partner Carol Smith, senior fellow of American studies, expressed her delight about the exchange and the unique partnership formed for this research immersion.

Carol Smith and BME students in Winchester, U.K.

Carol Smith, Winchester University, with BME students Kendall McGinnis and Jalen Thomas in Winchester, U.K.

“The three research topics strategically aligned with our own priorities in terms of engagement with BME (Black Minority Ethnic, U.K. terminology), staff and student research into the impact of the dissemination of images of African American males and identity formations,” Smith said.

Smith also had very positive impressions of the Blugold students they hosted, and would welcome a similar opportunity again.

“At both Stonehenge and Bristol, the sense of place, of walking in the footsteps of those they had studied or were their heroes, like Obama, was tangible," Smith said. "Their thirst for knowledge and cultural experience was unquenchable. Their explanation of their research trip, funded by UWEC, was positively transformative to the students. The staff of the university and people of Winchester and Bristol embodied the ideas and sense of the need for change they were looking for,” she said.

According to Dennis Beale, the hope is to repeat this Winchester immersion on a biennial basis, opening it up to all students. On alternate years, Beale still finds it valuable to offer cultural and research immersion opportunities to the BME group, with a focus closer to home.

About this past trip, Beale has trouble putting into words how meaningful it was to him personally to be able to pull this program together and offer this extraordinary group of young men an opportunity of a lifetime.

“When we all finally sat down on the plane, and it was actually happening, I was really overcome. You need to understand, just the simple act of getting a passport is so life-changing for some of these guys. They may never have needed one in their lives without this opportunity," Beale explains. 

Most of the students Beale recruits and mentors through BME grew up in inner-city neighborhoods of Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Indianapolis. They had never heard of UW-Eau Claire until he convinced them that college is a way out and UW-Eau Claire is a path to a different life.

"We are so grateful to UWEC and the Foundation for helping us make this happen,” Beale said.

For her part, Thesing-Ritter also finds it hard to express how significant it has been to see this project through.

“This program is an example of why I love UW-Eau Claire so much. We were able to engage in a seamless collaboration, serving four years as the educational host to Winchester students and faculty on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, and then actualized our dream of studying with those folks in England.”

To view a collection of images from this immersion trip, see this Flickr album. Photo credit: Kendall McGinnis.

If you'd like to find out more about the Black Male Empowerment student organization, visit their Facebook page or contact Dennis Beale at bealedk@uwec.edu

See details about the next BME fundraiser event on Nov. 3, the Semi-Annual Soul Food Dinner.

Top image caption: Left to right: Kendall McGinnis, Montrell Hammond-Johnson, Edgard Konde, Leeshaun Evans, Gary Butcher (kneeling), Zach Zilms, Larrick Potvin, Jalen Thomas, Dennis Beale, Darius Sims (kneeling), Scott Proctor, Lewis Balom, Collis McCloud, Isaiah Watkins, D'Karlos Craig, Jefferson Hall