The Artisan and Artist: Community Colleges and Empowerment of the African American Community
May 2014, Volume 27, Number 5
By Jabari Simama
There has been a century-old debate around what models best address the educational needs of the African American community. It began with the establishment of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) prior to and in the 1860s and 1890s. It reignited in 1895 after Booker T. Washington suggested that Blacks should “cast down their buckets” in a sea of vocational and industrial education in his address before the Atlanta Exposition in Piedmont Park.
In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois, in his article The Talented Tenth from The Negro Problem, countered, suggesting that a liberal arts educated “talented tenth” of African American men would lead the way to black salvation. He wrote, “If we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men.” Du Bois was often thought to be prophetic, if not a seer, based on his prediction that race, or what he referred to as the “color line,” would plague America throughout the 20th century. Yet, even Du Bois could not have known that the education of Black men would prove to be a major problem for the 21st century, as it has come to be.
African American educators today have not moved the debate much beyond the dichotomy of technical and liberal arts education. This phenomenon is unfortunate, some would say tragic, considering the chronic and widespread high school dropout and unemployment rates among African Americans. Despite these problems, many educators still approach middle and high school education as if they are ground zero for training students for liberal arts colleges or research-oriented universities only. The truth is, only 46 percent of Black students graduate from high school on time in Georgia and only 21 percent are deemed to be college-ready. Nationally, only 18.7 percent of African Americans 25 years of age and older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of the 44 million Blacks who live in America, only 3.7 percent are enrolled in college. These numbers are unacceptably low.
Michael Thurmond, Superintendent for DeKalb County School System in Georgia, commented that his school system has its educational model inverted. “We focus 90 percent of our effort and budget on just 10 percent of our students,” he exhorted. “What about the other 90 percent?”
We need a new educational paradigm to address the educational needs of the Black community. Some would argue there is a moral imperative to challenge the educational status quo in hopes of identifying a new pathway for more African Americans to live and experience the American dream. Community and technical colleges, at their best, provide this.
As president of a fast growing public technical college in metropolitan Atlanta, I continue to encounter prejudice and lukewarm reception from high school principals and college counselors when I present them with data that demonstrate the benefits of technical and community college education. Consider this: All students at my college are guaranteed entrance if they graduate from high school or earn a GED. Ninety-eight percent of our graduates obtain jobs in their fields of study upon receiving a certificate, diploma, or degree. Sixty percent graduate on time. There are as many students at my college over 50 years of age as there are under 25; thus, we are truly intergenerational. Students who complete two years of study at my college have the option of transferring to a four-year college or university or moving directly into the workforce.
We are building a 21st century educational environment focused on using data to develop a culture of evidence. We believe this will lead to meaningful, systemic, structural change that will positively impact student learning outcomes. In addition to regular college courses, we offer remedial courses, referred to as learning support, for students who are nontraditional learners. We provide tutors and specialized laboratories equipped with the latest computers and educational software. As a member of Complete College Georgia, we place considerable emphasis on retention and completion.
In 2015, the state of Georgia will change from allocating funds to colleges and universities based on headcount to funding based on measurable results such as retention, graduation rates, and job placement. This has its advantages and disadvantages, but it forces us to think not just in terms of recruitment and getting students to show up at our doors. It encourages us to manage our enrollment in a way that improves the student experience, which will hopefully result in students persisting and completing. In doing so, students reap the ultimate award—98 percent of them who complete their studies get jobs.
Community and technical college education addresses more than the educational needs of African American students; it addresses the needs of the entire community. Many technical colleges provide adult education, that is, education that focuses on helping adults who have dropped out of high school get their GEDs, a prerequisite for entering any form of higher education or securing livable wage jobs. In Georgia alone, there are over 1.3 million adults without a high school diploma. Many of them are African Americans.
Further, our economic development division provides continuing education courses for the community on a noncredit basis in areas such as photography, computer literacy, and workforce fundamentals, as well as industry training like building maintenance and transit studies. It does take a village, and technical and community college educators understand that in order for first-generation college students to achieve, it will require creating a culture of learning for the entire community.
No longer can the dope pusher and street hustler become the models for young black boys and girls who look to get ahead. The publically funded community and technical colleges must make community learning affordable, attractive, and accessible to all. Moreover, community colleges must be about economic, workforce, and community development. In essence, they must empower the community.
The time has come to resolve the debate in the community once and for all over whether a liberal arts or technical education is needed to complete the long struggle for authentic liberation. The answer is the Black community needs both—and in a way, community colleges offer both. The African American community needs an education that will provide essential skills that lead to high-demand jobs, but they also need creative and critical thinkers. The community does not benefit when college graduates join the long line of the unemployed. We urge our students to be innovative problem solvers and powers of positive change within their respective communities, the nation, and the world. We challenge them to be entrepreneurs in deed and in spirit.
Community and technical colleges today do not have to choose between the artisan and artist. We produce both.
Jabari Simama is the President of Georgia Piedmont Technical College.
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.