The White House Initiative on HBCUs: Unfit For Advocacy

One of the primary functions of the White House Initiative on HBCUs is to enhance black colleges’ capability to serve the nation’s young adults. In the four-year existence of this particular program, Ambassadors have not had the chance to make substantive policy suggestions and haven’t been included in discussions that will immediately shape their collegiate careers.

Part of that reason, it seems, is because the Initiative itself doesn’t engage in the actual work of the executive order which establishes it. And until we can have a public conversation about what everybody privately whispers and complains about, there is no reason to believe in the Initiative and this program.

In this new year and within this new administration, there is an opportunity to provide a level of engagement to a cohort of the nation’s young adults, specifically 293 young adults recognized for substantial contributions made to their HBCUs. It would be prudent to engage this diverse group of appointed Ambassadors because proper engagement would yield results that would satisfy many of the functions as outlined in the Executive Order.

But there is little reason for faith in such opportunity coming to pass. In the last three weeks, the WHI-HBCU has been challenged on its engagement with HBCU students as well as presidents and chancellors; all because of the Initiative’s years-long habit of misdirection and half-hearted attempts at fulfilling its own charge.

A recent call between the Executive Director and presidents is quietly being criticized for the lack of information it provided on the office’s work on behalf of HBCUs. Some presidents will tell you privately that the call, led by Johnathan Holifield, may not have even been a live teleconference: some believe that it was either a recording or Holifield himself reading from a prepared script.

No one will ever know because presidents were not allowed to ask questions.

Recent inquiries from White House HBCU Ambassadors asking for more direction on engaging corporate partners and members of Congress in policy discussions earn the same response from Holifield and Initiative staffers like Elyse Jones. It takes many forms, but usually reads something like this:

“This is a recognition program, and you can’t/we can’t do that.”

It is a shame that the Initiative, the HBCU Ambassador program and everything in between is made to look like something bigger than what it actually is; fancy titles and terms to make it appear that the White House, regardless of who is in office, is trying to do something for HBCUs. When you look back at the last year, and even the last nine years, it doesn’t take long to realize that everything and everyone around it all worked together to function in name alone.

Anything you have seen regarding the federal government and HBCUs has been a direct result of elected officials in Congress working with people in advocacy groups like the Thurgood Marshall College Fund or the United Negro College Fund. The Initiative is rarely named, credited, or thanked for playing any role with any issue of support for HBCUs.

And it is now clear why: the HBCU Initiative isn’t supposed to work. It is supposed to exist and nothing more. The people who run it do not influence policy or inform others about what it can do for better or worse. The goals of the executive order aren’t presidential suggestions for federal agencies to enact, but political winks and nods, which are used in exaggerated terms to convince others that the White House works hard for HBCUs.

Hard work isn’t hard to see. For instance, “strengthening HBCUs’ ability to equitably participate in Federal programs and exploring new ways of improving the relationship between the Federal Government and HBCUs” could look like direct investiture of the Ambassadors as individuals who actively represent the many federal agencies that support the Initiative. It could look like Ambassadors demystifying the process of pursuing federal internships or careers as advertised through USA Jobs.

It could look like pairing various HBCU International Business major departments, foreign language departments, and study abroad departments to the State Department and Foreign Service Institute in order to give students an intimate experience that goes beyond the HBCU Foreign Policy Day.

It could look like engagement with professional mentors, paired with Ambassadors based upon their professional interests. Promoting specific areas and centers of academic research and program-based excellence throughout HBCUs could look like more than just submitting proposals and social media voting to Home Depot for Retool Your School efforts; it could possibly look like reporting the details about HBCU needs for infrastructure improvements to our campuses, or the high-levels of research achievement in agriculture, engineering in spite of minimal resources.

Leveraging and establishing private-sector partnerships with companies like Aspire or BET in an effort to increase exposure to our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities by engaging student leaders on a national platform. This could be an amazing partnership that could benefit students who are interested in social entrepreneurship or any aspect of communications, all forms of journalism, and the like.

On “partnering with elementary and secondary education stakeholders to build [an HBCU] “cradle-to-college” pipeline,” this looks like supporting and engaging the HBCUs that have K-12 programming and schools on their campuses. Campuses like Howard University (Howard University Middle School of Science and Mathematics or the Early Learning Program) or Delaware State University (Early College High School), and many others are doing work in this particular area.

This is not an uncharted realm. Initiative support and implementation on the Ambassador level looks like working with Ambassadors like Jarrell Jordan and his Importance of Education Tour in which he has formed partnerships with Atlanta Public Schools, the city of Atlanta, the state of Georgia, the state of Alabama, and the city of Birmingham.

It looks like supporting elementary and secondary programming in areas which have no HBCUs. It would look like supporting a nonprofit like my own, through which I have secured the support of the City of Detroit council and other community organizations through my own volunteering since 2012.

These are initiatives and projects that, ultimately, make the HBCU cultural and educational experience more accessible. Unequivocally, it should be more than an exclusive Ambassador photo opp; the same kind of political photo opp which we took our own presidents to task over last year.

Tangible support from our HBCU advocacy organizations and other stakeholders takes many forms. The Initiative and its programs could be idea incubators that, if ever matched with actual work ethic and insight, could help shape entire communities through the development of leaders and advocates.

Right now, the WHI-HBCU reflects the worst of the fears black colleges and black people have about government; that it just flat out doesn’t care and will never work for our interests. Improper, misguided handling or failure to actualize the potential that exists within the program and the Ambassadors themselves will not strengthen the relationship between HBCUs and the federal government. It will strain the relationship.

There will be more disenchantment and the feeling of further disenfranchisement of our community. Neither the Initiative, the White House, nor our HBCU presidents or chancellors need that type of stress.

Of course, though, if the greater wish is that the HBCU All-Star Program simply be a recognition program—all expectations on behalf of the Initiative should cease to exist. Every student selected as an All-Star should receive a medal or certificate of achievement—but certainly, no type of commitment should be made by the recognized student. No student should be expected to leverage their campus or community organization relationships to support the idea of higher HBCU education and college completion.

No one should go out of their way to work for an office which refuses to do the same for us.

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