How a Sense of Belonging Can Motivate and Empower Students
This post is by Delency Parham, Communications and Events Manager, Envision Education.
A little over a year ago, I joined Envision Education as the Communications and Events Manager. In my job, I get to support our mission and support the students in our schools in important ways. From the moment I saw the job description, I knew I was joining a team filled with people who see the need to uplift Black and Brown youth the same way I do. Now I know we're an organization that believes in serving all students, specifically those who will go on to be the first in their families to attend college. And in a white supremacist, capitalist society, the students who fit that description, for the most part, tend to identify as Black and/or Latinx: many first-generation students are also those who are farthest from the kinds of opportunities that will help them succeed. One of the things I value most about my work with Envision is that I see our mission manifest itself in a number of ways that extend further than the classroom. One of the examples that I am most proud of and feel deeply connected to is the Young Men's Group at our San Francisco high school, City Arts & Tech High School (CAT).
Organized and facilitated by CAT's Vice Principal Philip Chardon, the group meets a few times a month, and serves as a safe space for the boys on campus. The meetings consist of holding conversations on topics such as: school, music, masculinity, privilege, sports, family—the list goes on. I've had the pleasure of attending a few of their gatherings and every time I'm there I feel a sense of comradery that reminds me of the times and moments I've shared with my dearest and closest childhood friends. The difference for me is that my friends and I hardly ever shared these moments on campus, and our schools weren't making it priority for us to have a space where we could let our guards down and build relationships with one another. The difference I see is that in a school that makes an effort to show students that they mean more to the adults on campus than just their grades or what they can do in the classroom, students can develop a sense of belonging, which in turn helps them feel more connected to their academics and helps them work even harder.
This is why I value what Vice Principal Chardon and the boys over at CAT are doing in the Young Men's Group. Because in a society where Black boys are viewed as older and less innocent than white boys, and where the mobility of Latino youth is negatively impacted by racist stereotypes, CAT has made it a priority to provide a nurturing, empathetic, and sympathetic space for their male students of color. In response to these kinds of realities for students of color, schools can and should be doing something to counter the stereotypes and give students alternative messages and narratives.
Last year, Oakland native and writer Pendarvis Harshaw came by CAT's Young Men's group to discuss his most recent book and to talk with students about his and their life experiences. I watched and listened as Pendarvis engaged with the group. That conversation served to remind the students that there are other options out there for them than what they've been told by society or what they may have experienced so far. And having Chardon, Pendarvis, and myself in the room showed the group of teens that they can be their most Black and Brown selves, and thrive.
I know from first-hand experience what a sense of belonging can do for a student. I think about the times in school when I felt connected to my peers and my teachers: because of that connection, I was more engaged and had the desire to learn and achieve. The same holds true for today's students. Through this sense of belonging they not only thrive as people, but as students. This is something I think too many schools forget, that you have to set the conditions for learning, not just provide the content for it. When the conditions for learning are provided, students do amazing things.
When I think about the Young Men's Group, I remember that the little things really can have a huge impact. Something as small as providing a room for boys to meet a few hours each month can lead to shifts in perspectives, challenge societal norms, and most importantly, build a sense of community. This is what students, especially those farthest from opportunity, need to succeed.