When Dr. Erin Vines walked into the meeting, he had what he describes as a moment.
“I remember thinking that I’d never been in a situation like this before in my life,” recalls Vines, who at the time was dean of Counseling at Solano Community College.
The situation Vines describes occurred when he was invited to meet with the Board of Directors of the African-American Male Education Network and Development group, or A²MEND, which is working to confront institutional barriers facing students of color and provide an affirming academic and professional environment for African Americans with a particular focus on African-American male students, faculty, staff and administrators.
“It was just the complete opposite of what we tend to see, what we grow up seeing, in the media, on news, at the movies and everywhere else,” says Vines, currently vice president of Student Services at Antelope Valley College.
“Here was a room of young, African-American men introducing themselves as ‘Dr. This’ and ‘Dr. That.’ And they described their organization. It was moving. I’ll never forget it.”
Today, as president of A²MEND, Vines takes great joy in hearing about similar moments. He calls it, “changing the frame.”
“When board members introduce themselves at the annual conference, students have the same experience,” says Vines. “They see what is possible. It inspires them. And it changes the frame for them. They see so many successful students that are just like them, and faculty and mentors who are here to support them, and they really feel empowered. That’s why we’re here. That’s what we’re all about.”
One of the many students who have experienced this frame-change firsthand, is Matthew Russell Morris.
“A²MEND has been a pivotal part of my educational path,” says Morris, who is in the process of transferring from Bethune-Cookman University in Florida to a university in California. “Every member is rooting for your success and opens themselves up for dialogue on how we as young black dreamers may reach our definition of success. It’s like a family.”
Founded in 2006, A²MEND got its start at Administration 101, an annual professional development conference for new administrators hosted by the Association of California Community College Administrators. There, conversations about the difficulties facing African American males in higher education led six attendees to realize that while many people were talking about these issues, very few were actually doing something about it.
“Many of us were in the minority where we taught and in some cases were the only African-American administrator at their institution,” recalls founding member Dr. Edward C. Bush, now president of Cosumnes River College. “Having a group that understood what it meant to be in this type of environment removed the feeling of isolation and simultaneously created a sense of empowerment and brotherhood.”
As current data shows, the challenges facing students of color, and specifically African-American men, are acute. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, African-American men graduate from college at the lowest rate of all racial and ethnic groups. Similarly, the Center for Community College Student Engagement reports that while 49 percent of African-American undergraduates were enrolled at a community college in 2012, a full 68 percent had failed to graduate six years later.
“The education completion data on African-American men, all the measuring points, it paints a very stark picture,” says Vines. “And if we don’t deliberately make an effort to address these issues, it’s going to be impossible to close those equity gaps. A²MEND will not be complicit.”
Three months after their original meeting, the founding members had built the foundation for what would become A²MEND.
“We often say that we have a two-pronged approach to our work, which is to transform institutions and to directly impact the lives of students,” explains Bush. “This is our approach because for change to be substantive and sustainable we must change the deleterious policies and practices that create enormous barriers for African-American students. However, systemic change takes time… so, our direct work with students teaches them how to best navigate this system and empower them to succeed in spite of the barriers that remain.”
With these goals in mind, A²MEND partnered with the Umoja Community Education Foundation in 2018 to hold an Educational Summit to identify and strategize about the changes that need to happen. Held over 2 days, the Summit not only examined how to best deconstruct institutional policies and practices that negatively impact African-Americans, but also how to build new structures and strategies that would better enable African-American students to reach their full educational potential.
A²MEND’s student-focused efforts include a robust mentorship program, nine student chapters at community colleges across California, approximately $70,000 in distributed scholarships last year alone, and a new relationship with Base 11 (a STEM workforce development company). Recently, A²MEND took a group of selected mentees to Ethiopia.
“Again, it’s changing their frame,” says Vines. “Students get to travel, to see what’s outside of America, to see Africa for themselves, and develop their own opinions, and take pride in Africa’s history and culture.”
Despite all of these programs, students like Josh Daniels, a student at Antelope Valley College, are quick to point out that A²MEND is more than just the sum of its parts.
“A²MEND to me is brotherhood,” says Daniels. “It’s what all of our black liberation leaders, such as Huey P. Newton, Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X have been teaching us to do. To unite. It’s a safe space. It’s a father, a mother, a brother, a friend, an ally, a protector and an organization that I feel all young African-American male students should be a part of to ensure their success.”
Fostering this sense of brotherhood is a hallmark of A²MEND’s signature event, the African-American Male Summit, which draws more than 1000 students, faculty and administrators for an inspirational and motivational day of breakout sessions, community building and keynote speeches from such high-powered figures as Michael Eric Dyson. This year’s summit, to be held on March 6 in Los Angeles, will feature keynotes from attorney and former South Carolina State Legislator Bakari Sellers and internationally recognized scholar and filmmaker, Daniel E. Walker.
For more information about A²MEND and their annual summit, visit https://a2mend.org/ .