Friday, May 24, 2013

Opportunities for Florida’s Black Colleges and Universities to Help “Raise Florida” towards sustainable social development

Opportunities for Florida’s Black Colleges and Universities to Help “Raise Florida” towards sustainable social development – by José Pérez Carrillo for the Raise Florida Network (RFN) Content Development for Historically Black Colleges & Universities.

The state of Florida is home to four different historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs):  Florida A and M University in Tallahassee, Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida Memorial University in Miami, and Edward Waters College in Jacksonsville.   Each of these four institutions of higher learning is strategically situated within relatively short driving distances from large portions of Florida’s growing population.  Additionally, the areas removed from the physical campi of each of the aforementioned Florida HBCUs (Western Florida and Northwestern Florida, both along the Gulf Coast) are populated with significant numbers of alumni and students of these schools.  The Florida Panhandle, in Northwest Florida, has the additional logistical benefit of being equidistant from not only FAMU but also an abundance of HBCUs in neighboring “Gulf States” (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana).

The importance of Florida’s HBCUs in the asset-building work of the Raise Florida Network (RFN) is significant.  Each of these schools have a long and storied history of being involved with the very socioeconomic demographic targeted by RFN’s stated goals.   Like most other Black colleges, Florida’s HBCUs were created in response to the need to educate and empower hundreds of thousands if not millions of legally emancipated Americans of African descent throughout the Southern regions of the United States.   These histories and traditions live on today in the mission statements of each of the “Florida Four.”

“Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) is an 1890 land-grant institution dedicated to the advancement of knowledge, resolution of complex issues and the empowerment of citizens and communities.”

“The Bethune-Cookman University mission is to serve in the Christian tradition the diverse educational, social, and cultural needs of its students and to develop in them the desire and capacity for continuous intellectual and professional growth, leadership, and service to others. The University has deep roots in the history of America and continues to provide services to the broader community through a focus on service learning and civic engagement.”

“Florida Memorial University endeavors to instill in students the importance of becoming global citizens through life-long learning, leadership, character, and service which will enhance their lives and the lives of others.”

“Edward Waters College strives to prepare students holistically to advance in a global society through the provision of intellectually stimulating programs and an environment which emphasizes high moral and spiritual values in keeping with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.”

How can Florida’s HBCUs comply with not only the mandates of RFN but also fulfill the sacred obligations contained in their mission statements?  The opportunities are endless but the following represents some possibilities.

For example, active participation in RFN would result in the formulation and implementation of social development curricula at Florida’s HBCUs with bona fide community outreach aspects as part of course development for students and staff retention.  Also, semi-annual conferences would be organized and executed among Florida’s HBCU’s with each hosting on a rotating basis. Such conferences would have to include staff, faculty, administration, board/regents, students, families of students, local residents and alumni in such a way that would push the envelopes of inclusion assertively in the direction of plurality (i.e. having only Christian clergy present would not represent a diverse spiritual base).  In short, inclusiveness must become institutionalized. Further, admission priority for new and transfer students would be given to students that dedicated 85% of their community service hours specifically dedicated towards RFN/HBCU activities and initiatives.

All of the aforementioned and following would be developed with an eye towards sustainability.

One particular area that seems to be a natural avenue for the above is that of individual development accounts (IDA).  RFN and its umbrella organisation, the Southern Regional Asset Building Coalition, have already published compelling research on IDAs and their benefits in the lives of people and communities in need of asset-building support.

In a 2010 report titled “Asset Building in the South:  Organizations & Services,” it was determined that “educational strategies, including workshops, information-sharing efforts, trainings, and classes are the most frequently used intervention of respondent organizations regarding asset-building initiatives and services.”  This suggests a strong role for the Florida Four.  Indeed, FAMU is already involved with SRABC; it is only fitting that Florida’ flagship Black college be at the vanguard of a movement that must include its sister schools.

That report also addressed the importance of funding.   As a means of ensuring that innovative, community-focused programs maintain the lifeblood of revenue to sustain its successes, it would be a powerful example of inspired leadership to have board members allocate at least 5% of their standard level of liquid giving towards funding of IDA efforts.  Again, this is an investment in the implementation of inclusiveness.

Though not in Florida, Alabama’s Tuskegee University has long held a position of influence among the community of HBCUs.   Like FAMU, TU is a member of the SRABC and, in that capacity, published a report by a quintet of its faculty members (Baharanyi, Zabawa, Paris, Quaye-Wilson, and Kanyi) entitled The Impact of IDA Policies and Programs.”

Here is what Baharayi et al found:

“To this date, IDAs have proven to be one of the most promising approaches for asset building and thus, an important tool for achieving family economic success. However since its inception in 1991, and despite its promising ambitions, growth has been slow. Today, only about 30 states sponsor IDAs and over the past decade, federal and state governments have dedicated a meager $183 million to related initiatives. Therefore policies across states and regions must be structured to provide more effective and sustainable programs.

“There is the need to better ‘advertise’ or ‘market’ asset building policies, to build support for these initiatives among funders, policymakers, and the public. This can be done by putting a personal face on success stories and connecting these stories to demonstrate tangible successes and impacts of various programs. Documenting success stories will not only get the word out to potential participants and funders, but could also offer best practices and approaches to other program organizers and administrators.

“Policy initiatives must take into consideration local community factors that might affect the level of success of programs administered in rural communities. Such factors may include lack of public transit systems, predominance of low-wage jobs, access to local public and private funders among others.”

In light of their findings, it is imperative that Florida’s HBCUs and their networks of students, alumni, leaders, supporters, et al begin to advocate for meaningful policy changes that will benefit the state’s economically marginalized.   Concurrently, these institutions of higher learning must accept the responsibility of figuring out new ways of addressing long-standing socioeconomic disparities.

Also, the talent and training to develop a cadre of socially-conscious communicators already exists among and within Florida’s HBCUs.  English, marketing, and communication majors, to begin with, are being trained to craft, send, and deliver messages.  What better way to allow them to develop professionally relevant, genuinely marketable skills in their fields than to enlist them in an initiative that will also have long-lasting character-building implications, too?

Finally, SRABC has on its list of online publications an interesting study that revisits another idea whose merit appears to be as relevant today as it has been previously.    Jessica Nembhard of the University of Maryland authored “Non-Traditional Analyses of Co-operative Economic Impacts: Preliminary Indicators and a Case Study.”

In her paper, Nembhard outlines and discusses the benefits cooperatives.  Those benefits as listed by Nembhard are:

·         Education, training, skill development
·         Leadership development
·         Civic participation
·         Policy and Legislative Advocacy
·         Meaningful work/ Livable wages
·         Wealth creation
·         Affordable quality products

Each of the benefits of cooperatives described by Nembhard speak directly to the obligation of each of Florida’s HBCUs to take a prominent role in the activities of RFN.   Where else can one find entities that are already equipped and endowed with the resources necessary to move forward with each of the positive outcomes shared by Nembhard?

That said, Nembhard closes her report with cautions about the challenges inherent in trying to develop cooperatives.

“Major obstacles to helping co-operatives evaluate their outcomes and impacts include lack of time and personnel to engage in such activities, lack of adequate measurement tools and models to apply, and lack of data or data collection methods. Many cooperatives are preoccupied with securing their viability as a business based on traditional business evaluations. We researchers and academics can be the ones to begin to focus on ways to measure the externalities –the social benefits; the human, social and cultural capital created and nurtured the spillover effects around the community. Some outcomes such as job creation, buying from and outsourcing to other local businesses, development of affiliated businesses, increased skill levels are fairly easy to measure once we associate them with co-operative outcomes. Others such as leadership development, more civic participation, wealth creation, and general community economic stability are more difficult to measure and more difficult to attribute to cooperative ownership, yet seem to be correlated.”

Nembhard does not list the above to discourage; she shares it for the purpose of more effective planning.  This important because the historical record shows that cooperatives have existed in the United States but the Florida Four specifically and all of the RFN must be vigilant to heed Nembhard’s advice and avoid being relegated to being an obscure footnote in the history books such as the old Bayou Bourbeau cooperative in 1930’s Louisiana. 

To truly move forward with meaningful IDAs for Floridians of limited socioeconomic means, Florida’s HBCUs will be well-served to use existing federal resources to implement the needed changes.  Case in point, The United States’ Department of Agriculture’s Extension Service (also known as the Cooperative Extension Service) “is a non-formal educational program implemented in the United States designed to help people use research-based knowledge to improve their lives. The service is provided by the state's designated land-grant universities.”  

FAMU is a land-grant university and, as such, it is already involved with the CES.  What must be done now is to expand that work not only within itself but with its sister schools, the Florida Four.

Clearly, the work that must be done to truly address the economic disparities present in the state of Florida as it relates to asset building cannot be compartmentalized; however, such a daunting and necessary task can reach fruition more effectively if led by institutions that were created to address them in the first place.

Available upon request