Building bridges and breaking boundaries: Exploring African American male literacy

“Where there is a will, there is a way.” –Tupac

For those who may not know, Tupac Amaru Shakur was a major proponent of literacy. However, many young African American males do not share Tupac’s passion for reading and writing. A recent report explains that much of the discourse regarding literacy and African American male youth focuses on raising test scores and closing the purported achievement gap but contends that literacy plays a much larger role. Specifically, literacy “is connected to intellectual growth, agency, voice, identity, resiliency, resolve and a positive life trajectory.”

Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell

Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell, a professor in the School of Information and Library Science at UNC-Chapel Hill, coordinates UNC’s school library media program. In June 2012, Dr. Hughes-Hassell organized the Building a Bridge to Literacy summit at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, NC. The summit focused on three areas: Research (what is known about the literacy development and needs of African-American male youth and additional gaps that need to be filled); Programs & Services (what programs and services work to support the literacy needs of African-American male youth and what gaps exist); and Resources (what resources are needed to enable school and public libraries to effectively address the literacy needs of African-American male youth). Students from North Carolina Central University’s Centennial Scholars Program, UNC-Charlotte, and one high school student joined literacy and library experts from around the country in an effort to call local communities and libraries to action.

So… what can teachers do to promote literacy?

Summit participants suggest the following action items:

  1. Create and sustain a dialogue between African American male students and their teachers. Be open to their honest evaluations.
  2. Train Black male students to be part of the dia­logue: involve them in advocacy, social action, and educational reform efforts.
  3. Write publishers to demand culturally relevant texts featuring diverse characters, and have your students write as well.
  4. Emphasize writing as an essential element of literacy. Have your students write often, and share your own writing with them.
  5. Do your own action research within your school or classroom. Publish the results to let the educa­tion community know what is working and not working.
  6. Involve parents in the literacy education of their children. Educate them about their role and give them the tools to advocate for change.

For more information on literacy and African American male youth, visit the Building a Bridge to Literacy website.

Researcher bio

Dr. Hughes-Hassell’s research focuses on the information needs and behaviors of urban teenagers. She also researches multicultural literature and its role in the literacy development of children of color and library services and programs for underserved populations. She is currently co-leading a series of professional development workshops for public school librarians in Durham, NC focusing on Alfred Tatum’s book Reading for Their Lives and is the Co-Principal Investigator on a research project funded by an ALA Diversity Grant.


We can speak for ourselves: Parent involvement and ideologies of Black mothers in an urban community

Researcher Bio

Billye Rhodes is a Ph.D. candidate in the Culture, Curriculum, and Change program at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education. Prior to beginning her studies at UNC, Chapel Hill, Ms. Rhodes tutored and taught in Chicago public and charter schools for several years. Her research interests include the sociology of knowledge; qualitative research methods, particularly critical ethnography and narrative analysis; critical race theory; black feminist theory; and community engagement in urban education. Above all else, Ms. Rhodes identifies herself first as an artist and a poet. Ms. Rhodes’ dissertation committee is comprised of Dr. George Noblit, the Joseph R. Neikirk Distinguished Professor of Sociology of Education at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education; Dr. Debora Eaker-Rich, Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs and Director of Graduate Studies at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education; Dr. Dana Griffin, Assistant Professor of School Counseling at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Education; Dr. Kristal Moore Clemons, assistant professor in the Division of History and Social Sciences at Tallahassee Community College; History Assistant Professor, and Dr. Renee Alexander Craft, Assistant Professor of Performance and Cultural Studies at the UNC Chapel Hill Department of Communication Studies.


Billye Rhodes (0:13)
My name is Billye Rhodes and I am working on a dissertation entitled We can speak for ourselves: Parent involvement and ideologies of Black mothers in an urban community. The overview of the project is an ethnographic study of five mothers in Chicago, black women, and they are all parents in the same charter school. They are really a group of active women across classes, ages, marital statuses, and number of children.
I have been really interested in them because these are the women we don’t see in the literature. When we discuss parent involvement, the literature is often from a perspective of  ‘how can we teach them how to be parents’ or ‘how can get them to come into the school to sign up for the agenda we have.’ When it is collaborative, oftentimes the literature doesn’t hear from the voices of the parents who need to be involved the most, want to be involved the most, or are capable of being involved.
These women give their stories about their schooling experiences, how they made choices for their children, what their goals and expectations are, and how they leverage their resources to provide more for the school as well as the community they reside in. It’s been interesting having these women share their histories, scrapbooks, and their actual children with me. It’s been wonderful.
One of the things that seemed to work really well for both the school and the parents is that a part of the parent program that runs the charter school requires that teachers on staff have home visits before the school year starts. So automatically, for at least an hour, you are having a conversation with the mother about her children. Oftentimes, the visits are at the homes and the parents are excited, so they’ve made cookies and they’ve cleaned the room and straightened up the house. So you get to know what your child’s bedroom looks like and emotionally where they are. If you have the same student for a couple of years– because they do keep students for three years, I think– you have a relationship. And that parent can feel comfortable communicating needs and complications. I think that part of the program, setting up at the door, is awesome. These parents feel comfortable; they feel like their views are respected and necessary to the culture of the school.
One of the big issues is having honest communication across both sides with the parents and the teachers so it doesn’t look like ‘I’m trying to take over your classroom’ or ‘I’m trying to disrespect your expertise as a parent.’ It didn’t always happen, because in class time I need to run my classroom and I don’t have time to talk to you. Making sure that time is embedded, before the day or after the day, where we can have discussions. I think one of the things is being able to identify parents and teachers who you feel comfortable with. Start with just one or two that can come into the classroom. Parents need to be able to mentor the teachers as well as the teachers providing resources. It shouldn’t just be information going one way.
Communication is really important in these instances. I think that what is awesome about so many of our programs is that we are equipped with so much knowledge, and then we go out and do our residencies and internships. But there is still so much we don’t know because the literature does not offer the voices of the parents we actually have to interact with. So part of it is being able to unpack our knapsack and the parent’s knapsack and lay everything out on the table and say, ‘this is what I need, this is what I think, this is what I’m scared about, this is what I don’t know.’ And being able to figure out who can push and pull and where. And being able to have open and honest communication, being able to find parents you are comfortable with and identify why there are parents you don’t feel comfortable with. And using the school, the space, and the community to try and navigate those differences and uncomfortablities because the children matter the most. If you want to be able to communicate with the kids, you have to be able to communicate with the parents.