Student to UWM mentor: ‘Thank you for being a role model’

July 23, 2015

Smith_Kirchner2 (1)Violence involving young people gets plenty of media attention. The good news – that people all over the city are working for positive change – doesn’t always get as much attention, said Robert Smith of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Smith is one of many who are working quietly in partnership with other leaders to make policy changes and mentor young people. At UWM, Smith is Associate Vice Chancellor, Global Inclusion and Engagement, an associate professor of history, and executive director of the university’s Cultures & Communities program. With support from the university for his efforts, he is one of a number of many partners in the community that focus on young people of color and their futures. For example, in collaboration with Larry Miller, vice president of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, Smith helped write a “Black Lives Matter,” resolution, which Miller introduced.

The resolution committed Milwaukee Public Schools to renewed efforts to create safe places for dialog and support, and to making changes around policing, discipline and curriculum to strengthen schools as support centers for communities. In addition, Smith has been mentoring a group of young black men at Wauwatosa West High School. West’s principal, Frank Calarco, thanked the university for that partnership: “Simply put this has been the best intervention that I have been a part of in my 25 years of education.

Although I used the term intervention, Dr. Smith uses a pro-active approach to help these young men realize how much potential they have.” Smith is quick to point out that he is only one of many people working on these urgent issues. “There is a lot of great work being done across the city.” That work involves people of all races and cultures.

The school board resolution called for setting up an advisory council of community members, parents, educators and students to assist in reviewing and creating curriculum and policy related to issues raised by the Black Lives Matter Movement. And while the Black Lives Matter movement is used to frame the concerns, the issues also involve Latino, Hmong, LGBT and other groups of young people, according to Smith and Miller.

“We framed the resolution around Black Lives Matter, but we see the connections with other long-standing issues affecting young people,” they said. These issues include inequality, lack of opportunity, little recognition of unique cultures, discipline policies, and the need to reverse the “school-to-prison” pipeline that impacts so many. Smith’s involvement at Wauwatosa West grew out of annual summits for young black men that UWM has held for the past three years. Wauwatosa West teacher Rebecca Kirchman, adviser to the school’s Black Student Union, brought a group of students to the 2013 UWM summit. After meeting Smith, she asked him if he’d be willing to mentor interested African American male students at West.

The program there is voluntary, and offers the students a safe place to talk about everything from becoming a man to sexuality to integration to academics. “It’s a really meaningful program that we would not have been able to do without his volunteer help,” Kirchman said. Like many teens, the 20 students in the group have chosen their role models mostly from sports or entertainment figures. But working with Smith has helped expand their ideas of what their futures can be. The students are enthusiastic about the program, Kirchman said. “You have expanded my mind and vision in amazing ways,” one wrote in a thankyou note. Another wrote: “I want to be just like you. Thank you for being a role model.”