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Michael Walker: The brothers’ keeper

It’s dingy, harshly lit and windowless, and furnished like an afterthought. But on Monday mornings the classroom across the hall from the central office at South High School feels like a retreat.

The first truly nice week of spring, the dozen young African-American men who meet there once a week with Michael Walker are laughing and joking, all limbs and hair and gas-station breakfast. There are oily beef sticks in plastic tubes. There’s dry cereal in a Ziploc bag. There are candy bars.

In place of the expected swagger, these young men are tender with each other. The laughter is affectionate, underscoring the uncharted territory the group is navigating. When one teen jumps on another’s statement, it’s not a retort but a suggestion.

photo of michael walker standing in front of a group of students
Photo by Johnny Crawford
At a meeting of Michael Walker’s BLACK group, South High students discuss the values they want in their relationship with teachers. “Love” is on the list.

A couple have shown up wearing T-shirts that Walker, who is the head of Minneapolis Public Schools’ new and closely watched Office of Black Male Student Achievement, had made. The backs of the shirts spell out the name of the group, Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge, or BLACK.

While wrappers crinkle, the group discusses an ongoing project: Surveying faculty on what they, the dozen students, can do to further their relationships with their teachers. The first step — begun the week before and being revisited now — is deciding what values the youths want to bring to those relationships.

The students take turns sharing words that reflect what they want teachers to see in them.

“Positive.”

“Progressive.”

“Interested.”

“Blessed.”

“Excited.”

When they get to “love,” a whiff of discomfort bubbles up and the group pauses to discuss whether to keep the word on the list. The young man who’s not so sure struggles for a moment, trying to find a friendly way to couch his objection.

“It’s kind of weird, you know?”

The teen a quarter of the way around the circle who originally put the word on the list replies.

“I think love in the classroom, like be a parent to the student. It could make it more comfortable to come to school. Like you have family at the school.”

The experiment under way at South is at the heart of what Walker, hired last year to advocate for African-American boys in MPS, is trying to do. Given the yawning disparities between the district’s black and white learners in everything from reading to discipline, Walker’s urgent mission is to celebrate his students’ accomplishments while pushing schools to serve them better.

Barriers to staffing Twin Cities classrooms with African-American men are beyond steep. Eighty-six percent of Minnesota’s teacher corps is white, and a majority are women. The disconnect is thought to be at the center of one of the largest black-white achievement gaps in the nation.

For Walker, this is personal. When he was a student at Roosevelt, he had a strong peer group that reinforced his efforts to stay in school and be ready for college.

After his family moved to Minneapolis from Gary, Indiana, Walker made two deliberate decisions. The first was to volunteer in as many places as possible to stay busy and off the streets.

The second was to structure his social life around a core group of friends who shared his goal of going to college. The members of Walker’s ad hoc support group played basketball in the same circles as Sammy White.

“We were interested in becoming NBA players. But we also knew we had to go to college to play. We studied together, we worked together, if there was a test coming up we checked in.

“We had the same goals. We said, ‘We’re not gonna fail. We’re gonna make sure we do our best for each other. We held each other accountable.’

“To this day I call them and they don’t sugarcoat things. They tell me the truth when I need to hear it.”

He had a teacher, Lorrie Westergreen, who kept up with the group of friends. She showed up at their basketball games and made sure to invite them to events she organized.

Westergreen urged Walker to become a teacher. Walker shrugged her off.

“I only had one black male teacher my entire education, my 10th-grade biology teacher. It’s disheartening when you think about it. You never see anyone who looks like you at the front of the classroom.

“After I graduated high school I would come back and stay in touch. She kept saying, ‘You need to be a teacher.’ I was working at the YMCA and I said I couldn’t see myself in a classroom.

“That’s how I ended up going back for a master’s degree to be a school counselor. Then I went back to Roosevelt to work. She was still there. She mentored me.”

Walker was assistant principal at Roosevelt when MPS leaders — shaking off cries of “why special attention for one group?” — tapped him to create the Office of Black Male Student Achievement. Finding a structured time to get the community’s men into schools to serve as firm but loving mentors was on the top of Walker’s list.

The South group emerged organically before he was 100 percent ready. Ongoing tensions between Somali and African-American students propelled a group of black students to complain to South leaders that, unlike other racial and ethnic groups at the school, they lacked an identity group.

At the same time, the district was under pressure from on high. Last year MPS settled two civil-rights complaints involving the harassment of black and East African kids and racial disparities in discipline.

Last year, the district suspended or expelled more than 10 times as many African-Americans as any other subgroup. All but 5 percent of the suspensions were for disruptive or disorderly conduct.

Black and brown students are disproportionately tracked into special education under catchall diagnoses that include defiant or stubborn behavior. MPS’ special-ed students were referred to juvenile court or arrested at a rate nine times higher than kids in regular classrooms.

The first thing Walker did was to hold listening sessions with black boys, who told him flat-out that they needed the kind of peer support he and his friends had provided for each other.

“They talked about feeling disconnected from school. They talked about not knowing where they came from. How do we provide that outside of class — letting them know that you come from kings and queens?

“Our students don’t know Egypt is part of Africa. They had to be mathematicians to build the pyramids. How do we make sure they know that history when all they hear about in school is that they come from slavery and are oppressed?

“How does this curriculum relate to me? If I don’t see any positive images and I only see negative ones, what does that do to me?”

Last fall, Walker started two BLACK groups, the one at South and another with middle-schoolers at Nellie Stone Johnson.

The north side classroom where the younger students meet is decades newer and sunny, but the talk is if anything more raw. The students are reading the infamous Willie Lynch letter, in which slave owners were exhorted to sow division and mistrust.

photo of a student raising his hand
Photo by Johnny Crawford
At Nellie Stone Johnson, students take turns reading the infamous Willie Lynch letter: “I caught the whiff of a dead slave hanging from a tree a couple of miles back.”

“I caught the whiff of a dead slave hanging from a tree a couple of miles back. You are not only losing valuable stock by hangings, you are having uprisings, slaves are running away, your crops are sometimes left in the fields too long for maximum profit, you suffer occasional fires, your animals are killed, gentlemen. …

“In my bag here, I have a foolproof method for controlling your black slaves. I guarantee every one of you that if installed correctly it will control the slaves for at least 300 years. My method is simple, any member of your family or any overseer can use it.

“I have outlined a number of differences among the slaves, and I take these differences and make them bigger. I use fear, distrust, and envy for control purposes. … You must pitch the old Black vs. the young Black male, and the young Black male against the old Black male. You must use the dark skinned slaves vs. the light skinned slaves, and the light skinned slaves vs. the dark skinned slaves. ... They must love, respect, and trust only us.

“Gentlemen, these kits are your keys to control, use them. Have your wives and children use them. Never miss opportunity. My plan is guaranteed, and the good thing about this plan is that if used intensely for one year, the slaves themselves will remain perpetually distrustful.”

The discussion that ensues ranges from divisions sown that morning in the halls at school to media images of the unrest in Baltimore. A slight boy near the front of the room jumps in to expand on the parallels.

“He said he wants to make sure we bring each other down. And that’s still happening.”

The stakes are high. Walker plans to expand the program to four more high schools and three more middle schools next year, which would make space for another 175 students.

The kids aren’t likely to be where the effort soars or falters, however. Values established, the South group discusses its most daunting plan. Pairs of participants will fan out and interview teachers in the school about what African-American males can do to improve their relations with staff.

photo of student speaking at his desk
Photo by Johnny Crawford
A student at Nellie Stone Johnson explains the Willie Lynch letter’s instructions for sowing division: “He said he wants to make sure we bring each other down. And that’s still happening.”

Walker and the team advising him, which includes psychology faculty and Ph.D. candidates from the University of Minnesota, want the first few teachers approached to go back to the teachers’ lounge and report that it was a positive experience.

Keeping their opinions about the teachers to themselves is a lot less daunting to the students than the idea of enabling teachers to open up.

“I think we shouldn’t come at them like, ‘Are you racist?’ We should record their answers.”

“A lot of these teachers are not going to answer you honestly.”

“We should get different perspectives from black teachers and white teachers.”

“What black teachers?”

Excellent points, Walker agrees.

“We should make sure we grab some demographic information. [And] we should ask at the end of each one, ‘How did this feel?’

“It’s hard to have a good relationship with a teacher who stereotypes us. It’s hard to have a good relationship with a teacher who has had one bad interaction with us in the classroom.”

After the students leave, Walker and his colleagues review small moments that tell them the group is coalescing. During the review of values, for instance, they discussed one student who could not read the word democratic. Instead of clowning or mouthing off — much the way Don Austin did when he dropped out of South, unable to read — the young man had turned to his seatmate.

“That vulnerability is occurring within this group to a high degree. They can show deficits in here. There is a sense of family in here.”

There is, he ventures, love.