They #Woke: How Black Students in an After-School Community-Based Program Manifest Critical Consciousness
by V. Thandi Sulé, Michelle Nelson & Tiffany Williams - 2021
Background/Context: Though Black Americans have long suffered under racial tyranny, they have made valiant efforts to subvert policies and practices that encroach on their humanity. Nevertheless, systemic racism has been virtually unyielding—creating both racial hierarchies and disparities in access to resources and wellness. Programs designed to address the condition of Black people, particularly Black youth, often employ deficit or dysfunctional logic, thereby ignoring the sociohistorical context in which Black youth navigate. Furthermore, not enough attention is given to the ways that culturally centered approaches ignite critical consciousness among Black youth in ways that are aligned with the tradition of the Black American abolitionist mindset.
Purpose: We build on the discourse on community-based youth programs and critical consciousness development by using frameworks that elevate race and culture in analyzing how Black youth make sense of their racialized experiences. Additionally, our explication challenges the overriding deficit focus of Black youth experiences within and outside school contexts by providing a nuanced view of Black youth agency.
Research Design: With critical race theory as the epistemic foundation, this study sought to foreground counternarratives among youth participants of a culturally centered, community-based program. Thus, we used semistructured interviews as our primary data source. Using a three-stage analytical process, we sought to understand if and how critical consciousness manifests within this youth community.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The study demonstrates the value of foregrounding African American culture and history to fortify the values of collectivism, self-determination, purpose, responsibility, empowerment, creativity, and faith among Black youth. The authors propose that educators collaborate with community-based Black culture and youth development experts to support dialogical, student-centered spaces that impart culturally centered knowledge about Black Americans. Furthermore, the authors advocate for professional development in asset-based pedagogies as a means to enhance belongingness among Black students.
Black Lives Matter (BLM) began as rallying cry and grassroots movement galvanizing communities to demand an end to social injustices within the U.S. criminal justice system (Black Lives Matter, 2015). Though BLM began as a response to several highly publicized murders of Black men, the mantra encapsulates a range of issues affecting Black people1 in the United States and beyond. For instance, in comparison with White people, Black people are more likely to be suspended from K12 schools (Gibson et al., 2014; Gregory et al., 2010; Haight et al., 2014) and endure overmonitoring practices (Diamond & Lewis, 2018). Additionally, they are overrepresented among special education students (Blanchett, 2006; Gardner & Miranda, 2001), experience unemployment discrimination (Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2004; Cavounidis & Lang, 2015), have poorer health outcomes (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013), and are subject to discriminatory policing and incarceration practices (Lyons & Pettit, 2011; Nellis, 2016). Therefore, Black people are not unfamiliar with discrimination in the United States. In response, they have a rich history of everyday oppositional behaviors designed to protect, support, and improve Black lives (Anderson, 1988; Brown & Brown, 2020; Dumas & ross, 2016; Giddings, 1984). From post-slavery Sabbath schools to the Black settlement houses of the 19th and 20th centuries, Black people have stood at the forefront of engineering resistance to oppression through collective self-help endeavors (Bush, 2004; Hounmenou, 2012; Williams, 2005). Furthermore, whether it is the freedom journeys of Harriet Tubman, the antilynching campaign of Ida B. Wells, the educational activism of Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, or the civil rights leadership of Ella Baker, Black American history offers a plethora of examples of enactments of critical consciousness. Thus, Black people have always challenged, and sought to redefine the discursive and material realities of Black life (Brown & Brown, 2020, p. 73). Moreover, Black youth have played a significant role in agitating for civil rights and social justice (see Biondi, 2012; Bundy, 2017; Ginwright, 2007; Rojas, 2007). Hence, this study is designed to assess how Black students involved in a culturally centered, community-based after-school program, Brother to Sister (a pseudonym), embody critical consciousness. This query, using critical and culturally centered axiological and epistemological frameworks, allows one to reflect on how this type of youth community might embody capital that engenders agency, thereby providing a more nuanced perception of Black youth experiences beyond hardships and pathology.
Awareness emanating from critical consciousness is understood as a state of being that can nullify the cerebral trappings of systemic oppression (Diemer et al., 2015; Freire, 2003). Essentially, critical consciousness reflects how marginalized people interpret and act on oppressive forces (Freire, 2003). Accordingly, ones interpretation and behavior are influenced by dialogical practices that encourage reflection of personal and shared lived experiences. Such reflection allows people to understand how they exist in the world in relation to others and how that existence is framed by coalescing social structures (Freire, 2003). Consequently, this form of reflection liberates because people become less willing to accept their reality as fixed or natural. Rather, they understand reality as mutable (Diemer et al., 2017; Freire, 2003).
In addition to literature on how critical consciousness manifests in various settings, there exists a body of research that demonstrates a connection between critical consciousness and personal development. For instance, OConnor (1997) assessed that critical consciousness factored in the educational resilience and career development of Black American students. OConnor noted that these students
had (a) strong evidence of their personal competence, (b) concrete experiences which conveyed that individuals could defy racial barriers, and (c) social interactions which communicated strategies that would allow them to negotiate the financial limitations of their households in their pursuit of upward mobility. (p. 622)
Similarly, Diemer and Blustein (2006) found a relationship between critical consciousness and career development among urban students of color. Specifically, they found that sociopolitical control (a critical consciousness variable that captures the belief that one can influence the social and political system) was strongly connected to vocational future and work role salience. Another study found that low-SES social action/community group participators had higher vocational expectations than nonparticipators (Diemer & Hsieh, 2008). These findings suggest a generative nature of critical consciousness as oppressed groups are awakened to new possibilities of self-actualization (or self-fulfillment).
Critical consciousness, though, is not a product of happenstance. It is the product of intersecting states of awareness about social equity, beginning with critical reflection (also labeled sociopolitical analysis; Jemal, 2017). Critical reflection comprises a systemic social analysis and moral rejection of societal inequities . . . that constrain well-being and human agency (Watts et al., 2011, p. 46). To be clear, critical reflection is not unbounded from action because it entails articulating experiences and perspectives in dialogical spaces. Hence, reflections are not static; rather, they are evolving and generative as they are shared and digested (Freire, 2003). However, it is through reflection that marginalized people become aware of the systemic mechanisms in place that hinder their liberation, and it is through this reflexive awareness that they are moved to challenge oppression (Diemer & Blustein, 2006; Freire, 2003).
The next component of critical consciousness is critical motivation. Critical motivation entails commitment and intention to address inequities (Diemer et al., 2015). This state of being has also been labeled political efficacy, which reflects ones perceived capacity to effect social and political change by individual and/or collective activism. It follows that people will be much more likely to engage in critical action if they feel that they can create change (Watts et al., 2011, p. 46). Thus, ones dedication to challenging injustice may be indelibly linked to how they view the future and the role they believe they can play in defining that future.
The final component is critical action. It denotes effortsboth individual and collectiveemployed to eradicate injustice. There is evidence that critical reflection is associated with action. For instance, a Critical Consciousness Scale test demonstrated a connection between perceived inequality (critical reflection) and social political participation (critical action) (Diemer et al., 2017). These findings support the notion that deep reflection about injustices inspires action. Freire (2003) asserted, Once man perceives a challenge, understands it, and recognizes the possibilities of response, he acts. The nature of that action corresponds to the nature of his understanding (p. 83). If critical action does correspond to ones understanding, then the action taken is not uniform and not limited to grandiose gestures of discontent. Rather, critical action could be something as mundane as voting, participating in a community group, or organizing oppositional campaigns (Diemer et al., 2015; Watts et al., 2011). In any event, the discrete components of critical consciousness allow for both a nuanced and a holistic exploration of a persons state of critical consciousness.
AFTER-SCHOOL COMMUNITY-BASED PROGRAMS AND CRITICAL CONSCIOUSNESS
After-school community-based youth programs have been critiqued as vehicles that embrace deficit and dysfunctional framing of Black and low-income people (Baldridge, 2014; Halpern, 2002). Essentially, rather than situating educational and social challenges that Black students encounter as institutional failures or societal neglect, many programs label Black youth as inherently intellectually or culturally void. Arguably, the disregard for the potentiality of Black youth is unsurprising because it is aligned with the spirit of White supremacy and anti-Blackness (the view of Black people as subhuman) that is at the crux of the relationship between Black people and the United States (Bell, 1992; Dumas, 2016). Woodson (2020) wrote that nearly every social institution in the United States is fashioned to accommodate and preserve our subordination, or to otherwise compromise the humanity of Black people, including schools (p. 19). The deficit approach of many after-school programs, then, is aligned with the pattern of framing Black people as insufficient or defective (Ladson-Billings, 2007). Such framing negates individual agency and perpetuates a discourse of Black youth pathology and complacency (Baldridge, 2014; Ginwright & Cammarota, 2007). Black people, however, have always created spaces that affirmed their humanity (see Abrahams, 1992; Giddings, 1984; Rose, 1994). Sexton (2011) asserted, Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space (p. 28). Within the context of education and youth development, outer spaces are spaces of self-affirmation that challenge the deficit approach. For instance, alternative Africentric (or Afrocentric) schools frame Black youth as whole beings ripe with history, culture, and community that serve as assets in their educational development (Durden, 2007; Lomotey, 1992; Madhubuti, 1994; Murrell, 1999). Essentially, there exists a vibrant tradition of Black American self-empowerment that has enshrined cultural traditions, facilitated access to social resources, and championed civic engagement (Biondi, 2012; Bundy, 2017; Collier-Thomas & Franklin, 2001; Giddings, 1984; McKenzie, 2008; Ransby, 2003).
Despite the overriding deficit approach of some out-of-school youth programs and the framing of Black communities as pathological, community-based youth programs can serve as sites of civic engagement (Shiller, 2013). Such programs can inspire more than community development; they can encourage youth to think and act in ways to challenge social inequities (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2007; Ginwright & James, 2002; Shiller, 2013). These efforts have been described as critical civic praxis, or organizational processes that promote civic engagement among youth and elevate their critical consciousness and capacities for social justice activism (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2007, p. 699). Thus, by creating an environment that facilitates critical consciousness, youth recognize that their social positions emanate from a web of malleable social policies and practices. Most compelling, community-based programs are particularly relevant for activating consciousness and agency among racially marginalized youth. (Kirshner, 2009; Kirshner & Ginwright, 2012).
Youth programs are imbued with instructional and developmental potential. For instance, Murray and Milner (2015) proposed a pedagogical strategy to promote sociopolitical consciousness among Black youth in outside-of-school programs. Similarly, Forenza (2018) outlined how critical consciousness manifested among youth members of a state foster care advisory board. In addition, Watts et al. (2002) demonstrated how a program for Black American male youth employed hip-hop literacy to promote critical consciousness among youth. Furthermore, a study on racial consciousness among youth participants in an intergroup dialogue program found that racism awareness was heightened among participants (Aldana et al., 2012). Each of these explorations illustrate the value placed on critical consciousness pedagogy as a way to help people develop analytical skills needed to define and address social inequities.
Essentially, through education and developmental spaces that allow Black youth to heal, affirm, and challenge attacks on their humanity, they can develop the tools needed to engage in analysis of inequitable sociopolitical structures and advocate for social equity. Arguably, among the most essential tools needed is critical consciousness because it both increases knowledge about systemic constraints and promotes healing from traumas (Ginwright & James, 2002).
BROTHER TO SISTER
Led by a high school student with the assistance of his father (pseudonyms Marcus and Diop), BTS was founded in 2008 in response to cross-racial tension, intra-racial quibbles, comparatively high Black student suspension rates, and dismal college matriculation among Black students attending a traditionally White high school in the Midwest. Marcus and Diop were convinced that change could occur by creating a space for Black peer-support and Black cultural-historical education. Such a space is indicative of supplemental educational endeavors supported by immigrant and colonized communities to maintain in-group cultural integrity within a dominant (and sometimes oppressive) culture (Andrews, 2014; Gerrard, 2013; Levine-Rasky, 2014; Tsolidis & Kostogriz, 2008). Andrews (2014) explained that supplemental schools for Black students in Western contexts challenge the tendency of schools to reproduce racial inequalities based on assumed Black cultural and intellectual deficiencies:
Light is shone, not simply on whether the cultural bias in the schools is keeping Black students from equally achieving successful grades, but onto whether the knowledge itself is appropriate for any Black pupil, no matter how well heeled. The entire substance and basis of mainstream schooling is challenged. (p. 8)
Thus, BTS leaders, rather than viewing Black students as deficient, view them as vibrant, talented, and capable of fulfilling their dreams. Marcus and Diop garnered the support of the principal, who offered classroom space to hold after-school meetings. Students discovered BTS through Marcus and his friend group. In addition, knowledge of the group spread because group members sported BTS apparel. Over 10 years, membership grew from 15 students to 168 students.
During after-school weekly sessions, participants are first expected to devote time to homework and informal peer tutoring. Each session culminates with a discussion about some aspect of Black culture and solidarity. Session topics ranging from Black relationships to institutional racism derive from informal peer conversations or current events. The pedagogy is heavily based on centering the student voice via peer-to-peer dialogue with Marcus and/or Diop serving as facilitators. Additionally, the facilitators heavily employ hip-hip culture, especially music, to both generate dialogue and encourage self-reflection. BTS also encourages community involvement. For instance, BTS led a march to raise awareness about violence against women, and it sponsored tours to historically Black colleges and African American museums (see Appendix A).
Notably, members engage in bonding exercises inspired by traditional West African rites-of-passage experiences (Harvey & Hill, 2004; Monges, 1999; Warfield-Coppock, 1992). Most of the details of the BTS Rites of Passage experience were not shared with the researchers. What was made transparent is that the rites take place outside of participants comfort zones, in a rural setting, and it largely calls on the experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants. Ultimately, the goal for BTS is to equip students with information about being Black under the heel of Western imperialism and their responsibilities to resist racial tyranny by investing in themselves and other Black people. Essentially, BTS embodies several aspects of what is necessary to promote youth development, such as providing opportunities to belong, positive social norms, and mentoring (Eccles & Gootman, 2002). High school graduates continue to support the organization by serving as mentors and volunteers.
The BTS website attests to a commitment to self-love and service to others. Essentially, BTS is devoted to teaching youth how to envision themselves as part of the collective, which includes the local, national, and global Black communities. As a collective, the participants strive to promote personal and community development. As founder Marcus proclaimed, There is greatness in community through unity, love is shared between each of us, while our culture . . . won't allow us to forget our purpose. I am because we are yall. Lets be great together for each other.
AFRICENTRIC CULTURAL VALUES AS BLACK CRITICAL CONSCIOUSNESS
Much has been written about how African Americans reflect cultural values aligned with their African ancestors (Tyler et al., 2006). Africentric (or Afrocentric) cultural values and norms are steeped in the sociohistorical experiences of people of African descent (Asante, 1987). Thus, as a collective, how African Americans move through the worldtheir social and cognitive developmentis guided by traditional African worldviews and their lived experiences (Constantine et al., 2006; Gilbert et al., 2009). Africentricity has been discussed both as an assistive tool and as a cultural phenomenon rooted in the lived experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants. Research on how African Americans behave in social contexts reflects alignment with Africentric values (Belgrave et al., 2000; Gilbert et al., 2009). It is those values that inform our analysis. Arguably, the most defining characteristic of Africentric cultural value is that humanity is perceived as spiritually derived and interdependent, as opposed to fragmented and individualistic. Thus, individual identity does not make sense outside of the collective identity. Relatedly, the needs of the community supersede the needs of individuals (Mazama, 2001; Mbiti, 1970; Schiele, 1994). Much of the literature on Africentric values directly or indirectly reflects Nguzo Saba (Banks et al., 1996; Belgrave et al., 2000; Constantine et al., 2006; Grills & Longshore, 1996; Harvey & Hill, 2004). Nguzo Saba represents the seven principles and tenets of Kwanzaa (Karenga, 1997), an African American cultural celebration founded by Maulana Karenga in 1966. The principles are as follows:
Umoja (Unity)to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, and race,
Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves instead of being defined, named, created for, and spoken for by others,
Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)to build and maintain our community together and make our sisters and brothers problems our problems to solve them together,
Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)to build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together,
Nia (Purpose)to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community to restore our people to their traditional greatness,
Kuumba (Creativity)to do always as much as we can, in the way we can, to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it,
Imani (Faith)to believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers and the righteousness of our struggle. (McClester, 1985, pp. 34)
These principles serve as guidelines for ones life practice. Our contention is that Nguzo Saba is aligned with critical consciousness as a cultural response to oppression. It encourages Black descendants of slavery to question their social positioning and to act in a manner that will engender community enrichment. Thus, Nguzo Saba principles are used to inform our interpretation of participants descriptions of how BTS might have served as a vehicle to develop and enrich critical consciousness, particularly a consciousness specific to the Black experience with racism in the United States.
As noted, critical consciousness is an awareness of unjust social conditions combined with oppositional behaviors aimed at eradicating social inequities. Critical consciousness that evolves based on the Black experience in America is one rooted in the understanding that this country was built on Black suffering, from enslavement to government-sanctioned discrimination in all social institutions. Similarly, Africentric cultural values represent epistemic outer spaces rooted in awareness that Black American history and culture have traditionally been constructed to reinforce the deficit and pathological depiction of Black people (Brown & Brown, 2020; Gardner & Miranda, 2001). Hence, by combining Africentric values with critical consciousness, we speak about a critical consciousness rooted in the specific experience of being a Black person in the United States. As such, we make connections between discrete elements of Nguzo Saba and the aforementioned components of critical consciousnesscritical reflection, critical motivation, and critical action.
Critical reflection, or the self-reflective and discursive process of recognizing systemic oppression, is most aligned with Umoja, Kujichagulia, and Ujima because these Africentric values emphasize collectivism. Black people must be unified because their individual oppressions result from intentional policies and practices to undermine group liberation. Moreover, a component of unification is relinquishment of imposed definitions and the adoption of self-defined ways of being and knowing. Critical motivation, the belief that one can address social inequities, is most related to Nia and Imani because they are rooted in purpose and faith, which are arguably necessary to engender the belief that one can enhance their social condition. Finally, critical action, practices that support social equity, is most associated with Ujamma and Kuumba because it emphasizes enacting behaviors that promote Black empowerment (or community development unhindered by systemic oppression), especially through economics and creativity.
Fundamentally, Nguzo Saba allows for an analysis of critical consciousness that is mindful of how Black American cultural values are inherently associated with group-based oppression.
In addition to normalizing racism and challenging meritocratic notions, CRT states that advances in race equity only occur if they are aligned with White interests (Bell, 2004). Civil rights laws, then, were simply tools to quell social uprisings through remedies that allow for racial progress to occur at a sluggish pace (Delgado & Stefanic, 2001). To demonstrate the ineffectiveness of civil rights policies and the belief that racially marginalized groups have equitable access to social resources, experiential knowledge is advocated in CRT. According to CRT, the oppressed have insider knowledge that confronts normative constructs about opportunity and justice. Thus, their stories are oppositional resources for challenging hegemonic ideologies and repressive social practices (Delgado & Stefanic, 2001; Solorzano & Yosso, 2002). It is the criticality (naming race and racism as enduring and central to the lived experiences of Black people) of storytelling, then, that guides this study.
CRT, as a counter-storytelling approach, is also optimally important because it challenges the White racial framing of the condition of Black people. Bonilla Silva (2018) described four frames that White people used to justify racial inequities: (a) abstract liberalism argues that Black people do not work hard enough, (b) naturalization asserts that Black people organically segregate themselves, and segregation is not a result of social policies, (c) cultural racism states that Black people do not value family, safety, and educational achievement, and (d) minimization simply downplays the role of racism in the lives of Black people. Each of these frames is based on U.S. investment in fairness, meritocracy, self-sufficiency, and hard work. Moreover, Feagin (2013) noted that White people have a preoccupation with defining their Whiteness in relation to Blackness. In comparison to Black people, Feagin asserted that White people are more American, moral, intelligent, rational, attractive, and/or hardworking (p. 94) than Black people. CRT challenges the White racial frame by foregrounding systemic racism.
CRT thus provides the epistemic foundation for this study; it states that racially marginalized groups stories are valuable sources of information, particularly because they often challenge dominant narratives about how their world is experienced (Crenshaw et al., 1995; Delgado & Stefanic, 2001; Solorzano & Yosso, 2001). Counternarratives then challenge preconceptions rooted in racial inferiority/superiority tropes. Therefore, what is experienced satisfies the criteria for knowledge (Delgado & Stefanic, 2001; Solorzano & Yosso, 2002; Taylor, 1998). By employing CRT, the agentic power (Reynolds & Mayweather, 2017) of the participants is recognized, thereby challenging discourse that portrays Black youth as apathetic, dysfunctional, and deficient (Baldridge, 2014; Halpern, 2002; Spencer, 2012). This view shares with phenomenological approaches the belief that meaning making is understood to be perspectival and contextual (Heidegger, 1927/1962; J. A. Smith et al., 2009). Similarly, CRT shares with critical constructivism the notion that lived experiences and the meaning we make of them are socially constructed (Crenshaw et al., 1995; Kincheloe, 2005). Furthermore, both are invested in making transparent power dynamics, or the ways that socially constructed identities matter in resource allocation. However, what distinguishes CRT is a very explicit naming of race as a vital determinant of experiences and perceptions.
Given the role that identity plays in perception, it is important to share the researchers subjectivity. Reflexivity, the process of exploring how intersubjective factors influence research, is a way to account for the researchers perspective (Enosh et al., 2008; Finlay, 2002). Thus, we provide an account of our involvement with BTS through the narrative of the lead author who also served as the participant interviewer.
My relationship with BTS is a result of my friendship with the parents of the founding son. Our friendship partly derived from our collective participation in a rites of passage program based on African American traditions and history. After completing the rites program, my friends became actively involved in its leadership. Later, I learned that they were involved in a rites-based support group for Black students at their sons school. We agreed that it would be great to have the group empirically assessed. Thus, my role in this study corresponds with the belief that research should be connected to the researchers interests and commitments (van Manen, 2007). My relationship with key members gave me access to group documents and mundane interactions that factored into my ability to contextualize group members experiences. Nevertheless, our analysis is primarily informed by participants perceptions of their experiences.
To elicit contextual information about lived experiences within BTS, we used interviews, video recordings of BTS meetings, and narrative accounts from BTS webpages. With the assistance of founding members, we recruited participants for one-hour interviews as our primary data source. The criteria for participation were completion of rites of passage, membership for at least one year, and active participation in the group. In these interviews, we collected information about the purpose of BTS, member aspirations, leadership, transition to college, and BTS activities via a semistructured interview protocol (see Appendix B). All interviews were transcribed. Additionally, to contextualize the participants stories, we reviewed BTS web pages. The web pages provided narratives about how the group positioned itself and about how members (including some of the participants) expressed their values, experiences, and goals. Additionally, we examined four videos pertaining to BTS. The first video documents a community march designed to bring visibility about violence against women within predominantly Black communities. The second video is an excerpt of a Black history session with a guest presenter. The third video focuses on BTS members sponsoring a rites-of-passage experience for their fellow college students. The last video is a digital story about how BTS was founded, but the emphasis is on members explaining why they joined BTS. For Videos 24, brief notes were taken to describe what was being expressed.
Our analysis included a multistep process designed to capture the counternarratives of the student participants. We coded the transcripts using three stages of analysis: (a) emergent in vivo codes that are similar to the words of the participants, (b) pattern coding by grouping and summarizing codes into smaller narrative chunks (Creswell, 2013; Saldaña, 2009), and (c) question-coding the patterns based on CRT, namely the endemic nature of racism (see Appendices C and D). Hence, our question was as follows: Given the endemic nature of racism, how do these patterns counter deficit-laden perceptions of Black American experiences? Once the three stages were completed, we identified broader themes and determined alignment with the aforementioned Africentric values. After coding, we engaged in peer debriefing by discussing our codes and code rationales. To enhance qualitative validity (accuracy from the perspective of the researcher, participant, and reader), we employed thick description (detailed narrative evidence) (Patton, 2001) and data source triangulation (Patton, 1999) using previously discussed videos, social media, and web page postings to determine if there was consistency among the data. We discovered that the ideas expressed in the participants narratives were overwhelmingly consistent with those shared in the videos and on the organizations websites.
Fifteen members of BTS (eight self-defined Black females and seven self-defined Black males) participated in the interviews. With an average membership of 4.7 years, nine were college students, four were recent college graduates, and two were in high school. Six students described their economic background as poor or working class, and the remaining students defined their backgrounds as middle class. All names (including the organizations name) have been changed for anonymity.
BTS provides space for cultural affirmation and peer support. The ethos of the organization embodies collective knowledge building and action to improve social conditions among Black people, thereby exemplifying critical consciousness development among youth. In attempting to understand how critical consciousness manifests within the discourse and actions of participants, our analysis identified three themes in BTS participant discourse: (a) unification; (b) self-reclamation; and (c) agentic power. Rather than hard delineations, the themes both bleed into and build on each other. Thus, their distinctions are nuanced. Regarding social-cultural connectivity, unification captures the internal processes that generate feelings of belonging among Black people, while self-reclamation speaks to how connectivity inspires a reimagininga renewal of self. Agentic power, then, exemplifies the boundless nature of self in service to the collective Black community. The themes reflect dominant sentiments and experiences described by the participants, and they also represent a strengths-based view of Black American youth.
Unification represents a process of establishing authentic relationships or forming deep commitments to others in a supportive environment. Through weekly dialogue sessions that utilize popular culture (e.g., music, movies) to explore elements of the Black experience, BTS members embrace collectivism, intragroup diversity, and mutual accountability, as encompassed in how Diallo articulated the groups role:
The purpose of BTS is to unify our people. Not just unify our people . . . by our similarities, but by our differences. I think too many times . . . as Black people we have this certain ingrained image or how we are supposed to be. How we suppose to act, how we are suppose to respond. I feel like being in BTS allows [you] to be yourself, while also keeping collectivelyan idea that you represent somebody else. It gives you a sense of responsibility.
BTS, then, in encouraging unity, also recognized that unity does not require conforming to some archetype of Blackness. However, Diallo accepts that his individuality is a representation of Black people and understands that his positionality comes with obligation. Similarly, Jordan explained how the solidarity she experienced through BTS changed her life:
I was around people who showed me love and made me very comfortable; they made me so comfortable that I began finding myself as a person . . . learning I have the power to do whatever there is that I want to do, learning the importance of helping people, I never knew anything about my culture or how much has happened [with Black people] until I attended a BTS meeting. I learned how important education is, and I honestly would have never attended college.
Hence, BTS facilitated self-reflexivity by providing information about Black history and culture. Through exposure to intimate knowledge about blackness, Jordan was able to journey toward self-actualization as she embraced her value and recognized the worthiness of being in service to people in need. Additionally, Diallos layered conceptualization of unity is emblematic of a similar level of thoughtfulness. Their inward exploration and communal commitment exemplify critical reflection (Umoja, Kujichagulia, and Ujima), as the focus is on discursive driven introspection that to leads to both the interrogation of the status quo and self-recovery. From the participants narratives, one surmises that community wellness trumps individual prosperity. Moreover, culture is what cements the allegiance to Black people. Fitz explained why cultural context is important to BTS:
Culture is your center. Its understanding who you are, who your ancestors are, who you are so that you sort of mold and shape who your descendants will be. Culture is more than just what you wear and how you talk and where you live, but its your sense of self, your identity.
Ones sense of self, then, is rooted in ones participation in the community. It is akin to what Luana (2018) called limbic resonance, an African American aesthetic capturing how the audience and performer are necessary elements of the same performance. Here, Gregg talked about BTS as a well-trusted community:
We always have each others backs. We make sure that if we do something, its all as one. . . . You learn how to unite as one group and being able to stand up for a cause that you believe in or something in the school that you believe in, like something that might be wrong. . . . Instead of just being one person, you have other people behind you to back you up.
Thus, Greggs investment in BTS is partly due to the belief that there is a symbiosis between Black community and Black self. Within community is a persons backbone. Then, one does not have to experience the vulnerability that accompanies aloneness. Neddys description encapsulates the significance of community as he equated BTS with family:
The biggest thing to me is we have that family feel. Were sticking together no matter what. Were moving as a unit. Were all side-by-side through this whole thing, and thats why we need to have everybody on the same page. So its making sure that you lead by example for the rest of the group because thats part of your obligations, your duties.
Therefore, BTS represents a network of social and cultural support that results in connectedness, or unification. The cultural connection that binds the participants is the shared experience of being Black in America. There is a realizationan awakening that collective Blackness supersedes individuality as a necessity for survival. The participants, then, are operationalizing community as rooted in shared racialized experiences. Furthermore, being a Black person means that not only will they be viewed as representations of the collective, but they will also fare better via mutual support. In all, the discourse is most aligned with the critical reflection aspect of critical consciousness because it focuses on recognizing commonalties and defining community.
Self-reclamation is the refusal to be labeled or defined by others. Its a form of self-affirmation and self-development. In addition, it is the ability to embrace history and use that legacy for self-improvement. Through dialogue about history and culture, BTS members experienced a cultural awakening. For instance, Ali described how BTSs Rites of Passage program helped him find meaning and purpose for his life:
I think one big thing that prepares you for leadership is going through [Rites of Passage]. After that, you finally realize, this is why were here, and this is what Im set to do in life. We have a thing where we say, You are purpose. For that, its just like, you are purpose, so be. If youre a leader, you have to be a leader.
Like Ali, Diallo captured the spirit of being awakened through community and a sense of belonging:
So with BTS it really reawakened, I would say like a slumbering African spirit and allowed me to know that I didnt have to be a certain type of mold. I could break the mold on my own. And with BTS, it gave me so much . . . resiliency. That no matter what anybody threw at me, I will always have this as a safety blanket . . . to remind me . . . you always got to fight. Your suit of armor is always going to be ready cause you have BTS. Thats what it did. It changed, it elevated, it really put me into a place where I really knew who I was. It allowed to truly tap into the truly intellectual side that I have.
Thus, for Diallo, BTS acts as a resiliency incubatorproviding tools for both self-knowledge and self-love. Neddy elaborated on how the Rites of Passage experience encourages participants to be leaders:
You know, having the understanding of who you are, understanding your worth is more than what you think it is. Its boundless. And when you fully embrace yourself. . ., youre able to be a leader because your qualities come out. You find your actual strengths. . . . You can lead by example through the things youre doing. The way I look at leadership is really being comfortable with who you are. . . . Its making you someone that a person could look up to.
Accordingly, BTS members develop a sense of purpose within the context of culture and history. Latasha, too, equated BTS with self-actualization, and, like Neddy, she suggested that the group inspires members to be community centered. She said, [BTS] taught me about my history and what I can overcome by myself but also having others there for me . . . it just opened up so many levels of self-love . . . making sure youre together so you can help your community. Similarly, Bebe views BTS as a vehicle that allows Black youth to recognize how interconnectedness requires uplifting others:
I always think the biggest thing was that joining BTS opened my eyes that my goals that I want to achieve are not just for me. . . . Its more of a tool that I can use to inspire the people who are coming after me and get them together.
For participants, this sense of purpose manifests as a desire to define for themselves, name themselves, and create for themselves to elevate Black people (Kujichagulia). Essentially, members describe BTS as a catalyst for self-discovery. As noted, self-reclamation, then, is a companion to unification. While the former focuses on the immersion of self within the collective, self-reclamation is about a new knowing of self as a result of the collective. From self-definition comes the recognition that Black people are living in the wake of the unfinished project of emancipation (Sharpe, 2016, p. 5). Hence, they can and must attend to the business of self and communal liberation. This awakened consciousness most embodies elements of both critical reflection and critical motivation.
Agentic power entails a mindset and behaviors reflective of being a change agent in the community. Through education about African American history and culture, members gain a sense of responsibility and aspire to engage in behaviors that will enhance the social conditions of Black people. Fatimah, for instance, discussed how the knowledge acquired through BTS encourages self-reflection about ones role within a larger community: The things that we dowe do it for the purpose of you developing who you are and you knowing who you come from and that youre not out here by yourself at any point in the world. Relatedly, Neddy spoke about his new sense of empowerment as a result of BTS: That experience taught me that I was capable of doing whatever I wanted to do, whatever the test may bementally, emotionally. Whatever the test may be or whatever the obstacle was, I was capable of passing it. Thus, the participants position BTS as a resource for historical and cultural information that allowed them to view their full potential as both representatives and facilitators of Black excellence. Here, Cley provided an example of his awakening and how that awakening is about leading the charge to engender a more honest and holistic depiction of African American history:
He [Martin Luther King Jr.] was the pacifist, so the books force Martin into kids heads even though Malcolm and Martin both had a vital role . . . it opened my third eye that theres a lot more to our history than there really is being told . . . if we . . . keep doing this process, its just going to shed more light on people and more history, and it will make me more knowledgeable and able to reiterate this stuff back to my kids. . . . I saw a quote that said, You may kill the sender, but the message will always be there. So they killed the senders, but were the messages so were going to keep the messages going. Everybodys purpose and goal is to keep the message going.
Another way that agentic power was manifested was in how the participants discussed their career aspirations. BTS members choose careers in which they can contribute, advocate and serve their local communities, representing a long-term commitment to community building. Leya shared a BTS blueprint for Black community development,
We have a community right here, and so for us to get better, we have to give back so when we get older, whether its building stuffif you think about it, you have architecture in the groupso you put down a blueprint, and you put a center for young kids or inner city kids, smack wherever it needs to go. You have social work majors, whether its spending time with the younger kids. . . . You have doctors, lawyers . . . when I say get better and to build stuff like that, we have every aspect possible.
Neddy elaborated on the process of his career decision:
So I changed my major to public health. . . . I looked at my family and everybody has their family health issues . . . but I didnt realize how prevalent that was. . . . I noticed that one of the biggest health disparities with African Americans . . . when it came to suffering . . . and things that actually kill you [are] actually controllable. Things like diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and everything that correlates with that. . . . Learning about that, I was just like. . . . This is what I really want to get involved in. From there, it shaped my future . . . I still have that goal to be a doctor, so Im still looking at going to med school probably after I get my masters.
BTS offers a generative space for members to imagine themselves as tending to the business of Black liberation by pursuing careers that will provide skills deemed necessary to elevate the conditions that marginalize Black people. Such careers represent a vision for long-term commitments to social justicean actionable outcome of critical consciousness (critical action). Most compellingly, the narratives capture how the participants envision themselves as liberators.
As discussed, critical consciousness entails the process of reflecting on ones condition and employing ones agency to challenge oppression (Diemer et al., 2015; Freire, 2003; Watts et al., 2011). Such awareness means that people are unshackled from the idea of an unalterable reality. Correspondingly, a goal of U.S. racial justice movements has traditionally been to generate critical consciousness as a means to empower people to challenge the racial status quo. The civil rights and Black power movementswhether through Citizenship Schools or Liberation Schoolswere among the most pivotal community action endeavors to challenge the social and political dismantling of Black people (Felber, 2015; Hall, 2005; Ransby, 2003; Watkins, 2005). Essentially, these movements supported Black agency by affirming Black American lived experiences and by providing safe spaces to engineer oppositional campaigns (Collier-Thomas & Franklin, 2001). Similarly, BTS functions as a vehicle for critical consciousness through the upholding of Africentric values, and the findings are indicative of the importance of employing culturally aligned practices to facilitate engagement of racially marginalized youth (Cammarota, 2011; Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Moll et al., 1992).
As noted, there are two primary pedagogical strategies employed by BTS. The first is after-school dialogical sessions inspired by everyday issues affecting Black people. The founders used Black popular cultureespecially hip-hopto engender reflection and discussion about topics. Hip-hop culture, birthed from the need for Black and Latinx youth to self-express the raw and nuanced aspects of their everyday lives, has been used as both a therapeutic and instructional tool for marginalized youth within school and community spaces (Akom, 2009; Baszile, 2009; Hadley & Yancy, 2012). Notably, BTS deep investment in counter-hegemonic discourse through the foregrounding of Blackness and the nurturing of participant agency speaks to its alignment with critical hip-hop pedagogy, which encourages youth to interrogate oppressive conditions as a means to restore community (Akom, 2009). Similarly, the members go through a rites of passage experience designed to provide information about the trials and triumphs of the Black experience in America. BTS is part of a tradition of African American rites of passage programs that draw inspiration from practices in Africa. Warfield-Coppock (1992) stated that rites of passage is a
social and cultural inoculation process that facilitates healthy, African-centered development among African American youth and protects them against the ravages of a racist, sexist, capitalist, and oppressive society. Most importantly, it prepares them physically, mentally, and spiritually for active resistance and struggle against the seductive lure of the American Way. (p. 474)
These approaches serve as the educational milieu that inspired the narratives in this study. Unification, reclamation, and agentic power thematically encapsulate how the participants talked about their experiences. Additionally, the narratives reflect the tripartite framework of critical consciousness (critical reflection, critical motivation, and critical action). However, what distinguishes this conversation of critical consciousness is its conceptual pairing with Africentric valuesNguzo Saba. In other words, critical consciousness for Black American youth is inherently tied to the internalization of Nguzo Saba. Then what it means for Black people to recognize and challenge race oppression in America is to embrace values that affirm Black humanity.
The defining message from the Unification themea message that binds all of the themesis that through an understanding of Black culture and history, one acquires a sense of identity derived from shared struggles. This sense of identity fosters a connection with Black Americans and Black people throughout the diasporaUmoja. BTS members identification with Blackness is derived from an awareness of collective or a groups consciousness of its own pain, which inspires a collective imagination of we who suffer (Dumas, 2014 p. 6). Additionally, that the participants could speak about a distinct African American experience is indicative of how Black people have been regarded and treated in the United States. Essentiality, the specificity of African American life is marked by centuries of government-sponsored abuse and disregard (Franklin & Moss, 2003).
Thus, African Americans were able to sustain and create a cultural ethos distinct from the dominant U.S. paradigm. It is likely this cultural ethos that undergirds Kujichaguliathe determination to self-define. The participants spoke about how self-love encouraged rebirth, and in this rebirth, they understood the importance of narrating their stories. Alicia Garza (2014), one of the founders of Black Lives Matter movement, provides an example of naming self in opposition to how others attempt to alter the meaning of BLM and the people within it: When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement [that] Black poverty and genocide is state violence (para. 11). Similarly, the participants spoke about reclaiming and representing themselves: Nia. Through BTS, they found the tools to own their identities and the faith that their regenerated selves could challenge oppression and enrich Black lives: Imani. For Black Americans, self-love is particularly important because they encounter a barrage of messages that discount their value, which can lead to negative psychological and behavioral outcomes (Lewis et al., 2006; W. A. Smith et al., 2006). Many of these messages come from public schools; they act as socializing tools to help maintain the power hierarchy by requiring acceptance of dominant values, rituals, and perceptions of reality (Baszile, 2009; Brown & Brown, 2020; Potts, 2003). These schools then are designed to uphold White superiority, thereby arresting the social progress of the African Diaspora (Givens, 2016).
Relatedly, the participants mirrored Ujima as they spoke about clearing the path for those behind them. Thus, their conception of leadership was akin to creating grassroots-localized leaders with an emphasis on Black community development. Emblematic of community development are the participants career aspirations, which served a greater purpose than the duties of their chosen profession: Ujamaa. Their words are reminiscent of Ella Bakers affirmation, I never worked for an organization, I worked for a cause (Ransby, 2003, p. 209). Overall, the discourse captured an awakening process that allowed the participants to see how their present selves were just reflections of the past and mirrors of the future because Black people are indelibly bonded. This type of awaking fortified a commitment to creativitymaintaining the beauty and alleviating the pain that comes with being a Black person: Kuumba. It is through creativity that Black Americans have always affirmed their lived experiences, particularly their struggle for liberation (Neal, 1968; Riley, 1996).
CRT allowed for the foregrounding of how race functions as a meta-language because it impregnates the simplest meanings we take for granted (Higginbotham, 1992, p. 255). The primary way to capture racialized meanings, according to CRT, is through personal narratives. BTS, then, founded on the premise the being Black means living in a precarious state, provided dialogical spaces for participants to unpack their experiences. BTS understood that the participants, as descendants of Maafa (holocaust of enslavement and its aftermath), were being educated in institutions that did not honor their history or their lived experiences. Thus, in centering race, one can name the systemic ways that racism both situates Black people as subhuman and undermines their cultural lineage. Affirming Black American culture is what undergirds BTS. Accordingly, through cultural education, the participants understood that they did not have to accept or enact deficit and dysfunctional depictions of themselves. Dialogical and experiential exploration of Black American culture allowed the participants to simply become. The emphasis on cultural strengths facilitated the interrogation of how Black people move through the world unfettered and provided a blueprint for how they can achieve collective Uhuru/liberation.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
BTS informs youth-based practice through its investment in consciousness development that is heavily aligned with Africentric values. We identified three implications for practice: (a) cultivate recharging stations, (b) affirm Black students, and (c) and employ teacher practice.
CULTIVATE RECHARGING STATIONS WITH SAME-RACE PEER GROUPS
The first implication builds on the ability of BTS to foster a safe zone for Black students to affirm Black culture and to engage in critical dialogue. Essentially, BTS functions as a recharging station, or same-race space that gives students the opportunity to regain energy to negotiate predominantly White spaces (Park, 2018). Similarly, Tatum (1997) declared that cultural spaces allow Black students to feel anchored, thereby increasing the chance that they will have the stamina to engage in cross-racial dialogue and perform well academically. With recharging stations, students can find support among people who share common cultural backgrounds and experiences with racial marginalization. We believe that educators who are committed to the well-being of Black students can partner with Black history and youth development experts to model programs like BTS to create spaces for students.
AFFIRM BLACK STUDENTS
Deficit language is often used to explain the educational performance of Black students (Howard, 2013; Ladson-Billings, 2007). In K12 education, Black students typically do not find themselves or their culture reflected in the curriculum (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015). Despite these experiences, Black people have found ways to persevere and develop grit to be successful (Duckworth, 2016). In this study, one of the findings introduces the notion of agentic power. Relatedly, Carter (2008) asserted that having positive feelings about self and ones racial group is associated with positive attitudes about academic success and upward mobility. As discussed, BTS facilitates an appreciation of Blackness through the study of Black history and culture from an Africentric (nondeficit, self-affirming) approach. BTS taught participants to think beyond the limitations the world places on them by exposing them to the traditions of Black accomplishments and resilience. Hence, the participants recognized that by being their best selves, they could invest in their communities via helping professions and service. Thus, we recommend that educators institute affirming practices rooted in the culture of Black students.
The final implication of our study pertains to teacher practice. Although BTS operates on the margins by filling pedagogical gaps in a traditional school, it can inform teacher practice. Also, because it is situated in the school space, it offers a rich opportunity to consider how teacher practice can be enhanced via schoolcommunity partnerships and professional development.
Schoolcommunity partnerships entail connections between schools and community individuals, organizations, and businesses that are forged to promote students' social, emotional, physical, and intellectual development (Sanders, 2001, p. 20). Such partnerships have the potential to be successful if the partnership criteria are mutually agreed on (Sanders & Harvey, 2002). However, historically, schoolcommunity partnerships have been hampered by unclear expectations among stakeholders, lack of trust, and misaligned objectives (Bryan, 2005; Fisler & Firestone, 2006; Gross, 2015). Therefore, it is important to cautiously approach partnership to ensure a shared vision among school leaders, teachers, and community members.
BTS was able to secure buy-in from school leadership open to alternative ways to support Black students. With the support of the principal, the group had access to a classroom meeting space, including equipment for audiovisual presentations. Most important, the principal trusted that Diop and Marcus would be able to engage students in ways they thought best. Thus, a key component of this partnership rested on faith on the part of school administration and a shared commitment to facilitating student sense of belonging. What educators can take from this is the value in providing space for cultural experts to attend to the distinct needs of marginalized students.
Additionally, professional development is crucial for enhancing teaching practices and content knowledge (Creemers et al., 2013). Hence, educators can receive training to use asset-based pedagogies to better support students. Culturally relevant pedagogy, for instance, proposes to produce students who can achieve academically, produce students who demonstrate cultural competence, and develop students who can both understand and critique the existing social order (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 474). Moreover, culturally responsive pedagogy uses the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them (Gay, 2010, p. 31). Thus, to optimally teach racially marginalized students, educators must be culturally equipped. Gay (2010) recommended that educators employ culturally appropriate curricula, communication styles, and classroom instruction strategies. Professional development (school, discipline, and self-constructed), then, is one route to deepening knowledge of Black student cultures.
In advocating for professional development, we recognize that studentteacher engagement is also a space for teacherlearner reciprocity. For example, Moll et al. (1992) examined how working-class Mexican students funds of knowledge could inform classroom teaching practices. Also, Bernal (2002) advocated for affirming students of color as holders and creators of knowledge (p. 121). Thus, educators should be open for cultural learning opportunities in their everyday practice. In this way, like BTS, they may become more culturally intentional about how to construct teaching and learning environments that enhance belonging for all students.
The lesson for educators who are invested in social equity and wondering how to support students mired in frustration, confusion, and anger about seemingly endless incidents of injustice is to facilitate a space for students to dialogue about their lived experiences and their feelings about how race matters in all aspects of living. Furthermore, connecting those experiences and feelings with Black history and culture contextualizes youth dialogue by situating it within a dynamic and complex cultural-historical lineage. Equally important is the possibility of this dialogue framing how Black youth negotiate their lives. Brother to Sister is emblematic of how teaching Black history and culture within a milieu that expects excellence and community service can facilitate agency among Black youth and the create spaces where Black Lives Matter.
Black American and Black people are primarily used in this study to encompass the experiences of Black people living in the United States. However, African American is used to specifically reference the experiences of descendants of enslaved Africans.
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BTS Engagement Structure
Directly After School
Pre-Session (First Hour)
The first hour is dedicated to homework and socializing. In addition to providing an opportunity to work on academics, the first hour allows students to decompress and freely engage with their peers.
Each session starts with a check-in to assess group dynamics.
If an urgent matter needs to be addressed (e.g., threat of violence), then a discussion will ensue with students given an opportunity to self-express and unwind. The facilitator attempts to engender student emotional and physical well-being by presenting options for next steps. The check-in discussions often become topics of future sessions, thus allowing for a more in-depth exchange of ideas and perspectives on that topic.
A specific topic is introduced, such as community development, treatment of women, romantic relationships, and family.
Primary Pedagogical Approaches
Hip-Hop-Centered Dialogical Sessions
Hip-hop culture (primarily music, art, film) acts as the primary catalyst for discussion. The participants exchange ideas and come to a deeper understanding of both the topic and perspectives about the topic. Open discussion facilitates critical thinking about student perspectives and behaviors and how they affect the Black community.
Rites of Passage
Details of this process were not shared. However the goal is to encourage understanding of the Black American experience to engender commitment to challenge racial injustice, elevate Black culture, and support Black community development.
Additional Engagement Strategies
Peer support via social media check-ins
College support mentors
Older members volunteer to assist with various student engagement practices, from rites of passage, to session facilitating, to college tours.
BTS Semistructured Protocol
How would you describe your interaction with other students?
How would you describe your interaction with teachers?
Describe your participation in cocurricular activities?
What are your educational goals?
What are your career goals?
Has BTS influenced your education or career aspirations?
Before you became a member, how did you find out about BTS?
When and why did you join BTS?
What is the purpose of BTS?
Why is BTS needed?
What would you say to someone considering BTS for themselves or their child?
BTS and Belonging
Tell me a story about how you viewed your future prior to and after joining BTS.
What is the one thing that stands out about your experience in BTS?
How do you think your educational experiences would have turned out without BTS?
What makes you feel a sense of belonging within BTS?
BTS and Leadership
Based on your experiences in BTS, how would you define leadership?
How does BTS prepare you for leadership?
Tell a story about how you practice leadership outside of BTS.
BTS and Higher Education
Describe your transition from high school to college (college orientation, college prep programs, college application process, counseling, visitation, standardized testing).
What role, if any, did BTS play in transitioning to college?
If in college, what role has BTS played for you in college?
Tell a story how being a BTS member influences your college experience.
BTS and Pop Culture
What role does pop culture, particularly music, film, or TV, play in BTS?
What do you think are some major issues that all youth are facing today?
Race and Gender
Describe your race and ethnic identity.
What does that mean to you?
What role, if any, does gender play in your development through BTS?
BTS Code List
BTS Themes Connections to Codes