Hector Toledo, Tynayko Melendez and Raekwon Wheeler with Alpha Phi Alpha director of education Ronn Johnson, second from the left.

Hector Toledo, Tynayko Melendez and Raekwon Wheeler with Alpha Phi Alpha director of education Ronn Johnson, second from the left.

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
—Martin Luther King, Jr.

What Does It Mean to Be Brown? By Hector ToledoThirty Pairs of Eyes Staring at Me By Raekwon WheelerThe Blurry Image of Black and Latino Males By Tynayko Melendez

At a daylong summit on healthy masculinity for men and boys in western Massachusetts, three newly graduated high school students read their awardwinning essays addressing the question, “What Can Institutions,  Society, and I Do to Positively Influence the Plight of Black and Latino Males?” The oratory competition they’d entered was sponsored by Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.

Since its founding in 1906, Alpha Phi has supplied voice and vision to the struggle of African Americans and people of color around the world. What follows are excerpts from the remarks of Hector Toledo (1st place), Raekwon Wheeler (2nd place), and Tynayko Melendez (3rd place). Each received a portion of $5,000 in scholarship funds to attend college.



What Does It Mean to Be Brown?

By Hector Toledo

Hector ToledoWhat does it mean to be brown? Does it mean being a part of the 40 percent of Americans who live below the poverty line? Does it mean having a one in three chance of seeing the inside of a jail cell? No; it does not.

Did you know that it costs over $167,000 to keep an inmate in prison per year and only $39,000 to send a student to Harvard University annually? I want to be that Harvard student. With the previous percentage in mind what does that say about the systems that are in place and their priorities? It tells me that those systems would much rather remain in a status quo by sending men of color to prison rather than to college.

As a son of a man of color I have heard the stories of coming to this country with not only bright smiles and brown skin but a different language too. Stories about prejudices found not only on the factory floor but in the boardroom…

Growing up in an urban environment, with brown skin and a Hispanic name, I have had plenty of opportunities to see and experience the disadvantages that American men of color have to face… For me it starts in a school system where students of color are routinely subjected to lower expectations by a teaching staff that doesn’t look like them. There is a disconnection between them because of a difference in life experiences that does not allow the teachers to empathize with the students of color—which leads them either to have lower expectations of the students or to assume that the negative stereotypes about them are true. In my observations and readings I have found that 55 percent of men of color do not graduate from high school.

I have a story to share about my friend Luis, who unfortunately became [part of] this statistic. Luis was one of my best friends at the start of high school and he had a dream of owning a theater-studio in Springfield (Massachusetts) where he could teach children the skills of acting and public speaking because he knew how important those skills are for the community. But junior year rolls around and Luis comes to me to tell me that his grades were slipping and he was getting worried about his future. I told him not to worry; I would help him find a tutor so that he could stay on the path to getting his diploma. Then on the first day of senior year Luis is nowhere to be found and so I call him to make sure everything is all right, and he sadly informs me that he had to drop out of high school because he was not going to have enough credits to graduate and he had taken another path of education to get his GED. The last time I heard from Luis was about three months ago where he informed me that he was going down to Florida to live with his aunt because she had a “job” for him to do. I think of situations like the one my friend Luis got
caught in and it makes me think about what the community can do or what solutions I can come up with to try to prevent things like this from happening. I think of things like college essay writing competitions where scholarship money is the prize, SAT prep classes in every high school so that our students can be better prepared for the exam, or even college application classes ensuring that students will get all of the proper support that is needed…

Students entering their freshman year are not prepared for the academic rigor… resulting in a disproportionate number of students of color dropping out of high school. We can prevent this from occurring by having a better connection between teachers and parents. I believe this is important because [parents] know the child best and they are the adults who see them the most… if they were to communicate more…they would have a better all-around picture of not only how their child acts but also what is needed for them to succeed…

I am suggesting that we take a very serious look at the relationships between parents and their children because the life lessons that parents teach their children can be very beneficial not only to academics but also to how they will interact with each other once they are adults in society. Youth of color need to learn that “unless we forgive each other there can be no healing,” a quote from Arch bishop Desmond Tutu. What I get from that quote is that if we can forgive all previous prejudices of our brothers and instead help [them] to achieve greatness, then we can change ideas society has about men of color. I would like to ask you all to join me in making this beneficial change happen…


Thirty Pairs of Eyes Staring at Me

By Raekwon Wheeler

Raekwon WheelerThirty pairs of eyes staring at me. It was the summer after my junior year. I remember walking into a workshop that offered outstanding teens from Massachusetts an opportunity to learn about our country’s political process. We began watching campaign ads and analyzing the different strategies used. It didn’t become apparent to me until after an Obama ad concluded that I was the only black person in the room. As the video faded, silence fell on the room. Thirty pairs of eyes staring at me. Nervously, my peers shifted in their seats waiting for a “special” someone to respond to the ad. I felt piercing eyes on me; they were waiting to hear the “black perspective.”

Sadly, my experience is all too familiar: a man of color isolated in a space of achievement. Having been so fortunate to be part of various programs such as Boys State, I ask myself: “Why are there only a few people who look like me in these programs that are so vital for laying down the foundation of our careers?” Then it dawned upon me. Black and Latino males can’t even begin to prepare for careers or even the challenges of life if they are not sufficiently challenged in school. The question I now pose is: “What can our institutions, society, and I do to ensure that black and Latino males can have a better future?”

Growing up, I was told that education is the key to success; that no matter my socioeconomic status, if I worked hard and simply applied myself, I could accomplish anything. I never challenged this; however, I find it difficult to believe that Black and Latino males will be able to succeed if they are not challenged in school. Indeed, one of the best ways for schools to challenge Black and Latino males is by enrolling them in advanced placement classes.

According to the Annual Advance Placement report to the nation, 80 percent of Black and Latino students who could have done well in an advance placement course did not even take one! That’s four out of five Black students, and two out of every three Latino students who did not have access to advance placement courses despite being qualified for enrollment. That’s one less doctor, one less lawyer, one less teacher; indeed, one less president who can aspire to offer solutions to our world’s most pressing issues…

NBC News reported that America reached an education milestone. For the first time the nation has a high school graduation rate of more than 80 percent, in large part due to achievements among African American and Latino students. From 2006 to 2012, there was a 15 percent increase in Hispanic graduation rates and a 9 percent increase among Black students; this is not enough.

Despite decreasing the race gap in college enrollment, there is still a significant gap in the conferral of advanced degrees. As of 2012, the national center for education statistics showed that only 10 percent of Blacks and 9 percent of Hispanics had bachelor’s degrees, compared to the 71 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Of This is not surprising. If we don’t challenge young men of color in high school with college prep courses, how do we expect them to flourish in college?

As a society, we can change this. We can begin by having the voice of our communities heard in our local government and on Capitol Hill. We need to demand that our tax dollars go to bettering the resources provided to young men of color. We need to build relationships between school systems and the successful men of color in their communities, possibly through internships… We need to demand that our school systems are not teaching to the test, but teaching students how to think for themselves…

I plan on furthering my development when I enroll at Trinity College and pursue my interest in political science. I want to turn my passion for government into a means of positively enacting change in my community through the advancement of Black and Latino males. I want to be someone who takes…the lessons learned in the classroom and life to help struggling young men of color realize their potential.

To remedy the plight of Black and Latino males…I need to become my brother’s keeper. That way when the next thirty pairs of eyes, or even more, are staring at me, I will not be alone.


The Blurry Image of Black and Latino Males

By Tynayko Melendez

Tynayko MelendezThe image of Black and Latino males has become blurred over the years. Sometimes, I can’t even go into a store without being stared at. Why is that? Is it because of my skin color? Is it because of the way I might be dressed? Even when this may be the case, how am I able to rise above potential stereotypes and prejudices others may have? I believe it is due to my upbringing and the way I present myself that I am able to overlook these things. I was taught to respect others and not to stare.

To some people, Black and Latino males like myself are cast into a light where they are expected to steal; expected to pull out a gun when they reach in their pockets for a bag of Skittles; expected to have a dim outlook for their futures; expected to be monsters.

But I am here to tell you today that I am none of those things… By having a job and providing money for myself, I simply show my community that I am doing something with my life. I am becoming a responsible and independent individual.

By going to church I demonstrate my care for that faith community and for the rest of my community. Being a leader in school and in church positively impacts the students and youth who go to these institutions… Working hard with an eye towards college and beyond has been a longstanding goal for me.

I have been fortunate throughout high school to participate in Upward Bound. This program, and others like [it], is designed to help Black and Latino males get to college. The problem is not every school…has Upward Bound and that negatively impacts these students. Take my older brother, for example, who attended…a school…situated in a high poverty area. [Even though] he ultimately graduated from high school, and was able to get himself to a community college, I was shocked to hear that he had never previously heard of the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) or even the SATs. He wasn’t ready for the real world just yet. What he needed was increased exposure and comprehensive college preparation. Not only at schools like [his], but all of our schools ought to be teaching students more about college if they want successful individuals as an outcome.

[M]any schools do not have scholarship information easily accessible to students. I thought about my brother and how he must have struggled throughout high school, not knowing what he wanted in life or how he would get to where he thought he wanted to be. Then I thought of other Black and Latino brothers and how they might feel as well…

I decided to write a letter to the superintendent of schools, Daniel Warwick, informing him that not all schools in Springfield [Mass.] were receiving the same information and resources. I encouraged him to implement a plan whereby students could access scholarship information on the school system’s website. A
week later I received a response. The superintendent agreed and his director of student support services said, in part: “This will ensure that all college bound… students have access to scholarship opportunities online… We [will] provide opportunities for the 2014–2015 school year to make this information available to all students…” This was a proud moment for me personally, but more so I found happiness in finding a solution to a problem for the betterment of my peers. Yo soy el guardián de mi hermano! I am my brother’s keeper!

Each of us is charged with encouraging and uplifting each other. Many Black and Latino males are not prepared enough during high school to take courses at the college level. This could be a deterrent for many in their efforts to learn more about college, let alone matriculate. To help alleviate this problem, parents should talk to their children about college as early as possible… Parental involvement, especially in high school, portrays to the student the importance of education and that parents care about the growth and development of their sons and daughters.

Involved parents afford students the moral support they need… Our families as well as our institutions must do more to push the importance of education. Just like I have done with my brother, we all need to be our brothers’ keeper by supporting them on their educational journey. Education is what will bring our brothers out from the struggle that they are in and into prosperity.

If you want the world to know something it starts with you. Speak up and advocate for yourself because you never know what might happen. I want to show the world that if I can do it, so can others. We can all be whatever we want. I want to serve as an example to the young men who will come after me to show that they can achieve their own personal, educational and professional goals as well. Yo soy el guardian de mi hermano! I am my Brother’s Keeper!



Thanks to Alpha Phi Alpha director of education Ronn Johnson for his assistance. A longtime human services advocate, Johnson is president and chief executive officer of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, Inc., in Springfield, Massachusetts.