What Detroit Schools Can Learn From PWIs Co-Opting HBCU Culture

I spend a lot of my time in local high schools throughout Southeastern Michigan, with a particular concentration on Detroit Public Schools and charter schools. For as much as I recruit for my HBCU, I am also committed to recruiting students for other HBCUs that are not Howard University.

This week, a visit to my local high school was, by far, the most disturbing experience for a number of reasons. The school was reminiscent of the famously fictional East Side High. The Detroit Public Schools Community District has risen from a state-imposed takeover, and with district leadership aware of its glaring need to recruit minority educators.

As I sat in the high school, I saw an even greater need; a need that I know could be addressed by HBCU educated people and our leaders. And unfortunately, it is a need that will not be filled or actualized overnight. The city of Detroit is one of the nation’s majority-black city centers. DPSCD students and families, and those who serve in our schools need a culture shift; teachers, staff, and others who serve in these schools need substantive, transformative, and experience-based training that can only be obtained on the campus of an HBCU.

If predominantly white institutions (PWIs) can co-opt the HBCU experience to attract black and other minority students by appearing to be more diverse and inclusive, can the same be done by secondary educational districts? Resources make these efforts possible at PWIs – schools like the University of North Carolina Greensboro or the University of Louisiana Monroe give black students an appearance of inclusivity and community while they pursue their education.

This commodification is flattering but it does not yield better results and outcomes for black students who attend PWIs. At best, it is a superficial representation of what these schools like black students want, and at worst, provides little of what they actually need.

So what if districts with predominantly black and diverse high schools were able to take the model and to make it more than a functioning representation of HBCU life and benefits after high school graduation? Most middle and high schools do a good job of bringing some element of HBCU culture to their students; whether it’s marching bands emulating the style and culture of HBCU musicians, or students immersing themselves in the history and accomplishments of HBCU graduates during Black History Month.

All of us have a little HBCU in us. But what if districts were more aggressive in recruiting the teachers and administrators trained at HBCUs, in order to distill the secrets of how black institutions spot and refine talent even from the most unlikely of sources (i.e., low-income families and communities.)

If any institution knows how to teach, train, discipline, love on, and push through black students in any given city or county where black talent is short on cultivation but long on ability, it’s HBCUs. Cities like Detroit want to have stronger pipelines to college and job training, especially as the city continues to rebound as a viable metropolitan destination.

The idea of a Black Experience, in particular, the HBCU experience, being commodified is not a bad idea, it just matters who or which institution is doing the work.