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Spartan alumni empowering and mentoring Black students

Two Spartan alumni are working to empower Black students in Michigan through mentoring and leadership development. Ongoing mentoring relationships have a powerful impact on young people. Research shows that students who have mentors in their lives are 55 percent more likely to enroll in college and 130 percent more likely to hold leadership positions in the future.

Rhonda Walker is a 1991 graduate of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, and Detroiters may know her as the co-anchor of the weekday morning newscast at WDIV Local 4 News, Detroit's NBC affiliate.

Off-camera, Rhonda is the founder of Rhonda Walker Foundation, an organization that works to empower inner city teen girls toward becoming strong and successful future leaders. The foundation's mentoring program boasts a 100 percent high school graduation and college enrollment rate.

Walker says she was inspired to start her foundation by the young people she would meet when guest speaking at schools in Detroit.

“I started realizing that you really can't change much in one conversation with children,” Walker says. “You have to have sustainable conversations featuring empowering messaging and expose the girls to resources and mentoring so they can see other professional women, particularly for these teen girls, that they can aspire to become.”

Ideally, believes Walker, a mentor should be someone outside one’s family.

“It's a new voice that's able to provide you guidance from a different perspective. And it's also attention. When you're mentoring a teen girl, you're showing that she's important, that her interests and her concerns are important to you, and that you're taking your personal time to give that child attention. That means a lot. It’s the personal attention, and it's also the positive messages, guidance, and support for the parents.?

“Sometimes someone outside of your family has the resources, the experiences, or just the similar interests that can meet that child where they are and really help them to dream bigger, aspire bigger, and help build confidence. They know that they have that special person that's rooting for them.”

Walker says watching her father mentor children while she was growing up in Lansing also inspires her to give back. And she believes mentoring is important for everyone, including teen girls.

“It's important for young black girls to realize that they can accomplish anything. And that sometimes when you're a minority, you don't see as many people doing the things that you aspire or want to do. And you think that it's because you're a minority. Or for some reason, those opportunities aren't available for you. The kids I work with are growing up in inner city Detroit in predominantly Black schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods. And when you grow up that way, you're not having a lot of exposure to what the real world looks like and having real world interaction with people from different cultures.”

Walker describes how her mentees are responding to and processing the killing of George Floyd and the broad awakening people of all colors are having to the racism African Americans have faced for years.

“It's also a time to reflect, too, on all of the opportunity that is out there for African Americans already. There are some injustices, but there is so much opportunity for us to change that. Our kids can go into the legal profession. They can become renowned judges. They can run for office and assume those leadership roles.

“And I do think that the movement is so strong right now that a lot of companies are rethinking hiring and rethinking boards and rethinking what can they do as executives or as business owners to help provide more opportunity for African American people.

“I'm very encouraged. I'm especially encouraged, too, by the diversity of those who are demonstrating and speaking out. They're from all walks of life, all ages, all races, and that's what our country is.

“And I think sometimes we have to remind ourselves that this is a great country to be in, and that there are a lot of positive things that happen here. There's a lot of opportunity to change some of the things that need to be changed. I don't know, I'm just an optimist and I feel really good about where we are.”

Walker says empowering teen girls is her way of giving back, and she encourages all of us to find our own ways to make our communities better.

Tim Herd is a 2019 graduate from the College of Education. As a junior at MSU, Tim launched a student organization called Rising Black Men, a group dedicated to the mentorship of Black male undergraduate students at MSU. The group was so successful in its first year on campus that it was recognized as the student organization of the year and quickly drew attention from beyond East Lansing.

Tim has spoken about Rising Black Men at institutions such as Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California.

He and his three fellow African American freshmen at MSU didn’t always feel like they fit in and belonged at MSU when they first arrived.

“I realized that my situation wasn't necessarily an anomaly and that was reflected across the institution. And I realized that four to six-year graduation rates for Black men at other four to six-year institutions was one of the lowest amongst other demographics.

“I started to get involved with different organizations on campus, such as the Urban Educators Cohort Program and the Intercultural Aid Program. Being able to use those resources and the people who I came across, I decided in my junior year that it was time to be the change that I wanted to see.

“I went about brainstorming with one of my mentors, Dr. Chezare Warren, a faculty member within the College of Education. And he was like, ‘You should think about creating your own group.’ That was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to see how I could join and help find a solution. And the solution I came up with was establishing Rising Black Men.”

Herd had the privilege of growing up in a two-parent household with college-educated parents in Grosse Pointe.

“So in terms of that sense of belonging or that culture shock, that wasn't something I'd experienced because I'm originally from the east side of Detroit. But in the fifth grade, I moved to Grosse Pointe. But at MSU I saw a lot of students coming from Detroit Public Schools, and many experienced some type of culture shock from going from a predominantly Black neighborhood in a predominantly Black area to a place where there are 50,000 students.

“And it's not just in terms of being a predominantly white institution, but just all types of people. We have a large population of international students. So that can be an adjustment, and it can be an adjustment for every student.

“That sense of wanting to belong is something that I've seen. One of the biggest things I saw was a need for mentorship. And like Ms. Walker said, not just for Black men, but across the board. But if I was to pinpoint one problem or one area in which I see that there needed to be a solution for, it would be in that sense of belonging and feeling like you really belonged there.”

Herd talks about how his organization connects college students with professionals and MSU students with K-12 students in the Lansing School District.

“I really wanted to do that is to provide exposure because you don't know if you don't see.

“So even for me, growing up in a two-parent household in Grosse Pointe in a middle to upper class neighborhood, I didn't see a lot of Black professionals prior to entering Michigan State. When I got to Michigan State, that was a shock for me because I hadn't seen other Black people who had their PhDs, and who were achieving at high levels.

“For me, that was exposure that motivated me even more to want to first go into the field of education, but then also to pay it forward. And what I've done and what we've been able to do, or have been privileged to be able to do within Rising Black Men, is going to the K-12 school system within Lansing and work with young Black men. We talk with the students about things like financial literacy and that sense of belonging to help develop confidence.

“So often you hear this narrative that Black men might not succeed at the same rate as other demographics and that Black men only have sports as their outlet to success. And if they don't succeed in sports, then they're not going to make it. But there are plenty of other outlets. The whole idea is to provide that exposure and mentoring.

“So just being present in those spaces in K-12 is important because it shows that you're just there for them. We say ‘I'm here for you and I'm going to help you. And I'm going to connect you because my whole idea is it takes a village; nobody can do it alone.’ That's what we try to provide within Rising Black Men. Building that village and providing that exposure and really helping with that mentorship is what we’re all about.”

Watch the MSU Alumni Office Facebook Live video of this conversation here.

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