Anchoring Our Communities Through Service: The HBCU Role in Strengthening Black Communities

Anchoring Our Communities Through Service: The HBCU Role in Strengthening Black Communities

Brandon D. Brown (Howard University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1181-7.ch006


Black communities and Historically Black Colleges and Universities are linked through shared history and purpose in the United States. Founded to provide Black citizens with a mechanism for education and social mobility, HBCUs continue to play a critical role in the shaping of Black communities throughout the country. At this critical juncture in the histories of Black Americans and Black institutions, it is critical to examine the role that HBCUs can continue to play in addressing the needs of Black people and Black communities. In this chapter, readers will engage in a dialogue with the author regarding the ways in which HBCUs can aid Black communities despite other phenomena occurring in society, such as gentrification, mass incarceration, and school systems that routinely disengage Black students.
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According to Murphy and Rasch (2008), service to the community has always been a core component of the experience at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). This point is supported by the fact that the mission statements of many of these institutions include explicit commitments to developing socially aware and civically engaged students to meet the needs of their identified community. In “The Mis-Engagement of Higher Education: A Case for Liberation Engagement at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” Smith (2017) reiterates service to the community as a unifying, singular mission that is interwoven into the fabric of all HBCUs:

That singular mission is an understood obligation or social contract for HBCU students and graduates to be civically engaged to advance the economic, educational, political and social uplift of Black people throughout the diaspora. To share their knowledge with those not afforded the opportunity of higher education in ways that will improve their lives and their community is an expectation—one not commonly referred to in the HBCU community as civic engagement. (p. 2)

Since their founding, HBCUs have represented a new and different aspiration for Black people in the United States. The ability to pursue higher education, along with the subsequent professional and personal advancement, has had tremendous effects on Black communities and the country at large. Accounting for only 3 percent of higher education institutions in the country, HBCUs continue to educate nearly 20 percent of college-going Black students at the undergraduate level while also serving 9 of the top 10 schools to graduate Black students who go on to earn doctoral degrees (Mutakabbir, 2011). Moreover, it appears that the environment and culture of these institutions are a major contributing factor in facilitating the success of their students while in college and after they graduate (Bridges, 2018). Regarding life after college, there is an increasing body of research into colleges ‘and universities’ ability to be engines of upward social mobility. Although this has been a major claim of all colleges and universities, Chetty, Friedman, Saez, Turner, and Yagan (2017) found that HBCUs actually live up to this claim with “over 85 percent of the HBCUs assessed in the study possessing higher mobility scores than the average across all institutions in the U.S.” (Reeves & Joo, 2017, para. 5).

Thus, in citing the expectation of engagement and some of the educational benefits and implications for the quality of life an HBCU degree can afford, this chapter posits that these institutions are uniquely positioned to partner with Black communities for mutual uplift. To provide grounding in the topic at hand, a brief history of the founding of HBCUs will be provided, followed by an overview of town-gown engagement and how this shows up at HBCUs. Finally, the chapter will conclude with selected examples of HBCU town-gown engagement and a discussion of current issues facing Black communities that HBCUs are best suited to address through intentional initiatives that leverage the wealth of knowledge and expertise inherent in these institutions.

Finally, it is essential to be upfront and transparent about the usage of certain terminology when discussing historically marginalized populations. In this chapter you will notice the intentional usage of “Black(s) or Black Americans” as opposed to “African-American.” The author made this decision in order to honor the full breadth of people and communities in America that possess Black identities due to their racial and ethnic composition, skin color, identity, consciousness, and lived experiences, I found Black and Black Americans to be the most inclusive term(s). Some of the research into this topic, also reveals that Black is more inclusive than African Americans, who are defined by some experts due to their ability to trace their ancestry within the U.S. as a result of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The truth is that America's structural and systemic racism is rooted in anti-Blackness where skin color is targeted, regardless of the individual's birthplace. Thus, Blacks and Black Americans provides a unifying identity when considering the academic, social, and physical communities centered in this chapter.

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