[Episcopal News Service] Around a dozen Black male students meet every Tuesday afternoon during the academic year inside the active learning space in the College of Coastal Georgia’s library to learn from and interact with community leaders.
The weekly meetings on the Brunswick campus are part of the college’s African-American Male Initiative, which was established in 2001 by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia to fill in the gaps in degree attainment existing between Black male students and their peers. Research shows there’s up to a 25% gap in college degree attainment for Black male students.
“What we do with this program is try to set them up for life,” Kyle Fox, an assistant professor of communications who volunteers to organize the weekly meetings, told Episcopal News Service. “We help them with their academics, but it’s also about social [skills] and networking. It stretches the gamut.”
The Tuesday meetings feature a short lecture followed by a discussion and other group activities. This year the initiative received support from five area Episcopal churches.
The Rev. DeWayne Cope, a former teacher who now serves as rector of St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, located just three miles away from the college, was one of four men who regularly spoke to the students during the spring semester.
Cope told ENS that speakers share their own experiences and what is on their minds. What’s important, he added, is “you start to make connections.” He recalled one conversation in which one of the students asked him how he could have a deeper relationship with God.
“They [the students] just want to hear what the speaker’s experience is and what their outlook on life is,” said Fox.
Founded in 1961, the College of Coastal Georgia is one of 26 institutions under the state university system. Its 193-acre campus is in Brunswick, a majority Black city in Glynn County, where 35.7% of people live below the poverty line, a rate three times higher than the national average.
Brunswick drew national attention in February 2020 when 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed by three white men, while he was jogging near his home at a subdivision an 18-minute drive from the Coastal Georgia campus.
Myrna Scott Amos, a retired school administrator and lay leader at St. Athanasius, is the driving force behind the five Episcopal churches’ involvement with the college. The churches – St. Athanasius, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Holy Nativity Episcopal Church and Christ Church Frederica – are organized as Glynn Episcopal Ministry.
In 2018, together with the Rev. Rita Spalding, from St. Mark’s, Scott Amos founded The Episcopal College Ministry on campus to address students’ unmet needs.
“Whatever it is that you have a need for, we want to be there for you,” Amos told ENS. The campus ministry has arranged internships and held tutoring sessions, and Spalding, who is a lawyer, has answered legal questions. They’ve even done laundry for students during finals.
“Education is a great way to build equity,” Spalding said, adding that the ministry aspires to help students to do their best, stay in school and graduate. “That’s our mission.”
In the early days, most of the students who joined the Episcopal campus ministry were, like its founders, women. But it changed over time when several male students asked if they could become part of it and most of the original female members graduated.
In November 2022, the ministry decided to become a major sponsor of the college’s African-American Male Initiative. And in May, leaders of the Glynn Episcopal Ministry, including Cope, Scott Amos and Spalding, met with the college president to present a $3,000 check.
The money will fund a retreat and a speaker series and help expand the program from serving 12 students to 30 students.
“What we’re trying to do is unlock them from becoming caught up in poverty,” Scott Amos said of the churches’ involvement in the lives of the students. According to her, many of the students she met are the first in their families to attend college and to hold a full-time job, and several are also caregivers for their parents.
“It’s unlike what I was dealing with [as a student]. I mean, I just can’t even imagine,” said Scott Amos. “When I was in school, we were 100% going to class.” She attended Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, in the 1970s. Few of her peers lived off campus or had to work, and the college prioritized support for its students. That support is something she noted as largely lacking in today’s student experience.
“When I arrived on campus, there was a foundation of support already built in,” Scott Amos told ENS. Describing it as a “safety net,” it came from faith groups she was introduced to at Spelman and other historically Black colleges or universities within the Atlanta University Center Consortium. “I’m not seeing that available for a lot of young people today.”
She remembers attending Sunday jazz worship at Danforth Chapel at Morehouse College and spending a lot of time at the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center and Chapel (now the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing). She describes the latter as a place where students could come in at any time, “play games, talk, chitchat, that kind of thing,” and where they would at times cook a simple spaghetti family dinner. These were experiences she looked forward to as a student.
“There were people there and I knew where to turn to,” Scott Amos said. “I knew where to go.” She met most of her lifelong friends at the Episcopal center, noting that she’s still in touch with people she met almost 50 years ago.
Many of the students at Coastal Georgia live off campus due to limited student housing. “They don’t have a communal connection right there on campus,” Scott Amos said.
Aside from the students’ economic and social realities, the founder of the campus ministry noted that young Black men are discriminated against in the job market at a higher level than women.
“It just seems to be that when it comes to jobs,” she said, “a Black female will get the job quicker than a Black male.” Scott Amos also emphasized the importance for male students to have interactions with strong Black male figures in the community.
Kiakala Ntemo, who moved to Brunswick in December 2021 and works as the city’s economic development manager, started as a regular speaker in the Tuesday meetings around the same time as Cope. “We know that African American men are a minority on campus,” Ntemo told ENS. “So, when you have a program established to help these kids feel more in place, it’s a really big help.”
According to Ntemo, the initiative makes the school experience more comfortable. It is also beneficial when students meet individuals who understand their background.
“When you have a visible presence of leadership, of African American male leadership, that’s going to impact the younger boys in the community,” Ntemo said. “They see men acting in leadership, so they are just going to follow suit.”
The ultimate goal, Scott Amos stressed, is to increase Black men’s graduation rate and upward mobility.
“Through our interaction, what we’re doing is trying to give them support so they can build up their leadership skills and their confidence levels,” she said. “So, they can get those positions, jobs, and in fields where they can actually make a living and be able to grow their families. … We want them to see that it’s possible.”
–Caleb Galaraga is a freelance religion reporter.