Achieving Black and Latino Leaders of Excellence engage Swarthmore

ABLLE, or Achieving Black and Latino Leaders of Excellence, was formed last November as a closed group for Black and Latino men on campus. The group’s three pillars are academic excellence, cultural rootedness, and civic engagement, a combination which shows that it is not just a support group but also a group that will be proactive about promoting a positive image of Black and Latino men and about fighting injustices in the larger community. As Director of the Black Cultural Center and Assistant Dean Tim Sams put it, “it’s a safe space but it’s also a proactive space.”

There have been informal attempts to support these students in the past. “In past years there’s been business initiatives and weekly dinners with faculty,” explained Keith Benjamin ’09, the founder of ABLLE, “and I see ABLLE as a culmination to that… it was definitely something that was a progression, it was not something that just came out of the blue.” He continued, “we officially started in November and have really just jetted forward.” Sams was also a driving force behind the group, and he explained, “I wanted students to have a better experience at Swarthmore than that which I was observing.”

ABLLE grew in large part about concerns over the small number of black and Latino male students on campus. According to Dean of Multicultural Education Darryl Smaw, there are currently 49 Black males and 53 Hispanic and Latino males on campus, as opposed to 80 black women and 101 Hispanic and Latina women. Smaw said that there are simply fewer Black and Latino males in the college pipeline than there are females, and “it’s absolutely a societal problem.”

Smaw explained that “across college campuses, and not just here at Swarthmore, Black and Latino male students are experiencing a number of challenges both socially and academically that do not lead to their academic success and graduation at predominantly white institutions… while the numbers are goin up in terms of these students going to college, the challenge remains in getting them graduated.” Although the graduation rates for Black and Latino men at Swarthmore are no different from other groups of students, Smaw described ABLLE as providing “the types of support that will ensure their being able to take full advantage of their time here at Swarthmore.”

According to Smaw, some of the challenges faced by Black and Latino men at Swarthmore and at other schools include “how they are perceived by the dominant culture on campus… how do I explore my own identity as a Black or Latino male in the context of a predominantly white community?” He continued, “the challenges are academic in terms of assumptions that are made by faculty regarding academic abilities, the challenges are fitting into a culture that may not always be receptive to me and my presence on campus… there’s always the question of walking to campus at night and being stopped, and the perception that there’s going to be some trouble emanating from a group of such students… while this could seem harsh, it exists here at Swarthmore and everywhere else.”

“When you don’t have a high population you need a group like this, ” explained member Romane Paul ’10, “because it provides that environment for those people to come together… that kind of environment is necessary.” Sams would agree, since “there has to be for every student a space where their world view is normal and there’s no need for explanations… there has to be a way in which they can engage that conversation without having to defend and explain themselves.” Sams continued that for Black and Latino males at Swarthmore, “there’s a feeling of being under the microscope because there are so few of them.” He later elaborated, “if they do well they’re exceptions, and if they don’t it’s a fulfilled prophecy.”

Javier Camacho ’09 spoke about his personal experience with stereotypes of failure. “Every single day that I’m at Swarthmore I feel like I have to succeed not only for myself but also that I have to prove the stereotype wrong… in my culture it is expected for the Latino male not to educate themselves but to enter into a blue-collar job where you’re going to immediately see money and provide for your family financially.” He continued, “a lot of my friends did not go to college because they were expected to enter the workforce or join the military… what happens is that when Latino males go to college, their families can suffer financially… a Latino male has to carry on more responsibilities.”

Camacho likes the fact that ABLLE brings together Black and Latino men “because historically we have faced a lot of the same issues ,and why not create a group where we can show that Black and Latino males can promote good in the community?” He continued, “if you look towards our prisons, it’s mostly Black and Latino males… you always hear about the bad things, and where are all the good things?”

For these reasons and others, “there is a supportive aspect to ABLLE,” said Saeed Ola ’07, “we want to make sure that the brothers in the organization feel as though someone has their back.” Camacho explained that for example, when students in the group notice that other students aren’t showing up, “we try to reach out to them… we understand that the deans can get on them, but we like to show that their own peer also cares about how they’re doing in class… sometimes it’s a little daunting to talk to your professor or dean.”

The members also stress that ABLLE is a proactive organization. “It’s not just figuring out what the problems are, but what we can do and what progressive sense we can bring,” said Benjamin. “If that means helping a brother figure out a summer internship that’s what it means, if it means going down to DC and lobbying that’s what it means.” They hope to have a presence on campus through sponsoring speakers and other events, but according to Benjamin, “it’s also about what we do beyond that and what we do when we leave here… we’re forcing the college to do what its mission statement says in terms of creating individuals who get into the world and do things to change it.”

This proactive spirit is expressed through civic engagement. The men in the organization work with tutoring group Dare to Soar and the Blueprint Project, where college students serve as mentors for high school students in Chester, who in turn serve as mentors for middle school students. Camacho explained that “these students need to get to college as well, and we’re helping those students create the blueprint of their lives… we all had to figure out some way to get here, and so we know how to succeed.”

ABLLE is planning to hold a conference next November for Black and Latino males from colleges in the Consortium of High Achievement and Success, a group of thirty-four private liberal arts colleges and small universities committed to promoting high achievement especially among students of color. Swarthmore is an excellent place for such a conference, said Smaw, because “having returned from a national conference about this issue, I can say that our program was one of the highlights… we are ahead of the game in addressing the issue of finding ways to be supportive of our Black and Latino students on campus, and I was pleased at where we are on this inititative in comparison to other institutions.”

Camacho expressed excitement about the conference, saying, “I want to put ABLLE on the map at Swarthmore… I want them to know that yes, we are a group of Black and Latino males, and we’ll pull together to identify problems and create solutions to this epidemic.”


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