With its successful research-to-practice approach, the cohort-based program offers a pathway to broader systemic change

Brotherhood Initiative students attend a reception on the University of Washington campus.

"Racism is still there," says associate professor and Brotherhood Initiative (BI) founding director Joe Lott when asked how they are weathering the pandemic. "We had to huddle up and figure it out. Looking through research, we had to ask ourselves the best way to engage our students and facilitate learning and community in a remote atmosphere."

Lott and his team launched the BI in 2016 to create a supportive network for men of color on UW's campus. The UW College of Education initiative focuses on leadership, service and success both during school and beyond, seeking to counteract the systemic inequities that lead to men of color having lower graduation rates on campus than their white and women counterparts.

Lower graduation rates stem from racial and economic inequities and injustices. For example, a study by sociologist Ann Owens released in 2016 shows how a person's zip code predicts academic success, with less affluent neighborhoods experiencing under-resourced schools with less qualified teachers. In addition, men of color are underrepresented at competitive universities, according to a 2017 New York Times article about affirmative action. It follows that after surmounting countless systemic barriers to get to a top school, once there, these men often find their path to be a lonely and difficult one.

Creating a Space for Excellence

"Being the only one in a space is always burdensome," says Tory Brundage, a UW doctorate student, research assistant and instructor for the BI's sophomore class. "Student-athletes make up a chunk of students of color in a sequestered pathway. Do you join a fraternity? That path has its own racism and sexism problems. For men of color, it's hard to know where you fit in."

The UW pilot program has proven itself using a research-to-practice approach intended to promote college retention and graduation among men of color. With each year's cohort consisting of about 35 students, the BI team builds a learning community, including a two-year seminar that centers around health and wellness, relationships, identity, academic skill-building, campus resources, leadership development, career exploration and more. During the second year, additional focus is given to choosing and getting the most out of a major and project-based learning.

Outside of the seminar, students receive individualized support from the BI team, campus partners and BI peer mentors. Social events, workshops and support in accessing academic, research and career opportunities help round out the collective impact framework.

We try to push students to own parts of campus that they don't see themselves reflected in.

"We try to push students to own parts of campus that they don't see themselves reflected in," says Brundage.

It’s working. Students in the program have been consistently earning higher grades, with more staying in school and graduating within four years than men of color outside of the program. "If you raise expectations for people, they are going to meet them," says Lott. "We come in setting a high standard for our students, telling them we want them to get a 3.0 GPA and that if they fall below that level, there's going to be intense handholding to make sure they get there. That's one thing that has enabled us to be successful. We have high expectations of our students."

The initiative also asks students to think about their long-term impact. "We're continually handing more of the course back to the students," says Brundage. For example, a legacy project asks students to work together to leave a mark and make things a little easier for those who come after. Over the past year, all the groups focused on Black Lives Matter. "It doesn't always come to fruition," says Brundage. "But it's about creating something from nothing, having capacity without asking for permission."

Ling Yeh, the BI's director of research and programs, ensures that research and practice continually inform one another. "Prior to entering my doctorate program, I worked directly with students of color for ten years," she says. "So I came with a practitioner's lens that I can't turn off. Part of what I do is constantly gather data. We survey students, interview them, look at different trends, issues they face, GPA--a bunch of stuff to figure out, what does this cohort need at this moment in time? COVID is a perfect example. Things are always changing for students, and we're always thinking about how to improve to fit the current context."

A Larger Vision for Advancing Equity and Justice

Most of the effort’s funding comes from individual donors, family foundations, and other campus partnerships, along with the interest on a $100,000 endowment gift providing the effort with $3,000 per year. In addition to funding the core aspects of the program, donations help remove some of the barriers holding students back. For example, prep courses for tests like the LSAT or the MCAT, even offered at a discounted rate, can still cost nearly $1,000. One donor covered the cost of on-campus housing for a student for winter and spring quarters whose grades had suffered when he moved off campus. "Back on campus, he performed astronomically," says the BI's Student Success Coordinator Paul Metellus.

The BI also uses donor support to hire student interns. "One of our students had a side business doing marketing for a football camp for a former NFL player," says Metellus. "He became our marketing intern and created a yearbook that highlighted all of our graduating scholars and what they would be doing next."

The work has plenty of momentum, inspiring a Sisterhood Initiative and an emerging collaboration on a Positive Social Change Challenge with the Population Health Initiative and the UW Foster School of Business.

With more funding, including donors interested in growing the endowment, the effort could do much more. As someone whose time and energy gets spread thin, Yeh would love to see more support for sharing information about their work.

"With more money, we'd have larger cohorts," says Lott. "We would have a significant presence in the K-12 system with BI mentors helping other students of color get to college. We'd work with other institutions to help them rethink their approach."

Lott and Brundage also co-lead a study-abroad program in Rome, a pivotal experience for roughly one-half to one-third of BI students. Interested students apply and BI team members assess their readiness and interest.

"Study abroad is a very effective intervention for graduation for students of color," says Brundage. In addition to the experience giving students more confidence after they return, he also describes other levels of deep transformation related to identity development in a global context.

"When you are in a context in the U.S., you hold an identity that you may not be aware of. When students go abroad, they recognize it," says Brundage. Brundage's own independent research interests center around identity navigation abroad and situational identity negotiation, aligning with the BI's larger vision.

Next step, how do we articulate what we see on a broader scale? What other things can the UW learn from us to benefit a larger group of students of color who aren't in the BI?

"This is a research initiative," says Lott. "The goal has always been to understand from the micro to inform the macro. Social change takes time. We've collected all this data about what works. Next step, how do we articulate what we see on a broader scale? What other things can the UW learn from us to benefit a larger group of students of color who aren't in the BI?"

The work is also deeply personal. Lott was inspired to create the program to establish a roadmap to and through college for his young sons. Brundage describes how it does that in more ways than its founder might have imagined. "The program is to support undergraduate men," he says, "but there is a collection of doctoral students of color--without those young men, none of us would have endured. We're just as lonely. I have to imagine it helps Dr. Lott feel a sense of community too."

"Depending on a person's goals, the UW has all these wonderful assets and resources," says Lott. "We're creating a space for people's dreams to come true."



Charleen Wilcox, Director for Marketing & Communications, wilcoxc@uw.edu