As soon as he stepped into the Tuskegee University Chapel – with its century-old pews and stained glass – Airrion Williams could instantly describe the atmosphere of this Alabama university:
“It’s unapologetically black.”
Growing up, Airrion knew how important it was for people of color to be represented in education and to have a support system that understood the experiences unique to black youth. Now a specialist at Neighborhood House’s Gang Reduction and Intervention Program (GRIP), he applies his experiences as a mentor and resource for teen boys and girls of color. His most recent effort: taking youth on Stepping in the Right Direction’s historically black college tours.
“Seeing a historically black college could inspire them in their everyday lives, improving their academics, relationships, and behavior,” he says. “I knew it would be a powerful experience for them.”
It was settled. For one week in June, five of Neighborhood House’s GRIP youth would tour eight historically black colleges and universities: Tuskegee University, Morehouse College, Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, North Carolina A&T State University, Howard University, Hampton University, and Norfolk State University.
The impact on GRIP youth was clear as soon as they boarded their 6 a.m. flight out of Minnesota. For some of them, it was their first time going on a large trip, let alone a plane ride. Layovers and bus rides later, the GRIP youth joined other black teens who came across the country for the tour.
Airrion then noticed a change in his youth’s mannerisms: one of unity and comfort.
“Just being around other black teens and students empowered them. They felt able to speak more freely, unfiltered, understanding what it meant to have solidarity with their peers,” he says. “The realization that they could enter college, pursue their careers, and be among black peers was enough for them to brighten up.”
The typical college tour routine took on a stronger meaning for GRIP’s youth at these colleges. Talking with black academics, professors, athletes, and staff helped them picture themselves on campus. Visiting black fraternities and sororities introduced them to experiences of brotherhood, sisterhood, and camaraderie that they may not have had while growing up. They even saw performances of stepping, a percussive dance historically performed by black Greek life.
Most importantly, the tour gave insight to where these young and ambitious black teens fit into the narrative of black academia in America. In between eating at college dining halls and walking through campus chapels, the youth also learned of the historical racial tensions, threats, and violence that black students of the past century faced for going to college.
“That’s when it really clicked with the youth, when they realized what the price of education has been for black students,” Airrion says. “They saw the historical context of black colleges and universities, and they knew they had to persevere and be resilient.”
GRIP youth returned from the tour with a new outlook on their future and how they can contribute to the larger conversation on race. In the meantime, Airrion hopes to make these trips an annual activity and give more St. Paul youth a chance to have this experience as well.
“When the youth got to be around black leaders and students who were passionate about what they were doing, they had hope in their future.”