Isiah Sheppard’s award-winning documentary about Roosevelt University’s founding is as much about leadership as it is about history, which isn’t surprising given his participation in the University’s Black Male Leadership Academy (BMLA).
In the nine-minute video that was a finalist in this year’s Chicago and Illinois state history fairs, Sheppard sounds older and wiser than his 16 years as he ponders the meaning of leadership, a trait that his BMLA mentors – all successful black men at Roosevelt – have modeled and encouraged.
“What does it mean to be a leader?” Sheppard asks as the camera pans Chicago’s skyline for the piece that includes interviews with retired Roosevelt President Chuck Middleton and University Historian Lynn Weiner.
“To have courage?” he continues, hitting on a theme of the documentary that traces the actions of a leader, Roosevelt’s pioneering first president Edward J. Sparling.
“To put your livelihood on the line for the greater good of others?” he asks, spotlighting Sparling’s principled decision to found Roosevelt in 1945 as a place where blacks, Jews and other minority groups would be welcomed, even as other colleges, using admission quotas, turned them away.
“It’s impressive that someone so young would delve into something like this,” said Weiner, who was struck during interviews for the documentary by Sheppard’s formal appearance in suit and tie and questions he’d prepared in advance. “It says a lot about a program that’s obviously succeeding in building bridges to African American males, giving them the confidence and opportunity to achieve great things.”
Started in the summer of 2014 by Roosevelt’s St. Clair Drake Center for African and African American Studies, the BMLA reaches out to promising young black teens who are entering their sophomore year of high school, helping them build up four capitals: intellectual capability, cultural experience, social grace and leadership skills.
So far, 34 black male teens, including Sheppard, have participated in the program that is now in its second year of operation. The program offers a one-week summer session that was held July 21-24 as well as programming on the second Saturday of every month at the University.
“Initially, I wanted the Drake Center to do more outreach into the community,” said Al Bennett, director of the Center that is named for the late St. Clair Drake, a Roosevelt professor whose pioneering work in African American studies is legendary. “As I looked for opportunities, I began to think about black boys and wondered what we as an institution could do to help prepare them to go out in the world and be successful.”
From that brainstorm sprang the BMLA, a college-preparatory, life-skills and cultural-awareness program pairing talented but at-risk black males from Chicago high schools with African American male students, faculty and staff at Roosevelt.
Initially the concept wasn’t a hit, according to Bennett, who remembers being asked, “But what about girls?” To which he replied: “We’ve got to start out by helping the least advantaged, and at this juncture in our society, it is black males who are most at risk for failure.”
Leading by Example: As part of the BMLA experience, teens and their mentors from Roosevelt University take a number of field trips that help them get to know Chicago better
Bennett’s research into specifics bears out the sad reality. African American males are behind other groups in reading scores, in graduating from high school and in attending and graduating from college. Meanwhile, they are at enormous risk for spending time in prison, living below the poverty line and being unemployed.
Bennett broached his idea for the BMLA about two years ago with Roosevelt University Honorary Trustee Robert Johnson, a 1958 alumnus who had studied with and was mentored while at Roosevelt by Drake.
“I was from a poor neighborhood and I wasn’t a very good high school student,” said Johnson, who has written a personal essay that spells out why he decided to financially support a three-year pilot of the BMLA. “I knew I could have been one of those who failed,” said Johnson, the first African American vice president of Sears Roebuck and Co. “When I heard about the concept, I thought ‘This program might have a chance to make a difference.’”
Additional financial support for the pilot came from Chicagoan Margery Feitler and Elissa Efroymson, vice chair of the Efroymson Family Fund. “The world we live in is competitive and I believe that kids from a young age need to know what they must do in order to compete,” said Feitler.
“There are many young people who are talented and smart but who need an opportunity to meet and be inspired by others to let them know paths they may take themselves,” added Efroymson. “That’s why I wanted to help. I believe this project can become a national model.”
Winner of the prestigious Game Changer award from the city of Chicago’s One Summer Chicago in 2014, the BMLA currently is being evaluated by Roosevelt’s Policy Research Collaborative for data/evidence that could take the program to the next level.
Before entering the BMLA in the summer of 2014, Sheppard had never walked along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile or been inside the Lyric Opera House or Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art; he didn’t have a passport; and hadn’t been away from home for any length of time, until spending a week during the last two summers in a Roosevelt Wabash Building dorm suite with his BMLA “brothers.”
“I loved being able to stay at the University,” said Sheppard, now a junior at Westinghouse High School on Chicago’s West Side. “My experiences in the BMLA have me hooked on the idea of living on campus when I go to college.”
Frank Pettis, a political science major and May 2015 Roosevelt graduate, shared his own struggle in learning to read, an experience that bonded him with a teen who stumbled aloud over words in the BMLA syllabus. “He seemed nervous, but no one laughed. No one heaped scorn,” Pettis wrote of the encounter. “I patted him on his back. ‘I know the struggle bro, just keep reading,’ I told him. ‘The more you struggle the more it will go away.’”
“These youth are not stereotypical black males of their generation. They are my little brothers. I plan to see them grow and mature into successful black men,” wrote another mentor, Roosevelt journalism major Joshua Hicks.
“If we raise the bar on what’s possible, I believe these kids will rise to the challenge.”
Michael Ford, Roosevelt University Chief of Staff
One mentor in particular, Michael Ford, chief of staff to Roosevelt’s president, has been a positive role model for BMLA participants.
“He (Ford) taught me how to compose an email with a nice opening, good grammar and a professional closing,” said Sheppard, who then contacted Roosevelt’s historian for interviews for his school and history fair project.
Ford recalls brainstorming with Sheppard on options for approaching the topic that was listed as a project possibility on the Chicago Metro History Fair website. He encouraged Sheppard to take it from there.
“My role is to try and help these guys visualize and actualize their ideas,” said Ford, who believes the number-one challenge for BMLA participants is to get beyond society’s low expectations and negative stereotypes of black men. “If we raise the bar on what’s possible, I believe these kids will rise to the challenge. Here’s a project with no limitations and look at how far it went.”
When Sheppard’s high school history teacher, Linda Becker, first saw Sheppard’s documentary on Roosevelt’s founding, she recalls being “absolutely blown away” by its content, including images and mention of some of Roosevelt’s famous African American male students like the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis and composer and instrumentalist Anthony Braxton.
“Isiah used to be quiet. With this project, he seems to have become more comfortable with himself. Besides academic skills, he’s improved his networking skills and become more outgoing and social,” she said.
One of those whom Sheppard has networked with extensively is fellow Westinghouse High School student Kendall Relf, a fellow BMLA participant who helped Sheppard edit his documentary on Roosevelt’s founding. “Before the BMLA, Isiah and I knew each other a little, but now we’re great friends,” said Relf.
The two BMLA participants co-founded an after-school club at Westinghouse, Potato Lounge, where they write sketches and produce a TV comedy series about life in high school called “Room 210.”
A musician who plays guitar, piano, bass and drums, Sheppard credits another of his black male mentors in the BMLA, Roosevelt musical theatre major Jalen Eason, with helping him brainstorm ideas for the new comedy series.
“The biggest thing I try to get across is getting these guys to understand how important it is to get an education,” said Eason, who, like Sheppard, had family support, but few other African American male mentors while growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Without an education, most black men in America are likely to face a lot of trials and tribulations,” Eason said.
Sheppard’s mother, Aida Roldan, said she hopes her son will consider Roosevelt University as a college option.
“My son has been motivated since he did the documentary,” she said. “Now, he wants to do more. He wants to be more. He wants to succeed more. I give a lot of credit to Roosevelt and the BMLA for helping him to come such a long way.”