Minority Role Models:
A Lifeline to stability and success
Frank Posey of Owensboro has had many role models. When he was a boy, Joe Lewis, Jackie Robinson and Nat King Cole caught his attention. As he got older, it was his mother and grandmother who taught him about life and what to expect growing up as an African-American in a small rural Kentucky town. As a young man, he would sit for hours and listen while a black doctor gave advice on hard lessons learned.
As a result, Posey, now 66, came to know how to react when a restaurant owner in Texas directed him to eat in the kitchen. He discovered life wasn’t always fair, for example, when he was barred from swimming in a hotel’s pool. His role models showed him that a person’s honor and ethic are really all he has: Overcome obstacles and learn from the experience. Work hard to be somebody. Work harder to be the best. “I can remember coming up as a young man, there were not a lot of black role models here,” Posey said. “Banks and any place you had in business, it was hard in Owensboro to go in and see black people working there. But if you left Owensboro and went to a larger city, you would.
You felt that there was no hope here for you, so you looked forward to growing up and leaving here.” Owensboro still lacks minority role models in many segments of the community – there are few African-American physicians, lawyers, and business owners. Part of the reason is the small number of African-Americans in Daviess County at only three percent. But is the community doing as much as it can to encourage minorities to live and work here?
Schools struggle to offer role models
That’s a particularly critical question for Owensboro’s young people, whether black or white. “We need good role models for all of our kids,” said Scott Hawkins, director of personnel for the Daviess County Public Schools. “They need to see a diverse teaching staff. They need to see that minorities can be successful no matter what the occupation.”
At the beginning of the 2005-06 school year there were 10-15 minority teachers in the county schools, a number that Hawkins acknowledges is low. Recruiting more is difficult because of competition from districts in metropolitan areas such as Louisville and Nashville. Still, Hawkins regularly attends recruitment fairs, hosts receptions for potential faculty and maintains close ties with the local chapter of the NAACP as well as colleges to funnel more minorities into education and back into local schools. The Owensboro Public School System has had representatives attend similar recruitment fairs, said Pat Ashley, assistant superintendent for instruction. She believes that all students benefit from a diverse teaching staff. African-American students will have role models who look like them, and white students will see successful people of color.
“That’s why it’s important for all kids to see diversity represented,” she said. At the postsecondary level, all Kentucky colleges and universities have programs to help minorities overcome obstacles that may keep them from obtaining a degree. One important element of these programs is role modeling. Some students “may be the only African-American in the classroom,” said Sherron Jackson, assistant vice president of equal opportunities and finance at the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. “They may have concerns and may feel the need to seek out advice on how to deal with an issue before it becomes a roadblock.” The Owensboro Community and Technical College has met its goal of four percent minority faculty, or six full-time faculty members. And it has seen a 70 by Lydia Johnson Public Life Advocate – September 2005 14 www.plfo.org percent increase in the number of African-American students since the fall 1999 semester. In 2004 there were 184 minorities out of a total 4,896 enrollees. “We really want to create more of a culture where diversity is valued and people are attracted to this work environment,” said Dr. Greg Labyak, dean of academic affairs.
That can be important, according to Shameka Neely, 24. Neely received encouragement and guidance through a program designed for African-American females at Western Kentucky University. She now is coordinator for minority recruitment at the university and understands from both the student and mentor perspectives the importance of having a role model with a similar history. “So many times, especially the African-American males, they feel like they are not treated fairly,” Neely said. “A lot of times, there are only two or three (African-Americans) in a classroom. If they aren’t used to that, I think they close up. They just feel uncomfortable. Just being able to talk to someone about frustrations helps.”
Private sector also has challenges
Beyond schools and universities, many firms in small communities find it challenging to recruit African-American professionals. Rural areas are often training grounds for the professionals who spend a couple years working in their field and then are hired away to larger cities with higher-paying jobs and more amenities.
What would it take to keep them in Owensboro?
“You have to give them a reason that they can come into the community and financially prosper beyond the school teachers’ level,” said Howard Bailey, assistant vice president for student affairs and highest ranking African American administrative official at Western Kentucky University. “You will have to go out and recruit. The law firms are going to have to bite the bullet and pay them more. A black kid from Owensboro has got to say there’s a black attorney in my town.”
At the same time, communities may also need to consider other amenities that may attract and retain professional minorities. “In our economic times, any individual that is considered a limited commodity will cost you more,” Jackson added. “If the local community embraces that individual and that individual can participate in that local community, then that may be what holds them there. The intangible can be just as important in holding that person in the community.”
Where are other role models?
It’s common to think of role modeling in terms of national minority “success stories” such as Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby or Michael Jordan. But family and the community should produce the primary crop of role models, according to the book “Launching Our Black Children for Success” by Dr. Joyce A. Ladner, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.
Other studies suggest that mentors do not necessarily have to be of the same ethnicity or even gender. It is more important for mentors to show sincere interest and to build a mutually benefiting relationship with the youth they are mentoring, according to the study Mentoring and Relational Mutuality: Protégés’ Perspectives published in the Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development in Spring 2002. Posey agrees with that definition of a role model.
When he wanted more than a production job at Green River Steel in Owensboro during the 1960s, he sought help from a white coworker who was an electrician. Day or night, the friend helped Posey learn the trade. Posey became the first African-American electrician at the plant and retired 37 years later. “There was feedback between the both of us,” Posey said. “He taught me about electricity, and I taught him about life.”
The men remain friends to this day. For Owensboro resident Norma Avila-Brown, however, having a role model with the same Latino heritage was vital. She arrived in this country six years ago with a master’s degree in early childhood education and after running her own preschool in Mexico. But those credentials were not enough to stave off the questions that arose when she became a supervisor at one place she worked (not her current employer). “
American people ask why you are my supervisor if you are from Mexico,” Brown said. But two local relatives, a cardiologist and pathologist, advised her to hang in there. “They teach me first to be patient,” she said. “The culture and everything is completely different here. The process for hiring. The process for finding a job.” “It’s very important for minorities to have a role model,” she added. “And if that role model is from the same country or from the same minority group, it’s better.”
Regardless of the race or ethnicity, Ladner advises communities to seek out positive role models who will take an interest in helping others, particularly youth. Many will offer help if just asked. She also encourages anyone seeking role models to monitor the news for stories of successful minorities to share with youth. Otherwise, children and adults alike will suffer when they don’t see that all people can be successful, regardless of the color of their skin.