Attucks MS Urban Scholars who participated in the Smart’n Up! Black Male Summit held at Lone Star College in November 2019. Scholars engaged discussions related to the importance of education, perseverance to reach goals and taking advantage of opportunities to improve their lives.

The Urban Scholars program came to Houston in 2018 in partnership with the local My Brother’s Keeper chapter, seeking to help youth of color achieve not only academic and career success, but instill a commitment to community service.

Jarett Fields

Originally founded for Black males, the program now includes young ladies too, and is the signature initiative of the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) which formed in 2011 in Los Angeles. Thus, long before the Summer of George Floyd or even the horrific deaths of Tamir Rice and Travon Martin, the SJLI was fighting for social and educational racial equity, for Black and Brown youth.

Urban Scholars is currently in four HISD schools (Attucks and Clifton middle schools and Sam Houston and Wheatley high school), but hopes to expand.

The Defender recently spoke with Jarett Fields, SJLI’s Director of Educational Equity Programs, about Urban Scholars.

What is the Social Justice Learning Institute?

FIELDS: The social justice learning Institute is a nonprofit that was started in Los Angeles, California by Dr. D’Artagnan Scorza. The work of the SJLI was based on his dissertation at UCLA.

How did the SJLI find its way to Houston?

FIELDS: The SJLI started as a Black Male Youth Academy. One of the things that Dr. Scorza had in mind was really a way to empower communities through education. For him that meant helping young, Black men matriculate through both middle and high school and onto post-secondary success. Today the SJLI has three arms. We empower communities through education, health and policy advocacy.

Tell us about Urban Scholars

FIELDS: The Urban Scholars program which works with 6th – 12th graders, is run just like a normal class. It may be a student’s third, fourth period class. We have a curriculum really designed to engage middle and high school students into college level information, college level discussions, and eventually research on the path to understanding not only what it takes to be a success in a career and in college, but also how to empower their communities, how to be change agents in their communities.

So, it’s not simply an academic enhancement program

FIELDS: Our students really engage in learning about their community for the sake of being positive change in their community. We do want students to be committed to academic excellence. The program in and of itself is not just an academic program, though. A lot of our students will grow through social, emotional learning. A lot of our students will receive wrap-around services and support from both us and partnership with everything from learning how to get driver’s licenses, bus tickets, learning about their community, different organizations. They’ll be encouraged to volunteer. There’ll be exposed, not just to college tours, but they’ll be exposed to career opportunities and a number of things that really engage them not just in terms of doing well in school, but in the community in terms of trying to learn and identify ways that the community can change for the better and how they can be a part of it.

What’s the driving force behind the program?

FIELDS: The Urban Scholars program is funded through the Houston Health Department. We’re one of the My Brother’s Keepers initiatives. In Houston, just like places around the country, we see young Black men who even upon their success sometimes do not necessarily have the types of options that others have because of oppressive factors, because of neighborhood factors. We see numbers that are very concerning in terms of young Black men and their contact with law enforcement, young Black men and their opportunities dealing with employment. What we’ve done in terms of identifying the need here in Houston is think about how we can fit into that, how we can change the trajectory of young Black men, young LatinX men, into becoming change agents, positive folks in their community. And we’re looking to expand to more HISD schools and to enter Ft. Bend ISD.

What attracted you to this initiative?

FIELDS: I absolutely love my job. I love working with young kids. I love working with young men. I’m by trade, a historian and someone who’s worked in college access programs. I’ve worked as an assistant principal before and what I get to do at the Social Justice Learning Institute in terms of inspiring young men to build relationships, inspiring school leaders and partners to really work with our program, to create a trajectory for success that we just have not seen. And that is not common. And for me, the inspiration and the fire from my work comes from believing that our program not only can have a specific impact on the city of Houston, but that the young men and the young ladies that we work with will come back and be the leaders of this city. That’s why I do this work.

Do you have any program success stories that come to mind immediately?

Fields (right) with former Wheatley HS senior Toderick Hollis.

FIELDS: Definitely. One of our students, a young man who just graduated from Wheatley High School, Toderick Hollis. He’s going to Lamar University in the fall. This young man played basketball, just a really great student at Phyllis Wheatley. Two days before their graduation, we came to visit his school, gave him and other Urban Scholars participants gift baskets. Over the summer, he was going to sit on a panel for our current seniors to help them understand what was it like for him going through school, applying for schools. So, on the day that he sat on the panel, we surprised him with a gift that blew his mind. We have partnerships with different organizations. One of those partnerships is Nike and surprised him with a pair of Air Jordan Concord 11s after he had given this presentation about how hard he had worked. His mother was in tears. And after that presentation, he came up to me and said, “When I graduate from college, I want to come back and work for the Urban Scholars program.”

How can people support the program?

FIELDS: The first thing they can do is go to SJLI.org, our website, and they’ll find a number of different ways. One, you can donate money. For example, during Winter Storm Uri, one of the things that we did was make phone calls to all of our students, offered a lot of our families in the program gift cards to grocery stores. So, you can donate as an individual. You can volunteer. We had a summer program we just finished, where we’re looking for people who can expose our students to career opportunities, apprenticeships, larger community networks. Also, if you’re a nonprofit, we definitely look at organizations whose mission align with ours so we can leverage some of the skills, some of the access to information and the expertise of organizations who have services that we may not be able to offer our students. We also looking for advisory board members.