By Shelby Williamson, senior communication specialist in the Office of Marketing and Communication
Once a month, Dr. Robert Smith, professor of history in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences, meets with a group of about 30 young black men at Wauwatosa West High School.
Students are excused from their regularly scheduled classes to attend sessions with Dr. Smith, during which he helps moderate discussions on a variety of topics including culture, leadership, relationships, problem solving, social issues and Dr. Smith’s personal favorite: what it means to be a man.
Dr. Smith is also the director of Marquette’s Center for Urban Research, Teaching and Outreach, an intellectual axis and key convener of programs that address issues central to affirming human rights and human dignity.
He began volunteering his time for the hour-long talks at the high school in 2013 after a group of students attending a black leadership summit in Milwaukee met Dr. Smith and requested his presence at their high school.
“I think they initially wanted me to come to their school to talk about black history. Being in a predominantly white school, of course they wanted a black man to come in and talk about black stuff,” Dr. Smith said. “The humanities — my profession – teach us about who we are and answering that fundamental question of why we are here. For these students, they feel as though they haven’t learned a history that has affirmed their identity.”
With permission and support from their teacher at the time, Rebecca Kirchman, as well as Principal Frank Calarco, Dr. Smith began meeting regularly with the students — and never stopped.
Soon, the meetings blossomed into a new way for the students to take initiative in their lives both inside and outside of school.
Dr. Smith said it became apparent early on that his role was not meant to be a boss or a parent, but rather a trusted person who is there to listen.
“A lot of times, adults in these kinds of situations make the mistake of taking on a mentor or paternal role with kids or younger adults, and just tell them what to do,” he said. “The problem with this is that it has never worked.”
Instead, when Dr. Smith meets with the students, they lead the discussions — often picking a certain question to work through together, perhaps about a societal conflict or personal priorities.
Nothing is off limits during the meetings, though Dr. Smith does set some rules. The first rule, Smith said, is everybody is expected to be honest. The second rule is nothing about the discussions, especially personal stories, are ever allowed to leave the room.
The young men, Dr. Smith said, take the rules seriously and truly value them, as they have helped create a collective trust and unique bond within the group.
Through the sessions, Dr. Smith has seen the young men grow in several ways — the most profound being emotional honesty, particularly when it comes to death and grieving. He said that kind of growth can only happen in an emotionally safe space, and that is exactly what the students have created.
Dr. Smith said the students have since brought friends from different backgrounds to the meetings to engage in the discussions too.
He also shared that the sessions he does on his own time at Wauwatosa West High School are just one of a larger set of strategies across the city seeking to engage Milwaukee youth. “It’s easy to get caught up in busy work and personal lives,” Dr. Smith said. “But it’s important that every person thinks of the ways in which their lived experiences can enrich the community.”
Dr. Smith is candid about how he does not like to think of what he does as a service project. “I don’t really consider what I do ‘giving back,’ he said with a smile and chuckle. “Because I get just as much, if not more, from spending time with these young men. We all learn from each other. That is the most important component to all of this. We can all be experts in different ways.”
Do you know a faculty or staff member who gives their time and talent to service outside the university community? We want to hear about it. Share your story idea with Marquette Today by emailing Abby Cole in the Office of Marketing and Communication.