Scholars of Color Working in Isolation
Maurice Green talks to The Root about building a network
to support and celebrate academic success.
By: Jack White
(The Root) — Remember the name Maurice Green — not the Olympic sprinter, but the energetic young scholar who founded the International Black Doctoral Network Association Inc. The newly minted group just completed its first convention in Philadelphia, drawing 400 black Ph.D.s and doctoral candidates from a wide variety of disciplines to network, present papers and hear inspiring speeches from such luminaries as philosopher Cornel West, economist Julianne Malveaux and sociologist William Julius Wilson. Green, a doctoral candidate at City University of New York, hopes that the conference, which received support from theKnight Foundation and BMe, will lead to the creation of a permanent organization in which black intellectuals can relate both to each other and to the larger community. He sat down with The Root to outline his plans for the group.
The Root: How did you get the idea to create the Black Doctoral Network?
Maurice Green: It was about a year ago. One of the things that you experience in doctoral programs is being the one black student in the department. And that brings feelings of isolation, of people not necessarily relating to your experience as a scholar of color. I happened to run into another black scholar in a different discipline, and the connection that we had, even though we didn’t know each other and were in different fields of study, was powerfully cathartic. We made a beautiful connection on the basis of shared experience.
And I started thinking this would be a great thing to do regularly. And so I started reaching out to other doctoral candidates, not just at CUNY but at NYU and Columbia and other schools in the New York area, and we started to get together one Friday a month at a local bar, and it just grew, from 10 of us to 30 of us to people coming up from Rutgers and other places, and I started thinking that maybe we should be a little more formalized. So I created a Facebook group for black Ph.D.s. It started with 30 people, and it went to 300 to 500 members in that group.
TR: Were you surprised that so many black Ph.D. candidates share those feelings of isolation?
MG: Well, there’s what you might call a connected disconnect, in which you might be around a lot of people but you still feel alone. And what I found in the group was that so many of us all had a similar complaint, the recurring theme of isolation, isolation, isolation and loneliness, and not having faculty that related to your plight as a black academic even if they had similar interests in research.
TR: Do you think those feelings of isolation may be one of the reasons blacks have had difficulty succeeding in academia?
MG: Absolutely. There have been a lot of things written on how important it is have a connection with someone who can guide you through the academy, because it’s not simply a matter of grades; it’s also about understanding how to work through the system. It’s not just about being smart. It’s about being able to understand how to operate in the framework of a world that’s not necessarily familiar to you culturally.
TR: How many black Ph.D.s do you estimate there are in the U.S.?
MG: About 200,000.
TR: Two hundred thousand? That’s a surprisingly large number.
MG: When we started the group, I didn’t know there were 50 of us! But when we studied the census reports and other statistics, we were astounded. But what’s even more astounding than the sheer numbers is that we’re so disconnected from each other.
TR: Why do you think people aren’t aware of how much success blacks are having in academia?
MG: All too often, we operate from a deficit model. For example, we might report that the dropout rate is XYZ, but we won’t report that the graduation rate is whatever it is. I think we have to change the paradigm so that we start looking at statistics about black people in a different, more balanced way that stresses our successes as well as our problems. If Pookey shoots Tyrone, it’s in the news, but if Pookey gets an A in organic chemistry nobody knows about it. We need to re-examine how we talk about our people.
TR: Where did you find financial support for your effort to organize the network?
MG: (chuckling) To be frank, student loans. We’ve gotten support for the conference from foundations, but the development of our website, the organization, the network — that was me taking my student loan money and reallocating it to something I really believed in.
TR: How much money are we talking about?
MG: Maybe $30,000 or $40,000.
MG: Yeah, and it’s not just my money. I convinced other people, family members to chip in. We now have support from the Knight Foundation to support the conference and from the BMe organization, which is interested in improving the opportunities for young black men.
TR: You now want to make this a permanent organization. What’s its mission going forward?
MG: To continue to create spaces for the black intelligentsia to share, network and develop and — and this is the key component — to reach back into the community from which we’ve come and have a quantifiable effect on the graduation rate, the dropout rate, the achievement gap. Black people are doing great things academically, but there’s a huge disconnect between these high achievers and the community we describe as being at risk. If we can get these brilliant scholars connected to the high school students who are having trouble, we can have a huge positive effect.
TR: Does your own background play a role in defining your mission?
MG: I grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in a single-mother household in which education was very important. I’m pretty clear on how I made it. I had a strong family support system and a whole laundry list of people who believed in second and third and many more chances, and I needed all of them. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brooklyn College, both in sociology, and I’m pursuing a doctorate in criminology from City University of New York.
This is where it gets personal. I’m studying black males who have Ph.D.s or are pursuing their doctorates who came from impoverished communities. I’m looking at how these individuals defied the odds, and didn’t drop out or wind up in jail or fall into any of the other traps. I want to find out what the similarities are between these individuals who made it when other people don’t and see if there is some way we can start expanding those kinds of opportunities to many more people.
Jack White, a former columnist for Time magazine, is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va., and a contributing editor at The Root.