A month ago the Dallas Morning News reported that in 2016, only one college in Texas graduated more than 100 black men who had started at the school as freshmen. Though more black and Latino students are attending and graduating from college than a decade ago, their numbers still lag behind white students—a gap that Southern Methodist University’s Candice Bledsoe is trying to dissolve. A professor of liberal studies (and a woman of color herself), she founded the Action Research Center to teach minority high school students and their parents about tools needed to be successful in college.
Bledsoe also leads The Collective, which provides space for women of color to share their stories via meetings and symposiums throughout the year. We met with Bledsoe on the hilltop to talk about her passion for education—and what’s keeping students out of college.
What inspired you to found the Action Research Center?
It really starts with my grandmother. She instilled in me this love for education and community. She would just infuse what it meant to have community and the ability to have education. My grandmother passed away shortly after I graduated with my doctorate, but she was able to see this love of education really manifested [in me]. I would always have people ask, “Candice, are you willing to mentor my child?” I said it could be really awesome if we bring these young people together and not only myself, but through my network and friends willing to share their expertise, support students and let them know that there are people who look like them in successful careers. That’s really where this concept for the Action Research Center took place. I really believe in action, supporting and doing––that’s something that came from my grandmother.
What events and programs does the Action Research Center host?
We have different programs throughout the year that our students are able to be a part of. We do have a Youth Summit that takes place every year in April on a college campus––the last couple of years we’ve been at SMU. It allows SMU professionals and people from the greater community to come in and pour into the students. The diversity within our mentorship is really powerful because [the students] are able to see examples of a variety of different people. We continue to stay connected with them throughout the year, sending out communication about when PSATs are taking place, a variety of timeline issues that are needed for them to be successful in college.
How can the white community support students of color? And how can students of color support one another?
Hire faculty, staff and administrators of color at universities––representation matters. Create safe spaces for students of color to share their experiences. Provide need-based and merit-based support to first generation and underrepresented students and provide courses that promote cultural awareness, appreciation and human dignity. Students of color can create study groups and social groups such as sororities, fraternities and community service organizations to help create strong communities of support. These organizations can provide peer mentoring, strong student alliance and lifelong friendships, which are needed for academic and professional success.
What about The Collective—how did that start?
As a black woman growing up and pursuing my Ph.D., I was always in awe of the lack of people of color in higher education at predominantly white institutions. For black women [and other] women of color, our voices are often left out. In every system we see how gender, ethnicity and race plays a part in the experiences of women of color and how they’re treated. That was something very real to me. There is so much that we miss because women of color are not allowed to share their stories. I wanted [a place where these stories could be told], and it started here two years ago with the SMU Women of Color Research Cluster, where women of color could come together and we could hear the victories, difficulties and triumphs of other women of color. There are people from the greater community who wanted to participate and that’s how The Collective (we call it The Collective when it’s off-campus) came to be.
Why is it important to our society that these stories are told?
I think that it’s important that these stories are told because they are treasures. I believe that they empower us to overcome institutionalized racism. As we listen to the stories of women of color, we will be able to see some of the hard issues that these women have been able to overcome and we can be inspired and motivated to walk within our boldness. We also understand too that [there] are some things we can do as a society to be more inclusive and be more supportive––when we see other women of color, we can reach out in support.
What do you think is the biggest threat to minorities, and how can we help?
Ignorance would be the biggest––people who are perpetuating ignorance and who have the inability to see people as human. When you no longer see someone as human, you see them as disposable. We hurt ourselves as a society when we do that because we have so much to offer. If we can really learn how to connect with one another and celebrate each other’s uniqueness without race and gender inhibiting us, moving forward, there are so many things that we could do. We should celebrate each other’s uniqueness––I don’t believe it should be something that stops us from working together, from seeing each other as human, or creating some type of conflict or issue. We’ve been able to create all different types of medicines, we’ve been on the cutting edge of so many things, but how further could we be along if we were willing to give everyone the support that they needed?