Darkest Before the Dawn: A True Test of Leadership by Thomas James

The art industry is one of the toughest fields to break into, so when I decided that I may want to pursue a career in the arts I knew the only opportunity that would be given to me was one I created for myself. During the fall of 2015 I called Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts (MD Hall) – an arts center I learned about from a woman I met the summer prior – and asked if they offered internships; they informed me they don’t usually host interns, but that they would figure something out for me. So, I began working there as an assistant curator under the direction of their gallery manager and her understudy, both well-decorated curators themselves. They showed me the ropes and before my internship ended January of 2016 I had helped curate and hang three exhibitions. I then returned to school and curated my own photography exhibition entitled The Legion of Imagination (which is another story in itself). That exhibition had over 100 people collectively attend the opening reception and 7 pieces were sold.

Then during the spring of 2016, after curating a few exhibitions and thinking I was getting the hang of things, the gallery manager at MD Hall called and told me they had an exhibition opening for their showing that upcoming November. She asked if I’d like to curate it and I of course accepted her offer. I pitched the idea of an exhibition which was to be called Darkest Before the Dawn – meant to emphasis the beauty in dark colored artwork.

In the ensuing months, I acquired the showcasing artists and the 30+ professional pieces of artwork that were to be displayed; after marketing the exhibition to multiple galleries I was able to travel the exhibition to a second gallery in Washington, DC called the ArtReach Gallery; and we were able to attract collectors and ended up selling some of the artwork. This, an almost 11-month process, started me on a path that truly tested my leadership skills, business acclimate, and determination for success. Not only did I have to curate this exhibition, I had to mastermind it's success. 

Below I have listed the most relevant skills I further developed and honed in on in order to guarantee the success of my art exhibition. They are as follows:

Delegation:

  • For the exhibition’s first appearance, at MD Hall, with the exception of some help I received from friends and family, it was basically me doing everything. For the most part I was doing all the promotion, hanging all of the pieces, contacting all the artists, galleries, and media outlets, etc. This was extremely stressful and honestly that (among other things) was probably one of the reasons I felt that I fell short during the MD Hall showing. We didn’t sell any artwork and not as many people as I had hoped came to view the show. So, one night after I was finished playing basketball I called my friend Sydney, who lived down the street from the gym, and asked if I could come over and grab some food (very random). She said yes and when I got over there we began to talk about our lives. She told me how she was looking to get into the public relations field, so wasting no time I asked her if she wanted to join my team for the exhibition’s next showing in Washington, DC at the ArtReach Gallery. She agreed (thankfully) and I had myself a Public Relations/Promotions Manager! After that I began to assemble what became a nine person team to help with all the heavy lifting and assembling – which was a huge help. Delegating the tasks to my PR Manager made my job 100 times easier, so I was able to focus on other things that allowed the recognition of the exhibition to grow extensively.

Patience:

  • This exhibition featured nine artists and I had to work closely with each gallery’s manager as well as my own team. So, at any point in time I was responsible for communicating with at least 10 different people. This meant working with 10 different schedules, and 10 different work and communication styles. Prior to this exhibition, my work style was – you contact me/I contact you, let’s get it done right then and there. I was used to a more fast-paced work style. But this time, I was on other people’s time and it was very difficult for me to adjust. I would get anxious if someone didn’t email or call me back in a reasonable amount of time or if I had to push a deadline back because I was waiting on something or someone.

  • I did not realize how impatient I had become and I had gotten so frustrated with everyone around me that one of my team members, Mohammed, said to me, ‘Hey man, don’t hound people. I know you want to get things done, but you don’t want to seem pushy.’ From then on I really took a step back and started to only worry about the things I could control, while still making sure I was doing my due diligence. Being proactive instead of pushy became the end result.

Grit

  • Just like anything else, proper promotion was one of the most important aspects needed for the show’s success. So, what did I do? I mapped out different areas/entities in Annapolis, Prince George’s County, and Washington, DC to promote – post the call for entry, hang flyers, and anything else I could do to bring positive attention to the exhibition. These lists included art galleries, art centers, restaurants, local colleges and universities, art blogs, and even gyms that sold artwork (strange, right?). Just about every weeknight and/or weekend I went out and hung flyers either by myself or with Sydney once she joined the team. This was a very grueling process, because we would spend all day driving, parking, getting out, posting up the flyers, getting back in the car, and doing it all over again for hours; or I would sit in my living room crafting different emails to lots of local folks trying to build interest and potentially get promotion from them. It really showed me that you have to keep going even when it gets difficult; even when you’re discouraged; even when you start to think, ‘will hanging one more flyer or sending on more email even do anything?’; You just have to embrace the grind because it will pay off in the end.

Clear Communication

  • For success with anything, communication is key! With that in-mind I had to make sure all my communication was efficient and effective. Between artists, gallery managers, my team, and the public I had a lot of people to communicate with in a number of different capacities and languages. One of the most important communication tools I had to handle was the artist and gallery contracts. Writing legal language was very different than any other form of communication I had created up to that point. I had to make sure everything was properly written in a way that was clear for my artists, and I also had to make sure I fully understood and abided by the language used by the galleries before I signed contracts with them.

  • Next was making sure I communicated effectively via email, over the phone, and in-person. When you’re moving art, putting holes in gallery walls, and orchestrating art purchases with collectors you must know exactly who you’re communicating with and what is the most appropriate way to get your point across. Before I sent an email I made sure I answered questions before they were asked and explained procedures so thoroughly anyone could basically use my email as a how-to guide. In addition to that, I did not hesitate for follow up with reminder calls and texts as necessary. When dealing in the art world there is a lot of red tape, so one must make sure he/she is knowledgeable of all procedures, dos and don’ts, and best practices; because if something is communicating incorrectly a piece of work may not be delivered on time (or at all), a piece may be hung incorrectly, or even worse a piece of art might not be purchased.

Attention to Detail

  • In addition to communication, paying attention to detail was super important. Having a second person look over everything was crucial, because you never want to release anything to the public, go back to read it and realize you made a simple error that could have been avoided. I had to learn the hard way a few times. Due to haste, and/or me just being impatient, I either released something or had something printed with a minor spelling error. Once I recognized the mistake I had to backtrack in some way and correct it before it was noticed.

  • This wasted time and resources, and further encouraged me to make sure I had someone looking over every single piece of communication I administered to the public. Two times in-particular this became vital. First, was when I had to write the contracts for the artists. Being responsible for over $30,000 dollars worth of art was very nerve-racking, so I had to make sure my team and I were covered through the liability outlined in the contracts. Also, I had to make sure the artists were well-informed about their rights and how things were going to run throughout this process. I had to write the contracts myself and have an insurance agent go over them to ensure the artists, the gallery, and I were all fairly represented. The second time having someone read over my work became important was when it was time to create and send out the flyers for the first show. Pressing to meet my deadline, I sent a batch of flyers to be printed, but guess what? They had a spelling error! I had to go back, correct it, and then order ANOTHER batch. Once you have had to go through that annoying process of feeling silly because of your lack of attention to detail, you will NEVER make that mistake again.

Budgeting and Bootstrapping

  • Putting on a travelling, independent art exhibition is not as cheap as one may think. Prior to accepting the offer, I did not realize all the expenses that had to go into it. I budgeted for aspects and materials I knew I needed to purchase such as food, cups, napkins, labels, adhesive, and nametags; But there were a lot of other unexpected purchases I ended up having to make such as d-ring installation nails, storage space for the artwork in-between exhibitions, extra packing materials, and more! All of these hidden costs forced me to bootstrap (meaning cutting costs in crafty and creative ways when you have minimal capital) as much as I could. Anything I could borrow, I did! I borrowed electric drills, tables and table cloths, nails, putty, coolers, lifts, and ladders (and probably more). When you’re low on funds, but high on costs, bootstrapping is definitely the way to go!

Networking and Diligence

  • Utilizing my network was one of the most important aspects of the entire exhibition. For viewing/attendance purposes, word of mouth is the most impactful way information travels. Physically telling people to check out the exhibition was one of the most important forms of communication. I used this to my advantage and was able to get representatives from entities like aCreativeDC, DC Arts and Humanities Council, and Maryland Institute for the Creative Arts (MICA) to view the exhibition because they either knew me or someone else that told them about it. All of that was possible because of my network.

  • I was also able to get the exhibition on Prince George’s Television because I utilized my network and contacted someone I knew at the station. The interview we filmed was aired and viewed at three different times the week before the closing reception. No doubt this brought more attention to the exhibition as a whole.

  • Lastly, I not only utilized the current network I had at the time, but I grew my network even larger by physically going to places and events and promoting the exhibition. Each person I met while promoting I urged to check out the exhibition – I even agreed to meet up with a couple of people at the gallery when they told me they were coming to view it. I agreed to walk them through the entire exhibition as long as it meant they would actually come and see it! In order to make that work I had to diligently and strategically promote the exhibition and encourage people to view it. Now, because of this, my network is even larger than before!

Thinking Creatively and Knowing Your Audience

  • Exhibition’s receptions, whether opening or closing, are probably my favorite part of the entire process. For our two receptions my team and I wanted to make sure we thoroughly engaged the crowd. Sometimes at exhibit openings, people will only view a few pieces of art and then just proceed to consume the provided food and wine. Or you may get some people that come in and view all of the pieces, but the only look at each one for 2 seconds. We had over 30 pieces of art in this exhibition and I wanted to make sure each one received its proper recognition. How did I ensure that happened? Well I decided to have a “Viewer’s Choice Award” in-which each viewer that came to the reception would receive a catalog with all of the artwork listed and were would then be instructed to view each piece of art in-depth. They were then to choose their favorite pieces, rank them 1-3 (1 being the highest), and put their selection in a collection box provided by my team. Then, near the end of the night, I collected all of the catalogs, tallied up the votes, and presented the winning artist with their award (which happened to be Susan G. DeVan at the MD Hall reception and Luther Wright at the ArtReach Gallery reception). This was one of the most creative decisions made throughout the entire process because it ensured that people would look at all of the artwork present. It also gave everyone a chance to be a critic and let their voice (and vote) be heard. It gave power to the viewer, and judging by the amount of responses and great reviews, this was a wise decision.

  • As my team and I were putting together the aesthetics of the exhibition (besides the crazy impressive art hanging on the walls) we had to vet out some of our ideas due to the different audiences we would encounter in the different cities. Washington, DC has more of a contemporary/millennial crowd that appreciates art in a bit of a non-traditional way, while Annapolis, MD has a more traditional crowd of art viewers. To cater to those two crowds we had to make changes at each reception. For example, at the ArtReach Gallery (in Washington, DC) reception we had a playlist of moody-trap beats playing in the background, adding an element of mood-setting sound to the exhibition – which is a bit untraditional. For the reception at MD Hall (in Annapolis, MD) we decided not to include the music portion because we wanted to make sure the more traditional viewers could view the artwork in a capacity in which they were comfortable. Both of these decisions were strategic in way of making sure that not only our viewers were engaged, but that they were engaged in ways they would appreciate.

Results

All in all, what were the results? Tangibles? Intangibles? Overall experience? I’ll give you four big aspects that describe the exhibition’s success and what came of it:

  1. An independent art exhibition featuring nine very talented artists was able to travel to two major cities in the DMV area (greater metropolitan area of Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia) and received a good amount of recognition.

  2. We sold $2,100 dollars worth of art

  3. I got the opportunity to expand my network of artists as well as business people

  4. I learned a lot about myself, leadership, professionalism, and what it takes to make an idea come to life; as well as how to turn a creation into a huge success.

This was an experience I will never forget and one I will forever cherish and appreciate. Being a young professional I am always looking for new ways to increase my knowledge and skill capacity, and curating this exhibition fulfilled that 100 times over. Thank you to the staffs at MD Hall and ArtReach Gallery, my awesome team, my family and friends, and everyone who supported the exhibition whether you came to view the artwork or you promoted it on your Instagram page. I promise I’m going to keep growing and moving on to bigger and better things!

7 Tips to Networking for Young Professionals by Thomas James

YOUR NETWORK IS YOUR NET WORTH

Being a young professional, it is important to give your career a jumpstart! This is accomplished by creating your own opportunities and discovering what's out there and available to you. Throughout the last 4 years, during and post-college, I have held full-time, part-time, and internship positions at seven different organizations, some national some local, (including Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Teach For America, and Target). I was able to secure an interview with each of these companies because I either knew someone who knew someone or I discovered an opportunity I could take advantage of by either meeting someone, hearing something from someone, or reading about an opportunity somewhere. None of these opportunities would have been possible if it wasn't for networking.

Before I go any further I want to define "networking." Networking is an activity by which individuals meet with the intent to form business relationships and in-turn utilize them to create, or act upon business opportunities, share information, and seek potential partners for different ventures. In layman's terms, networking entails meeting groups of people in order to gain new contacts that could potentially help you in the future... Although it can be intimidating, trust me its easier than it seems, and once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. With that said, I wanted to provide you with some tips on how to network with people while at an event, a meeting, etc. I hope this helps!

1. GO TO THE EVENT! In order to begin the networking process, you must first get up and get out there! Whether it's an industry networking event, career fair, award ceremony, or even an art exhibition reception, if you want to become skilled at networking you must begin to view every event as an opportunity to network. 

2. PUT DOWN THE PHONE AND GO TALK TO SOMEONE! At networking events there’s no such thing as being “too cool." Isolating yourself by texting or being on Instagram and Twitter makes you look unapproachable and everyone else will look at you like, “why is he/she even here?” Or worse, people may not even notice you if you're on your phone, because they're out there, where you should be, getting their connections up! Being on your phone is a defense mechanism we now use to avoid uncomfortable situations. The best part about a networking event is that there's no need to feel uncomfortable; easier said than done, but you must remember that everyone there is looking to meet new people and connect with people like yourself. People aren’t going to approach someone on their phone, so put it on silent and go create some opportunities for yourself!

3. ASK QUESTIONS! No matter who they are, people LOVE to talk about themselves. I've found that asking people simple, interesting, intelligent questions is the quickest way to make a new connection. It makes you seem competent and knowledge-seeking. Unfortunately, when trying to network with new people many times we become tongue-tied and/or can't think of any icebreakers. So, here are a few easy conversation-starting questions you can use to spark up a potentially great conversation:

a.       What brings you here (to this event)?

b.      How’d you hear about this event?

c.       Do you know anyone involved with hosting the event?

d.     Do you come to these events often?

e.     Do you find value in these types of events?

f.      Do you have any success stories from an event such as this one?

4. TRY TO FIND SOME COMMON GROUND. At networking events everyone in attendance is there to (hopefully) make connections that can help grow their business in some way, shape or form. By finding common ground you’ll be able to tell whether or not this person can really help you get to where you want to be. So, tell this person what you do and what you hope to accomplish, and in return they’ll probably tell you the same. From there, if they can help you in some way, they’ll usually tell you or vice versa. A common mistake young professionals are prone to making is being short-sited. Since we want quick success we subconsciously weed-out people that cannot help us right then and there, when in actuality this person's assistance may not be able to kick in until months, or even years, later. For example: I interned at a gallery for a few months before ending my tenure there in January 2016. It wasn't until March 2016 that they called me with a exhibition curating opportunity for the upcoming November 2016. So, throughout the entirety of working at this gallery, it wasn't until almost 3 months after I had left that they actually offered me a tangible opportunity... Patience is a virtue.

5. KEEP YOUR CONVERSATIONS QUICK (PREFERABLY)!  In order to network with as many people as possible keep your conversations between 30 seconds to 2 minutes (depending on how interesting the conversation is). Usually 30 seconds – 2 minutes is all the time you need to ask your questions, work your charm, gain the information you need, and decide whether or not you want to connect with this person anymore. As a young professional just beginning to network, you may be hesitant to cut conversations short because you may feel as though you’re being rude to the person you’re conversing with – but it’s not rude at all! You are there for one purpose: Meet and talk to as many people as possible! So, when you’ve gathered all the information you need, exchange contact information (if necessary), wait for a pause, then politely excuse yourself and thank him/her for speaking with you.

6. GO BY YOURSELF! Unless you’re going to an event with your business partner or someone that understands why you’re attending the event in the first place, going to a networking event by yourself is the best decision. Going with a friend, sibling, significant other, etc. can be a disadvantage because he/she will distract you from your goal of networking with as many people as possible. If you bring someone along you’ll be tempted to just talk to that person which won’t allow you to get out of your shell and put yourself out there. Also, going with someone else may also give you anxiety. Going alone gives you the advantage of avoiding the thought of being judged – you’re speaking to people you’ve never met before and you probably won’t ever see them again. So, you’re free to practice your spiel a couple times before you get it right, with no pressure. If you go to the event with someone you already know you may feel embarrassed if you mess up or get tongue tied while in that person’s presence. Now, I completely understand wanting to travel to an event with another person and that’s fine as long as both of you agree to go your separate ways once you step into the event. You can agree to go together, network alone, then meet up once the event has concluded.

7. BE YOURSELF! When people say this they don’t mean, be the wild Friday night version of yourself, but they also aren't referring to your quiet as kept sitting in the back of the classroom version of yourself either. When you approach someone, just talk to him/her as if he/she was one of your friends or someone you just met at a cookout or something. Be polite, but don’t be afraid to share your ideas and to let your personality shine through. By speaking to the real, honest, and candid you, people will figure out whether or not they think you’ll be a good person to work with. This is probably the most difficult aspect to master because many of us may feel unauthentic or that we're "putting on a show" when we network with others. I've heard people say such things as, "I feel bad because I'm only talking to people to get money out of them." And that is a HUGE misconception. Networking is used to share ideas and connections that will help us advance as business men and women, innovators, and just human beings in general. There's no shame, no dishonesty, nothing of that sort. You're literally there to tell people your ideas and/or what you're currently doing, and then see whether or not he/she would like to help you in any capacity; and in return you're doing the same for him/her. So, you're not being dishonest or not being yourself at all! You're simply exchanging one thing for another. We all need to realize that networking is just another one of life's transaction. 

**BONUS TECHNIQUES:

Set a goal of how many people you'd like to talk to/connect with before the event is done: This technique has helped me multiple times! When at a networking event of any sort you're playing a numbers game. The more people you talk to, the more likely you are to gain a useful connection. I'll give you an example and a true story... I remember once I went to an event with the mindset of, "okay, tonight I'm going to connect with at least 10 new people." A pretty decent goal I'd say, but the way I looked at it was, "if I talk to 10 people, I'll leave with at least a couple cool connections." And what do you know?! Two out of the ten people I connected with ended up being awesome connections for me - hey 20% ain't bad! One person I connected with ended up taking me a Christmas party, 6 months after we met, and introduced me to some pretty important people within the DC Arts community. The other person ended up becoming a great event photography client! Always remember this quote when setting networking goals: 

Reach for the stars, so if you fall you’ll land on a cloud
— Kanye West

Have the person you’re connecting with take a picture of your business card: Coming from a person that always carries business cards this technique seemed a little strange to me when I first heard it. But unfortunately when you hand someone your card, sometimes he/she may accidentally lose it. So, if you just have him/her take a picture of your business card, you lessen your chances of them losing your information, because it will automatically be on their phone (which is great because we live in an age where we’re all connected to our phones). So, they’ll be reminded of you when they check their phone, and may even be impressed with this new technique you’ll be showing them!

DEBT OR IN JAIL by Thomas James

Before undertaking this project I was looking for an outlet to really show people the hardships being faced by not necessarily myself in-particular, but of my counterparts and those around me. I found that combining my artistry with research was the best way to do so. [Although black men were the focus of the photography in this project I recognize that these issues are widespread throughout the entire black community]

This project is centered around a two-pronged problem – black college students are trapped between two potential forms of enslavement: crippling student debt and the prison industrial complex. Even with a college degree, black students are faced with challenges of paying back high-interest loans and potential discrimination-based imprisonment...

But before we get too deep, let’s start with some impressive stats:

Black student enrollment at higher-education institutions has almost tripled since 1990. Of the 20.2 million students currently attending college in the United States, about 15% of them are black.

However...

40% of black college students drop out of school before completing their degree! On top of that, only 42% of all black college students actually graduate within the expected 4 yearscompared to the national average of 59%!

So, even though we’re getting into colleges we aren’t always able to stay enrolled or finish on time. 

When exploring why such a high number of black college students either drop out or struggle to receive their diploma, we need to examine the institutional powers that influence black students’ everyday lives.

Economic Disadvantage and the Black Family

The first and biggest reason is: THE COST OF COLLEGE. According to the Center for American Progress, 69% of black students cited high tuition costs as their reasoning for dropping out. This stat gets even scarier when you find out that 81% of black college students borrow money to pay for their schooling. That means that out of the current 2.9 million black college students, 2.4 million of them are taking out loans to pay for college.

8-out-of-10 black students take out loans to pay for their secondary schooling

8-out-of-10 black students take out loans to pay for their secondary schooling

So why is college too expensive for these black students? Because black families usually have no assets or disposable income to pull from – leaving them with student loans as their only feasible option.

The majority of black families only earn an average of $33K a year, while the typical middle-class white family, whose children make up 56% of the college student population in the United States, makes an average of $68K per year – over a $30,000 dollar annual difference!

And aside from actual income, the gap between the average white family’s and black family’s net worth is also alarming.

For those of you who don’t know, net worth is made up of more than just the money you have in the bank. Net worth is your assets weighed against your debts. An asset is anything you can quickly liquidate/sell for cash – things like your house, car, savings accounts, investments, etc. A debt is anything you are obligated to pay off – this can include your mortgage, car payment, credit card debt, student loan debt, etc. So to calculate your net worth, you subtract your debts from your assets.

The average white family has a net worth of $116,000 dollars – in contrast to the average black family who has a net worth of $1,700 dollars Over a $100,000 dollar difference! And if that wasn’t scary enough, about 40% of black families have a $0 to negative net worth.

What exactly does this mean? This means the majority of white families have a lot more money and resources to pull from in order to fund their child’s college education, while black families do not.

Now let's put these statistics into context: the average college or university has a average yearly cost of $15K – this includes tuition, fees, and room and board. Even after financial aid, most colleges cost 28% of a given family’s income. For the average black family 28% of $33K is about $10K, which would leave the family with $23K – right at the poverty line for families of 4 or more. Since a vast number of families can’t pay for college without going into poverty, the payment of schooling falls squarely on the shoulders of the black student. So in-turn, black students end up taking on even more debt. This is why a large portion of black students graduate with a minimum debt of $30K, while all other students come out with an average of $26K.

Now that we’ve covered the financial reasons, let’s consider the second biggest aspect influencing black students’ lives...

Racial Climate and Lack of Positive Racial Atmospheres

Racial climate refers to whether or not minority students feel as though their school supports their differences and/or the hardships they face as individuals belonging to a marginalized group. This supportive atmosphere is manifested through the school's faculty, staff, administration, as well as other students. It has been documented that schools with more nurturing and caring environments geared towards their black students have higher black retention and graduation rates.

Unfortunately, in a recent study it was found that over 50% of black students have been reported saying their school does not support them as a minority and that their university has a negative racial atmosphere.

With all these hardships, – borrowing lump sums of money and attending a college that does not do enough to support their minority students – one could ask: Why do so many black people even want to go to college?

Well, because college has become part of the “American Dream.” When the first lady of the United States is rapping about going to college, it’s pretty important. Forbes Magazine has been quoted stating “a college education is all but required to flourish in the labor market.” Overall, the unemployment rate for citizens without a college degree is more than double the rate of those who have one,  and on top of that, college is often seen by black people as one of the only avenues one can take in order to “make it” in life. This theory actually holds some weight when you learn that black youths are the most unemployed group in the country – 28% of black Americans ages 16 to 24 are unemployed and actively searching for employment, which is double the rate of their white counterparts.

But even with a college degree, black Americans still face discrimination in the workplace. A Princeton University study found that white men were 50% more likely to receive a call back from a potential employer than a black man with the exact same credentials. As a matter of fact, white men with criminal backgrounds were just as likely, if not more likely, to receive a call back as a black man with a degree and no criminal background.

So let me paint you a picture... If you are part of the majority of black college students that has taken out loans to help pay for your schooling and you’ve earned your bachelor's degree, you may still have a tough time securing employment, and adjusting to adult life. This is all while having to pay back your student loans that are quickly accruing interest. For many black graduates, this supreme financial struggle is a harsh reality that has crippling long-term effects – many black college graduates have attributed paying off their student loan debt as being the reason they were delayed buying a car, purchasing a home, or even starting their own business.

What's worse is that if you default on your loans, you may suffer from plummeting credit ratings, which usually means you can't finance a car or home, won’t be eligible for a credit card, or only be eligible for a card with a super high interest rate. If companies check your credit score, which some do, and they see a low credit rating, you may be subject to lower wages. Worse than that, loan defaulters suffer from a loss of federal tax benefits such as tax refunds – and remember, student loans are the only form of debt that is not wiped away by filing bankruptcy!

So let's recap: More and more black students are enrolling in college and striving to achieve the American Dream, but so many are either dropping out or graduating with incredibly high amounts of debt. Keep in mind that many of the students feel little to no minority support from their school, and also have access to little or no wealth at home, taking out immense amounts of student loans to pay for school. Now combine all of this with discrimination in the work-world and you’ve got yourself a devastating problem, because thousands of new black graduates are struggling to find work out of college every year.

What's worse though, if we focus on that drop rate for a moment...

Almost 40% of black college students across the nation are dropping out and facing many of the same problems as college graduates except for one thing – they don’t hold a degree! So, many black students went to college, accrued thousands of dollars in loans, dropped out, and now they're still not technically qualified for that high paying job with advancement opportunities. It is not difficult for one to envision how bad the outcomes of this problem can be.

Part 2

So, now that the issue of student debt has been covered, it is time now to move on to the second part of this problematic equation black students face: MASS INCARCERATION!

OK let’s review the facts:

OK, those are just some general facts… But let's get down to the nitty-gritty. Out of those 2.3 million prisoners, roughly 1 million of them are black. So, black people make up about 40% of the prison population, but only about 13% of America’s population. Black Americans are incarcerated at 6 times the rate of their white counterparts with black youths representing 26% of all juvenile arrests and 58% of all juveniles admitted to state prisons. To add to these staggering statistics, the law disproportionately comes down harder on blacks compared to their counterparts. Historically, blacks receive 20% longer sentences than whites for the exact same crimes – for example, if a white person and a black person both get arrested for marijuana possession, the white criminal might be sentenced to 5 years while the black criminal will be sentenced to 6 years.

So, what happens to these former inmates once they re-enter the free world and try to secure employment? Well, just by being incarcerated they will have already lowered their chances of being hired by 15 to 30%. 60% of employers claim they won't even consider an applicant if he/she has a criminal record. Even if these ex-cons were to be hired, on average they are offered fewer hours (240 to 440 less hours or 6 to 11 weeks less) than the average employee. That means the average ex-con working a minimum wage job ($7.25 an hour) is missing out on $1740-$3190 annually. These continuous roadblocks stand as the reasons to why ex-cons end up committing crimes again!

Here are some more stats for you:

  • 37% of former inmates are rearrested within the first 6 months of their release
  • 57% of former inmates are rearrested within the first year of their release
  • 68% of former inmates are rearrested three years after release
  • 77% of former inmates are rearrested five years after release

So why is this so dangerous for black college students? Well, police disproportionately target black people for simple infractions, like stop-and-frisk searches or random traffic stops, therefore racial profiling makes all black citizens a prime target for authorities, student or not. If you look at the facts, the majority of inmates go to jail for NON-VIOLENT offenses. Combine that with prison labor profitability and privately owned prisons, and black people become even bigger targets for law enforcement. From clothing to plastic utensil manufacturing, prison labor can be as cheap as (or even cheaper than) $1.00 an hour. Making this form of labor highly profitable.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
— United States Constitution

Privately owned prisons are also a huge issue because of their quota systems. The majority of privately owned prisons have quota systems that ensure the prison will be at least 90% full, 100% of the time. Meaning, if that goal of 90% full is not met, the prison owners can sue the state government for money lost. This financial incentive gives lawmakers, and police alike, the obligation to arrest and incarcerate more citizens – regardless of crime rates etc. And by the statistics stated above, it is not hard to guess which group of people these authorities are going to target and soon lockup...

part 3

So now the BIG question is this: Where do we go from here? Well there’s a few things we can all do and I’ll break down some options:

For my universities, proactively begin to implement programs like the “Man Up” program started at Howard University. This program hosts group sessions for male students linking them with mentors consisting of community leaders, volunteers, professors etc. discussing self-esteem, family life, problems that may be hurting their grades or making their college life difficult, or anything else causing them to possibly want to leave school. The program also provides workshops focusing on study skills, time management, and crisis management. This program is geared to help the students adjust a college life, develop study skills and good habits, staying focused, and teaching them how to communicate properly with their peers and professors.

For my future and current college students and parents, here are a few tips on how to combat student debt:

Support organizations like BlackFem that specialize in educating minorities about financial literacy, debt relief, and wealth building initiatives. Organizations like this provide extraordinary services that can teach you about student debt and how to overcome it. They also provide tools that can help you pay-off your loans while in school, and how to choose the best loan options for you before you even fill out that college application.

Fill out the FAFSA early. The earlier you apply, the more aid you are eligible for.

Apply for income driven repayment loans. Although this option can extend the life of your loan repayment, it can lower your monthly payments and making repaying your loans a little more doable.

Try to refinance your loan. Although this is a long-shot sometimes refinancing can be a good option.

For my parents, guardians, mentors, and all other concerned citizens that want to keep the youth out of trouble and away from a life constantly intertwined with the USA’s prison industrial complex,

One of the simplest ways you can support the youth is through after-school programs. Organizations like Afterschool Alliance help people locate after-school programs within their area and they provide simple ways the everyday citizen can help support their efforts.

For everyone that believes in speaking out against our prison industrial system, 

Support campaigns like the Ban the Box Campaign. This campaign looks to remove the question box “Have you ever been convicted by a court?” on job applications. Organizations like this fight to help former-inmates re-immerse within society and find jobs to help support themselves and their families.

Speak out against, or even individually boycott, companies outwardly profiting from prison labor exploitation! Groups have boycotted companies like Whole Foods and even just a small protest or refusal to shop at stores run by companies severely profiting from prison exploitation can make a difference. Here is a link to a few companies you may not have known make a lot of money off of prison labor: http://atlantablackstar.com/2014/10/10/12-mainstream-corporations-benefiting-from-the-prison-industrial-complex/2/

Lastly, speaking directly to all of my fellow college graduates, soon-to-be graduates, or anyone even thinking about attending college,

Make sure you educate yourself about all of the financial obligations relating to your loans and all the options you have. Also, make sure you recognize the hardships you or any other minority students may be faced with and be a catalyst for some sort of change in your environment. Putting this project together was a wake-up call for me, because I wasn't educated on the majority of information I was researching! So, really taking your financial liberation seriously and helping others do the same, all while staying educated on the laws/lawmakers effecting our everyday lives should be a mission for all of us! This way we don't end up in debt or in jail.

-ThomasThePhotographer

#respecttheyouth - Aaron Hopkins by Thomas James

The biggest thing is actually taking that first step...the only way you’ll really know if you can accomplish something is if you step forward and try.

By the time you read this Aaron will have already added India to his list of international travels. While the rest of America’s college kids were busy with their summer jobs, he dedicated his summer to volunteering at hospitals in Honduras, India, and Atlanta, GA. 

During his childhood years, one of Aaron's friends was hit by a car and underwent a surgery that allowed him to walk again. From then on Aaron was intrigued by medicine’s power to save lives.

While volunteering in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Aaron helped set up mobile medical clinics for residents throughout the surrounding area. In Palapur, India, he visited different clinics and hospitals to observe how they delivered their healthcare, and the overall treatment of their patients. 

As if he wasn’t doing enough internationally, Aaron has also been contributing a tremendous amount to his community in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-founder, and served as the Vice President, of the organization Do Better – a service and self-improvement organization that orchestrates food runs, bagged-lunched programs, a mentoring program and more throughout the Atlanta area.

Knowing all of his accomplishments, it is hard to believe that Aaron is still a student at Morehouse College working towards his bachelor’s degree. He maintains a 3.2 GPA and when he graduates, Aaron hopes to combine his aspirations for serving his community and his interest in medicine by continuing his work in the medical field.