Looking back, Andre Fields said moving from crisis to crisis in his formative years contributed to the strength he has found as an adult. Photo by Johnny Quirin
Andre Fields knows firsthand the painful combination of poverty, fatherlessness and systemic racism that haunts many of his black male students.
Realizing he found a way forward that many people don’t, he has made it his life’s work to offer the missing ingredient in the black male college experience: community.
Fields, an associate professor and counselor at Grand Rapids Community College, started a leadership development fraternity for black male students at GRCC called Alpha Beta Omega (ABO) in 2012.
He said the catalyst for the program — and his career trajectory thus far — was an article he read in graduate school.
“When I was choosing my research topic for my dissertation in 2006, there was an article in the New York Times talking about how black males came in last place in all indicators of success,” he said.
“I was in a grad-level class, and a guy came in and passed (the article) around. I don’t know if you ever have an experience where you look at something and you go deaf, but that’s what happened for me.”
After reading the article, Fields started doing research that led to his dissertation, “The Effects of Systemic Racism on the Academic Achievement of Black Male Adolescents.”
“When you get a group of people achieving similar life outcomes, you have to ask, ‘Is it because of them, genetics, the system or the culture?’ I started thinking, ‘What is the one thing black males have that sets them apart?’ It was documented that it was the amount of stigma and rejection they face.
“Sooner or later, that disempowers you. It’s hard to feel successful in a society that doesn’t want you. It’s taking away your self-esteem, your power, your confidence … and maybe (is) the answer to why black males fail in all these different areas.”
Fields said disadvantages in his own life give him empathy for what his students are going through.
“The biggest obstacle was definitely poverty, and then a close second would be fatherlessness. The poverty one was more salient — more in your face. Every day, you’ve got a $20 problem disturbing the family structure. If you had $20 extra bucks, it wouldn’t be a problem.
“I had a situation where I was homeless. From kindergarten to sixth grade, I was in 10 different schools. It was because we couldn’t keep up with bills.
“For me, poverty was so intense that I didn’t recognize the father situation. You can’t miss what you don’t have. But in retrospect, there were teaching things that I didn’t get that left me vulnerable in adolescence and young adulthood.”
In high school, he worked in maintenance at the Grand Rapids Public Library for a program that provided job placement for urban students. Seeing what other black males were experiencing motivated him.
“During my formative years, as I would observe the experience of black males and compare them to other black males, it built something in me to challenge the status quo and to not accept what I thought was the trajectory of my life.
“I think that overall experience of being in a bad situation, going crisis to crisis, it can make you a better person if you let it.”
Fields went on to earn an associate degree from Grand Rapids Community College in 2001, a B.S. in psychology from Grand Valley State University in 2002 and an M.A. in counseling psychology from Western Michigan University in 2007, while he already had started a doctorate in the same discipline. He finished his Ph.D. in counseling psychology at WMU in 2014.
Along the way, two mentors encouraged Fields as he reached toward his goals: the late Lonnie Duncan, a professor of counselor education at WMU, and John Cowles, dean of student success and retention at GRCC, who “was rooting for me when Alpha Beta Omega was in its infancy,” Fields said.
Knowing how much their influence shaped him, Fields built into the ABO fraternity the idea that leaders are born from community.
“Research shows that of all the approaches you can take to empower black males, the thing that works best is a relational learning model,” he said.
“It makes sense that with black males experiencing so much cultural rejection, if they can find somebody to connect with them, they’re more likely to engage in the process of being educated, especially if the person they’re connected with is a part of the system where they’re being educated. It makes them trust the system a little more.”
Along with ABO success coaches Chris Sain Jr. and AJ Huff, Fields offers professional development and academic coaching to the fraternity members.
He said ABO has grown from six students to 95 in the past five years, and the next step is to recruit more helpers on campus, so that ABO can have one coach for every two students. Fields currently can only spend 15 hours per week on ABO so that he can work 25 hours per week in the GRCC counseling office, where he offers academic and mental health counseling services.
With a grant of almost $285,000 recently secured from the Wege Foundation for program expenses, his goal is to double ABO’s size by the end of the year and have 300 students participating within five years.
He said ABO has had impressive academic outcomes so far.
“There’s a 20 percentage-point (course-completion rate) gap between those that are not in ABO and those that are. It’s 50 or 55 percent completion for those not in ABO and 70 percent for those in it,” he said.
“We have a slogan called ‘80 Up’ — a goal that a student will complete 80 percent of their courses. The highest (course-completion) success rates are white and Asian students, and their success rate is 76 percent. But if we get 80 percent, it will mean we are the highest-achieving group on campus.”
To reach that target, Fields said he is working to set up scholarships to help students pay for textbooks.
“If a student passes all their classes in the fall, then in the winter, they (could) get one or two free books,” he said.
ABO meets every other Friday to discuss topics from a workbook Fields self-published through his Institute of African American Psychology, “Journey to the American Dream: A 21-Day Survival Guide for Overcoming Racism” — an activity and discussion guide for black males ages 14 and older.
“All the guys in the program got one of those books this past year,” he said. “It gives them activities, exercises and questions they can engage with to unlearn some negativity and begin to educate themselves about their potential, their strengths and abilities.”
Fields’ other books published through IAAP include “The Psychology of Racism: Made in America: The Psychological Evolution of the Black Male,” “The 21-Laws of eRacism: Unlearning Inferiority (Volume 1),” “The 21-Laws of eRacism: Unlearning Superiority (Volume 2),” “CANT CULTURE: The Social Engineering of Black Male Failure and a Solution to the Madness,” “Mentoring Black Male Students One Step at a Time: The 55 Golden Rules,” and forthcoming, “The 21-Laws of eRacism: Learning Racial Intelligence (Volume 3).”
His books are aimed at helping counselors, people of color and white people understand racial dynamics, he said. “Learning Racial Intelligence” will be geared toward all races and will present 21 principles on not letting race be a barrier in life and in society.
Fields said his work as a counselor, professor, mentor and author is a function of how much it is needed in West Michigan.
“Grand Rapids is ranked the second-worst city for black Americans to live in,” he said. “It creates this divide of no communication. It becomes ‘us vs. them.’ People want things to be better, but they don’t know how. There has to be someone giving guidance on how to heal racial wounds and racial tension.
“So, I think what I’m doing is needed.”