Letter: Polite's impact felt across EMU

Eastern Michigan University’s Dean of the College of Education, Vernon Polite (1949-2010), will be remembered as a scholar, mentor and activist – particularly for his groundbreaking work on the education of African American males. While Polite had many accomplishments before and during his time at EMU, the ones that had the most powerful impact on me, and I believe on many others, were the summits he organized: the first was on “The State of the African-American Male in Michigan,” the second was on African-American women.

On June 9, 2006, EMU held the first “The State of the African American Male in Michigan: A Courageous Conversation” summit. This full day session was the work of the new College of Education Dean at Eastern Michigan University, Dr. Vernon Polite. Dr. Polite’s career was built on the volume he had edited, “African-American Males in School and Society.” Bringing him to EMU was a sign the institution wanted to shake up notions of what it meant to be a college of education and a university. To come to the summit was a revelation for me. It had over 250 delegates in attendance, all focused on the educational and social needs of African American males. The speakers were powerful. Dean Polite opened the meeting like a church service, urging us to focus on the important issues, and to stay involved with them after the close of the session.

Former Mayor of Detroit, Dennis Archer, spoke movingly of his time growing up in Western Michigan, his struggles to achieve college, law school and success and his passing on of that achievement to other young people.To spend several hours in such focused, powerful conversation can be a life-changing experience. To hear the concern, the love, the anger and the sadness of all of the individuals at the summit pushed me to reconsider the little focus I had given the issue.

Dean Polite urged us, do not walk out and not do anything with all this information. He challenged us to reach out to a single individual, to do something to help the situation.

Drawing on the information presented at the summit, many of us at EMU came together to address the needs of young African American men in schools. As part of our Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), we built a Young Men’s leadership program to focus on the unique needs of male students in three low-income high schools. This program centers on a powerful group-mentoring technique developed by talented graduates of EMU, including Alejandro Baldwin, Cornelius Godfrey, Pierre Rice and Eric Stansbury.

By the time the second summit, “Nurturing our Future as African American females” was held at EMU, our GEAR UP program was able to bring young women from three high schools to the summit. From Wayne Memorial High School, we were able to bring 9th grade students along with their 11th grade mentors. The young women were welcomed by EMU’s president, Susan Martin, and were given workshops designed for their age group. The summit was a powerful opportunity for the young women as they were surrounded by hundreds of other women, young and old, all brought together to further educational and career opportunities for one another.

These two events highlighted what Dean Polite brought to EMU – he challenged us to think differently, to work harder and to reach further. While most discussions of mentoring focus on seeing a mentor as a comfort and encourager, there is another aspect to mentoring – that of someone who challenges you to do what you did not think possible.

Dean Polite challenged people at EMU and in the community to reach out to young people who had been forgotten – because they were a different color, because they were from poor backgrounds or because of disabilities. He did not minimize or sugarcoat the problems he wanted us to address, but urged us on to make an impact on the world outside the university, especially in urban areas.I believe this is Dean Polite’s most lasting legacy at EMU. He challenged EMU to take on difficult problems, and spurred us to greater urgency and action.

Russ Olwell
Director, EMU Gear Up and
Professor of History
Eastern Michigan University


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