“As a mother of two African-American males, from the time that the doctor put the first one in my hands almost 20 years ago, the mantra in the back of my head has always been: ‘One in four, one in four, one in four,” said Gillian Atkinson, the associate director of the Office of Intercultural Engagement and Inclusion (IEI), tears beginning to swell in her eyes. “One in four African-American men either end up dead or in jail by the end of age 21.”
The Shop, an initiative funded by IEI, seeks to deconstruct and destigmatize the stereotypes and identities relegating men of color in our society.
In her role as the associate director of IEI, Atkinson, in collaboration with Dean Roosevelt Smith Jr. and Resident Director Samuel Baah, spawned the idea for an affinity group for men of color on campus that would offer them an inclusive safe space for productive discourse.
“Being an affinity group, you do need someone to run it who identifies similarly to the group of people who you’re trying to promote to,” Atkinson said of Roosevelt and Baah valiantly coming on board to lead the initiative.
An initiative that is steadily taking off after being in the works for nearly two years, The Shop, mirrors the laid-back, conversational environment of a traditional male-oriented barbershop. The Shop encourages young men of color to partake in discussion-based meetings while in an informal atmosphere with relatable individuals.
In its first meeting, held on Wednesday, Sept. 19, The Shop discussed who was the greatest basketball player of all time – Michael Jordan or Lebron James – while students played a newly-released video game, NBA 2K19, courtesy of Samantha Kloeckener from the Office of Student Leadership and Engagement.
“Talking to Sam and Roosevelt, they were like, ‘Men don’t engage the same way women do ... our conversations tend to happen more organically,” Atkinson said about the significance of providing attendees of The Shop with occupying activities to facilitate their discussions.
The Shop, which is scheduled to hold meetings every third Wednesday on a monthly basis for the fall semester, intends to cover various social topics geared toward generating healthy dialogue between all in attendance.
Atkinson, who has held a range of positions over her 11 years at Hofstra, touched upon the perceived lack of a feeling of safe spaces for men of color on college campuses, which she feels subsequently emanates from a “lack of visibility” of men of color in administrative roles.
“Typically, with people who identify as ‘of color,’ we tend to want to go where we feel most accepted, where we feel most comfortable,” she said. “In the Division of Student Affairs, a huge part of Vice President [Houston] Dougharty’s initiative is to make sure our candidate pools are as wide and as diverse as possible, because we do want to try to make sure that students see representation and have that person to go to if they should feel the need.”
Atkinson addressed the skewed landscape for men of color in America, specifically African-American men. She feels The Shop can localize the discussion of racial issues where men of color are at the epicenter by changing societal constructs and false perceptions.
“Men of color and black men are looked upon as such a pariah in this country,” Atkinson said. “We have to find ways to better support them, and ways to get the word out that they are simply trying to do the best they can with what they’ve been given.”
In providing a sense of camaraderie, Atkinson, who plans on echoing this initiative with an affinity group for students of multiracial backgrounds, believes The Shop can eliminate the common yet seldom-discussed feeling of isolation for men of color on campus.
“By having Sam and Roosevelt lead this kind of initiative, it helps [men of color] to know that they too can succeed,” she said.
Atkinson says The Shop allows her to do her part in helping men of color on campus “know that what America can sometimes see them as is not what they truly need to be.”
“I want [The Shop] to be another level of support for our men of color on this campus to know that they are wanted, they are needed, that there is a place for them here.”