Ja’Ron Smith Participates in Supporting HBCUs Panel Discussion

event name and date, sponsor logo, headshots of moderator and guests

On February 23, CAO Executive Director Ja’Ron Smith participated in a panel discussion, hosted by the African American Mayors Association’s (AAMA) Institute for Racial and Economic Justice on the topic of “Supporting HBCUs.” Mr. Smith joined fellow panelists Mayor Deana Holiday Ingraham, Mayor of East Point, Georgia, Derek Lewis, President of the South Division at PepsiCo North America, and the Honorable Stephanie D. Nellons-Paige, Regent at Texas Southern University in Houston. The session, sponsored by PepsiCo, was moderated by Jamal Simmons, Political Analyst at CBS News, and was streamed via Streamyard and Facebook Live.

This panelists, all proud graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), explored how mayors and their cities can undertake efforts to highlight and support HBCUs that reside in their communities, such as by inclusion of HBCUs in municipal planning and infrastructure projects, building public sector and private sector career pipelines with HBCUs, and hosting key civic events at HBCUs when feasible.

The newly-launched Mayor’s Racial and Economic Justice Policy Institute is designed to support the training of elected mayors representing communities of 500 to over one million people to utilize information, training and network connectivity to enhance their executive capacity for the benefit of their local citizens.

“I’m a Morehouse grad,” Mr. Simmons began the discussion, showing his Morehouse T-shirt, “And I have thought for a long time that HBCUs were a part of a critical infrastructure of America because there’s no place that generates more leadership, talent, more people who are able to take on the roles that really keep America going.”

All the panelists agreed that HBCUs are a vital asset to our country and that there’s a critical need for ongoing support and investment.

“HBCUs are a place where many first-time college students and almost 75% of individuals who go to HBCUs participate in the PELL grant program,” Mr. Smith added later in the discussion. “So if we’re really trying to bridge the gap for all Americans, HBCUs are anchor institutions to help us get there.”

“It is a realistic fact that in the United States, African American children and other children of color are confronted with barriers to success which many children of other ethnicities don’t seem to have,” said Regent Nellons-Paige. “But what has been demonstrated over and over again is that with proper attitude, dogged determination, and proper education, all children, including African American children and other children of color, can achieve success even in the face of obstructing barriers.”

Mr. Lewis stated that PepsiCo continues to invest heavily In HBCUs, sharing that his goal “is to bring more community partners together to create more critical mass as an opportunity.”

What makes HBCUs so special? Mayor Ingram said that when she attended Howard University School of Law, their motto was “Lifting as we climb.” “It is really, really important,” she explained, “that we continue to do that and make sure that we are sharing the knowledge and really empowering and equipping our future leaders…It’s about service to others and lifting as we climb.”

Regent Nellons-Paige shared that she guided her own daughter to attend an HBCU. “I wanted her to have that nurturing environment that was available, and clearly that’s what we are offing at Texas Southern University.”

She went on to explain that, “The vast majority of our students, are coming from social economic backgrounds that have been very depressed. When they come to school they are in need of a lot of social services, a lot of wrap around services, and HBCUs and, in particular at Texas Southern, we have been able to provide those services to our students…And we continue to need funding and support around that.”

When asked about his work, Mr. Smith explained that the Center for Advancing Opportunity is focused on supporting research in removing barriers and creating opportunities for fragile communities. He went onto highlight CAO’s research initiatives at several HBCUs.

“What we’re doing is investing in schools,“ Mr. Smith added, “like Texas Southern University where we have Howard Henderson who is studying and putting out white papers on how we approach policing in the twenty-first century. We’re investing in Albany State University where we have our Center for Educational Opportunity, looking at solutions to create more access to education. We’re investing in Winston-Salem State University where we’re looking at the challenges of economic mobility and homeownership.”

In response to Mr. Simmons question on how corporations could work better with HBCUs, Regent Nellons-Paige responded, “As you think about reaching out to higher education institutions for consulting or for doing studies around your work for infrastructure for building and planning, remember our HBCUs and the knowledge and the talent that are there.”

As the panel discussed jobs of the future, Mayor Ingraham asked, “What are we going to do to make sure that we lessen the disproportionate impact that we know is going to happen on people of color because of the future of work and automation and technology in this country?” She pointed out that this is an opportunity for corporations and AAMA to partner with HBCUs to support innovation.

On a related note, Mr. Smith shared, “This investment in infrastructure on campuses is going to be critical to navigating and opening up pathways for students for the future.”

“My motto is ‘No HBCU left behind,’” said Mr. Lewis. “I think you got to absolutely empower the organization at whole to be aggressive with their pursuit of supporting HBCUs.”

Mr. Lewis went on to say, “At the end of the day, it’s about the score – are you hiring students, are those students being developed, are they growing within your organization, are you creating mechanisms for entrepreneurs to be successful in the market, are you supporting black-owned businesses, supporting black agencies? Show us, show us your scorecard.”

Mr. Simmons shared that, according to one study, 44% percent of African American businesses have gone under in the last year due to the pandemic. He asked the panel how entrepreneurs might be supported to help them develop robust businesses.

“As part of our journey at PepsiCo of racial equality,” explained Mr. Lewis, “We committed over four hundred and thirty million dollars on a set of initiatives to help lift up the black community.”

“It’s a long journey,” he continued. “But we got a lot of momentum. I’m very committed to lead this effort inside our company, inside our community, inside our marketplace with the organization. We are absolutely dialed in on driving economic impact to help these businesses not only get back on their feet, but to thrive and be very, very successful as they go forward.”

Watch the Recording of the Discussion Here