'We believe in you'

Close to 10 on a Friday night, Chris Liang, associate professor of counseling psychology, stands before a group of black and Latino kids in a middle-school cafeteria in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

“We believe in you,” he tells them.

Liang, joined by two Lehigh graduate students, has come to lead a workshop for the Allentown Mentoring Enrichment Network (A.M.E.N.), a midnight basketball program that aims to help inner-city youth stay in school and off the streets, improve their academics and their futures. Liang’s involvement with the non-profit network is two-fold: to conduct research into its effectiveness and to provide the middle- and high-schoolers with strategies to succeed.

To help the students create a vision for themselves, Deangie Davis, a graduate student in counseling and human services, begins to conduct an exercise. Imagine yourself waking up in 10 years, she tells them.  Everything is perfect. You look in the mirror. Who do you see? Who have you become? What kind of life do you have?

For the next hour or so, as the youngsters are asked to think about whether they need to go to college to be successful and whether their teachers treat people differently based on their race, Liang offers help in how to talk to school counselors, how to deal with racism, how to handle obstacles so that the students don’t get derailed as they pursue goals. 

“We want them to think about positive future selves,” Liang says later. “A lot of their lives they’re told, ‘Don’t do this.’ We think that’s important, they need to understand consequences. But if that’s all they’re hearing, it’s not very hopeful. We want to instill a belief in these kids that they can achieve.”

After joining Lehigh’s faculty in 2012, Liang, whose area of research includes the impact of racism on boys of color, was looking for community partners to figure out how to support the boys’ academic and psychological well-being.  Through a research team member, he learned about A.M.E.N. and its work in mentoring youth, mostly boys, between the ages of 12 and 18. Liang found a kindred spirit in Pastor Charles Olmeda, president of A.M.E.N. and a program founder.

“We had similar interests in helping young people in distressed communities, and he already had this program running,” Liang said. “One of the things I thought I could do was to help develop a better understanding of what was going on for the kids. What were their experiences and perceptions of racism, their experiences of their school climate, their conformity to traditional masculine ideologies? I was interested in assessing these risk factors for these kids to determine whether they needed more guidance in those areas.”

Though midnight basketball is a program centerpiece – the kids play basketball on Friday nights from 9 to midnight – workshops that teach life skills, such as how to resolve conflicts, are another key component.  “No workshop, no jumpshot” is the program’s catchphrase, which means participants cannot join a basketball game unless they also join in that night’s workshop.  Since the program’s inception in 2008, some 1,100 kids have participated.

“I wanted to give the A.M.E.N. program some sense of whether or not they were doing what they hoped they were doing,” said Liang. “And at the same time I wanted to understand what factors may be contributing to any negative outcomes that we might find.”

Olmeda was receptive. “What you’re offering, your research, good, bad or indifferent, will be invaluable to the program,” he told Liang. “What’s working, what’s not? I want to know.”

Anecdotally, Olmeda felt the program was benefitting participants. “We have story after story after story,” he said, of students who were ready to drop out of school but persevered after receiving mentoring, group tutoring and career apprenticeships, then went on to college and jobs.

Liang and his research team planned to look at issues of masculinity, discrimination, ethnic identity and sense of community. They planned to analyze school district data to assess how those variables, such as experiences with discrimination, might be associated with behavioral problems and academic outcomes such as motivation, grades, truancy and disciplinary referrals.

“In our understanding of the literature, there are certain things that are predictive of negative academic outcomes, things like perceived discrimination, a negative school climate, poor self-concept," Liang said. “And we wanted to look at protective factors too like sense of connectedness, sense of belonging, sense of being important, basically, and ethnic identity as protective factors.”

Liang also wanted to help prepare the students for life after high school. He talked with Arnold R. Spokane, professor and program director of counseling psychology at Lehigh, about helping to deliver career interventions. Spokane and his graduate students led activities to help the students explore their career interests and their decision-making process. What were their interests, their passions? How do they get where they want to go? Liang also wanted to get them thinking about college as a possibility within reach. He talked about financial aid.

Twice, as part of A.M.E.N., Liang brought groups of students to Lehigh in hopes that they could envision themselves on a college campus. Earlier this year, they met with members of Lehigh’s basketball team, who gave them examples on how to stay on track to meet their goals. Last semester they met with the Office of Multicultural Affairs and students of color who shared their journeys.

Though the research is on-going, Liang said preliminary data gathered through surveys and focus groups show the students are benefitting from A.M.E.N. Students reported feeling that they were developing self-respect and an understanding of how to respect others. They sensed they mattered. They saw the value of playing Friday night basketball, rather than hanging out on the streets.

“Some of these young guys were reflecting, ‘I’d be out and maybe I’d be doing something stupid right now, and I know you would be’ kind of stuff. They clearly saw that benefit. They don’t want to get in trouble. They’re seeing this as a way to stay out of trouble, which is nice,” Liang said.

Parents also reported that their children were developing both confidence and relationships, with the coaches as mentors.  With many of the youngsters being raised by single mothers, parents were thankful their children were being exposed to male role models.

The more connected the students felt to A.M.E.N., the more motivated they were to do better academically, the preliminary data showed.  Whether that motivation correlates to better grades and better standardized test scores needs more study. Liang is planning to work with the Allentown School District to develop an after-school program to further those goals.

In the focus groups and surveys, the students also reported that they had experienced racism by some of their teachers. So, on the Friday night that Liang held the workshop in Allentown, he tried to provide them with strategies for dealing with the biases they encounter in school and elsewhere. Meenal Jog, a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology, also was in attendance.

“This stuff does happen,” Liang told the students, and it’s OK to talk to friends, adults or another teacher about it. Though racism is real, he said, “We don’t have to give other people control of our lives.”

Liang encouraged the students to find peers, mentors and school counselors to help them with their goals, whether it includes college, vocational school or a job. “You have to find people who can pull you up, push you up,” he said. He even helped coach the students in what to say to their school counselors: “I want a plan. I want you to help me.”  They will have to work hard to reach their goals, he said, and they should have a backup plan in case their dreams fall short.

Once the positive aspects of A.M.E.N. can be demonstrated, both Olmeda and Liang are hoping the program can be expanded to other locales.

“I’m not under any illusion that I’ll impact all of them,” Liang said of the A.M.E.N. participants he’s led in workshops. “I wish I could. But if we can improve the life outcomes of some of these kids, I would be really thrilled.”