Forty-five HBS students have volunteered on a Saturday throughout the 2008-2009 academic year to teach an apprenticeship on branding to fifteen Black and Latino 8th grade students from Boston Public Schools. Classes are taught at Madison Park High School in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. The project is lead by the African American Student Union in partnership with the Boston-based nonprofit Citizen Schools.
Recall for a moment what it felt like to be thirteen years old: the distracting anxiety of fitting in, the dizzying onset of adolescence, the increasing feelings of resentment towards authority. Think about what motivated you as a newly minted teenager to do well in school. Maybe your parents demanded excellence and you eventually adopted high expectations for yourself. Or maybe you had siblings or friends you admired who excelled in school. Or maybe the career you dreamed about required an education from a top university. Whatever it was, many of our paths were charted in our early teenage years as we discovered the motivation to succeed in school and transform ourselves from self-conscious 13-year-olds to self-confident Harvard Business School students.
Now consider the 4,000 thirteen-year-olds in Boston Public Schools (BPS). For these students the motivation to succeed in school is often more elusive. Three out of every four students come from families living at or near the federal poverty line ($18,000 for a family of three) with parents who have limited exposure to higher education. For the 80% of students who are Black or Latino, four in ten will eventually drop out of high school. Perhaps most alarming is the fact that only 10% of BPS high school freshman will eventually graduate from a two- or four-year college. Where does a BPS middle school student find the motivation to overcome the challenges of adolescence so they can one day occupy our seats in the HBS Class of 2025? This is the question that the members of the HBS African American Student Union (AASU), with the financial support of the SA Community Impact Fund, have set out to answer through an afterschool apprenticeship program run by a Boston-based nonprofit called Citizen Schools.
Each Saturday for 10 weeks AASU members and other HBS volunteers travel less than 3 miles to the Roxbury – a neighborhood the City of Boston describes as “the heart of Black culture in Boston” – to partner with Citizen Schools to teach an apprenticeship called “Brand You” to fifteen Black and Latino 8th grade students from various middle schools across BPS. Utilizing HBS cases, interactive projects, and one-on-one mentoring, volunteers work to teach the students about branding and connect the personal brands of these youth to careers and college.
The apprenticeship begins with a class on the HBS Mountain Dew case. The students watch Mountain Dew’s various advertising campaigns and use the case method to quickly identify the “energizing, empowering, extreme” brand identity and the “skater dudes, young, Caucasian” target market. The second class introduces the students – who report that over 50% of their middle school classmates smoke – to the HBS American Legacy Truth Campaign case. Here the students identify the primary causes of teenage smoking (stress being the most prevalent) and evaluate the Truth Campaign’s various advertising tactics to get teenagers to stop smoking (the most effective being those that tie the ingredients in cigarettes to chemicals in urine, dog feces, and rat poison).
One of the most powerful classes that mark the transition from discussing product brands to personal brands is an exercise where the students map out the brands of the social cliques on their campuses. A dominant social group that emerges in the discussion is the so-called “Bangers on Deck” or “Beat-Down Posse”, a violent group of students who instigate fights. The class breaks out into small groups to discuss how students maintain their “swagger” when confronted with violence and bullying. Social cliques also fracture along ethnic lines, with Blacks, Whites, Asians, and Latinos often forming separate groups and, within the Latino community, further breaking down by country-of-origin. Other cliques include the “Nerds” (not to be confused with the “smart but socially awkward and clumsy” Geeks) and the “Emos” who are described as overly emotional “goth knock offs.” There are also interest groups like “AIM heads” (students who are always on instant messenger) and “kick heads” (students who are obsessive about their sneakers). Like all teenagers across the country, the students in BPS navigate a complex mix of social identities, and the challenge for the volunteers from HBS is to connect these emerging identities to college and careers.
Students also explore the challenges they have overcome, including parents and siblings who are imprisoned, gun violence in the neighborhoods, absent fathers, and the challenges that accompany growing up in poverty. Furthermore, students identify their unique assets such as rich cultural heritages that extend from the great migration of African Americans to northern cities like Boston to international identities in the West Indies and Latin America, tight-knit family networks, and a history of accomplishments in the face of great obstacles.
The final step is for the students to choose a career for which to target their brands. Students complete a career assessment tool and end up with professions ranging from social work to accounting to musical production. After working hard to hone their personal brand messages, students travel to HBS to deliver their brands in an Aldrich classroom packed with HBS students in what Citizen Schools calls the “WOW!” event (be on the lookout for this semester’s WOW! in early May).
Over 45 HBS volunteers have participated in the apprenticeship during the 2008-2009 academic year. While our aspiration has been to motivate our students, shaping their lives in a positive way, the influence often runs in the opposite direction. I frequently leave class inspired by the intellect, creativity, and insight of our students. Their courage through difficulties puts my own challenges at HBS in perspective, and I am reminded of the incredible opportunities I have been afforded throughout my journey. Every HBS student has the opportunity to be a source of motivation and opportunity to Boston’s youth, and we would be happy to have you join us on an upcoming Saturday.
Justin Steele is a second-year student in the concurrent MBA/MPA program between HBS and HKS.ÿ He serves as the Community Service Co-Chair for the HBS African American Student Union and plans to work full-time in the nonprofit sector after graduation focusing on urban poverty and youth development.