February 5, 2018

When researchers or educators talk about achievement gaps and developmental disparities, they invariably place black youth at the top of the list. But zeroing in on the negative factors related to race, ethnicity or culture means that positive connections are often overlooked.

This is an area of focus for Charles Lea (pictured right), assistant professor at the School of Social Work, whose research interests center on how culturally relevant youth development practices shape positive life outcomes for young black men in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Lea joined the School in the fall of 2017

“Policies and practices affecting boys and men of color are often deficit-focused,” Lea said. “If 10 men are released from jail, nine may recidivate. But what about the one who didn’t? We can learn a lot by examining the support systems available to that one individual.”

Highlighting the role of race and recognizing positive racial-identity links are critical in developing policies, practices and interventions for people of color, observes Lea.  “A person’s experiences around race and culture have a huge effect on achievement later in life,” he said. “It influenced my own life. But the research is sparse. One reason is that when we look at academia, people of color are not well-represented.”

Growing up in Pittsburg, Calif., northeast of San Francisco, Lea saw firsthand how the men in his family continued to get caught up in the criminal justice system. “I used to wonder: Why do they keep cycling in and out of the justice system? Then I began asking: What role can I play to address these issues?”

After completing a BA in sociology from the University of California Berkeley and an MSW from the University of Michigan, Lea worked for a social policy research organization in Oakland, Calif. There he examined local and national prisoner reentry initiatives, school reform efforts, and youth and workforce development programs. 

“This experience allowed me to develop first-hand knowledge of how the structure and culture of social systems—for example, educational or correctional systems—both hinder and facilitate the life chances and outcomes of boys and men of color,” he said. “You can’t ignore you own race and culture. I realized these issues were not just in my family or just in California, but across the entire country.”

Lea earned his PhD from the University of California Los Angeles where his dissertation research focused on alternative schools for formerly incarcerated young adults. “I saw how important it was to engage these adults in activities that are positive and culturally relevant,” Lea explained. “When these young people learned history at the alternative school, they learned about slavery and civil rights, about the struggles of their own culture. They had never been exposed to this before and it was an eye-opening and affirmative experience.” Lea’s research won the Franklin D. Gilliam Jr. Social Justice Award in 2016. 

“Charles’ passion for community-based research, along with his practice experience around racial/ethnic minority teens and adults in educational and correctional settings, fills an important gap,” said Eddie Uehara, dean, School of Social Work. “As an African-American male, he adds an important representative voice and perspective, providing a level of understanding and knowledge that is both powerful and constructive.”   

Although Lea never saw himself in a university setting, the School’s focus on innovation-to-impact appealed to him. “I want to change policies and practices and focus on the applied aspect of social work,” he said. “I see this as an area of research where I can make a difference.”

Discussions about culturally anchored intervention programs have been taking place around Seattle in recent weeks.  The city designated January as National Mentoring Month with a mayoral proclamation; February marks Black History Month. Recently, Seattle launched its first-ever culturally anchored mentoring campaign, called Our Best, which focuses on recruiting black male mentors to work with boys and young men of color. Lea is a community ambassador with the Our Best program.

Although Lea found a supportive community at the School, he initially had concerns about moving to Seattle. “Black people make up just 7 percent of Washington state and 6 percent of Seattle,” he said. ”I wondered if there were enough opportunities here for me to continue my research on young men of color. The second reason was more personal. I questioned whether, as a black man, I could sustain myself here. What kind of community would I find?”

At the School, Lea found support and encouragement. “I found opportunities to collaborate with my colleagues in ways I was not expecting,” he said. “For example, School researchers exploring cross-gender issues are just as passionate about their community as I am about mine. It was a connection I did not expect to find but it’s gone a long way in balancing my earlier concerns.”