Last year, Marcus McLin, an assistant football coach at the University of Minnesota Duluth, approached some of his players with an idea — to create a student group founded specifically by, and for, Black men on campus.
“We are proud to be Black men,” said McLin, 27, who moved to Duluth, Minn., three years ago. “We know this school has a lack of diversity, a lack of Black men. So we want to stand up for who we are, and serve in excellence is what we want to do every day" whether it's on the football field, in the classroom or in the community, he said.
The group, called Black Men Serving Excellence, now has about 15 members. Their mission is to support one another, cultivate young Black leaders, and, as their name suggests, strive for excellence in everything they do.
UMD already has a Black Student Association on campus. But that group is made up largely of women, said McLin. And Black men, he said, face distinct challenges, especially on a largely white campus.
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"There are stereotypes, there are things when you're the only Black man in a room and you get those certain looks, you get the change of posture,” he said. “But at the same time, we can't change who we are, how we look and how we talk. But we're here to break those stereotypes."
That's part of why Michael Kirkendoll joined. He's a senior, a communications major from Milwaukee. There’s one particular stereotype that nags at him.
“Every single time I walk into a class, I get asked what sport I play,” he said. “And I can speak for almost everyone in our group, I've almost always been seen to be an athlete.”
It’s frustrating, Kirkendoll said. He is a football player, a defensive back for UMD. But he wants to be seen as more than that, as someone working to make his community a better place, as a student who wants to be an educator someday.
On a campus where almost nobody else looks like him, he said, Black Men Serving Excellence also offers important support. He said he's walked into more than one packed lecture hall, without seeing any other Black faces.
"When you get one in every 150 students in a classroom you kind of feel lost you kind of feel alone. Mentally it's draining as well because you don't really feel like you belong," Kirkendoll said.
Since the group formed last year, it has helped put on a youth basketball camp. Members volunteered at a local school.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone off campus last spring before the mass protests broke out after George Floyd's killing in May. So when they arrived back on campus this fall, they quickly decided they wanted to put on a peaceful march.
"It's important for us to put out that image that Black men are more than just these negative stereotypes that are put out there,” said Dayvia Gbor, the group's president. He's a junior from Brooklyn Center studying exercise science. His goal is to become a physical therapist.
"We're more than just athletes. We do school, we do football, we also want to fight for change within ourselves and within our community," Gbor said.
Before Wednesday’s march began, the group gathered in a tight circle and said a prayer. Then Carl Crawford, a human rights officer for the city of Duluth, addressed them.
"At a time when our nation is right now at a very bad place, you have the opportunity to heal our community. So I'm happy to be here today. I will be in the background because this is your moment, not mine. And I'm counting on you. I'm counting on you to get in good trouble,” Crawford said.
“Yes, sir,” they answered.
And then, people started arriving — lots of them, at least 200 to 300 students. They gathered in a big circle, wearing masks, spread apart. The organizers, including Coach McLin, spoke from a small stage.
“This march is not anti-police,” he said. “This march is not an anti-white movement. But this march and this protest is against police brutality that goes on in our country and communities, still ... racial injustice, racial microaggressions that goes on in our country and communities, still.”
Kirkendoll spoke directly to the many white students in the crowd, saying change needs to start now.
“We need to really stand tall as this generation and fight together,” Kirkendoll said. “You're going to have to start having those conversations with your friends. When your friend says the ‘N word,’ or whoever it is says things that are disrespectful, maybe it's time for you to have that conversation. How much longer is it gonna take?”
As the group marched, they stretched out for blocks through campus, chanting “We won’t be silent!” and “Power to the people!”
They ended, by kneeling, and raising their fists in the air — and keeping them there — for several minutes, to remember George Floyd.
"Enough is enough! let's come together as one," McLin urged the crowd.
After the march, he said he was overwhelmed by the turnout and said the work of Black Men Serving Excellence is only beginning.
"What's next is going to be meeting with police officers, having conversations with different student organizations,” McLin said. “Go to the youth. Uplift our community, that's what's next. To force justice. We want it. And we deserve it.”