Above: The Black Men’s Alliance aims to mentor students, help them gain financial literacy, and assist in getting them into professional arenas and launching careers. (Photo courtesy Patrick Chandler)
For Bill Casher, the key to success at UCSC was finding a network.
Casher, who now is global director of integrated lab services for the commercial real estate services and investment firm CBRE Group, said the main thing that helped him get through his college experience was his weekly meetings with the Black Men’s Alliance. He said the perspective and advice from his fellow Black students was invaluable in helping him make it to graduation and get started on his career in biotech and pharmaceutical organizations.
Casher said he found it challenging to be a Black student at UC Santa Cruz.
“I was one of two Black people in a classroom of 150,” said Bill Casher (Oakes ’00, biochemistry and molecular biology). “I felt, ‘Am I supposed to be here?’”
When Casher graduated, there were about 250 Black students at UC Santa Cruz, which was 2.2% of the student body. In fall 2022, UCSC had 880 black students, representing 4.5% of the student body, reflecting the campus’s continued focus on enrolling a student body that mirrors California.
A couple of years ago, Casher and another alum restarted the Black Men’s Alliance, which had not been active in a while, to help encourage Black male alumni and current students. In 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd murder weighing heavily on him, he felt the need to join together with other Black men. The Black Men’s Alliance started meeting Tuesday evenings on Zoom.
The group is now trying to mentor students in navigating the university, help them gain financial literacy, and help them get into professional arenas and launch their careers.
Among its activities is The Shop, a spring event that reflected a traditional Black barbershop. All Black students, staff, and faculty were invited to come and meet with alumni to share experiences. Participants got haircuts and professional headshots for their LinkedIn profiles.
Cultural exchange and connections
The Black Men’s Alliance also arranged a trip to Africa. In May, eight members went to Ghana, a first for most of the participants. Casher said it was an amazing experience to get in touch with his and other members’ African roots.
The goal of the trip was for cultural exchange and to create connections for business opportunities. Patrick Chandler (Rachel Carson ’99, history and politics), who went on the trip, enjoyed listening to Afrobeats, watching dancing, and eating traditional dishes like jollof rice with chicken. Chandler, who is media relations manager for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said it was moving to visit Cape Coast Castle, where thousands of enslaved Africans were imprisoned before being sent across the ocean.
“It’s a very eye-opening, very emotional, very quiet experience,” he said. “When you’re there, you understand the reality. You connect with the fact that your ancestors could have been there. You hope that we never see a time like that again in human existence where people are being sold as slaves.”
However, Chandler was also impressed with what a beautiful country Ghana is with lush forests, skyscrapers, air conditioning, and all the modern conveniences.
“You hear so much negativity about the entire continent for decades,” he said. “In the 1980s on TV, it appeared everyone was hungry and dying and that those countries can’t govern themselves without the colonial government still in charge.”
Kwasi Addae (College Nine ’01, molecular, cell and developmental biology), whose father is from Ghana, said his goal during the trip was to help fellow alumni forge their own relationships in the country and be able to go back on their own trips if they so choose.
Addae, who works as a research scientist at Thermo Fisher Scientific, said the experience further bonded him with members of the Black Men’s Alliance. He is glad to work with them to help improve the long-term outcome of students coming out of the university to help get them opportunities. The organization wants to help all students but “the African American male population is so underserved, that is where our focus is,” he said.
A network of resources
One of the best things about the alliance is how diverse it is, Addae said. “We have people in politics, we have people in scholastic administration, we have one brother who is an ocean diver. You can meet people doing different things,” he said. “If you have challenges, you can ask these people and draw on these resources.”
Michael Townes (Oakes ’81, sociology), a retired police officer, said the friendships he made with other Black students like Chris Brown (Oakes ’81, sociology) when he attended UC Santa Cruz helped him make it through school.
“I was an older student,” he said. “I had to get used to the quarter system. I wanted to quit.”
Now, he looks forward to the weekly meetings of the Black Men’s Alliance to continue to connect with group members. Townes hopes more people will join.
He wants UCSC Black male alumni to know: “There are people who graduated who look like you and can help you.”
The Black Men’s Alliance is 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The group can be reached at email@example.com.