|Roderick T. Heath, Ed.D.
Durham, North Carolina
I love to see young men grow and do positive things. I tell them all the time: I'll run with you, but I won't chase you. If you want to be great and you make the effort, I'm going to get you there.
"My journey is similar to a lot of the young African American males who come to North Carolina Central. I grew up with a single mom. There wasn't a lot of guidance. I went to community college for awhile, then dropped out. I worked in a few factories. I hung out with a lot of guys doing a lot of nothing. I knew deep down that I had to get serious, go to college or go to jail. And today, I am Dr. Heath with a doctorate in Higher Education Leadership. I hold myself up as an example to these youth. If I can do it, they can do it."
As director of the Men's Achievement Center and African American Male Initiative (AAMI) at North Carolina Central University, Roderick Heath, Ed.D, knows each and every young man who comes within his sphere. Whether they sign up to for his program or are thinking about it, Heath finds them and pulls them in. Every Black male—regardless of age or socio-economic background—represents a strong person with potential to live well and make a positive impact on his community.
As an undergraduate student in communications, Heath earned a life-changing opportunity from the New York Times, which sent him to cover Hurricane Katrina as a photojournalist intern.
"In New Orleans, I saw miles and miles of destruction. I met genuine people who had lost everything but still had passion to live and do better. I came back to campus and thought who am I to complain?
"It made me a better student. And a better person. I decided I was going to help Black men jump hurdles and overcome obstacles. I was going to get them to the finish line."
While working on his doctorate degree at Fayetteville State University, Heath became director of AAMI in 2017. He studied alongside his students.
"When I took over, I began looking at non-cognitive behaviors of our students. We had to take into account the family they came from. The upbringing. What was this young man's life like outside of school. Was there any childhood trauma? Is there something we need to get past in order help him tap into his intellectual self?"
When he tuned his approach to account for non-cognitive behaviors, Heath began to see drop-out rates go down and grade-point averages go up.
"Today, we have 89% retention rate and 3.0 GPA," he said. "I use many of the motivating factors used in professional sports. When they graduate from one class to another, they receive blazers, watches, pins. These are important symbols of achievement. And it is important to our discipline and brotherhood."
Heath, 41, is tireless. In addition to teaching and mentoring, recruiting, fundraising and brainstorming new ideas to engage students, Heath said he is blessed with a beautiful personal life—he and wife Latoya have an 8-year-old son, Carter.
He recently partnered with the university's School of Education to recruit minority men to become teachers. Heath's vision is to recruit minority men currently working unskilled jobs in the community to go to college and become teachers.
"We have a teacher shortage, especially Black and Latino male teachers. So I wrote a proposal to create the Marathon Teaching Institute," he said. "We go to factories and talk to employees. Many of these men are already teaching in their communities when they coach sports on weekends or mentor young boys. So we ask: ‘Have you ever thought about teaching in a classroom. We'll help you get through the college process."
Heath also looked at NCCU's lopsided student population—70% female—and thought about how the young women could participate in AAMI, and ultimately, help their fellow students.
"We created Sisters of MAC (Men's Achievement Center) for female students to become tutors and help our young men learn work/school/life balance. The camaraderie between them helps everyone learn how to have healthy and mutually respectful relationships with peers who just happen to be of the opposite sex."
Since AAMI was launched in 2009, more than 750 men have graduated. The success stories are many: judges, lawyers, doctors, educators, law enforcement professionals, military officers, professional athletes.
AAMI was recently recognized by the Jerome Bettis' Bus Stops Here Foundation and the Ford Fund with a Men of Courage "Game Changer" award of $5,000. Heath said he'll use the funds to continue to get his students over the hurdles.
"I love this work. I love working with these men. My son, Carter, sees how I work, and he says he wants to be a teacher like his dad. I wasn't able to talk about my father like that.
I am so grateful that I can give him—and so many other young men—something they may not have had the chance to experience.
Ford Fund's Men of Courage Game Changer Award recognizes organizations that help Black men make a positive impact in their communities through education, business and/or social equity. Men of Courage is a national program by Ford Fund designed to advance the narrative of African American men through storytelling and community programs.