Upon acceptance into the MKE Fellows Program, Devon Kidd attended a signing day in his high school’s library, similar to the kind of signing day colleges and professional sports teams hold for promising athletes.
Kidd, a 2012 graduate of Rufus King International School, recalls then-Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent Gregory Thornton nodding to the event as the first at which he’d seen young black men drafted into a program based on academics, not sports.
Athletic agility in young black males isn’t an issue, Kidd said.
“But we need to see variety in black men,” he said, from academic strength to talents in acting, singing and drawing.
Helping young black men groom those kinds of talents and chart a pathway through college is at the center of the MKE Fellows Program.
The college pipeline program, which recently rebranded, launched in 2011 to give talented area students the opportunity and full tuition support to enroll in the all-male, historically black Morehouse College. The Atlanta school has educated leading figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson.
With a surge of interest from students, the MKE Fellows Program expanded in 2014 to include other historically black institutions. Program organizers also built out an internship component last summer in order to expose students to Milwaukee’s business community and help them realize their potential to pursue a career in the city.
That internship program’s capacity will more than double for 2016 as organizers aim to provide job experience to about 40 college students across 20 to 25 employers. The program is also casting a wider net among schools, as students from schools that are not historically black are eligible to apply – schools such as Marquette University, along with the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, Oshkosh and Platteville.
The program caters to students from Milwaukee or Madison as it works to give them a feel for what it would be like to plant a career in Milwaukee.
Demand for the program is “enormous,” said John Daniels, Jr., chairman emeritus of Milwaukee-based Quarles & Brady LLP and one of the leading coordinators of the MKE Fellows Program.
Daniels was part of the original team of prominent business leaders who molded the MKE Fellows Program after being approached to raise college scholarship funds for a group of area students, most of whom belonged to Milwaukee Public Schools. The goal pivoted around sending those students to Morehouse College and sending additional students each year, according to Daniels. The team of executives initially collected about $1 million to benefit students.
The first wave of students backed by those scholarship dollars will graduate from Morehouse College this May – including Kidd, who will likely return to Milwaukee to work for a few years before applying to New York University to pursue a graduate degree in dramatic writing.
Kidd’s interest in the MKE Fellows Program piqued as he wanted to surround himself with other black men in “a fast-paced educational environment,” he said.
Minority students of all backgrounds often don’t have an opportunity to see minority leaders in action, according to Kidd.
“When you grow up in those types of minority groups, you oftentimes don’t see those kinds of people in power, whether it be in your community or on a media basis,” he said.
The idea of attending Morehouse College and seeing so many black men approach education so “vigorously” and “rigorously” attracted him to the scholarship program.
As a MKE Fellows student, Kidd interned at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation last summer. Within the foundation, Kidd found a family environment and co-workers who cared about him as both a student and a person. Much of his time was dispensed to a legacy project in which he tracked how donors had allocated their funds so he could project how future donations might be invested. By the end of the summer, Kidd had tracked about $200 million.
In addition to learning hard job skills, he polished a variety of soft skills, including the importance of developing strong partnerships with colleagues and making individuals feel appreciated by thanking them for their specific contributions to a project or cause, he said.
Other interns spent their summer days at settings in health care, engineering, sales and marketing, and law. Among the dozen workplace participants were Harley-Davidson Inc. and Johnson Controls Inc., as well as the Milwaukee Bucks and Quarles & Brady.
Beyond their full-time internship experiences, MKE Fellows students attended professional development seminars, explored offices through lunch-and-learn sessions hosted by a variety of businesses, and checked out Milwaukee amenities like the Milwaukee County Zoo. Next year, the program will likely include an element of community service to further extend students’ ties to Milwaukee.
To the best of Daniels’ knowledge, no other program like MKE Fellows exists in the country. Milwaukee is “setting the pace” with developing talent among young black male students and connecting individuals to careers in the city, he said.
The MKE Fellows Program is still recruiting employers for next summer’s internship cycle, which will run at least eight weeks. An advisory committee composed of 15 professionals from area companies is currently helping structure the internship program to make it as appealing to college students as possible.
Within the MKE Fellows Program, the Greater Milwaukee Committee matches students with internship opportunities and the employers behind those opportunities compensate their student workers.
The program offers the city’s cadre of employers “a great talent resource,” Daniels said, as the business community’s success hinges on its ability to draw talent from diverse groups.
“I think one of the keys here is to recognize that if we can keep building this momentum, we can create an incredible talent base that has been untapped to date in Milwaukee,” Daniels said.