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Inside the Mind of Dr. Sherle Boone

"You can live a good life and still be committed to the well-being of other people.”
–Dr. Sherle Boone

It has been said that “You judge a man by the company he keeps.” It’s equally true that you judge a man by the impact he makes on the lives of others. The positive impact of Dr. Sherle Boone, activist scholar and founder of The W.E.B. DuBois Scholars Institute, will be felt for many generations to come.

Since 1988, Dr. Boone and the faculty at the institute have served 1200 African-American and Latino high school students from predominantly urban districts. The institute is held during the summer at Princeton University and over its twenty-year history, has a staggering 98% college graduation rate. In fact, for the past four years, 100% of the alumni have graduated from college. Compare that to a 51% national average for students completing college.

As the nation’s leading youth empowerment advocate, I’ve worked with hundreds of schools, universities, and youth organizations. Few demonstrate the level of achievement and excellence exhibited at the DuBois Scholars Institute. Dr. Boone is well aware of this and as such, when talking about the students and the faculty he spoke with admiration and respect.

During our 45 minute conversation—which was supposed to be a 10-15 minute interview—I found myself constantly smiling because it’s refreshing to talk to someone who truly cares about our community and our young people.

Mentored by the great Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor, Dr. Boone has been a professor for 33 years. As director of the mayor’s Education Task Force, he served as a senior advisor to Mayor Kenneth Gibson, the first black mayor of Newark, NJ.

Dr. Boone has even worked as a community organizer. (In spite of Gov. Sarah Palin’s recent derogatory comments about community organizers, they are to be lauded and appreciated for the noble work they do.)

Dr. Boone’s new book, “Meanings Beneath the Skin: The Evolutions of African-Americans”, is expected to be published later this year. In the mean time, enjoy some of the highlights from our conversation as you take a peek inside the mind of Dr. Sherle Boone.

“Complex problems are not solved by a single brilliant mind;
complex problems are solved by brilliant minds
working together.”


Congratulations on your 20th anniversary.

Thank you.

Describe the students in the Institute.

Well, the students in the institute are different. We have a very different population from the general population in that our students are selected because they have demonstrated what we consider to be a winning attitude characterized by very high levels of academic achievement. They have also demonstrated a sustained interest in involvement in leadership roles in their communities as well as within their schools.

In addition to that, the overall GPA is a 3.1 in top tier institutions. This year we have two African-American males going to Stanford. Currently we have six of our graduates at Princeton. We’ve had a Rhodes Scholar, a Fulbright Scholar, and more than 30 members of Phi Beta Kappa. We have at least one MD and there maybe more. We have several who are practicing law. And since 1996 more than one third of our students have come from Newark [New Jersey] and other urban communities.


Are the same techniques and principles that you used when you established the institute still effective with today’s students?

Absolutely. They are very similar, but we have refined what we do. We started off with very high academic standards. For example, since we began back in 1988, all of the students that have enrolled in DuBois have been given college level instruction.

Three of the major minds of the previous century provided the conceptual frame work that allowed for me to structure the curriculum and make judgments about the selection process. Those individuals are: W.E.B. DuBois and his ideas concerning the Talented Tenth.

Next, is Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who offered us a theory on the development of thinking and thought. One of the things that he proposed is that by the time a child reaches what we consider to be adolescence he or she has all the cognitive equipment needed to think as an adult. With that being said, children as early 14 years old should have the ability to receive college level instruction and do college level work.

Finally, there is Erik Erikson’s theory of self-development. Our curriculum requires courses that lend themselves to the kids gaining a deeper understanding of self. For example, all kids are required to take African-American History and Cultural Practices. The thinking behind that was guided by the writings of Erik Erikson.

During the years of adolescence, kids have a lot of questions concerning “who am I?” and they struggle with identity issues so we try to help bring some closure to that. So, what’s unique about the institute is that it brings together these three major theories in ways that compliment each other. This is perhaps the only project of its kind. Our success record is astounding to say the least.

“We have been managing poverty, but not
eliminating poverty.”


Is the mission of the institute to promote high achievement?

Actually, that’s not the mission it’s the by-product. Our mission is to produce a cadre of leaders in the African-American and Latino communities. This is based upon DuBois’ notion that the most effective leadership will come from your best and brightest minds. So, we’re developing a cadre of leaders that will engage in the process of trying to eliminate poverty and racism in our society.

Since the Great Society programs that Lyndon Johnson put in place, there has never been a major effort to really eliminate poverty. We have been managing poverty but not eliminating poverty. Poverty is obviously a serious issue among people of African-American descent. For the most part, the problem has been ignored to such a degree that is has become increasingly more complex to understand and unravel the complexities of poverty. So, you cannot make distinctions between the causes and the effect.

Just as we need brilliant minds to solve medical problems such as age and cancer, we need brilliant minds working together to help us unravel and eliminate poverty in our society. What we are trying to do is develop a cohort of brilliant minds and instill in them a sense of duty to give back to our people.

We want to help them recognize that complex problems are not solved by a single brilliant mind; complex problems are solved by brilliant minds working together in such a way that they are intrigued by the complexities of the task and will sustain their interest in the task as a result of these complexities.


The level of leadership you are talking about requires an extraordinary amount of self-discipline and it comes with a great deal of responsibility. How is the DuBois Scholars Institute able to motivate and inspire young people to accept that challenge?

Well, a part of what we try to do, starting at an early age, is instill in them that it is your duty. You don’t have a choice. Add that to the fact that they have to take a course called Ethics and Self-Development. One of the aims of this course is to help them to recognize that self-interest—and you could make the case that we are all guided by some sort of self-interest—does not have to be in competition with collective interest. Self-interest and collective interest can compliment each other.

If you can impact other people’s lives you can almost guarantee that you’re going to be okay. So, what we try to do is help kids define success in terms of the impact of their God given talents on the lives of other people. And of course, we employ on our team, faculty and staff who personify that philosophy. We want the kids to see that you can live a good life and still be committed to the well-being of other people.

So, by tying their desires for achievement, financial success, recognition, or whatever they maybe striving to accomplish, to the ideals of community uplift and enrichment the DuBois Scholars Institute is producing leaders that are not only concerned with personal gain, but are also looking out for our community.

Precisely! And actually, it’s the type of leader that puts the community first and puts himself second.

One of my personal philosophies is: “Service is the prerequisite of greatness.”

Absolutely! You hit the nail on the head.

“It’s just as important to know what you
know as it is to know what
you don’t know.”


What separates effective professors from ineffective professors?

That’s a tough question because often you don’t know if you’ve been effective. It’s hard to determine because when students evaluate faculty members they really evaluate how well they liked the person. They aren’t necessarily evaluating the professor on the basis of the content and the challenge that the professor brings forward. Quite frankly, sometimes there’s an inverse correlation between the effectiveness of the professor and the ratings of the professor. That may be more often the case than not.

An effective professor in my judgment is one that can help to students to recognize and appreciate what they don’t know and arouse students’ motivation to search in order to get to know the unknown. Thus, effective professors instill in students the desire to ask questions and to seek out the answers to those questions as opposed to just sucking up information and regurgitating it.

In the DuBois Scholars Institute we tell the students that what distinguishes a scholar is the desire to know what he doesn’t know and the understanding that the more he gets to know the more he realizes what he doesn’t know.

So as a professor your goal is to be sure that your students not only know the information but that they embody and apply the information.

Precisely! And recognize the limits of what they’re learning. It’s just as important to know what you know as it is to know what you don’t know. So, you have to be able to recognize the limits of any conclusion that you come to. Recognize that rarely do we bring truth to the table. We bring theory more than we bring truth so we have to understand that what we know is really our understanding of the truthfulness of the information we have.

“Rarely do we bring truth to the table.
We bring theory more than
we bring truth.”


Let’s talk about cross-generational communication for a second because that can be very challenging. What are some things that people can do to communicate more effectively with people 25 and younger?

First and foremost, improve your listening skills. We spend far more time talking than listening. We have to train our minds to listen. When I say ‘listen’ I don’t just mean hearing. I mean understanding and thinking about what you are hearing and trying to ensure that you put what you hear and understand in the proper context.

Most of us, as we grow older, don’t listen enough. We also don’t read the right things enough. That narrows the communication between us and kids because we’re not reading and we’re not listening. We tend to become more closed minded because we become less confident in ourselves as we get older if we are not continuing to grow.

In my capacity as a professor I have no choice but to listen. But I think that in general, older adults don’t spend enough time listening to youth. They watch them but they don’t listen.

And let me add something else. Have a willingness to allow people to make mistakes. Giving a second chance, being able allow people to make errors and be comfortable making mistakes and having a willingness to help them work through it. To put it another way, “Keeping hope alive.”

Ha! That’s your Jesse Jackson moment, huh?


“Adults don’t spend enough time listening
to youth. They watch them,

but they don’t listen.”


If you had to choose just one skill as the most important skill for communicating with young people what would it be?

I think it’s honesty and feeling that they can trust you. That may be even more significant than effective listening—being able to trust what a person is saying and knowing he has a genuine interest in you. Most people believe that we are all motivated by self-interest and that carries with it an element of distrust. So, I think that piece is the central piece.

Actually, you couldn’t even have effective listening skills unless you have a genuine interest in someone.

That’s right.


Where will the institute be in the next twenty years?

Well, it certainly won’t be under my leadership!

Actually, that’s a hard question because things change. A lot of things have changed since DuBois was founded. One of the things that has changed is the meaning and the significance of the concept of race. When we first started out back in 1988 it was clear that the greatest divide in our society was race. The divisiveness between African-Americans was secondary to the divide between us and other ethnic groups.

That has changed a lot over the past decade. In fact, quicker then I had even anticipated to be honest. In my judgment, the greatest crisis that faces us now as African-Americans is classism within our own race.

The divide between the professional class and the “unskilled” class is greater now than it has ever been before. Such that you can really live next door to an urban community and never visit it and never have any interfacing with the black people who are living in an urban setting.

That’s dangerous. That’s scary because their plights and our plights are still connected as a collective. We have to come up with ways in which we can potentially close this gap and insure that we do not become disintegrated as a consequence of becoming much more Americanized.

The institute has to be sensitive to these changes in society and continue to work toward maintaining a sense of community among African-American people as we are allowed to become more American. That is to say that as our Nationalism rises and we become more Americanized we can’t loose sight of our ethnicity. That’s the challenge that faces the institute as I see it twenty years from now.


Sum up your philosophy about motivating and communicating with young people in 1-3 sentences.

Here’s something that guides my thinking and it guided the building of the DuBois Scholars Institute. One of the things that seems so obvious and yet it escapes us is that we need to focus our energies on our strengths. That’s not to say that you ignore the things that are weak within your structure, but the foundation has to be strong.

Thus, when it comes to dealing with our youth we need to spend less time talking about what’s wrong with them and more time talking about what’s right with them. Let’s work with the things that we know they are good at. If I can strengthen the things that you are already good at then that’s going to reduce the significance of the things that you’re not so good at. Do you follow me?

Wholeheartedly. In fact, there’s a book called “Now Discover Your Strengths" that I frequently recommend to people. “Hone your strengths and manage your weaknesses.”

You naturally motivate kids when you work on things that they are good at and when you make them feel good about themselves. They will automatically gravitate to you when you deal with things that they are good at.

I agree with that. I think that sometimes we press our young people so much about what they’re doing wrong that they loose sight of what they are doing right. Dr. Boone thank for a few minutes of your time. Your answers were very insightful and thought provoking.

Thank you!

“When it comes to dealing with our youth
we need to spend less time talking

about what’s wrong with them
and more time talking about
what’s right with them.”