boys of color line up showing off t-shirts in the courtyard of a school
Kingmakers of Oakland, which works with schools in Oakland and elsewhere, aims to improve academic outcomes for Black boys. Credit: Kingmakers of Oakland

Kingmakers of Oakland, a growing nonprofit that works to improve educational outcomes for Black boys, is receiving a sizable grant to help the group expand its work across the state and country.

The organization collaborates with Oakland Unified and other school districts to implement systemic changes that can help Black boys, and all students, have better experiences in school, like adopting culturally relevant curriculum, and recruiting and retaining Black male educators.

Christopher Chatmon, the founder and CEO, began working in Oakland Unified School District as the executive director for African American Male Achievement when it launched in 2010. The initiative, which laid the groundwork for Kingmakers, focuses on improving academic achievement, lowering suspension and dropout rates, and increasing graduation rates for Black boys through mentorship and leadership programs. 

The need for programs that focus on lifting up African American male students is clear: In Oakland Unified this year, 45% of African American male students have been chronically absent, or have missed more than 10% of school. While graduation rates for African American male students increased from 68% to 78% between 2021 and 2022, the dropout rate during the 2021-2022 school year was around 11%, or 35 Black male students. 

Research has shown that the program has had an impact. In 2019, a paper published by the National Bureau for Economics Research showed that students who had access to African American Male Achievement programs dropped out at lower rates. Researchers also found that Black female students also had a smaller reduction in drop-out rates, suggesting possible “spillover” effects.

“We center Black boys while serving all youth,” Chatmon said. “For me, the biggest challenge is, how do we reimagine and create new systems with conditions where each and every child graduates college and career ready?’”

In 2020, Chatmon left OUSD and launched Kingmakers as an independent nonprofit in 2021. Since then, the organization has grown to support school districts in Antioch, San Francisco, Seattle, and Gwinnett County, Georgia. Late last year, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative awarded Kingmakers a nearly $5 million grant to continue expanding its work in 2023. 

That work includes a three-year fellowship for high school boys, beginning in the tenth grade, to help guide them on paths to college. Over the three years, a cohort of three dozen boys have met three times a month in East Oakland to receive college advising, mentorship, tutoring, and other support. Earlier this year, the group went on a college tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Fiyah Andrews-Abakah works with the Kingmakers family engagement team, and visits Oakland schools to give presentations in classes, hold events during lunch, and “maintain the culture of Kingmakers throughout the school,” he said. 

Kingmakers of Oakland
Fiyah Andrews- Abakah helps put on family engagement events with Kingmakers of Oakland. Credit: Kingmakers of Oakland

Andrews-Abakah began as an intern with Kingmakers when he was a student at MetWest High School before graduating last year and accepting a part-time position with the organization. One of his tasks was helping to plan the Kingmakers annual spring symposium, which happened in March and brought together people from around the country to learn and brainstorm ways to improve school systems for Black students. 

“There’s a lot of collective genius that goes with Kingmakers, and being able to be a part of that is a blessing,” he said. 

Chatmon, the CEO, has a broader vision for the next few years of Kingmakers. The organization recently purchased a facility in West Oakland that will become a production studio for the Kingmakers of Oakland media academy, where teens and young adults learn skills like podcasting, videography, and photography. 

“The idea is teaching the next generation the technical, creative, and imaginative skills required to lift up and tell new stories from the domains of music and films,” Chatmon said.

He also intends, in the next few years, to purchase 200-300 acres of land in Mendocino County to build a camp for Black boys. During the pandemic, when Kingmakers was established, Chatmon said he noticed that Black youth lacked spaces where they could be with others who looked like them.

“We were all coming out of this pandemic having to deal with a whole lot. What I’ve found within our community is we don’t have access to some of the places that other folks may have access to,” Chatmon said. “It’s part of addressing toxic ecosystems and centering the livelihood of Black boys by having a place they can go to rest, heal, learn, and grow.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.