MILWAUKEE — The BLEST (Black and Latino/Latina Ecosystem and Support Transition) Hub at Marquette was developed in part from the experiences of Marquette Ph.D. student Saúl López.
The BLEST Hub aims to improve "life outcomes for Black and Latino/a students in the Milwaukee area by strengthening spaces, initiatives, and connections that support our youth during periods of transition from middle school through post-secondary completion and/or fulfilling stable employment," according to the website.
López said growing up on Milwaukee's south side he faced barriers "navigating institutions of higher education, navigating spaces like high school, navigating a segregated city."
He used those challenges to inform his current work as a Ph.D. student. He started his program in 2020 working on a project that would eventually become the BLEST Hub.
But it's not just for the Marquette community. The hub also partners with UW-Milwaukee (UWM), MATC, MPS, and local, grassroots organizations to support Black and Brown Milwaukee students overcome barriers to education.
He helped develop a mapping system to illustrate the resources available in the Milwaukee community and how they're working to address some of the needs of students of color.
"From access to college, access to financial resources or academic resources," López said. "We find that a lot of the resources academically affect a student's pathway to college. So if they don't have access to tutoring or simple stuff like testing or ACT prep, that really can impact a student's access to let's say a place like Marquette or UWM or any other institution in the city."
The Hub is also dedicated to understanding, identifying, and helping to find solutions to the gaps in services offered to young people in Milwaukee.
BLEST Hub faculty advisor Gabriel Velez pointed to disparities when it comes to the punishment of Black and Latino/a students at Milwaukee schools.
"If you are 6, 7 or 8 up to a high school-aged kid and you're facing suspensions, expulsions, especially at undue rates, that's sending a message to you about what your future is like academically and where you belong. It's telling you, you don't belong in these educational spaces," Velez said of the consequences of discrepancies in punishment at schools.
Velez also noted one of the issues the BLEST Hub research highlighted was a lack of sustainability for projects and initiatives aimed at supporting Black and Latino/a students.
"One of the issues has been sort of a lack of sustained accountability," Velez said. "Every once in a while there are really interesting initiatives, there's policy that comes into place, or there's really progressive things at a city level in terms of government, but there really isn't a lot of organization and a sense of building on each thing."
That's where the mapping system comes in, helping to connect organizations already doing the important work of supporting Black and Latino/a students in Milwaukee and making sure students know about those various resources.
Velez said one of the positives to come from the research is that they've noticed "the Latino, Latina population, in terms of those that have been coming from Milwaukee and accessing higher education, has been increasing. I think that speaks to some of the real strength of the south side organizations and some of the schools."
The BLEST Hub is also working to aid Marquette in its goal to become a Hispanic Serving Institution, which is defined as an undergraduate student population that is 25% Hispanic.
López said that means "fostering community for our students and making them feel like they're part of something bigger."
Velez said that the university is well on its way, but needs to go beyond just creating spaces or groups that are welcoming to Hispanic and Latino students.
"Part of the issue is that those are just spaces still. If we really want to be a Hispanic Serving Institution and not just an institution with Hispanic serving space, we need to to think about how we can bring that more broadly across the campus," Velez said.
Ultimately, the BLEST Hub is working to ensure all students have a sense of belonging in Milwaukee's learning institutions and communities.