Members of SAAB pose with Springfield Public Schools team members at Tuesday night's school board meeting. (Photo: SPS)

The first row of chairs at Tuesday night’s Springfield Public Schools board meeting was filled with young men wearing tailored suits. As Tyrone Bledsoe, executive director of the group formerly known as the Student African American Brotherhood, introduced each by name, he suggested they remain standing to show off their fits. 

One by one, he introduced the men as leaders of local chapters of SAAB, a nationwide mentorship group focused on helping young men thrive academically in high school and college.

Several of them spoke about how the program opened doors for them, connected them with mentors and helped them further their educations in Springfield. 

“We invest in what we care about,” Bledsoe said. “I can tell what everybody in this room cares about by where you spend your time and where you spend, what? Your money.”

Soon after that, board member Steve Makoski motioned to pull the group’s $64,500 contract with the school district from the consent agenda for further discussion. He said both that he had researched SAAB himself, and that he wanted to hear more about the group from Bledsoe. 

A request to set up a presentation about SAAB was voted down 4-3, and then the SAAB contract was approved when four board members — president Denise Fredrick, Scott Crise, Shurita Thomas-Tate and Danielle Kincaid — voted in favor of it. The three board members who sought a presentation on the topic — Makoski, vice president Maryam Mohammadkhani and Kelly Byrne — abstained. During the discussion, the abstaining members expressed concerns about the group name and whether or not it was inclusionary. 

SAAB, rebranded

The thing is, Bledsoe said Wednesday, it’s not the Student African American Brotherhood anymore. Two years ago, soon after relocating the group’s national headquarters to Springfield, Bledsoe hired a firm to do a brand refresh across its website and social media platforms. One of the big changes, Bledsoe said, “is that we stopped spelling out the acronym SAAB.” 

Bledsoe started SAAB in 1990 on the Georgia Southwestern State University campus as an effort to address an academic failure. Black men at the school averaged a 1.75 GPA. Bledsoe, then the assistant dean of students, encouraged about 60 such students to attend the first meeting, where he led discussions about issues that affected them. SAAB evolved to provide guidance and mentorship opportunities in over 350 chapters in 41 states. In the process, Bledsoe said, the group began opening its doors to everyone. He said the first white participant joined about 15 years ago, after asking if he could get some love too. 

“We’re open,” Bledsoe said. “Anyone who walks through the doors and wants to be a part of SAAB is welcome. We never turn anyone back. I don’t care (about) one’s race, background, sexual orientation, religion, beliefs — we have a mix of everyone, and it’s a reflection of my leadership style. I’m very open. I’m very embracing. And I love people.”

Bledsoe said he wished he’d got the rebranding message across during the three minutes allotted to him during the public comment session. Instead, he spent about a minute of his time introducing his student leaders. 

“Three minutes was not long enough for him,” joked Zao Shatto, one of the SAAB members who spoke after Bledsoe on Tuesday night. 

SAAB backers describe an inclusive group with representative leadership

When KeKe Rover learned SAAB would be expanding to SPS middle schools, she was thrilled to tell her rising eighth-grade son about the program. 

“I just said that SAAB is a really neat opportunity to be around other kids that look like you that are in your same grade, and it’s an opportunity to be exposed to things in the real world that me and your dad might not be able to help you experience,” Rover said. “And I also explained that it’s led by African-American folks. So, culturally, you’ll be able to be accepted and understood, without having to do the work in order to advocate for you. That piece is already there for you.”

At Tuesday night’s board meeting, Rover spoke in support of SAAB’s inclusion as an SPS-funded program and pointed out that the group, while offering her son an opportunity to receive guidance from leaders who look like him, is not an exclusionary one. 

“Not only is this program already inclusive to folks of every ethnicity and race, (but) they also take it a step further by making this a part of their branding as well, which is why they also have the name Brother to Brother,” she said during public comments. 

During the board’s discussion of the contract, Byrne said he’d read the group’s mission statement online and was also impressed by SAAB members who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. While he was ready to personally donate money to SAAB, he said he wanted to learn more before approving the contract with the district. 

“When we’re talking about public funds through Springfield Public Schools, my concern with this group, in particular, does have a lot to do with the name and with the contract reading a lot of being exclusive,” Byrne said. “I think we are picking certain groups whereas I think there are a lot of people, a lot of students in this district, who maybe don’t identify as male and don’t identify as of color that could benefit from this same thing.”

Bledsoe said he spoke with Byrne during a break Tuesday night, and that Byrne told him he said there were inconsistencies on the website. Bledsoe said he told him to point out anything he finds because he doesn’t want SAAB’s website, or mission, to be confused. 

SAAB expanding across district

In February, a member of the public had spoken at a board meeting about SAAB as an exclusionary group, one that offered lessons that could benefit white students as well. In an interview with the Daily Citizen shortly after the meeting, SPS superintendent Grenita Lathan said all young men were welcome to join SAAB. 

“The association is open to all students and Dr. Bledsoe, who is the founder of the organization, makes it very clear that it started out initially focusing on African American young men, but they broadened that to include other nationalities or ethnicities,” Lathan said then. “And so that’s very clear that whoever needs the resource in our five high schools as far as our male students, they’re able to join and be a part of the association.”

Lathan said then she was looking into developing a mentoring program for young women across the district as well. But first, she authorized the expansion of SAAB. She said she made a point to sit in on SAAB meetings at the two SPS high schools then involved with the program soon after joining the district. She said she saw the group leaders working with students to help them with all aspects of growing up, from improving their public speaking skills to learning how to buy a suit. 

“I was able to observe the mentoring, the support, the speakers, the different activities and it was very clear to me, ‘Oh my gosh, we need this in all five of our high schools,” she said then. 

Mentorship at heart of SAAB

Clif Smart, Missouri State University president, and SAAB CEO Tyrone Bledsoe sign a scholarship agreement in early 2021. (Missouri State University strategic communications)

The program has numerous cheerleaders across Springfield. Missouri State University president Clif Smart partnered with Brian Fogle at Community Foundation of the Ozarks to pitch Bledsoe on relocating the SAAB national headquarters from Toledo, Ohio, to Springfield. Smart said the program’s mentorship aspect helped its members graduate at a rate far higher than average, and provides a pipeline of young leaders from SPS chapters who enroll at MSU, as well as other colleges and universities in Springfield.

“The more you know about the program, the more everyone is going to embrace it no matter where you are in the political spectrum,” Smart said. “Because the goal is for our students to be successful, and this program helps all students of all backgrounds be successful — with a focus on men. Fewer and fewer men are going to college, and we need to lean into that. And I think as people learn about what they do, and who Dr. Bledsoe is and the success that he’s had for 30 years, I think opposition will melt away.”

After being promoted to CoxHealth CEO, Max Buetow said during an interview with the Daily Citizen that he wanted to be a mentor with SAAB after the first time he heard Bledsoe speak about it. 

“The nature of that organization, the inclusion that’s involved with that — because even though their roots are in helping young African American males develop, it has bloomed and blossomed far beyond that today,” Buetow said. “I’ve got a relationship with a young man who is a 19-year-old from the Columbia, Missouri, area. And I will tell you, he does as much mentoring with me as I do with him. Our time together is very special. He’s very close with my family. I mean, he has become a really good dear friend of mine. And in the position I’m in today, it’s really good to have the feedback of a young and up-and-coming 19-year-old to keep you humble.”

‘I honestly cannot think of any rhyme or reason as to why this would not be an SPS-funded program’

During the board meeting, Kincaid apologized to the SAAB members for having to “protect the organization that has meant so much to you.” Crise said he wished more organizations like SAAB existed. Thomas-Tate asked why this group’s contract with SPS was being singled out, without receiving an answer from Makoski. 

Makoski also did not give a reason during the meeting for requesting a presentation from Bledsoe. 

“I honestly cannot think of any rhyme or reason as to why this would not be an SPS-funded program,” Rover said. “I cannot.” 

Bledsoe said Wednesday that he encouraged all board members to visit a SAAB meeting, or a SAAB Saturday event held monthly at the eFactory. 

“We’re very open,” he said. 

With the contract approved, Rover said she is looking forward to what SAAB can provide her eighth-grade son when he joins the new chapter at Pershing K-8. 

“He’s from a two-parent home,” she said. “He’s a great athlete and a great student. However, (SAAB) is like that one more piece of accountability. It’s a third piece of accountability, and someone else that is exposing him to things that he may not get from me, as his mom, or his dad. Here is a third party coming in, saying, ‘Yeah, I want to take you to a Rotary meeting.’ My husband and I are not going to Rotary meetings.”

While she highlighted the inclusive nature of the program during her public comments, she stressed Wednesday how important it will be for her son to see someone like him in a position of leadership. 

“Representation matters,” Rover said. “And as much as we like to think that all folks are the same and we don’t, quote-unquote, see color, we do. And when someone is invested in a program and doing meaningful work that looks like you, you feel empowered to do the same.”

Editor’s Note: KeKe Rover is a member of the Springfield Daily Citizen Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Advisory Panel. The panel is a group of unpaid volunteers that meets on a quarterly basis to discuss the Daily Citizen’s efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusiveness in its journalism and operations.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson