Using Pain as Propane

UWEC’s Dennis Beale works to inspire young black men in college, the community

Tom Giffey

Dennis Beale,  Founder of Black Male Empowerment
Dennis Beale, Founder of Black Male Empowerment

Dennis Beale doesn’t need coffee to get going on a cold winter morning. All he needs are text messages from some of the many UW-Eau Claire students he’s mentored and worked with – texts that seek advice or inform him of the young people’s academic and life achievements. 

“That’s my fulfillment,” Beale says. “And my wife calls me crazy, because all I need are five, six hours of sleep, and after that I’m up, I’m ready to take on the day. That’s my life motto: I really want to change lives daily.”

I was very upset, but at the same time my biggest thing is now how can we use this opportunity and this negativity as something positive to help out, not only within the university but also within the greater Eau Claire community? 

Beale says his own life was changed by a number of coaches, mentors, and advisers during his career at UWEC, where he arrived in 2009 as a transfer student and football player. Beale, a Chicago native, received two UWEC degrees and has held several positions at the university, but he’s best known on campus for founding Black Male Empowerment, a mentorship group for African-American students. The organization, which Beale says exists to build brotherhood and highlight “black excellence,” has its roots a tragedy: The 2016 shooting death in Chicago of Derrick Swanigan, an assistant with the Blugolds who Beale worked with to recruit players for the football team, many of them African-Americans from urban areas. 

Black Male Empowerment found itself in the news in November when Snapchat messages among  some members of the football team discussed a nonexistent “White Male Empowerment” group in a chat that included references to the Ku Klux Klan and a photo of Klansmen burning a cross. The incident drew widespread condemnation as racist and led to a demonstration on the campus mall and a demand that administrators take action. (UWEC announced Dec. 6 that students had been disciplined, but said it was unable to share details because of privacy laws.)

In a wide-ranging conversation with Volume One, Beale discussed the goals of Black Male Empowerment, the ups and downs of the racial climate at UWEC, and his goal of continuing to change young people’s lives.

Volume One: When and why did you create Black Male Empowerment?

Dennis Beale: I got a call the day after Christmas (in 2016) that my buddy Derrick Swanigan had been shot and killed. I’m originally from Chicago, so when I heard that, I was devastated. Not only did I face that, but also my uncle actually got shot as well from that gun violence in Chicago, he was paralyzed from the neck down. That year in Chicago there were 700 homicides, 3,000 shootings, and over 4,000 shooting victims. ...

I was kind of down for a little bit. I heard a quote at a conference that said, “Use your pain as propane” – use that to spark something within your life. That’s when I started Black Male Empowerment in February of 2017. It started from that core group of young men who we had brought in within that first year and their brotherhood. I gave a lot of different leadership roles in the group to these young men, and created short-term goals for them, from us going to the U.K., which we actually made happen (in 2018).  … 

We established a day on campus where we dress up in professional attire. This year, it’s on Wednesdays. On this day they either dress up in professional attire that looks like myself or if not they wear their BME T-shirts to help shed some light. I created this group to help people’s perception about African-American males. My mentor once taught me, “You dress for not where you’re at, but for where you want to be in the future.”

I also wanted to help with the educational pipeline, I wanted to help these young men see a better life – coming from the inner city that they come from – to help them attain their degrees so they can go back to their cities and continue to make change in their cities in a positive manner.

Tell me about your own journey. How did you end up coming to UWEC? 

I got here in 2009 from one of my best friends, Dylan Poesch. He actually transferred here and got me very interested in coming to Eau Claire. We played football together. Todd Glaser was the coach at the time, and he took me under his wing, and he actually introduced me to my mentor. Coach Glaser was like a father figure to me, and my mentor really helped me out on a one-on-one basis. He actually helped me take advantage of the “four ships” – leadership, scholarship, internships, and relationships. And what do all those words have in common? Ships. And what do ships do? They sail, they continue to take you places. 

I graduated in May of 2012 with my bachelor’s degree in sociology. I ended up going back home to Chicago for about six months. It was different going back home to an environment where you’re educated with a bachelor’s degree …  and have people accept you the way you are. Because you have a degree, people think that you’re higher than them now, so it was just a very humbling experience. At one time, I lost everything. Literally everything. … I called Coach Glaser after probably about six months, and I told him, I felt like I would either be dead or in jail. What really gave me a rude awakening was one night we had gone out and I actually had a gun pulled on me, and that kind of gave me a real wake-up call. … 

I still had my eye on my goals and my dreams, and I actually wanted to achieve my master’s, and (Glaser) was like, “Come back, and I’ll help you get into grad school.” … I ended up getting into grad school right away, and then I finished in May of 2015. During that last year of grad school that’s when we were heavy on recruiting, and Coach Glaser really shed the light on diversity. 

I imagine it feels good to see these young men you’ve mentored have success in life, but it also has to be a big burden because I’m sure not every story is a success story. How do you deal with that?

When I first became an active mentor, Coach Glaser told me that there are some people that you’re gonna be able to help, and there going to be certain ones that are gonna fall by the wayside. Some students are going to listen to me, and some students are not. So you have to be able to accept that. But my biggest thing – and all my students know this – is I have an open-door policy. All my students have my personal cellphone number. If they listen, they listen, if they don’t – even if they slip and fall and fail – my biggest thing is there’s opportunity for second chances and third chances. 

How has the diversity of campus changed over the past 10 years? 

I would say that at one given time we were at about 8% diversity, and now we’re probably at about 11% diversity, so we’re constantly changing as we continue to grow. We’re getting more faculty of color, which is very helpful, because it helps students to see people who look like them who are in administration roles to just active roles on campus. I feel like diversity is constantly increasing, not only just in the university but within the greater Eau Claire community as well. I feel like it shows we’re accepting to diversity, but the thing about it is there’s cultural competency, too. How do we help with these different ethnic groups coming into the Eau Claire community that is predominantly white, how do we help them understand cultural competency as we move forward? It’s one thing to have them come to the city, but it’s another thing to have them feel welcomed into the city. 

What can the greater population do to be better allies, to be better listeners, observers, friends, co-workers?

Be present. Just be present. Be present when the time is right, first and foremost. Secondly, be open. Speak, reach out in so many different ways. Start a conversation with these students, these community members, these people of color. That’s where it starts off. You can get an understanding just through a conversation of what these students have been through, why they’re here. … You know what they say: “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” If you constantly have a closed mouth, you’re not gonna be open to seeing what’s new, what’s innovative. How do we get to know these students to understand them a little bit more? I think it’s just being open, being honest. If you have the opportunity to use your white privilege, certain privileges we have in this world, we have to use those to our advantage to help change the world. I even came up with a quote: In order to create change, we must create opportunities. And that goes out to the greater Eau Claire community, to open up those opportunities for job placement, for volunteering, for hiring these students to help diversify your staff, to help them get a better understanding of what that looks like. 

You have put a lot of time and energy into making African-American students coming to Eau Claire feel welcome. And then things happen like the recent incident on social media, and I imagine that it’s very disheartening. How do you turn something like that into a more positive direction and not just get discouraged?

I made a post on my personal Facebook page, and I said I was appalled about the incident that happened. But here’s my take on this: Not everybody’s  going to be on board with what you put together, whether that be programming, whether that be an event, whatever the case might be. I didn’t start the group to change other mindsets that cannot be changed. My biggest thing is changing people’s perceptions overall. And there’s gonna be people in the world that are gonna be on board with what we’re doing, and there’s gonna be people that are not gonna be on board with what we’re doing. All I can do is continue to educate people about the positive outputs that these young men are doing within their college journey. 

I was very upset, but at the same time my biggest thing is now how can we use this opportunity and this negativity as something positive to help out, not only within the university but also within the greater Eau Claire community? Maybe our future events will be geared toward helping to bring less hate and more love. That’s kind of the message that will be centered around how do we move in a more positive way, and that’s less hate and more love. …

I’m also working with the greater Eau Claire community now and the school district to form a mentoring program that’s geared toward African-Americans. It’s geared toward fifth through 12th graders, and it would actually be called The Power of Perception, and it would be transforming boys into men, transforming girls into women, and transforming students into scholars. 

On your bio on the UWEC website, it says “I believe in changing lives daily.” Where did that attitude come from, and how do you try to live that out without burning out?

A lot of people wake up and drink coffee. I wake up and I get fulfilled by seeing a text message from a student telling me, “Hey Dennis, I received the funds that you helped me out with to go study abroad.” Or “Dennis, thank you again for telling me to apply for this scholarship, I received that.” Or “Man, Dennis, I got that job opportunity you made the connection with.” So that’s my fulfillment. And my wife calls me crazy, because all I need are five, six hours of sleep, and after that I’m up, I’m ready to take on the day. That’s my life motto: I really want to change lives daily. That’s something that I came to do, here in this Eau Claire community. I definitely want that to stick with me throughout my entire life. I have a son now, so I have to pave the way for him and make sure that I’m a walking role model, I’m an active mentor. And that I can be a father figure and a husband and be the best man that I can be overall.

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