Black Veterans Project wants to disrupt the status quo by combating racial military inequalities

Kaylah Jackson
February 19, 2020 - 10:00 am
Black Veterans Project

Courtesy of Black Veterans Project

A first-generation college student, Richard Brookshire attended Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Georgia, with some strife. With little guidance navigating academia, Brookshire lost his academic scholarship and returned home after a year.

He went on to intern for Barack Obama's presidential campaign, but after he won the presidency, Brookshire was left searching for something more. He decided to join the Army as a combat medic where he served four years on active duty, including a deployment to Afghanistan.

“As a young black man, a little bit lost in the world at the time, I was really inspired by his (Obama) win and kind of felt like I needed to gain some discipline … and I really wanted a way to pay for school,” said Brookshire. 

For Kyle Bibby, joining the military was an obvious choice. Born into a family in which many served in the military, Bibby attended the United States Naval Academy after high school. He was the first in his family to become an officer, a notable accomplishment for the grandson of a man who served in a segregated military.

Kyle Bibby, co-founder of Black Veterans Project
Courtesy of Kyle Bibby

Different paths brought Brookshire and Bibby to the service, but their shared identities as black, male veterans and interest in social justice is what lead them to create the Black Veterans Project when the pair met at Columbia University in Harlem, New York.

On paper, Brookshire’s move back to being a civilian appeared seamless—he’d worked in communications, city government and received a degree from an Ivy League institution. The reality was far from easy. 

“Ok, who am I? How am I gonna show up in the world? I fell into a major depression,” Brookshire said. “I was internally f***** up … three colleagues, I had served with committed suicide. All of that collectively put me in a bad headspace and the politics of this country was shifting rapidly.”

Bibby also encountered challenges when he began to plan for life after the Army. He was uncertain how he could make the transition from a Marine infantry officer to a career in social justice, a passion he found during a deployment to Afghanistan and Japan.

“It made me want to get more involved in my own community, rather than being an armed individual in another country. Start examining how we can do better in policing and community safety in the U.S., particularly for low-income communities of color,” Bibby said.

Minority veterans have a 44 percent higher risk of unemployment than non-minority vetereans while Post-9/11 minority veterans have a 41 percent higher risk of unemployment than Pre-9/11 and Vietnam-era minority veterans, according to VA.

“Why is it that black veterans are facing these unique challenges after service,” Brookshire said. "I started to research further and look at the numbers. 'What are the numbers around veteran access to benefits?'"

Richard Brookshire, co-founder of Black Veterans Project
Courtesy of Richard Brookshire

As of 2016, 11 percent of minority veterans who identify as black are more likely to use VA benefits than other ethnic groups, according to the most recent Department of Veterans Affairs data. However, historically minority veterans “are more skeptical of information provided by healthcare professionals as compared to White veterans."

“There really is special sort of magic to that story—where we were denied so much and had to fight for everything that we've gotten and despite that, we were always willing to step forward and say ‘you know, we’re willing to serve our community. Even if that means putting our lives on the line, in danger, or losing it,’” Bibby said.

Frustrated by these realities, Bibby and Brookshire started researching racial disparities within minority veterans’ healthcare and found VA medical centers who see a disproportionate amount of minority veterans have fewer available services or deliver lower-quality care than centers serving predominantly white veterans.

“A lot of the economic outcomes that have been historically detrimental to black veterans have come out of the fact that they’re marginalized even from the point that they signed their contract. You have black veterans that are largely, disproportionately forced into service-oriented roles, they have challenges sometimes getting promoted, you have a long history of racial disparity of UCMJ,” Brookshire said.

BVP is hoping to elevate awareness about these disparities and change them. The goals are two-fold: to advocate for black veteran’s issues in and out of the military and create a digital collective of black military history.

The latter is important to BVP because while accounts of black military service are accessible in some online databases and museums they want to couple those historical facts with narratives of black service men and women they can collect on the ground. The hopeful result is a “digital monument” that lives on the organizations’ website and is continuously updated.

A number of black-centered veteran’s organizations exist, like the National Association of Black Veterans (NABVETS) and the National Association of Black Military Women, however, it's on a smaller scale and often they are not savvy when it comes to social media.

“You see these organizations really haven’t been able to make the transition to the digital sphere in a way that’s really substantive, that connects black vets,” Brookshire said.

Brookshire and Bibby envision BVP working in tandem with existing minority-focused military organizations.

“I prefer to be in support of an organization like Black Veterans for Social Justice or perhaps NABVETS and be able to make a bridge to the newer generation. Where I feel like we (BVP) has our most value is in our advocacy and in our research and in our archiving work,” Brookshire said.

The Black Veterans Project is steadily building relationships with their local community and politicians through the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans' Braintrust.

“We understand that a lot of veteran orgs are not going to like the fact that we might be overtly a black focused organization or that we also are going to challenge some of the institutions that exist in the military but so be it—the data is there and it's our job to do something about it,” Bibby said.

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