James P. Stancil II, Ph.D., is the founder and chief program officer of Intellect U Well Inc., a nonprofit organization in Houston, Texas, promoting media literacy, digital citizenship and the joy of reading. Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, co-founder and CEO of MissionBox, talks with James about his work in the community to make reading fun and meaningful again for young people.
Could you talk about your background and how you became interested in education?
I am from Smithfield, a small town in North Carolina. My father and mother both worked in the local school district and education was very important to them. I loved to read and I loved to learn. Fantasy, mystery and history in particular fascinated me. As a result of the support and encouragement from my parents, I’m proud to say that my older brother and I were the first generation in our family to receive college educations.
I had a history teacher in high school who was an authority on American history and he inspired me to become a teacher. I attended college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and then became a high school social studies teacher. I earned a master’s degree in curriculum/instruction and social studies. Eventually, I did my doctoral work in curriculum/instruction and instructional leadership.
After teaching for 20 years, I became an adult education tutor. Eventually I entered the college level and today I work at Prairie View A&M University as the manager of its tutoring program.
What led you into the nonprofit field?
I wanted to give back to the community as best as I could. The community included people like my parents, my history teacher and local community leaders who supported me and some of my friends. They all helped motivate us to go to college and be successful. It would have been very easy for me to get involved in other types of things and not be successful.
Could you tell us about Intellect U Well and how it started?
Intellect U Well emphasizes the importance of reading and literacy skills for people mainly under the age of 21, but seeks to help all ages. We sponsor informational events open to the public that focus on books, media literacy, college planning, academic achievement and self-improvement. Our aim is to educate the public concerning the contributions of individuals from diverse backgrounds in history, academic research, book creation and publication.
It is a family organization that includes my wife, my son and some of our friends who are involved with the organization 100 Black Men of Metropolitan Houston. We all came together when we realized there was a great need to get people reading in the community, from the parent to the student level. I wanted to provide some of the motivational leadership that I received as a young person and help parents who want to motivate their children.
Can you give an example of an Intellect U Well program that you feel has high impact?
One of our longest-running programs is called Intellect U Well Journeys. We have a theme for each session and we bring in authors and scholars. The events help connect the community with writers and scholars to make books and scholarship more accessible.
One event this summer is called Fiction Journeys. It features writers who focus on fictional stories that relate to African-American culture and experiences. One person in the group found an unfinished novel by what is believed to be the first novel written by an African-American woman in the United States. He finished and published the book and came up with three different endings. Another writer named Ben Winters is part of the program. He wrote a novel called “Underground Airlines,” which is like an alternate history about what might have happened if the southern states continued to have slavery. Daniel Black, a professor from Clark Atlanta University, also is taking part. He wrote a fictional account of the Emmett Till case. We will have a panel discussion with the three authors and invite the community.
What other types of programs do you have at Intellect U Well?
We also do Nature by the Book where we partner with Outdoor Afro Houston. We go out and read books related to nature, environmental research, ecology and any outdoor activity. We’ve read about birding, black people farming. We’ve got another one coming up where we cover herbal remedies, natural remedies and the connections going back to Africa. We do programs with astronomy. We’re trying to get people of color more involved in astrophysics.
What are some of the reactions to these events?
The feedback I have received over the years is, “Wow. I didn’t even know these kinds of books existed. I didn’t know these kinds of topics were out there.” It also helps them realize that those writers and scholars are just like them, coming from their communities, coming from similar backgrounds. So for young people, they are thinking, “Hey, I can do this too.” For older people, they think, “Yes, I can do this, too,” but also, “This could be my son or my cousin and they’re writing about stories and things that interest me.”
So I feel that it’s getting more people involved in reading and increasing the level of scholarship with some of these topics. We’ve had diasporic authors and scholars writing on the African diaspora. I feel like it’s really impactful because it’s providing an opportunity for people in Houston who maybe wouldn’t have talked to those kinds of folks or know about those kinds of things. But it’s also connecting those authors. They love meeting each other.
Could you describe your work on media literacy and digital citizenship?
We have a partnership with the News Literacy Project, a national organization that pushes news literacy for middle school and high school students. We do something called Intellect U Well Development. We have two programs. One in the spring where we invite educators, K-12, college and adult educators, to come in to learn about media literacy and digital citizenship from scholars and experts. And then we do a similar program in the fall for the community. We invite parents, elementary students, middle high school students, college, adults and even seniors who sometimes get caught up in conspiracy theories, fake news, etc.
What opportunities does your organization open for young people?
I often tell myself the cure for cancer, AIDS or some other disease could be discovered by a young man or woman in a housing project or trailer park. Everyone needs someone to help them get motivated, get involved in reading, scholarship and go to college. If we don’t do those kinds of things, who knows what we’re missing out on in terms of leadership in the present day or the future.
Could you please tell us about who funds you?
We have a lot of individual donors and we applied for some grants. We’ve been at this for about five years and last year we grew and expanded. We partnered with a local community organization and we hosted fundraisers. A lot of the participating scholars donate their time as community service.
We’re a 501(c)3 nonprofit, so any donations or help or support that people provide can be utilized for tax purposes. We are Houston-based, but we’d love to help anyone, anywhere. Now that we’re remote, anyone in the world can sit in and participate. Readers who would like to support our program can visit intellectuwell.org.