Beacons of Light
FBI and leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities deepen relationships at Baltimore conference
Beacon Conference presenters included, from left, Dr. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University; Cynthia Snyder, assistant director of national intelligence for human capital at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; Paul Abbate, deputy director of the FBI; and Kevin Liles, chairman and CEO of 300 Elektra Entertainment.
As leaders of more than half of the country’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) assembled with FBI officials in September at Morgan State University in Maryland to build on a promise to work together toward common goals, the Baltimore research university’s president, Dr. David Wilson, reminded the gathering of the school’s integral role in the civil rights movement.
In 1955, Morgan State students staged the first successful lunch counter sit-in at a Read's Drugstore just a few blocks from the school. The protest led the store chain to desegregate and inspired more successful sit-ins in the ensuing years. Understanding that history, Dr. Wilson said, is part of being a student at the historically Black university.
“We expect you to know the history, and then we expect you to live it out every single day,” he said.
The message was threaded throughout this year’s Beacon National Conference—a meeting to support an initiative the FBI launched in 2021 to cultivate and nourish relationships with leaders of the country’s HBCUs. The FBI’s troubled history with Black and African American communities, particularly during the 1960s civil rights era, is well-documented. The Bureau acknowledged its wrongs at the first Beacon Conference two years ago in Huntsville, Alabama, and pledged again this month to HBCU leaders to continue the hard work of making the FBI better reflect the communities it serves.
“The actions of our past are painful to recall and haunt us still today,” FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate said in remarks at the September 6 conference. “Shining a bright light on the past reminds us of how far we have come and informs our future steps. There's still much, much more work to be done.”
Some of that work took place during sessions at the conference, which included top leadership from nearly all the 25 FBI field offices whose geographic territories have one or more of the nation’s 101 HBCUs.
Topics included partnerships between federal agencies and academia, how to match STEM curriculums to in-demand FBI jobs, and bridge-building between law enforcement and the African American community. There was also a panel discussion about the FBI hate-crime investigation of the racially motivated 2020 murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.
More than 75 presidents and leaders from 58 HBCUs attended the conference, doubling the turnout of the inaugural Beacon Conference two years ago.
“What we are hoping to happen is that pathways between the HBCUs and the FBI and vice-versa will become clearer as the possibilities for collaborations actually move forward,” said Morgan State’s Dr. Wilson. “When you have these kinds of things coming together where it is not just one institution benefitting then you have the ingredient for a long-term partnership.”
Dr. David Wilson, president of Morgan State University and Cynthia Snyder, assistant director of national intelligence for human capital at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, speak on a panel at the Beacon Conference.
The FBI believes continuing to build stronger connections with university leaders will lead to better insights and context about the communities it serves. And HBCUs are a rich source of talent to fill roles as FBI special agents, analysts, and professional staff.
For HBCUs, establishing a strong relationship with their local FBI field office can open a window on how the FBI works in their own community—and how their students might consider a future with the Bureau.
The initiative for Beacon grew from an FBI agent’s invitation in 2018 to a a highly successful business executive to speak at a Black History Month event at the Bureau’s New York Field Office. On his visit, Kevin Liles, chairman and CEO of 300 Elektra Entertainment, received a tour and met with personnel from the field office. The up-close experience offered him a fresh perspective he thought others might benefit from. So he worked with the agent who invited him to speak, Jermicha Fomby, and FBI executive leadership to develop the Beacon Initiative, which evolved into the Beacon Project.
“If you have someone from the outside—who has no reason outside of noticing what it is to want to be a part of change—then we owe that to him to find change, to be focused on doing those things that are necessary to move forward,” said Fomby, an HBCU graduate who is now the special agent in charge of the Jackson Field Office in Mississippi. “And so that simple conversation, simple comment with a little continuation over time, is why we are where we are today.”
The Beacon Project includes opportunities to connect on topics of mutual interest, as well as FBI direct engagement with HBCU students and faculty, FBI collegiate academies at HBCUs, and hosting HBCU leaders at FBI citizens academies. Last summer, the FBI visited 11 HBCUs to promote the FBI’s honors internship program—outreach that resulted in more than 300 applications (double the prior year) from HBCU students.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) joined the FBI at the conference to discuss potential career paths and demystify the roles of the various agencies in the intelligence community. Cynthia Snyder, assistant director of national intelligence for human capital at ODNI, was among the event’s principal speakers.
“This event has been a great opportunity to expose the historical Black colleges to the many opportunities, not just at the FBI, but throughout the intelligence community and some of the programs that we have available to the colleges, so they can leverage those programs to help expose the students to the intelligence community and basically broaden the aperture for them,” Snyder said.
Liles, a Baltimore native who attended Morgan State, delivered the keynote address. He said Beacon is more than a means for recruiting and job hunting. He uses the term beacon to describe sources of light that have helped him navigate his life successfully. He said the program is really about cultivating relationships, connecting, and staying engaged.
“The bigger goal is to flip the switch and fundamentally change how most elite law enforcement agencies would engage the African American community,” Liles said, addressing HBCU leaders in the room. “And we know we need to start with the heart. We needed to start with you in our HBCU families.”
The FBI has made significant strides in efforts to increase diversity in its ranks. New agent classes have more women and more individuals from underrepresented communities than ever before. And the Bureau has a higher percentage of minorities at every grade level than just four years ago. Earlier this year, the FBI signed the 30x30 Pledge to significantly grow the number of female agents by 2030.
Jennifer Love, a retired special agent who rose through the ranks to become the special agent in charge of the Richmond Field Office and assistant director of the Bureau’s Security Division, delivered the closing address at the conference. She said HBCUs are a deep well of untapped talent.
“I know lots of people just like me, and I’m not the exception at HBCUs. I’m the rule,” said Love, a graduate of Jackson State University in Mississippi. She has long voiced a need for diversity of thought and law enforcement agencies looking like the communities where they serve.
Deputy Director Abbate said the FBI’s culture has indeed changed over time with new rules, guidelines, and personnel that have made it a stronger, more diverse organization.
Of the many FBI field offices that have built relationships with HBCUs through the Beacon Project, two stand out for innovative engagement.
To maximize HBCU students’ understanding of the FBI, the Charlotte Field Office revamped its Citizens Academy curriculum for a student audience and held two collegiate academy sessions for more than 90 HBCU students in the Charlotte area. The students learned about the FBI’s investigative process, priorities, and employment opportunities. They got to talk firsthand with agents and analysts and discover what it’s like to work for the FBI.
In the Columbia Field Office, the community outreach team launched a pilot mentoring program for 24 competitively selected students from Allen University, Benedict College, Morris College, Claflin University, and South Carolina State University. Each student was matched with a special agent or professional staff based on the student’s career interest. The pairs met monthly to talk about career guidance and professional goals.