In 2012, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga business majors Keenan McLean and Nate Harlan thought Black male students on campus needed a unifying group beyond the formal structure of fraternities.
“We felt there was an unmet need for minority males on campus as far as leadership and retention opportunities,” McLean recalled.
Harlan said the University needed a place for men of color to have the type of conversations in which “This person right here is my brother. I trust him to hold what it is that I share in this space.”
Ten years later, the student-led organization they brought to UTC, Brother 2 Brother, is still at the forefront of helping men of color find success and camaraderie during their college years, while never losing sight of the importance of education and earning a degree.
The Brother 2 Brother program is a national student organization that promotes successful retention and college completion among African American and Hispanic/Latino males. The group encourages its members to embrace leadership by serving as positive role models for one another through a solid commitment to academic achievement, brotherhood and community service.
“I have been around this organization since it first started on this campus and I’ve seen firsthand the impact of what it has done to impact male retention here at UTC,” said Chris Stokes, assistant director of the UTC Office of Multicultural Affairs and the campus advisor to Brother 2 Brother.
“When those young men are together, there’s a level of transparency, comfort and familiarity,” he said. “It’s men from all different backgrounds, typically African American, some Hispanic, biracial, multiracial, young men of color. They get to share their experiences and commonalities in a space where they can just be comfortable.”
McLean and Harlan met as second-graders in Columbia, Tennessee. They stayed in touch through their adolescent years and bonded as first-year students at UTC.
When they arrived, McLean’s sister, Katrina, already was a UTC student.
“She was extremely involved with everything that was happening on campus, from orientation to admissions to campus organizations, and she introduced us to all of the students who were just as active and passionate about UTC as she was,” Harlan recalled.
“We were introduced to UTC from a lens of, ‘This is your University. It’s going to be whatever you make it.’”
They took it to heart. Once sophomore year rolled around, McLean and Harlan began having conversations about things impacting them that were unique to their experiences.
Their initial concept was to build an organization from scratch called the Elevated Men’s Initiative. They brought their idea to Justin Moses, the UTC associate dean of students, asking him to be the program sponsor.
“He said, ‘I think that something like this is going on at another campus,’” Harlan recalled.
Moses then suggested they learn more about an organization called Brother 2 Brother.
“After we were introduced to Brother 2 Brother,” Harlan said, “we worked with Dean Moses to figure out how that model could be tailored to what we needed here at UTC.”
‘Over the mountain’
McLean recalled meeting with Harlan and others in his Stophel Apartment living room, talking about “what’s going on around the world with us,” three to four hours at a time.
“We were just college kids, and we were writing bylaws and creating something, but even at that young age, we had that mindset that we wanted this to be a long-term thing.”
At the forefront was building Brother 2 Brother with an education-first attitude. Its members were at UTC to receive a degree.
A second priority was student retention.
“We used to say, ‘How do we keep you coming back over the mountain?’ That’s a saying from Keenan and me; to get from Columbia, Tennessee, to Chattanooga, you have to come over the mountain,” Harlan explained.
“The want and the push to create this organization so that it could be sustainable and a resource for students 10 to 20 years after that was one of the reasons why I continued to come over the mountain.”
Equally as important, the group was established to fill a much-needed void.
“Brother 2 Brother was created to be a safe space for these young men to feel like they can be their complete selves and be free,” Harlan said. “Whatever happened in that room, whatever we discussed, whatever walls we broke through, whatever epiphanies we had, they remained in that room.”
‘My brother’s keeper’
Harlan received a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a finance concentration in 2014. He is now a financial planning and analysis manager with Asurion in Nashville.
McLean received a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from UTC in 2015. He is now a market rep analyst with Nissan Motor Corp. in the Chicago area.
Several years after they graduated, Cinque Peggs came to Chattanooga from Jackson, Tennessee. He was not your typical high school graduate when he first came to UTC in fall 2019.
Thanks to a partnership between Jackson-Central Merry Early College High School and Jackson State Community College, Peggs—the salutatorian of his graduating class—arrived at UTC with an associate’s degree.
He is on pace to receive a bachelor’s degree in mechatronics, robotics and automation engineering in December. He could have fully devoted his time to academics but said he was hooked after being invited to a Brother 2 Brother meeting.
The group opened doors to volunteering, mentoring and leadership opportunities. Peggs climbed the organizational ladder, taking over as president at the end of fall semester 2021.
Accountability, he said, makes Brother 2 Brother different from other groups.
“We ask our members to sign a contract agreeing to hold your brother or another member of the organization accountable,” he said. “We really stress that the people joining the organization be serious and be committed because we want this bond to be a brotherly bond: Someone that is there to help you out throughout your college journey and set you up for success.”
Peggs said it’s imperative that everyone feels comfortable during Brother 2 Brother weekly meetings. He uses the phrase: “I am my brother’s keeper and together we shall rise.”
“What that mantra means is that, as Black males on campus, we realize that we have a powerful voice,” he said. “If we want to go somewhere and be successful, we have to hold each other accountable for whatever our goals might be. Hence, being our brother’s keeper.”
‘A walk down memory lane’
Nate Harlan’s mother, Patricia, is a candidate for a doctoral degree in educational leadership and policy analysis at East Tennessee State University. She is the inspiration for an in-the-works documentary about the first 10 years of the UTC Brother 2 Brother program.
“My mother is doing her dissertation on the impacts of mentorship and mentor programs for Black male retention within higher education,” Harlan said, “so this seemed like the right time to have the conversations, do the reflections and remember what it was like when we started.”
McLean called it “a walk down memory lane” to collect photos and thoughts of the organization’s creation. He and Harlan are just as excited about documenting the group’s formation as they were about creating it.
At the heart of the documentary is “understanding what we did, the benefit we had and the lives we changed,” McLean said. “I always tell Nate, ‘I can’t believe that was us’ but, at the same time, we did that. We believed in each other, and we built a community.”
An outline has been completed and a script is being finalized for the documentary. Shooting is scheduled to begin in the next few months. If all goes well, the film will be finished within the year.
“It definitely makes you pinch yourself and just kind of say, ‘I’m glad we decided to do what we did,’” Harlan said. “This documentary stems from a plan coming together, like the labor of love we did 10 years ago.”