*Mention the mega-billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, collectively known as the “Koch brothers,” and thoughts often focus on the controversial “right-wing” siblings who provide huge sums of money to back mostly Republican politicians in key political elections across America.

Yet, in an unprecedented move, the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries recently donated $26.6 million to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), a national organization that represents all state supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).  Thus, a five-year partnership between the aforementioned entities has created the Center for Advancing Opportunity.

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Charles Koch and Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., TMCF’s president and CEO

According to Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., TMCF’s president and CEO, the new center, headquartered in Washington, D.C., will offer more educational, social, and economic opportunities to fragile and underserved communities across the country, by providing opportunities to HBCU students, scholars, researchers and faculty to empower and advance deprived communities.

“This is a momentous partnership,” said Taylor.  “Historically Black Colleges and Universities are uniquely positioned to lead the field in this type of research.  There are thousands of fragile communities across the United States where there are tremendous barriers to opportunity. It’s important to recognize that lasting change to strengthen these communities must begin at the local level. So we are proud to come together with the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries to help members of these communities identify and study the challenges most significant to them.”

While the names Charles and David Koch are often aligned with extreme right-wing politics, policies, and issues, Taylor said the reception of the partnership by HBCU presidents, and respective institutions, has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I was ready for some pushback from the HBCU presidents about the source of the money,” said Taylor, who brokered the partnership with Charles Koch.  “However, I explained the program, and how HBCUs will take a lead on vexing social issues in fragile communities. I explained what’s good about aligning with someone who is supporting our community.  All 47 HBCU presidents collectively agreed.  Not one HBCU leader asked why we were doing this; they all said, ‘Let’s get to work!’ ”

“Our role is providing funding to organizations that are doing exciting things in education,” said Dr. John Hardin, director of University Relations for the Charles Koch Foundation.  “Our general point of view is we believe more access to more education is better for everybody.”

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HBCU students observe conversation between Dr. John Hardin and Charles Koch

Taylor believes it’s important that students and researchers at Harvard, Yale, and Penn State Universities are not the only ones pontificating about what’s wrong in fragile communities.  He said he would rather see HBCU students, scholars and researchers, most of which come from these communities, discover solutions to empower the underserved.

One of the centerpieces of the Center for Advancing Opportunity will include awarding scholarships to HBCU undergraduate and graduate students who pursue careers in social science, education, criminal justice, and entrepreneurship. Additionally, there will be pertinent on-campus programs, as well as forming viable partnerships with Gallup, an American research-based company, to create opportunities to poll individuals living in fragile communities. Once HBCU researchers have gathered and evaluated valuable polling information, Taylor believes the Center for Advancing Opportunity will develop and implement good policies, and make strong arguments for investments in underserved communities.

“Surveying and polling people in fragile communities will be very important,” Taylor said. “So rather than telling people what’s wrong in their communities, we are going to ask them about barriers that need to be removed to let children in fragile communities enjoy a better life.”

“HBCUs have long conducted research in fragile communities,” said Dr. Harry Lee Williams, a member of TMCF’s board of directors and president of Delaware State University, an HBCU school. “The Center’s mission, however, signals a renewed commitment to researching the challenges and needs of the people who live in these communities. And, as the president of an HBCU, I’m overjoyed to see this take flight.”

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While the Center is taking great flight, some black leaders and communities may find it difficult to say the names Charles and David Koch in the same sentence with the late Thurgood Marshall, an iconic civil rights leader, and first African American Supreme Court Justice.

Yet, Hardin thinks there’s a common thread that connects the philosophies of the men.

“For 50 years, Mr. Koch has supported academic and public policy research, with a special focus on developing voluntary, mark-based solutions to social problems,” Hardin said.  “The foundation supports education and research that creates opportunities for all people to thrive.”

Taylor understands there could be skepticism about TMCF’s partnership with Koch organizations in certain sectors of the country. However, he said the partnership is not tied to any politics, where TMCF is required to carry out political agendas for Koch interests.  Taylor said, however, there’s a greater good that people should know.

“Go on our website and see the work that we will be doing,” he said.  “Don’t focus on all the distractions.  We, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, along with the Charles Koch Foundation, Mr. Charles Koch, and Koch Industries are trying to change the world for our children through this alignment. If there wasn’t a good alignment here, we wouldn’t be making this announcement, because TMCF is not going to take money from someone, or some organizations that we totally disagree with.”

For more information about the Center for Advancing Opportunity, visit www.advancingopportunity.org.