Listen to Galveston, TX. resident, Ms. A recount her story of rising through education despite the adversity she faced in her hometown of Chicago.
Ms. A is a resident of the Cedars at Carver Park in Galveston, Texas. And although Urban Strategies, Inc and Ms. A crossed paths and have worked together for only a year, USI has worked at this site for the last 4 years. Nonetheless, she agreed to talk to me, although we had never met.
“I don’t really know what I am going to write about,” I confess feeling slightly foolish for not being better prepared.
She consoles me with her smile and agrees to talk to me anyway. Instantly, I respect her bravery. It doesn’t take more than two minutes of listening before I understand where it originated. Ms. A. began chronologically, telling me that she grew up in Chicago, at the corner of Woodlawn and Cottage Grove. That meant nothing to me, to which she must have recognized by the expression on my face. “Gang turf,” she said. “That’s the intersection of two rival gangs.” She paused and then continued on “My family still lives in Chicago, but I left home 5 years ago.”
I noticed her linger over that one word as a sense of nostalgia passed over her face.
Home, the place she fled in order to protect her child. The sense of nostalgia was almost immediately replaced by what I interpreted as a “do what you got to do” expression as she recounted the story that led to her displacement. She and her 6-year-old daughter were exiting the front of a bus, while a strange man entered the back with a gun drawn and began shooting. She knew then that she could not stay.
Home, the place where she became so accustomed to hearing gunfire. However, as long as she was behind those walls, eventually she no longer bothered to duck.
Home, in Section 8 housing, where she decided that she did not want her children to grow up.
Home, a place where those adversities co-existed with love.
Home, where our hearts connect and remain connected no matter where ever else we venture in this world. Ms. A, she said that she wants to return, but knows that she can’t. As a mom to four young children, it would be entirely too risky. She doesn’t allow any sadness about having to make that kind of choice linger in the air before she continued.
Ms. A began high school as 1 of 900 entering freshmen. She would leave high school as 1 of 358 (reflecting a 40% graduation rate). Though the national graduation rate in 2016-2017, rose to 84.6%, for black and low-income students, the rate was well below at 78%.1 Unfortunately, students attending schools in urban environments continue to fare worse than the national average. In fact, in most of the 19 cities where USI operates found that graduation rates for students living in public housing remain significantly below any national gains. For example, at the time of the Choice Neighborhood Implementation (CNI) grant application in 2016 only 58% of the mostly African American students living in Beecher Terrace in Louisville, Kentucky graduated.
“Where did everyone go?” I can’t help but inquire not wanting to fill in that blank with assumptions.
Ms. A shared that of her classmates who began school with her, some died, some got pregnant, and some just dropped out or dropped out to work to help support their families. She distinctly remembers sitting in class while teachers would openly point to individual students in class and tell them “You’re going to be a statistic, you’re going to die, you’re going to go to jail or prison.”
I couldn’t help but to think that if “the helpers” make these kinds of statements to children, what kind of harmful energy is created by the words of people who don’t pretend to want to help. I want to get on my social justice soapbox and shout, scream, or jump up and down but I don’t want to waste time. To get caught in wrongness, self-fulfilling prophecies, harm created by well-intentioned people, or the unfairness of treating others from a place of racism or bias would just mean I would miss this opportunity. Ms. A has a wealth of knowledge that she was willing to share with me. She sat in front of me with not only a high school diploma, but a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a determined aspiration; which ten minutes into our conversation convinced me that she would one day have her doctorate. On top of that, she did not experience that success in isolation. She has two sisters, both of whom are college graduates. So many markers of achievement that so many who grew up around her likely will never experience.
“You clearly faced adversities. Why do you think it was so different for you than it was for so many of your peers?” I inquire.
My mother told us early, “You better stay your ass in school because ain’t nothing in these streets but death.” I watched silently as she allowed those loving, protective, words to transport her back to that place.
Because the importance of education was stressed to her and she believed that, it mattered. But it wasn’t just her mother’s words that rooted her. Her love for helping others in education started when she was assigned the responsibility of tutoring an underperforming student who was in college while she was still in high school. Within a semester she helped him go from making C’s to A’s in several core subjects. As a straight A student herself, she knew that she had the capacity to help others excel in this space. She began working at that YMCA, tutoring other students. She continued tutoring through her junior and senior years of high school as a way to help others educationally and to help her family financially.
Home. I mean not in the traditional sense, “home” but the connection to others, connection to the school, connection to something bigger than herself. That is home.
It is no shock that Ms. A ended up working in education herself.
As we explored the other side of the coin, what was missing for the 60% of entering freshman from her class who didn’t succeed to graduation, she had just as much to offer. She identified that she believes that so many minorities do not go on to pursue higher education because of financial barriers. Things like charging students to take the ACT prevents access to higher education for children from low-income homes. Additionally, she knew that in her community, like herself, low-income students have to take jobs to help support their families. For some, that means that work is prioritized over school. For others that means a lack of support and guidance from people who can help them stay on the right path or who know how to navigate the education system.
Ms. A readily shared her career aspirations… School Principal, opening her own childcare center and then one day to become the United States Secretary of Education. She understands on a very personal level that in order to drive change, we have to challenge the policy decisions that lead to inequitable outcomes.
USI is aligned with Ms. A in her belief that a barrier to racial equity is access to educational opportunities. We know that we have to be intentional in helping all children succeed in this space. That is why our national educational pillar is focused around 3 key indicators:
- Increasing the percentage of Kindergarteners entering school with age-appropriate functioning to be considered “Ready to Learn”
- Improving Proficiency in Math & Reading for 3rd through 9th graders
- Increasing High School graduation rates
In June, our Vice President of Educational Initiatives, Tyronda Minter, will be leading our Elevating Results: National Education Convening with leaders from across all of our sites. There are so many children facing these same type of challenges and we know we cannot do this work alone. We also know that in order to meet our results, we have to partner with families, communities and school systems to create the very things Ms. A identified as having been missing for her peers but present for her.
Connection to family. Connection to school. Connection to something larger than herself.
Home is such a simple word, different people define it different ways.
Rudy Fransisco says that “home is any place that makes you forget the world is on fire, at least for a moment”.
Elizabeth Gilbert contends “Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself.”
While Maya Angelou offered that “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
Though the specific words used to describe home are different. The thread of similarity is clear. It seems everyone agrees that at its very core, home is about connection.