A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast titled “This American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass. The episode was called “three miles” and discussed the affect economic restraints had on effective education. The podcast focused on two different students growing up in the Bronx. Both had vastly different childhoods, with one going to a public school in the poorest congressional district in the country, and the other going to one of the most elite private schools in all of New York. These two schools were just three miles apart. Growing up, I kept hearing about this cycle of poverty that exists in low income areas. I remember thinking, “why don’t they just study?” or “why don’t they just work hard and make a better life for themselves?” As I matured, however, I realized it was not this binary. The vicious cycle that exists in areas with low income leads to less employment, a lower quality of life, and less hope. The kids that grew up going to the poor school in the poor neighborhood with their minority counterparts grew up only knowing that. They saw their parents go through the same cycle and envisioned that they would too. I mean, why wouldn’t they? They were growing up in the same apartment that had only two beds for 5 family members, the same apartment where they saw their mother/father work multiple jobs only to put food on the table three times a day, if that. The same apartment where there were no college diplomas hanging on the wall or no books on the shelves. This cycle, where young people of color seem to get trapped in, is one that has been prevalent for generations, and if not reversed, will be around for many more. So how do we fix it? Can we fix it? Many say that the only way is to get more young people off to elite colleges where they will have a higher standard of learning. Some say that when these young adults get this high level of education, they will come back and “teach” others about what they learned and how they can achieve success too. This sounds a lot like what my parents and so many other first generation immigrants to America went through. To this day, my family members back in Pakistan call my mom and ask them how America is and how they can too one day come over and start a better life. It’s sad to hear such conversations because deep down I know that the path to becoming a US citizen for them is immensely difficult and will most likely not happen in their lifetimes. Is there something wrong when young minority American students growing up in economically challenged neighborhoods are left to wonder the same thoughts that foreigners dreaming of reaching Americas shores do? I mean, we are America, right? The land of equal opportunity for prosperity and the land of liberty and the pursuit of happiness all but promised…
I’ve spent the last couple of days pondering this question of how we right this wrong we have put our most vulnerable youth through. Although these are just wild thoughts, and in no way organized, I think they lay an outline of the first steps we can take as a country, as a society to truly live up to the promise that makes America the beacon of hope. Let me start off by dispelling the myth that if we send a few young folks off to privileged elite schools that they will come back and help the community, like some kind of minority robin hood. Let’s be honest. Although we may want to believe that such a thing will always happen, but it won’t. The number of disadvantaged youth is far too many to only select a few, through specific scholarships and grants to select and send off to the top universities. The root of the problem lies in early education. In the podcast, when some of the students of the poor school were chosen to tour the private school the responses were nothing sort of shocking. Some kids cried as soon as they got off the bus because they felt as if they were “outsiders,” even in their own city. They felt the eyes of the privileged kids staring at them as if they were animals behind a cage in a zoo. There was a disconnect. The teachers envisioned an encounter where the kids from both schools would see that they are in fact not that different from each other but the opposite happened. The kids, in that moment, saw everything that was different between them. They saw the verbal, physical, social changes that existed between them. The privileged kids walked, talked, interacted different than the kids who went to the public school. Now why does this matter? I mean this change should be there right? If a parent chooses to send their kid to a school where tuition is $43,000 a year vs a local public school, they want their kids to behave different, or more sophisticated right?
The interaction at the private school in the Bronx serves as a microcosm of what is happening to inner city kids who seek or are elected to pursue a higher level of education beyond high school. Kids, in inner cities, who decide to pursue college are stigmatized and seen as “nerdy” or “trying to act white.” They are seen as betraying their culture and their way of life. A way of life that has been engrained in their heads since they learned to speak. A way of life that has raised them in a way their father never did or their mom never had the time too. A child who has seen nothing but poverty and gang violence deciding to pursue a higher education should not be seen as “betraying” their community, but as precious gems who should be taught that they can achieve whatever they set their mind too. When I say “taught” I am referring to being taught how to interact and thrive in an environment so vastly different from what their used to. An environment that is made up of folks that are racially, socially, economically different. So often we see highly intelligent children of color break through the first barrier of graduating high school and being accepted into college only to drop out or fail out after a few years. Kids who were seen by their teacher, peers, parents as being “extraordinary” and as future Mayors and social leaders. Often, bright inner-city kids are selected for full scholarships to prestigious universities, given a path out of poverty and into the “light” per say. After arriving at such prestigious universities, they fall into habits that they witnessed but never participated in high school, slowly conforming themselves to fit into stereotypical images of what a black man or a Hispanic woman should be. Why? Why does this happen? Why are the kids who are seen as extraordinary in their low-income neighborhoods go on to end up being trapped in the cycle? Why do kids who had dreams when having dreams was frowned upon go on to give up?
The bridge begins to crumble when they arrive at University. In high school if you weren’t singing or listening to rap music during lunch or class, something was wrong with you. Here, if you play rap music while at the cafeteria you are almost immediately seen as being “ratchet” and looked down upon. In high school if you didn’t wear braid your hair or didn’t wear an afro you were trying to be white. Here, if you let your hair grow naturally, you are seen as being from the hood. In High School, weeks lunch money was saved up to buy the newest pair of Jordan’s. Here, a few weeks of tuition and a few meals on campus costs enough to buy several pairs of Jordan’s. There exists a disconnect. A disconnect in lifestyle. A disconnect in racial makeup. A disconnect in financial restraints. A disconnect exists. Our goal, as policy makers and social change seekers, if we wish to see the seemingly never-ending cycle of poverty in inner cities end, is to focus on this disconnect. Granted there several other things that must be looked at, such as funding, and equal opportunity, but we will get to those later. This disconnect must be addressed. Inner city kids should be told constantly that it is okay to dream, that just because you opt for a book instead of a handheld radio you are not different. If you seek a higher education outside of where you grew up, you are not betraying your city or your people. Nelson Mandela once said, “Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.” As a young person myself, I know that the dreams and hopes that this young generation holds have the chance to make the world a better place, if given the opportunity. Every day we lose our brightest minds to unnecessary gun violence or being told their dreams are them trying “to act white.” To end this cycle of poverty and gang violence, we must take a look at ourselves. All of us. Whether you are a white suburban mother or a black parent living in poverty, we must bring it upon ourselves to see a brighter day for these young, bright kids growing up in conditions that are no fault of their own, but circumstances of a cycle that has fastened its grip on their community and family.