Thursday, April 22, 2010

Developing Self-Determined Young Adults

Over the years, I have witnessed the determination of our kids as they persevere and defy the stereotypes, low-expectations, and difficult life situations they endure. Their ability to press forward inspires me.

Just last week I spoke with Kieva, who will finish her Master's degree in Public Administration in August. Her sister is working on her graduate degree as well. Jessica just started her Masters program in January and plans to continue straight through to get her Ed.D. Bridgette is almost finished with her graduate degree as well. Tiffany, Erica, and Fredrick will graduate from Baylor, UNT, and Lamar University this year. They have thought about pursuing Master's degrees as well.

The voices in the video are representative of the rest of the kids we see each day and some of the ones who have dropped off over the years as well. We are working hard to keep improving our programs and expanding them. Take a look at my new attempt at a newsletter about our programs here: College Successes.

Email me at if you would like to be added to the mailing list to receive these periodic updates.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The failure of Extreme Makeover

I've never been a fan of Extreme Makeover. I love seeing the houses transform, but I've always been irritated by their claim to help the lives of people.

Extreme Makeover is for people who have little to no money to fix up their own homes. Extreme Makeover comes in and gives families the finer things of life that they could never afford. While the finer things of life are nice, I always have to wonder how the people who can't even afford repairs on their older, sometimes dilapidated, home will be able to afford the repairs on flat screen TVs, specialized germ-free air units, an outdoor pool, etc. But even before the stuff gets old enough to have to repair, how do the families afford the monthly bills of all of that stuff?

In my little 1400 square foot house, I know electric bills can cost a good bit. If some great TV show came in and turned my small house into a two-story home, complete with all of the bells and whistles, there's no way I could afford even the monthly electric bill!

I've said this for years. My friend tweeted me the other day proving what I had always suspected:

Extreme Makeover Houses in Foreclosure

Though I often enjoy being "right," this makes me sad. I wish someone would have provided me a video link explaining that every home provided through Extreme Makeover came complete with all bills paid for the rest of the adult's life. Instead, families are borrowing against their homes and going into even more debt.

As a society, we have got to think differently. Charity and handouts are not the solution. Sustainable living and long-term solutions are.

Livable wage jobs...quality neighborhoods...responsive city services...

Anyone want to create a reality show that fights systemic injustices? It's not near as easy and romantic, but the long-term impact sure would make a difference.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

People just don't understand

I'm just reading this article from the Dallas Morning News:

I have lived in the Jubilee neighborhood for the last 15 years. A friend of mine called the other day asking my opinion on the DISD desire to use eminent domain to tear down all of the houses where he used to live. He has since moved out of the area, but many of his friends and neighbors still live in the houses they intend to tear down and they are upset because they will be losing their homes in the upcoming rebuild of O.M. Roberts Elementary.

They have legitimate concerns. Many people have lived in the Jubilee neighborhood for decades. So this comment by "CabMeb's Girl" on the Dallas Morning News article caught my attention:
Let's face it, those houses on that land are not worth $120,000 to $150,000. Although I feel sorry for them,I have to ask if they wanted to put the place on the market today, would they be able to get more than $50,000? DISD does not owe them anymore than what the home and property are actually worth. We would all like to retire to a nice house or see our parents be able to do so, but we retire to what we can afford be it a $50,000 house or a multi-million dollar mansion.

Allow me to address CabMeb's Girl or anyone that feels that way...

You are right. The homes the families live in may not be worth $120,000-$150,000. Often, the homes people in my neighborhood are dilapidated. If they aren't dilapidated, they are old. To sell them at market rate, they might only bring $50,000, as you suggest. However, those families aren't making the decision to sell them, are they? Those families probably recognize that they can't sell them for much so they stay in the homes, regardless of their condition. As the article suggest, many of the residents are older and only bring in a small pension every month. They know they can't afford buying a new home so they haven't even bothered trying. They are content where to live with what they have.

So, when you say they should be happy with what they are getting, you aren't taking into account that they are not the ones choosing to move. Providing them with $50,000 and asking them to find a new home gives them just enough money to put them in major debt. They deserve to be compensated with enough funds to find a home somewhere else. Even the homes that have been built in Jubilee Park over the last five years average about $95,000.

I'm guessing your next comment might be that if they're willing to live in a dilapidated or old house now, then it shouldn't hurt them to move into another home just like that. But let me ask you if you would be willing to do that. Most of the families in my neighborhood have lived there for years. They have friends and neighbors they know and trust. They have people to watch their home when they are gone, they have friends to borrow sugar from when they run out, they have children who have established friendships with other kids in the neighborhood. So for me to ask or expect them to move out of their neighborhood, incur debt they don't currently have, or move into a low quality home they will not have the funds to fix up is unconsiderate in the least, but more accurately very arrogant.

I truly hope that DISD begins thinking about and considering the families in the neighborhood. They are not asking for any handout. They are not trying to get rich. And I am sure that they, too, would love a high quality school for their children and grandchildren. But what may seem like an easy thing to do in a neighborhood where people have a lot of access to disposable income, that is not the case in my neighborhood.

Please, let's think of the families.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Unique field trip experiences make a difference

You can see all kinds of great things going on at our After-School Academy these days!

This morning, I finally had a chance to catch up on some emails and found this video posted on our After-School Academy blog:

Danielle Evans runs our After-School Academy and goes way above and beyond her job to make sure the kids are constantly engaged and learning new things. The first Saturday of every month, Home Depot offers a free class for kids to build things like rain gauges, a car display rack, a bird house, and now a butterfly house. Danielle has started taking some of our more active boys and has also recruited a parent or two. Phillip is Lamarcus and Joshua's dad and has taken to attending every Home Depot trip to help his boys build new things. I spotlighted Bridgett and Phillip here...and both are still going strong with their involvement in the program.

One thing I feel very strongly about is to expose kids to opportunities that aren't the normal, run-of-the-mill activity. We rarely take the kids to movies (unless they've read the book and then the movie comes out) or Speed Zone or something like that. I believe every child deserves the opportunity to be exposed to as many new things as possible so that they can begin to determine what they really enjoy and what area gives them the most fulfillment.

So far, some of our kids have developed a big interest in gardening, while others have developed pride in their ability to interview people in our Junior Reporters program. The Digital Connectors have created videos at the Apple store and learned about video creation at Janimation. Last summer the After-School Academy learned about the environment when they went to the Waste Water Treatment Plant, learned about emissions at Frito Lay, and visited the landfill, among other things. Our bottom-line focus is college, so the elementary kids take at least one college trip per year. Teen U has visited Texas A & M-Commerce, Prairie View A & M, Huston-Tillotson, UT-Austin, Navarro, and UTD just since September.

I just wish everyone else could see the progress I see.

David laughs and greets and talks. I wouldn't have known what that meant, except that his mother told me (see what his mother told me here).

Lewis has an understanding that he is filled with "knowledge" and will tell you that if I ask him the simple question of, "What do you have?" (if you met him last summer, you would know how important this fact is).

Randy (5th grade) is absolutely certain of where he will attend college. (I learned that when I introduced himself to a guest I toured through the program and he informed the man, "I plan to go to UTD." When asked why (I was even surprised he was so matter-of-fact about it!), he simply stated, "Because we took a field trip there last summer and that's where I want to go."

Unique and engaging field trips make a difference.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Rappin' and Writin'

Every once in a while I get on a kick to write. One of my goals is to write a book, but I can never seem to get out what I want to say. Even as I try to compose this and other blog posts, I get stuck. I can talk all day long, but when I try to put it on paper, I feel the need to be more formal and to make sure it is written well for you, the reader...and then I get stuck.

Today was one of those writing days. A few days ago I was inspired and figure out what I wanted to say (at least for the moment), so I started writing. I've been trying to work on it each day since. This afternoon, I was kind of stumped. I thought fresh air might give me some inspiration. So, I took my computer, set my camping chair up on my front porch and hoped the nice weather would get my juices flowing.

As s I sat, staring at the screen more than watching my fingers move and compose anything, my neighbor's grandson walked by (he's about 23 years old). He's always really sweet and says hi or waves as I come and go from my house. If I'm outside or walking to my mailbox, I always try to say something chit-chatty just to be friendly or to joke around with he and his cousins and friends. Today, when he walked by my house to go to the store I asked where his "peeps" were (he's usually walking with a group of cousins and friends). He just laughed at my attempt at slang (Don't worry, I don't use the word "peeps" in every day language...only when I'm trying to get a laugh out of the kids). On his way back, I guess he was returning the chit-chat favor. He saw the computer on my lap and asked if I was surfing the internet. I told him what I was really trying to do was write, but it wasn't working very well.

In my mind, I was really working on something...or trying to. I expected him to just nod and keep walking. Instead, he completely identified with me. "Yeah, I know what you mean. Just like when I'm working on my songs." It took me by surprise as I realized what he was talking about. When he's not working at his day job, he and his friends often perform their rap music at a club. I don't know why, but though I knew they wrote their own lyrics, it just never dawned on me that they have to utilize the same thought process I do when I write.

His comment launched us into a 10 minute discussion and commiserating session on how challenging writing can be and how great it feels when the "flow" is there. We talked about sitting, staring at the page trying to figure out what to say and how much easier it is to "freestyle" (for him) and talk (for me) than it is to actually get those thoughts down on paper. It was an amazing and rich conversation.

It reminds me of a blog post I wrote a few months ago, "Skills of a Thief." I think a lot of times we overlook the skills that the kids use when doing things that we don't necessarily agree with. Maybe if we looked past the act that we scrutinize and ban from our presence and looked more at the skills they utilize when reaching for their dreams, we would be able to affirm and tap into the knowledge our kids already possess. And, who knows, maybe if we affirmed those skills and utilized them in our lessons, the rap songs they create might have a deeper message and the "licks" they hit (in Skills of a Thief) might end up being challenging business ventures.

Irregardless, our kids deal with so much discouragement and assumptions that they don't possess skills that kids in other schools or other neighborhoods do. As an educator, it's my responsibility to help them see how much knowledge they actually possess...and then help them figure out how to channel that knowledge into something productive.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Facts of Systemic Racism

"I continue to believe that in this country the opposite of poverty is not wealth. I really don't think that's what we're talking about. I think in America, the opposite of poverty is justice." ~Bryan Stevenson

As soon as I heard that quote, I stopped and had to reflect on that. "The opposite of poverty is justice." Wow. It's not wealth we're striving for to keep someone out of poverty. It's justice. That's powerful.

You can watch the entire segment on this week's Bill Moyers Journal.

Since Monday is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the segment takes time to point out his involvement in the Poor People's Campaign right before he was killed. King recognized that how we all deal with poverty was and is an even bigger obstacle than dealing with race, though the two often go hand in hand. I have often heard it said that his fight for justice among the poor is what led to his death.

Poverty and racism are systemic issues. Yet, despite my understanding of that, I often revert to challenging people to take personal responsibility. I tend to believe that my weakness in this area is because I have not had to experience that systemic discrimination and injustice on a personal level. While personal responsibility and how people interact with others is definitely part of it, there must be a deeper understanding of how the problems are ingrained in our society and need to be dealt with in order for us to change course.

On Bill Moyers Journal, Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander do a great job of pointing out how it is so ingrained in the fabric of our existence.

Did you know that...
  • In 2004 Alabama tried to get rid of segregation language in the state constitution, and a majority of people in Alabama voted to keep that language in that prohibits black and white kids from going to school together?
  • Richard Nixon's Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman made it a point to figure out a way to make black people appear to be the problem stating, "The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to."
  • Over the last 35 years, there haven't been tremendous fluctuations in the violent crime rate in this country, yet we've gone from 300 thousand people in jails and prison in 1972, to 2.3 million people in jails and prisons today. With nearly 5 million people on probation and parole. 
  • Black people are 13 percent of the population of this country. They're about 14 percent of the drug users. But they end up being about 60 percent of the people sent to prison.
  • If you are a black man, you have a 32 percent chance you're going to jail or prison, but if you live in a poor and/or minority community, urban community, rural community, it could be 60 or 70 percent.
  • The rates of drug use are about the same among all racial groups. But also, the rates of drug sales are about the same among people of all different races as well.
  • The Reagan Administration actually hired staff whose job it was to publicize crack babies, crack dealers in inner city communities, in the hope that these images would build public support for the drug war and persuade Congress to devote millions of more dollars to the war. 
  • In some states, we spend $45,000 a year to keep a 19-year-old in prison for the next 30 years (or $1,350,000) for drug possession, yet we're only willing to spend about $1500-$4500 a year to educate a child in his younger years.
It always amazes me when I hear quotes and statistics that demonstrates the bias in our country. We want to believe that racism is not our problem...that we didn't create it. We want to believe racism is a misconstrued perception by people of color. But the reality is that people of color have seen and heard...and still see and hear...what we overlook because statements like that of Richard Nixon's Chief of Staff wasn't calling me the problem, but was placing the blame on someone else. The fact that Ronald Reagan hired a staff to publicize the worst parts of the inner city kept the focus off of the similar problems in the rural, white area where I grew up.

Though all of the bullet points I stated disturb me, what completely baffles me is why we would be willing to spend $45,000 per year on a kid for 30 years to keep him/her locked up in a cell, but are not willing to invest even half of that in his childhood education. And from being in the inner city schools, I can guarantee that if that much money was spent on high quality learning opportunities, many things would be different for the children growing up in the inner city.