Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tough Choices

Yesterday, I was faced with a dilemma that, sadly, I know is not unique.

One of the parents of four kids in our summer program has not been sending her kids. Since we are an educational program, we feel it's important for the kids to be in attendance each day. However, as I looked deeper into the situation, I discovered that the solution is not easy.

Kiela (not her real name) was encouraged to sign her kids up for our summer program by a friend of hers. Kiela goes to work at 6:00 a.m. so she takes her kids to their grandma's house. Her friend works over night until 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. so he agreed to pick them up at their grandma's and bring them back to Roseland so they could attend the program.

Unfortunately, things have come up on her friend's job and he hasn't been able to pick up the kids at their grandma's. As a result, the kids haven't been coming regularly.

As I tried to help them find a solution, I realized the dilemma this mother must be in. Her children are all under the age of 12. She has a tough decision to make. She wants her children enrolled in our program; she recognizes that her extended family is not a good influence on them. But her decision lies between providing the kids with adult supervision (albeit, negative influences) from the time she leaves for work until the time she returns, or leaving them alone from 6:00-9:00 a.m. until the summer programs open up.

When we enrolled her children, I was told they were going to be hard to handle. However, in just one week, her kids seem to adjusting quickly. Evidently, they go home every day excited about the program. They greet well and the anger I saw in one of them seems to slowly be dissapating. Earlier this week, one of her children went home and cleaned up the house. She said he had *never* done that before. I can only figure his cleaning initiative resulted from the daily cleaning tasks and responsibilities the children are given at the University of Values.

I can only imagine her frustration. I would never want to leave my elementary-aged children alone in the house for 3 hours. The likelihood of something happening that early in the morning may be small. But I know as an adult if I hear noises or see shadows I feel helpless and vulnerable. I can't imagine being a child feeling that fear. As a parent, if something happened to my children while I was gone, I would never forgive myself.

So, what does she do?? Does she take her children to a relative's home, where the kids have no structure and a potential/probable negative influence all day long? Or does she leave them home alone for 3 hours in the morning so they can have four hours of positive and educational opportunity?

Solutions are not always as easy as they seem.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Spotlight: Gary Van

I always tell people Gary Van is my heart. I have known him since I moved to Dallas. He was 11 years old and shy when I met him.

The shyness didn't last long. As soon as he entered junior high, girls became his big past time. He became the "mac daddy," as the boys liked to call themselves.

Gary grew up in East Dallas, where I live. The "gang" in our neighborhood is 223. They wore red as much as possible and threw up a sign that meant "East Grand" (the street that ran through our neighborhood). I never sensed that these guys were dangerous. To me, they all seemed to be gang member wanna-be's. Some were more troublesome and annoying than others, but never in a way that threatened my safety.

Once in junior high, Gary seemed to go down hill. He began getting in trouble a lot at school. Each day after school he always had stories about what this or that teacher had said to him or how he had been kicked out of some teacher's class. He expressed his frustration that teachers would cuss at him. As a good adult, I tried to convince him that it must be something he was doing to provoke all of these teachers. Gary used to tell me he just wished he could have a recorder in his pocket so I could hear what the teachers said and the way they talked to him.

Now I know Gary was no angel at school. But it never made sense to me because I can only think of one time in the 14 years I've known him that he lost his temper in front of me (not at me, though) and wouldn't calm down when I asked him to. Gary's a comedian. Always has been. I wish I'd have had the connections to get him into stand up comedy. He's such a story teller...always making people laugh. But, from what he told me, the school started associating him with his neighborhood, East Grand.

In high school, when he walked into the school, they would pull him aside and check his nails to see if had been smoking weed. They made assumptions about him based on his friends and were constantly questioning him. He talked back to teachers and got into fights. He began getting shuffled from alternative school to alternative school. I found out later that he had also begun selling drugs during this time period.

After being sent to an alternative school in DeSoto, he gave up. He used to tell me that the teachers got rid of him because they didn't want to deal with him. While in DeSoto, he didn't get in trouble. He realized that he wasn't the bad kid they made him out to be. But his reputation followed him. He went to a different DISD school than he attended before DeSoto, only to find the assistant principal from his old school had transferred to the new school he was attending.

He ended up dropping out of school and getting his diploma by paying $350 to some online high school in Florida. They sent him a large test packet. Once completed, all he had to do was send it back in and, viola, he received a diploma.

I convinced him to enroll in community college. He did. But only lasted for a semester. Instead, he took a job at Sam's, where he works to this day. Gary is now 24-years old. He will have six years of service at Sam's next month. He has since gone back to school to become certified in air conditioning repair. He is working on going into business with a friend of his.

The other day he called me wanting to get a little boy into the summer program that we offer. He explained that he's been spending a lot of time with this little boy, helping with homework and trying to influence his behavior. He told me that the little boy's brothers all have dads that are involved in their life. This one little boy is the only one in the family who doesn't have that and so he acts out. I don't think Gary realizes how much that parallells his own situation.

Though I've known Gary and know what a great guy he is, I never expected him to mentor other children and take the role so seriously. But he is. Gary wants this child to have opportunity--educational and otherwise. He was very insistent about enrolling him in our summer program instead of just sending him to a rec center to play all summer. He remembered what the program was like when he was a part of it many years ago and wants this child to experience that as well.

Community. Resources. Relationships.

With the kids and adults I know who live in these communities, mentoring happens in ways we don't even realize or recognize. Sometimes all that is needed is knowledge of and access to additional resources that can help support those efforts.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

When did we get tired of our children?

As I believe I have mentioned before, my dad is the Presiding County Commissioner in my home town. As I believe I've also mentioned, my dad taught me some of the greatest lessons I've learned...and very few of them were strictly academic.

Today, when I called him to wish a happy father's day, we began talking about work. He was wondering if we had received any teen workers through the extra workforce initiative money that was provided by the government this summer.

He went on to tell me that Ozark county was provided five teen interns. Having them there allows them the opportunity to get some things done in the county that may have been put on the back burner otherwise. But, the downside to employing teenagers is that they don't do much unless he stays with them and stays on them. Sound like any teenagers you know?

When I asked why he was supervising them (after all, he is the Presiding County'd think that someone else could be appointed to supervise them), he explained that no one wanted to.

What struck me about that is that no one wants to deal with kids or one wants to stay on top of them to teach them, mentor them, and guide them to make sure they get their work done. People don't want to "waste" their time on them. But then we wonder why (and gripe and complain when) our kids are growing into unproductive adults who don't know how to take initiative and don't have job skills.

This is not the first time my dad has employed teenagers. He always employed my brother and I. But it wasn't just me. He hired teenagers from the DECA program at school. He hired my cousin in the summer. He always hired high school boys to haul hay in the summers.

I'm sure there were more effective workers than we were. I'm sure he could've hired people that would've scraped paint and painted much better than we did. I'm sure he hated to hear us moan and groan when he and my mom woke us up at 6:00 a.m. on Saturdays to run the hogs. I'm sure we wasted time (and money) trying to avoid work we didn't like and I'm sure he knew more than we expected he did. I'm sure it would've been easier for him to just say, "Forget it. I'll find someone else." or "I'll pay someone else more to get a better outcome." and let us laze around in the summers. But he never gave in.

I believe it is because of my dad that many people are probably productive workers today. He took time with all of us to employ us and to supervise us.

I hope I can always follow his example with teenagers (and adults, for that matter) who have few chances and opportunities to gain the on-the-job skills so necessary to understanding a work environment.

When did our society get so tired of our children that we'd rather do things ourselves rather than "deal with" the kids by taking the extra time and putting the extra effort into teaching them what they need to know now so the future will be more promising for all of us??

Thanks, Pops, for being that example then and continuing to be that example to other teenagers today.

And Happy Father's Day!

Monday, June 15, 2009

University of Values--Getting started

We started small. Thirteen of our nineteen kids showed up on the first day. The small group allowed the teachers to spend time getting to know their kids and getting used to the program--a true luxury in a world where "numbers" are often the measure of success.

Watching kids intrigues me. Seeing kids excited about learning reminds me why I love my job. Aviant and Justice provided that reminder yesterday.

As we watched a short video on paper recycling, Justice and Aviant couldn't keep their hands from shooting up with new thoughts and ideas. When I suggested that the teachers show the video, I had hopes that the video might inspire our group to have a recycling team. But Aviant took it a step further. He explained that he lived in the Roseland neighborhood and they could collect paper from their neighbors. Other children offered to bring boxes from home to collect the paper. Some suggestions were made to put a sign up outside the program so that people would know to bring their paper to us so that we could recycle it.

We talked about having a competition between classes or maybe just to set a goal for the program to weigh the paper each time and see how much paper we could recycle this summer.

Already, the kids are strengthening their critical thinking skills, which may even lead to developing math and other academic skills.

The teachers are learning, too.

Lauren couldn't figure out how to engage one of the kids in her class. He kept wanting to play on the computer. But when they went outside, he noticed her camera and was intrigued. He wanted to help document the process. She now has the opportunity to teach him about digital photography, documentation, listening, and observing.

The teachers are carefully noting how the kids respond to different activities and scenarios. As a result, the teachers are learning to be more prepared, how to create expectations, and learning to listen to the kids to figure out where their interests lie.

I am excited about the possibilities from the kids and the teachers! Keep up the good work, team!

Education through Exploration

Resources...they're what our kids need to prepare in life.

I had access to resources growing up. One of my friends reminds me that my "resources" are a direct result of my White privilege. She's right. So many kids don't have the same access I did. But it's not *just* about being White. It's a culture...a mindset. It's the way the entire community values and facilitates learning. Unfortunately, many of our communities are not nurturing education hubs. I would like to think that our After-School Academy and University of Values summer program plays a part in changing that tide in Roseland.

Last week I trained our University of Values (UV) summer staff. I asked them to imagine some times they spent outside of school and what they did.

I told them about a chemistry set my mom purchased at a garage sale. I was intrigued by the carmel "recipe" and was convinced that this chemistry set was going to allow me to make Kraft caramels. I spent a number of days outside (mom wouldn't allow the chemistry set in the house) with my test tubes and potions trying to create carmel that I could eat. (I never managed to produce edible carmel)

Brandie told about watching Super Size Me! then trying her own experiment with french fries to see how they held up over time. She was appalled at how "preserved" the french fries stayed day after day.

Other staff told about observing animals on the farm or disecting/torturing frogs when they visited relatives in the country.

Yet, as they told me these stories, they quickly added, "Nothing educational, though." Nothing educational?!?!?!?! When did "education" become synonymous with "boring"??

This summer our theme is Environment and Recycling. We have high school juniors and seniors from the ExxonMobil Green Team; we have a Mayor Intern; we have Americorps members. All are teaching kids in hopes of inspiring them to think differently about the role they play in helping/hurting our environment.

I keep encouraging them to give the kids a little information, let them ask questions, and encourage them to research and explore. We have a "Tech Genius" class that will be documenting everything this summer. I am hopeful that they will create innovative audio and visual products throughout the summer.

As we went through training, I saw lightbulbs going on as the UV Teachers figured out that learning is exciting and that learning is everywhere! However, I'm concerned that teachers have done such a great job of realizing how exciting learning can be that they're going to end up wanting to do all of the exploration instead of facilitating it with the kids!

We have great staff and a great program. The kids will be taking trips to the Landfill, the Waste Water Treatment Plant, the Museum of Science and History, University of Texas at Dallas to see how the sciences provide careers in this area, and many others. If you want to keep up with what's going on, check out their blog throughout this summer:

We hope to begin updating it soon!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The cost of poverty

I've always wondered why someone like Michael Jordan could walk into a restaurant and get a free meal, but someone who is homeless would be required and demanded to pay full price.

There is nothing easy about being poor.

Being poor takes extra money. Being poor takes extra intelligence. Being poor takes extra determination. Being poor takes extra time. But nothing is set up in our system to allow that extra money, intelligence, determination, or time.

When I was young, my mother used to watch for bargains and stock up. She stocked up and stored it all in our basement or in our multiple freezers. I still follow her philosophy. But I realize people who only have a set amount of money each month and a small apartment can't afford to get ahead like that. They have to buy what's available at the time, which is often more expensive.

The intelligence needed is astounding to me--especially in light of the poor way schools in low-income areas often operate. This summer we are trying to utilize free software available on the internet. We want the kids to realize we are using tools that they have access to without spending money they don't have. However, each free tool takes extra plug-ins and takes a huge amount of knowledge to figure out what other program(s) you have to have to convert the file into a readable format. It would be so much easier to use software we pay for.

Which leads to my point about determination...and refers back to my point about the time it takes to be poor. A person has to be extremely determined to figure out how these tools work...which also takes a lot of time. If a person is working, has a family, hasn't been equipped with even a base-knowledge of technology or education, this determination seems pointless. It would be very easy to give up and exist at what is already known.

Finally, it takes extra time to be poor. One of my friends has been poor for some time now. But she doesn't believe in government assistance. After looking for a job for several months, she decided she would have to resort to being considered "low-income" and went to the office to apply. She explained that they asked her for her life story and they require her to keep going for appointments. Without a car, those hours spent on the bus and in the welfare offices add up to a lot of time spent away from job search and family.

As I am reading Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence book, I realize there is another cost of poverty. There is an emotional cost. And that emotional cost feeds all of the other areas.

A lot of the parents I know speak with short, frustrated commands. They are tired of years of struggle and that struggle gets passed on to their children. They work or go to school all day and don't have the energy or desire to deal with a crying baby or, when the children are older, to take their children places...even if those places are free. When a parent is too frustrated to have empathy toward their children, the children learn to avoid expressing emotions that would need empathetic responses. The reflection of these responses begin in a child's infancy.

Emotional neglect has cyclical effects. It dulls empathy skills but can also result in hyper-sensitivity to emotions and comments of those around them, causing children to react defensively and in anger to comments that could have been resolved easily.

The combination of all of the above often results in a downward spiral. The children who achieve in spite of are those with amazing resilience and are the exceptions to the rule.

The solutions are complex. We have a lot of work to do. We must create learning environments that inspire a release of creativity and allows kids to get lost in their passions. We need to do a much better job of educating children and providing them with opportunities to grow and explore. We need to think through our current society that raises prices in low-income areas and lowers prices in higher income communities.

The emotional toll has huge consequences to all of us. Goleman sites a higher rate of crime from those who have these emotional voids. It is not a problem for those who are poor; it is a problem for all of us. We all must work together to solve it.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Loving Day

Ever heard of Loving v. Virginia (1967)?

Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving grew up in Caroline County, Virginia. In 1958, they decided to get married. One slight problem. Mildred was Black and Richard was White. State law forbid their marriage, so they went to Washington, D.C. where it was legal to marry interracially.

However, after they married and moved back to Virginia, they were awakened one night by the police and subsequently taken to jail...for the crime of being married.

Though the judge sentenced them to jail for 1-3 years, he agreed to suspend the sentence if they would leave the state of Virginia for 25 years. The Lovings moved to Washington D.C. instead of face imprisonment.

After much hardship of being separated from family and facing racist taunting, they sent a request to Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General. Their case was taken up; however, appeal after appeal was denied. After nine years of struggle, their case appeared before the Supreme Court and was unanimously decided in their favor, basing their decision on the 14th ammendment. Chief Justice Earl Warren stated, "Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides within the individual and cannot be infringed on by the State."

To see a map of the progression of states as it became legal to marry interracially, click here.

However, even though the June 12, 1967 Loving decision made it impossible for the states to legally separate these marriages, many states refused to remove it from their books.

In 1998, a clause that prohibited "marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who shall have one-eighth or more Negro blood" was removed South Carolina's state constitution. According to a Mason-Dixon poll four months before the vote, 22% of South Carolina voters were opposed to the removal of this clause that had been introduced in 1895.

In Alabama, it took until 2000 to remove these laws. A referendum was passed that removed this article from the Alabama State Constitution: "The Legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro, or a descendant of a Negro." ~Alabama State Constitution, Article IV, Section 102 (This section was introduced in 1901.) According to a poll conducted by the Mobile Register in September of 2000, 19% of voters said that they would not remove section 102.

Today, celebrations are held on or around every June 12. See here for some locations, possibly near you.