“Looks like a case of OG – over-gold”… a police officer says above a dead body in the opening scene of the 1988 parody “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”, written, directed and acted in by the Wayans Brothers. (YouTube) A sheet is pulled back to reveal a young black man wrapped like a mummy in gold chains. The ‘80s saw the rise of “bling” in poor communities along with the proliferation of crack and the ability to make lots of money quickly. The Reagan era spawned the glamorization of making as much money as possible, and living a life that reflected it became our cultural norm. There’s very little difference between the young man who died of too many gold chains in “Any Ghetto USA” and Charlie Sheen’s character in Wall Street who goes down due to a parallel obsession with material representations of personal success and self worth.
Kids willing to steal to get the latest pair of Jordans is now a reference to a former century. It’s no coincidence that the rise of our cultural idolization of material wealth has paralleled the unprecedented rise in incarceration in this country. Today, even requiring school uniforms doesn’t preclude a teenager from going to desperate measures to measure up to his peers’ expectations of requisite “gear”. If we thought $100 Jordans were outrageous symbols of living beyond our means to gain acceptance, let alone respect, today’s status symbols begin with $300 belts.
At exalt we never exempt any student from personal responsibility and we support them facing consequences for poor decisions, particularly when they have access to the information, experience, opportunities and support that provide them with a different set of choices. And yet, in order to make a dent in the epidemic of widespread youth disconnect from education, apathy towards civic/community engagement, and simultaneous mass incarceration, we have to think about our role, not just “theirs,” in where we all are.
The average American credit card debit is $7000 (Forbes). APR’s have increased substantially since the financial meltdown of 2008 so we are paying more interest on our credit card debt than ever. That is to say, the majority of us live beyond our means. And now, in our fourth decade of increasing dependence on the enablers of debt (credit card companies, banks), we have reached a new apex of vapid individualism and narcissism enabled by media and technology. Portrayals of decadence were once collectively understood to be some level of fantasy. Now that we are all creating our own movie roles on social media sites and reality shows we believe decadence is doable. We can photoshop our own images to be as glamorous as the billboards we see in Soho or Times Square. The separation between the average “us” and the historical symbols of fantasy is rapidly blurring. We can all be superstars. And because there is so much chatter in cyberspace and everywhere else, no one really listens to each other much. But we definitely watch one another.
This is the macro cultural backdrop for exalt youth. Add to that the limited opportunities they typically see in front of them for their futures, and the traumas they regularly encounter, and their obsession with “living in the moment” becomes slightly more legible. Living in the moment for today’s young people, is hardly a purposeful landing at an existential place after exploring a spectrum of philosophical thought, or a conscious selection of Buddhist ethos. It is a reaction to cultural and economical forces and phenomena. And American “living in the moment” requires a significant disconnect from empathy. If I am supposed to “do me” I can’t factor in how I might step on others in my dog-eat-dog climb to an elusive height of personal success. And if I actually only believe that my destiny is to survive, rather than having a chance to thrive, I may have all the more disconnect from the effects of my actions on others.
At exalt, we have built a very purposeful, yet fragile community and culture in which young people who “fit the description” are treated with dignity and yet are held accountable. In which they experience a team of staff who model a rich spectrum of life experiences and yet are able to connect with them. In which they are expected to succeed but are approached with a constant balance of push and patience. In which they are surrounded by adults who recognize the tremendous effort and dedication it takes for them to stick with us and what we’re trying to connect them to, and who validate their effort while constantly raising the bar for their next level of achievement. Our cultural network extends to the diverse group of entrepreneurial, creative, smart and successful individuals who provide them with internships. These partners provide the invaluable gift of providing our students with “real world” opportunities to practice the new skills they’re developing, which includes intangibles such as being able to trust, feel safe, and believe that you can belong in a place you feel is foreign initially.
We learn from what we know. We have to increase our collective and individual efforts to expose (exalt) youth to what else is possible besides the limited options they experience in their neighborhoods and the dangerous messages we directly and indirectly communicate by suggesting that getting from reality to fantasy can be just a quick leap, one that we should all be wiling to take, no matter what the stakes, because the rewards are so fabulous. Who better to sell the idea to that “to have is to be” than those who feel tenuous about their ability to determine who they can BEcome. We’re all responsible for modeling the cultural values we either celebrate or blame young people for having.
Join us in modeling what we’d like to celebrate in our youth. (Have an internship opportunity you could provide for an exalt youth?...)