the relativity of achievement
These are stories of some of exalt’s graduates from one of our recent graduations:
Robert, age 18, had exceptional participation in the program. He absorbed information hungrily, and relished the challenge to his thinking during the six week intensive classroom phase, nearly always the first one to raise his hand. He pioneered a new internship for exalt at a small fitness center run by a local entrepreneur. He was given full trust and was moved to head the front desk throughout just a two month internship. As the program draws to a close, Robert’s mother is about to exit from another stay at a drug rehab center. He knows that she’s not able to be a mother the way he’s needed one. On the day of his exalt graduation he finds out his father, his mainstay and sole support system, has passed away. Within hours, Robert makes the decision to attend his graduation and brings a friend for support. None of the staff are aware throughout graduation that this young man’s life has just irrevocably changed. That he has suffered a trauma that would reduce many of us to a puddle on the floor, despite however challenging our relationships with our father may have been. Robert is dressed professionally. He speaks with confidence, poise, and a sense of achievement. He says that this experience has made him re-invest in school and that he’s determined to finish high school and go to college. He is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to learn how to enter and succeed in a professional space.
Shamar, age 16, came to exalt with a lot on his plate. He is the sole caretaker of most of his family and had poor school attendance, with long periods of absence. He was attending a superintendent suspension school, a school designated for youth serving a full year suspension. He had to travel 2 hours each way to attend this school. Shamar was quiet and somewhat withdrawn when he started. He interned at Madiba, a South African restaurant in Fort Greene Brooklyn, where exalt has sent perhaps 8 interns over the last few years. His supervisor, who rarely gives compliments, said Shamar was the best exalt intern he’s had. During the second to last week of the program Shamar suffered two losses of people close to him – his favorite aunt and one of his nephews. Because he was rarely attending school, during this period ACS threatened to remove him from his home. Ready to quit the program, his exalt staff team persisted in giving him support. He not only finished the program, but started attending school. exalt is continuing to help him more quickly transfer out of the suspension school back to a regular high school.
Everyday at exalt we see our students push through a myriad of obstacles towards a light at the end of the tunnel we present them with – completion of our intensive internship program. For over 16 years I have struggled to convey the profundity of what I’ve seen happen within this program (first at its predecessor at CASES, and now in its independent incarnation as exalt.): the transformation of young people. We are constantly pushed in this sector to demonstrate measurable impact as quantitatively as possible. How many “clients” graduated high school? How many got a job? How many retained a minimum wage job for 90 days? We know from research and collective experience that these are tangible indicators of future success, or at least of a buffer to maximum failure. But we are rarely honest about the relativity of achievement, given the huge disparity in resources, opportunities, and levels of discrimination that exist between exalt youth, in this case, and those of us who grew up with much more than they have.
Because we have such a historically, and still uneven playing ground upon which children start off their pursuit of America’s promises, swaths of our people (certain “populations”) enter the world amidst a set of obstacles: multi-generational poverty largely shaped by race; communities with chronic unemployment and under-employment; violence as a norm for negotiating the limited power available, and as a channel for an anger that has limited avenues of expression in “mainstream” society because mainstream society declares racism dead, and thus the expiration of acceptable “excuses” for poverty, educational failure, unemployment and the like. This inequity in children’s ability to pursue what we espouse as universal rights, is why Bryan Stevenson (see his TED talk) says that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice.
In striving for justice, we need to be able and willing to justly assess an individual’s progress and achievements given his/her starting point. This is not to suggest we discard the important societal and individual benchmarks of achievement we typically use; rather, it suggests we give just credit to achievement relative to one’s privilege or lack of it – or conversely – to the resilience, fortitude, creativity, and difficulty necessary to surmount the obstacles that Robert and Shamar did. Calling for justice in assessing progress and achievement is not intended to activate guilt, nor does it insinuate that we lower expectations, enable, or, patronize children or families who start without “privilege.” Rather, it asks us to recognize the strength of exalt youths’ determination, and give them credit and respect for the tremendous achievements they often make in just 5 months. And that we have the patience and persistence required to support their continued perseverance, despite its non-linear nature.
In order to move towards justice in measuring achievement, we need to develop new methods for measurement. exalt has extremely strict attendance and punctuality standards and is an entirely voluntary program. Yet the fact that our students meet these criteria is generally deemed negligible by most of us (philanthropists, pundits, researchers, media) because we measure its value from the standpoint of our own ability to meet these “basic” criteria. We should be developing more appropriate milestones of progress and achievement relative to young people’s starting place. This does not mean we should consider them finished when they go from 0% school attendance to 40% (which is much harder than going from 70-90%), but rather that we justly credit them for this achievement as recognition of their ability to meet higher goals. I struggle with this tension all the time– whether to place all of our eggs in the “evidence-based” outcomes basket, or to challenge the premise that we measure progress and achievement solely from the perspective of those who have fewer obstacles to meeting “standard” indicators of success.
exalt is a vital gateway for the young people we serve. We open them up to what’s possible and start a fundamental change in vision, attitude and behavior. We cannot accompany them the entire way of the journey still in front of them when they leave us. In order to nurture the sprouts that have come up from within their soil, (the collective) we need to change our paradigm and approach. We need to honor their effort and achievements rather than simply measure how close they are to “us” who have tools, resources, networks, education and skin privilege.