I regularly reference a keynote speech given by Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad given on April 18th, 2013 at the close of a conference held at John Jay College in New York City. The conference was titled “Evidence Based Policy and Practice in Youth Justice”, and was put together by folks directing the Pinkerton Fellowship program there. Dr. Muhammad is the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the internationally renowned institution that is part of The New York Public Library.
While his entire speech was powerful and memorable, one of his key points that resonated strongly with me was about our (societal) need to provide quantifiable evidence of permanent, life changing impact for any and every kind of initiative aimed at children of color. While I can’t do his own words justice, the point is so potent, I just can’t help but try and communicate it to folks who weren’t in the room. Think about it: do we, can we, hold our college accountable if we don’t get jobs within a year of graduating? Do we hold an elite school that costs much more than a public school more accountable, (by formally evaluating its graduates’ life earnings, say) than the public school which might be held accountable for “producing” a lower earning-power pool of alumni? No, there is no guarantee of how, or whether college will change our lives. There is a collective, historical assumption of its value (the intangibles of who we meet there, how we learn to think, the different viewpoints we’re exposed to) that is so powerful, it has enabled the cost of college education to outpace increases in our average earnings at alarming rates.
On the other end of our human developmental spectrum, consider enrichment activities like sports programs or summer camps. When these programs are aimed at children in middle or upper class neighborhoods, we don’t ever question their value. We know there is a value in teamwork, in play, in organized activities, in all of the “character” building qualities they help inculcate. And yet, virtually every kind of activity aimed at poor children of color – from pre-school through high school, from athletic programs to leadership programs, from mentoring, to arts, to internship programs – is not only questioned in terms of its impact, but is scrutinized down to the dollar in terms of how each dollar translates into a measurable skill or a monetize-able milestone (e.g. high school graduation, job placement, avoidance of prison…)
One of the most important parts of what exalt provides is the immeasurable experience our students get in our classroom. When I can turn my head and see a room full of our students locked into a discussion, engaged in their own development, I know that in and of itself is of value beyond words, beyond numbers, beyond a translation into future earnings. It is quite simply, what they should have been experiencing their whole lives, but haven’t. It is what a parent of a five year old looks for in selecting her child’s kindergarten. Our children are not five. They come with thick shields or psychic armor, and are laden with centuries’ worth of negative stereotypes. So we forget that they deserve that engagement. That humanizing experience of being prioritized, planned for, thought of, responsible for, cared about.
Our latest societal efforts to “fix” kids who seem broken, is to address their (lack of) morals. The recent ta-dah in creative approaches to financing fixes to the school-to-prison pipeline epidemic – social impact bonds – are funding the introduction of “moral reconation therapy” (MRT) to captive audiences of young people held in Rikers Island (New York City’s adult jail.) Sure, MRT is “evidence-based.” (Of course it is, or it wouldn’t be funded by social impact bonds, or anyone at all.) Once again we assume that it is what kids without resources, opportunities, exposure, positive assumptions, hope, inspiration lack in themselves, rather than what their circumstances lack, that is the core of the problem.
Changing attitudes and behaviors that are developed in direct response and relationship to our environment takes time and effort. Not just our own. We need to know that people support our efforts to grow, that there is room for mistakes. Think about how hard it was to quit smoking, to change your diet, commit to an exercise routine, lose weight, to end a relationship. You didn’t make any major behavior change on your own, or quickly. So help us help exalt youth learn new thought patterns (e.g. that hope can be rewarded), and ultimately behavior patterns (going to school regularly even if you hate it because you see a light at the end of the tunnel). Your support of exalt helps us remind the world that there is a tremendous amount of internal work that precedes any significant achievement.