During the U.S. Department of Education’s Back-to-School Bus Tour, the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships hosted “My Brother’s Keeper” (MBK) Roundtable Discussions in three cities: Louisville, KY; Indianapolis, IN; and Pittsburgh, PA. As one of the MBK staff leads in our office, I had the opportunity to facilitate the Louisville discussion with youth from some of the city’s most distressed neighborhoods. The roundtable was held at Minor Daniels Academy, a combined restorative pathways middle and high school in the Jefferson County Public School (JCPS) System. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and JCPS Superintendent Dr. Donna Hargens also participated in the conversation.
During the roundtable discussion, students talked about their aspirations, the daily challenges they face, and the structural and systemic obstacles they perceive as part of their environment. What I found to be peculiar about the discussion was how many of the youth believe that success is best achieved by helping themselves. Throughout their lives, the students felt disconnected from the Louisville community as a whole. They did not know that there were members of the community who were actually interested in providing them assistance. When one youth explained that “shoe game” – how an individual’s worth is defined based upon the substance of his or her appearance – serves as one of the most prevalent problems in their communities, another concluded that as poor African Americans, students could not solve these problems alone. However, knowing that there were other youth in their communities who had more resources, better educational opportunities, and greater communal support, they wondered if the community had any desire to help them in addressing their own needs.
Despite these expressed challenges, the students chose to “accept finite disappointment while still clinging to hope.” When asked if they had the opportunity to speak to President Obama about improving their schools and communities, the students responded with dignity. One student specified she would ask the President to alter the minimum working age while another stated he would like the President to create programs to provide youth a sense of purpose and eliminate crime within their communities.
The voices of the students underline why MBK is vital to communities. During the conversation, these students learned that their community was listening and preparing to support them as they moved toward their life goals. The MBK initiative helps youth understand that “success is not measured by your stumbles, but by your many strides. If you can conceive it in your minds and believe it in your hearts, you can achieve it with your hands.”
Following my experiences at the roundtable discussion, I feel confident that the work Louisville is accomplishing will answer the needs of its students and continue to epitomize what MBK is all about – helping to ensure high student achievement and success for all youth, despite their circumstances. If we continue to incorporate the voices of our youth into the efforts of the 200 communities committed to improving the life outcomes of youth through MBK, I have no doubt it will make our nation more competitive globally and a more equitable place to live.
“…We were founded on the idea everybody should have an equal opportunity to succeed. No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, you can make it. That’s an essential promise of America. Where you start should not determine where you end up.” – President Barack Obama