Friday, November 9, 2012

Look Around

Ask a young person how far they want to continue with their education and they will tell you they want to go to college.  But when you ask them, "How far do you really think YOU'LL go?"  They will respond:
"I probably will be lucky to graduate from high school."
That is if they are black or Latino.  And/or live in an impoverished neighborhood.
That is what I learned from a Harvard sociologist who had studied the problem between what kids hope for and what they think they will actually achieve.  She and her colleagues have fancy names for this issue.  Their studies contain big academic words I don't understand stuck in between more common words like "poverty" "socioeconomic" and "personal identity."  There is a simple way of describing why there is a gap between what these students HOPE to achieve and what they actually BELIEVE is going to be true for them. The gap happens because they:
When you ask the first question (Do you want to go to college?  What do you want to be when you grow up?) They IMAGINE; they DREAM; they ASPIRE.  They picture themselves with a cap and gown at a college, working as a doctor or a veterinarian or a lawyer or a teacher or in some other career.  Then when you ask them to tell you how well they really think they are going to do, to consider their future REALISTICALLY, what do they do?
And what do they see?  They see their current condition, their present environment, their circumstances -- they see they share a bedroom (or a living room) with a sister and an auntie, the fact that Dad is gone, Mom works two jobs at minimum wage, no-one in their family has ever made it past 10th grade, all their older brothers and uncles are in the local gang, or they look in their wallets and don't see an driver's license or a green card and figure WHO AM I KIDDING WHEN I TALK ABOUT HARVARD OR CAL STATE NORTHRIDGE?! HECK, EVEN COMMUNITY COLLEGE?!  I MEAN REALLY -THAT'S NOT MY DESTINY! YOU WANNA SEE MY DESTINY?? LOOK AROUND!!! 
And this looking around shuts down their imagination.
Dashes their hopes.
Kills their dreams.
Snuffs out their ambition.
Shuts down their drive.
Hey, for these young people, survival is enough.  Just getting through the day takes all their energy and there is nothing left over for pursuing what to them seems like a pipe dream.  
This is not to say that all Latinos and African-Americans live in poverty or in bad neighborhoods or that all kids with economic or personal hardship give up on their dreams.  Of course not.  But studies have shown that kids in tough neighborhoods do have this disparity between what they dream and what they believe. I have worked particularly with many Latino youth over the years and have personally witnessed this disparity, this lack of "seeing beyond the present circumstances to something better" and it breaks my heart.
For many years, I ran a weekly support group for teen girls, most of whom were Latina. I had an brainstorming activity I used with the group called "Dream Killers."  I would ask the girls to tell me their dreams and each girl's aspirations would be written up on a large pad of paper on an easel at the front of the room --dreams of going to college, of living in a big house on the nice side of town, having a loving husband, getting a job as a doctor, teacher, lawyer...Their eyes would light up as they shared their dreams.  I remember Stacie, a 14 year old bubbly girl in my group saying she wanted to be a "VETRINARIUN." She loved animals and was getting good grades.  I told her that I could see her being a great "Vet."  (I used the word "Vet" so she would know she could use it in the future instead of having to say the full word which even on a good day is pronunciation challenge for everyone!)  She beamed as though she had already opened her own practice. My "bet about this vet" is that no one had ever told her that her dream could come true.
Then we talked about DREAM KILLERS.  I asked the girls, "What can kill your dreams?  What can keep these dreams from happening?"  They thought for a moment and then responded:
Making bad choices!
Dropping out of school!
Your friends!
Getting pregnant!
Your family!
Most of the answers were shouted out enthusiastically.
Not a single one of the young ladies, in every group I ever held, ever said that the biggest dream killer in their life was THEIR OWN PERCEPTION---none of them realized that their own perspective/belief about their future had life-altering power over their success.  I am didn't bring it up either because at the time I was unaware of this gap.  But I do remember asking the girls many times, "How many of you can picture yourself graduating from high school?"  A few heads would nod.  Then I would ask, "How many of you can picture yourself pregnant before you graduate?"  A few heads would bow, a few would blush and a few would shout out, "No way!"  When I would ask the shouters why they objected, they would usually say something like, "Because I see what my sister did, having a baby really young and how hard it is..." or something along that line.  In other words, they LOOKED AROUND and this time, their eyes settled on a bad example - an older sister who was struggling, raising a child alone, trying to scrape up money for formula and diapers.  Many of these girls could also look around and see their brothers in gangs, friends dropping out, exhausted moms fighting with alcoholic dads.  This was all they could see.  This was the only life they knew. So they would settle for retail jobs at the 99 Cent Only Store or filling drive-thru orders at Carl's Junior even though they were capable of so much more.  Or they would clean houses alongside Mom even though she risked so much to bring them to a country where they could achieve more than settling for a wad of cash passed under the table for vacuuming rugs and scrubbing floors.  I could see the same almond eyes that glossed over with hopeful imagination of being a "Vet", go dim and dark when they would LOOK AROUND.
My heart broke then and it breaks again now thinking about it.
I want to change the scenery.
When these young men and women LOOK AROUND, I want them to see others just like them who have made it - those who despite the odds, went on to finish high school, then graduated from college or found a rewarding career.  I want to these precious young people to be surrounded by people who believe in them, support them and listen to them.  Role Models. Mentors.  Leaders. All creating a landscape of love.

Look, I'm a white woman who didn't grow up rich, but certainly didn't live in a tough neighborhood by any stretch of the imagination.  My parents are highly educated.  I have a degree and a great career.  When I first started my support group I wasn't sure it would work.  In the beginning, I got looks from the girls like, "Who the heck is this white lady?  Is she here to lecture us?  What the hell does she know about what it's like to be me?"  I saw a lot of hard faces, arms folded across chests and lips closed tight.  It took me quite awhile to build trust with the girls in my groups, but after awhile I did, and they stopped seeing my color. They saw that I cared for them and listened and valued them and the color faded.  Then they poured out their hearts to me and to each other. I often described that first "break-through" session as feeling like I had taken my finger out of the hole in an emotional dam.  Years and years of hurts and wishes and struggles would come pouring out with the simplest question.  They were STARVING for someone to just listen.  They would rarely miss a session and complain when it would end.  They would tell the new girls who wanted to join the group a little bit about me.  Give them the inside scoop on the "Wera."  "Yeah, she's white, but she's more like a burrito.  White on the outside, brown in the middle."  It would make me laugh.  I was blessed just to know them.  Blessed to be given the opportunity to listen and help in whatever way I could. They taught me so much.  In fact, they changed my life. I can't help but LOOK AROUND and see so many just like them who struggle to hang on to their dreams while the scenery around them says, "Give it up sister!" I remember Stacie and Ines and Juana and Edith and their faces propel me to do more to help. I want young people in tough neighborhoods to LOOK AROUND and see people who are willing to lead, love and support them so they can turn what's in their hopeful hearts into reality.  I can do more.  I can't do it alone.  There are so many who need support. Just LOOK AROUND.

-Hope A. Horner, 2012
Follow on Twitter at HopeNote
Dr. Ruth N. Lopez Turley

A Rice Professor (and Christian) shares her journey out of poverty and provides more information about this topic:!/v/1264

If you want to help, a good place to start is here: 
Waiting for Superman
Big Brothers-Big Sisters

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