True change requires that we touch hearts, not just heads

Earlier this month, Washington, D.C.’s local CBS affiliate published a moving story about tragedy and triumph in the city’s schools. Here’s an excerpt:

Last week, students at one D.C. school were rallying around a classmate who was hurt in a double shooting.

On Wednesday, they celebrate 17 classmates who signed full scholarships to college.

Crime tape and flashing lights. Evidence markers and stained clothes. This is more than just a crime scene, more than just a lead story.

This is life for far too many of D.C.’s students, so when they come out on the other side, they can’t hold back the tears.

It was an emotional day at Friendship Public Charter School on Minnesota Avenue in Northeast, D.C.

Jordan Marshall's close friend Ralph was killed in a drive by.  He was 17 years old and taught Jordan how to play ball. 

“Football was an alley way for me,” said Marshall. “A way I can get out all my frustration of the day.”

Stories drive change in America. No matter how many try to push back on that by citing the virtue of the empirical and the data-driven, it doesn’t change that fundamental truth. With the continuous debate among education reformers around the role of social justice and race in education policy, it’s easy to think that folks on all sides of the issue make sense.

At the cerebral level, it’s easy to nod when bright minds of any ideology fluidly reference data, studies, and history. They make sense. They sound smart. But the cerebral isn’t enough to explain or grasp why something matters. It’s the heart. The gut. The goosebumps.

Some people may roll their eyes or stop reading now because they reject the mere mention of the “goosebump factor” in discussions where, in their minds, reason is virtue and emotion is primitive. These people often scoff when the lede of a story is a compelling anecdote.

But stories move people and change minds far more often than numbers. The sight of young black football players sobbing on college signing day. A badly burned baby separated from his parents while awaiting surgery in America because of a sudden executive order. A student who graduates with A’s and B’s but can’t read. A black doctor being grilled about credentials by the flight crew during an in-flight medical emergency. These real-life narratives make a difference.

Until we get to a place where a bunch of black males from the same school getting accepted to college isn’t a news story that makes us weep, we can’t be silent. Until we get to a place where police don’t outnumber school counselors in inner-city schools, we can’t be silent. And until America stops graduating illiterate black and brown children, we can’t be silent.

I attended a high school where, for the vast majority of kids, getting into college didn’t get any attention. The only questions were, “Will it be Harvard or Amherst or Bowdoin?” and “Which bumper sticker will I add to the already impressive collection on the back windshield of my Volvo?” It was never about how this college acceptance might change the trajectory of my life and my family’s life and finally put an end to our generational poverty.

Which brings me to a different mom, a mom who is living proof, at least for me, that we cannot separate our work to improve schools in America from the uncomfortable inequities and flat-out systemic racism that plague our educational system and our country. Her name is Lavonda Jones, and she was on hand in D.C. when her son and sixteen of his aforementioned teammates celebrated their admission

“We start everyday and sometimes I text him ‘pray before you do tests, before you go out,’” recalled his mother Lavonda Jones. “Invite your friends to church.”

Taylor was only 5 years old when his father was murdered. He knows how easily it was for him to get angry and turn to temptation. So when these football players sob, realize there is relief and realization behind their tears, that though they came face to face with death, life is just beginning.

The notion that far too many young black people come face to face with death isn’t a punch line or a bit of hyperbole. It’s the truth. And that’s what makes their accomplishments fundamentally different than those of the students at my alma mater or similar suburban high schools across the nation.

My classmates and I started on third base. It doesn’t mean there weren’t huge challenges—losses of parents, illness, tragedy—but we all could see the finish line ahead as soon as we were able, as babies, to actually utter the words “finish line.”

We didn’t sob at the realization that we had survived or that we were going to college. We couldn’t fathom praying for a classmate who had just been shot. We didn’t attend the funerals of friends lost to gun violence. Our dads weren’t in jail. And we never faced the headwind of tragically low expectations that so many black and brown students face every day in schools that are supposed to prepare them for college, work, and life.

It’s impossible—and dishonest—to be color blind about what a college acceptance means in America. And until those of us who were born on third base stop patting ourselves on the backs for our achievements and open our eyes to all that we did not have to overcome, the sooner we can get real about how best to pay it forward.

I know, here come the “yeah, buts”; just hold your fire. No one is going to convince me that the blips on my journey—and there sure have been some—can be compared in any way to the systemic disadvantages, the injustice, and the lack of opportunity faced by black America.

Students in my high school didn’t get arrested for routine schoolyard scuffles because we never had a police officer in our building. Sure, there were fights. Defiance. Drugs. But there was no risk of arrest. There were seven guidance counselors. There were two full time school psychologists. That’s privilege.

It will always be human nature to be moved by stories of perseverance where people we don’t know overcome the unimaginable and make it to the finish line. But we can’t accept a world in which a group of young black men making it to college is one of those stories. On the contrary, we need to have a lot more uncomfortable conversations until that kind of achievement—the kind we expect for our own children—is the new normal.

I’m not going to lie. I feel prouder of those seventeen boys from Friendship Charter in Washington, D.C., than I do of most of the kids in my own town. I hope my friends and neighbors can understand why. 

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute