James Ford inspired us all with his remarks at the Council’s A Night for Children’s Rights on February. His remarks are printed here with his kind permission.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES? (MY PERSONAL PATH)
First and foremost I want to express my extreme level of honor and gratitude to the Council for Children’s Rights for the privilege of delivering the keynote for this wonderful event. I consider myself so fortunate just to be able to share in this wonderful work and I applaud you for your service to the youth of the greater Charlotte community. I am particularly passionate about this work because it involves the population to whom I’ve dedicated my life to serving and empowering – the youth. I, as an educator, view myself and CFCR as co-laborers of sorts for the same cause at different points in the pipeline; as partners in the same struggle, to advocate on behalf of young people that are often the most categorically at-risk. I have yet to find anything so rewarding or offer more intrinsic value than working with young people.
Be that as it may, when I look back over my own personal path and meditate on tonight’s theme “Imagine the Possibilities, I can’t help but ask myself, what are the chances? What is the likelihood that I stand before you today, the NC Teacher of the Year, as a former struggling student who didn’t even like school? What would have been the probability of success for the younger me, had it not been for so many mentors and intercessors who fought diligently on my behalf. The obvious answer to that question is, extremely thin.
As I go around the state I continue to recall the memory of my former self, a naturally bright but apathetic child, from a stable working class two-parent household, that struggled with Attention Deficit Disorder, and general detachment from all things important. As a student I would regularly bring home Ds and Fs as a result of my frequent outbursts in class seeking to get a laugh or the attention of a nearby young lady. Academics were secondary, even tertiary to my desire to socialize with friends and serve as the class jester. I knew my grades were no measure of my intelligence, I just wasn’t that into it. It took the intervention of several loving and dedicated teachers to reach inside of me, and help to draw out the inner potential I possessed. One such teacher was my Honors English Teacher Mr. Stokes. During a disruptive encounter in his class he took me out into the hallway and began to tell me what he saw when he looked at me. He told me I was smart, he told me I was full of potential. And then he uttered these words, “I could teach you so much if you would just listen.” Mr. Stokes’ words woke me up from my slumber not just because they were true, but because he took the time to impart them to me when he could have just hung me out to dry. He decided to put adult egos aside, speak life into a misunderstood kid, and it made me want to prove him right. It was because of him and so many other educators and community members willing to stand in the gap for me that I stand here today.
WHEN THE DECK IS STACKED AGAINST YOU (THE NEED FOR AN ADVOCATE)
Before becoming a teacher I worked in the nonprofit sector as a truancy intervention specialist and later as the Executive Director of a teen center. I frequently engaged with students that would otherwise be written off as lost causes and stigmatized as trouble makers. On the surface, one might jump to these conclusions, but the truth of the matter was they were none of these things. They were not unteachable or incorrigible. They were children, dealing with issues that stretched beyond the four walls of the classroom. What I quickly discovered in those positions were things that would influence my whole outlook and change my approach to this work. I discovered that every child has a story, and that the the cover of that story is not always indicative of the contents. Futhermore, I learned that very few adults ever really take the time to peel through the pages and investigate. I decided that I would be the student and learn about them. I learned of the personal struggles, the trauma, the abuse, the exposure to violence, the neglect, and the psychological wounds that often went untreated. They were not failing, because they had never been given a chance. I discovered that we the adults were expecting things of them that had never been invested. I liken this to being disgruntled that your bank account is empty when you haven’t made a deposit. This opened my eyes to a much larger picture. That these young people were not in need of anybody’s sympathy or pity, but instead of genuine empathy and compassion demonstrated through sincere advocacy. It was at that moment that I decided to become an educator and make that my vehicle to enact this kind of social change. As fate would have it, 6 years in, this has been my same population throughout my teaching career and those lessons have served me well in my capacity as a teacher at Garinger High School.
As it currently stands, young people in underprivileged communities are still at a decided disadvantage when it comes to their life chances. Far and beyond the school house, there are many compounding factors to invade the path to healthy and productive lives. In a social mobility study of 50 urban cities, Charlotte ranked dead last. This means that young people born in Charlotte are least likely to mobilize upward. We know that from 2005 to 2011 that the child poverty rate in Mecklenburg County increased nearly 10%. The median income for Charlotte’s black and latino households is about 56% that of whites. And this has led to disproportionate minority contact in both the Department of Social Services as well as the Juvenile Justice System. To put it simply, it’s not simple! The problems are complex with much intersectionality. I bring this data to light not cause discouragement, but to provide the backdrop against which we find ourselves and make the case for advocacy. I’m sure just off the top of our heads we can begin to imagine the sort of personal and social problems that develop from these circumstances. The truth is not only are many of our youth dealt a bad hand, but in fact the deck is stacked against them. Now more than ever, they need to be embraced by the community and informed of their value. They need to not be saved but instead empowered to truly live out their potential. The young people need to know that we see them, and that we are not going to allow them to fall by the wayside or be disposed of. That instead we are going to fight on their behalf.
SOCIETY PAYS THE HUMAN COST
Now is the time, because if we do not, we will all be left to bear the cost. One of the most damaging myths of our society is the concept of rugged individualism. That everyone picks themselves up by their bootstraps and that we go it alone. When the truth is, we are all the recipients of the good will of others and what affects one of us does the same for us all. As Dr. King said, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny”. We are interdependent. When young people on the margins are unable to find their way in the world, it cheats the rest of us out of experiencing their gifts. It denies us from being the recipients of their talents. Most importantly, it prevents us from benefiting from their contributions. It robs us as much as it does them. We spend so much time in the classroom talking about Bloom’s Taxonomy and making sure that we ask higher level questions and teach rigor, when the truth of the matter is just as much attention should be paid to Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. Everybody needs their psychological and safety needs met. That every child feels loved and affirmed. Every child knows that they have value and purpose if for no other reason that they are created in the image of the Creator. This is our call as a society, my work as an educator and the work of the Council.
IMAGINE THE POSSIBILITIES
So with that in mind, I want to you to imagine the possibilities. Imagine what our city, state, and nation would be like if every child believed they could ascend to the highest heights. Picture what it would look like if resources were in place to ensure that every child had an equal opportunity at success regardless of their individual circumstance. Consider if the vigorous defense of young people became more than just an espoused virtue, but an enacted one. I tell the kids all the time that I more than want you to succeed, I need you to succeed. They tend to look at me with a confused face and I explain to them, I have two little ones right now and when they get older you’re going to be in charge. I tell them that I could have chosen to do anything I wanted to do, but I chose to be here because I want to change the world. But I’m going to do it, through you! You are my contribution. What more fertile ground to sow into, than the youth? If there ever were a barometer for the state of our future is them. And we extend that metaphor and discuss sowing seeds, I will leave you with this.
THE SOCIETAL SYMPHONY
There are so many different ways to affect change that we sometimes don’t know where to begin. We become overwhelmed with a sense of obligation, so much so that it can become paralyzing. But I want you to consider an orchestra with it’s various instruments: the violins, violas, cellos and bass. The French horns, oboes, timpani and cymbals. Think about the various pieces of sheet music and specific parts as they are played in isolation. It would appear as if they are just making noise. But when they are played in unison and conducted in concert with each other beautiful music is made. You see, all you have to do is play your part. You don’t need to take the lead, you can just play a supporting role. We can play our own very specific notes, but so long as we’re playing the same song, our societal symphony achieves harmony. What is your contribution, I ask that you open heart, open minds, and of course open pocket books because that is the only way this work is conducted. Thank you.