Tuesday, February 15, 2011

We can reach black teens, but it will take some imagination

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Courtesy of the St. Louis 
January 11, 2009

* I wrote this column for the Post-Dispatch a bit more than a week before the inauguration of President Elect Barack Obama. I'm sharing it now because it underscores the mission of my current endeavor.

We can reach black teens, but it will take some imagination

This column is an invitation to imagine a totally revamped, radical approach to reach black teens — those who are killing and being killed.

It will take money, across-the-board commitments, perhaps new laws and the reversal of resources from prisons to people. We must also support and build on examples of what's already working.

Come, let us dream.

What if there were schools, working in conjunction with the juvenile courts system, designed to turn perceived problems into positives?

Consider this scenario: Jamil, 12, is a rock-headed youth. He's horrible at school, disrespectful with teachers and fights with his classmates. Jamil's peers consider him quite fearless. His "rep" is partly due to his older brothers, who are known neighborhood drug dealers.

Jamil commits crimes; let's say he's a repeated shoplifter. But instead of locking him up, the juvenile judge sends him to Urbana Academy (a school we'll make up for the purposes of our dream).

The new government-subsidized school is staffed with a healthy dose of black, no-nonsense male educators trained to educate and inspire troubled black youths.

Successful black entrepreneurs serve as mentors at the school. Millionaire rap artists, like Nelly, play a part, showing talented kids how to succeed. There's much to learn. After all, young black artists created rap and hip-hop, but very few dominate the business side of the multibillion-dollar industry.

At Urbana Academy, the curriculum is designed to connect black kids with what some consider "real life." The drug trade, for example, is an example of supply and demand. But rather than dealing drugs, the kids are steered to recognize the other demands, and needs, of their communities and shown how to generate capital — legally.

Specialists are trained to transform negative, aggressive behavior into entrepreneurial leadership skills. Like the nation's Junior Achievement programs, kids create urban corporations that promote and sell consumer
products in their own communities.

In our vision, the school is linked to St. Louis Urbana Inc., a nonprofit group that employs adults and folks once considered "unemployable." Factory workers create "Urbana" label products to be sold by the school. A crop of website developers, direct-marketing technicians and salesmen use innovative methods to promote and sell products.

The community is on board, eagerly buying Urbana products, like they do Girl Scout cookies. They know they're investing in the future of Urbana students.

In a society based on "stuff," Urbana Inc. offers salary-generating alternatives to drugs, unemployment and welfare. Even kids with good grades have the opportunity to earn weekend and after-school money with parental permission.

Now, Jamil's peers look up to him for different reasons. He's a savvy young salesman with his own cash. He's done so well at Urbana, school administrators awarded him a government-backed college scholarship to continue business studies.

Sound far-fetched?

Consider a real-life example: Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based economic development program that creates niche merchandise and provides job training and work experience for at-risk youths, gang members and ex-offenders.

Also in real life, Muhammad Yunus and his bank, Grameen, have provided more than $4 billion to 4.4 million impoverished people in rural Bangladesh. They have given small loans, mostly to women, to help them start or grow businesses.

Yunus and Grameen received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Yunus' "micro-lending" concept has turned poor female villagers into entrepreneurs. In his book, "Creating a World Without Poverty," Yunus introduces the concept of profit-driven "social businesses" as a way to spark "economic engines" throughout the world.

His plan can definitely spark engines in urban areas.

Corporations that set up co-ops — say an Urbana-Starbucks or a Del Monte-Urbana food plant — could receive valuable tax incentives or credits. The profit-driven industries would be designed to create jobs based on consumer demands. For instance, an Urbana entrepreneur establishes a neighborhood co-op that supplies fresh fruits, vegetables and other products to Urbana schools.

With a little help, this urban entrepreneur could turn abandoned neighborhood properties into produce-yielding fields that serve the nutritional needs of school children.

Since the beginning of this month, I've discussed the research indicating a rise in the number of black boys (between the ages of 14 and 17) who were killed or killed someone from 2000 to 2007.

Among other recommendations, the researcher, criminal justice professor James Alan Fox, said the government should invest more money in the lives of these kids.

Some readers were insulted that I called for an investment in black kids and not all kids.

That's easy to address. Black boys are the demographic with rising homicide rates. Let's use the car analogy. The motor and transmission need maintenance, but if there's a faulty carburetor, it will sputter, waste fuel and eventually stall.

Let's fix the busted carburetor.

Other readers reject the idea of spending more tax dollars to fix a problem parents should address.

But I also heard from people who are already investing passion and energy into black boys. These people understand Fox's call for investment because they see results, albeit on a small scale.

In this debate, there's a basic question: Why are black kids killing?

My opinion: dysfunctional parents, a lack of self-worth and vision, too few examples of attainable success and too much soul-crushing poverty. There's also the perceived payoff from the drug trade.

I disagree with those who say kids are forever doomed without proper parental intervention.

Dysfunction is colorless and classless. Alcoholic, abusive or emotionally absent parents in any neighborhood can damage kids. What's missing in low-income communities are societal supplements.

I believe that an orchestrated movement can turn kids' lives around and reduce homicide rates.

Community and nonprofit organizations here and all over the country are already having some success saving black kids.
So imagine another, larger step — a school system designed to turn positives into negatives, that teaches kids to recognize and utilize the gold in the "ghetto."

Imagine a new publicly supported collective aimed at gathering successful programs under one federally funded mandate. Imagine engaged and motivated kids with the resources and help needed to repel dangerous temptations.

Why, that would be Nirvana. Or, better yet, Urbana.


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mary said...

Helping at-risk youths doesn’t matter what your color is. Those who help them see them equally as troubled teens that need to be guided in order for them to reach the right path they are supposed to undertake.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sylvester Brown, Jr. said...

I agree with you, Mary, It does not matter what color you are if you want to help black teens. What does matter, however, is that we recognize the different circumstances that have result in the disproportionate death and incarceration of black boys. The fact of the matter is that black boys aren't seen or treated "equally" in this country. It's hard to get them on the "right path" if you do not acknowledge the ingrained pathways of prejudice, poverty and punishment that far too many black boys face in this society.

Anonymous said...

Sylvester, I was really interested in your column. I'm doing a thesis on black youth in urban settings. I'm currently an educator, originally from Australia and am having a hard time adjusting to the 'culture' per say. I ask questions like, 'if they are receiving the SAME education as other youths from different cultural backgrounds, then why are they hard to reach? Why is there so much dysfunction? With little experience of this culture, all I seem to come up with is the fact that they have an abusive or ill-treated environment at home. Would you say this is the ONLY reason or the MAIN reason? I would really love the opportunity to further discuss with you more of the intricacies of this topic.
I would love to be able to reach the black youth that I teach without having to deal with so much behavior management issues.
Looking forward to your thoughts.