Monday, May 19, 2008

Education is a Passport

Don't get me wrong— I like Cincinnati, and I think it's a great place to live. But to make my case today, I'm obligated to present some unpleasant facts about our city:

  • Crime - Cincinnati is significantly worse than the national average for almost every type of crime. We have more prisoners than we have jail space, so we farm some of them out to another county. We don't trust our local government to spend money effectively, so we vote (repeatedly) against a tax levy to build a new jail.

    When police patrol high crime areas, people complain that innocent people are being harassed or harmed by the police. When police don't patrol high crime areas, people complain that the city doesn't care about victims in poor neighborhoods.

  • Poverty - Cincinnati has been ranked as the 3rd poorest big city in the United States, with 28% of its residents living in poverty. We have a higher percentage of people living in poverty than Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago. Two-thirds (66%) of the students in Cincinnati Public Schools are classified as "economically-disadvantaged."

  • Racial Issues - Cincinnati is a black and white city; African-Americans aren't really a minority group here. The racial breakdown for people living in the city of Cincinnati is approximately 43% African-American and 53% white. In Cincinnati Public Schools, 75% of students are African-American or multi-racial, and 21% are white.

    However, Cincinnati neighborhoods are generally segregated by race, and in this instance, separate is clearly not equal: The median incomes for Mt. Adams, Hyde Park, Mt. Lookout are roughly ten times the median incomes for Winton Hill, the West End, and Over-the-Rhine.

  • Traffic - OK, so I'll admit that, in the grand scheme of things, traffic is not one of the most significant problems that Cincinnati faces. In fact, it's way down at the bottom of the list, in tiny print. It's easy to get frustrated by traffic, but we really ought to be ten times more frustrated by the tremendous waste of human talent that is embedded in all of the statistics about poverty and crime in Cincinnati.

A few years ago, I happened to overhear a local talk-radio program. The hosts and the callers were bemoaning the problems with Cincinnati. I don't remember if they were talking about poverty, or crime, or racism, or some combination, but I do remember thinking, "Yeah, so you've got a strong opinion and a loud voice, but what are you DOING to make things better?" At that moment, I became 100% convinced of one thing:

An opinion is worthless unless there are actions backing it up.

I believe that you shouldn't complain about a problem unless you're willing to be part of the solution. (Admittedly, I fail to live up to this belief on a regular basis, but nevertheless, there it is.) It's both arrogant and irrelevant for me to take part in intellectual debates about all the things that are wrong with Cincinnati, unless I'm actively trying to do something to make things better.

So what are some potential solutions for crime, poverty, and racism? And how can we participate in those solutions?

  • We can expect our government to solve these problems. They'll continue to hire more police officers, build more jails, and lock up more people. They'll pass out more welfare checks, subsidize more housing, and pass more laws and quotas for affirmative action programs. We participate in this solution by paying taxes and complaining about how much money is being wasted. Because this method has worked so well in the past...

  • We can hope that non-profit organizations will scrounge up money from somewhere, so that they can pay their employees to solve these problems. Our participation could consist of [grudgingly] allowing our employers to withhold a pittance from each paycheck as part of their corporate United Way goals, or maybe we send a check to a particular agency once a year. The NPO's build lots of roads paved with good intentions, which certainly help lead some people out of poverty. Yet somehow the statistics continue to show that a little bit of ground is lost each year.

  • We can try to influence the hearts and minds of adults who have given up on all of their personal dreams, who don't have hopes for their kids, and who don't see any point in trying to improve their neighborhoods and communities. I believe that this approach could work, but personally, I haven't seen very many opportunities to get involved in this way.

  • We can step up and get involved with kids and try to change the path of their lives, so that they grow up to help solve problems, instead of following the statistical trends for crime and poverty. We tell them that education is important, and we show them where it can take them.

Working with kids just seems like the most obvious choice for me. At the very least, it's a solution that I can easily participate in— I can personally effect change by getting involved in a kid's life, and I can encourage other people to do the same. Even if we don't see 100% improvement, we will certainly see some progress in every kid, and that's just got to be better than doing nothing at all. And it's easy to get involved in these sorts of programs. Here are three examples I can recommend:
So if you agree with my conclusion, please don't use "But I don't know how to get involved" as an excuse. Contact one of these agencies and they'll quickly get you hooked up with a kid. I promise, it's easier than you think.

This is a long post, and I've been working on it for about a month now. An article on thug culture got me thinking about what I wanted to say, and then I stumbled across some quotes from Bill Cosby's speech on the 50th anniversary of Brown V. Board of Education:
I mean, this is the future, and all of these people who lined up and done, they’ve got to be wondering what the hell happened. Brown V. Board of Education. These people who marched and were hit in the face with rocks and punched in the face to get an education, and we got these knuckleheads walking around who don’t want to learn English.

I know that you all know it. I just want to get you as angry as you ought to be.

When you walk around the neighborhood and you see this stuff, that stuff’s not funny. These people are not funny anymore. And that‘s not my Brother. And that’s not my Sister. They’re faking, and they’re dragging me way down because the state, the city, and all these people have to pick up the tab on them, because they don’t want to accept that they have to study to get an education...

...I’m telling you Christians, what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you hit the streets? Why can’t you clean it out yourselves? It’s our time now, ladies and gentlemen. It is our time. And I’ve got good news for you. It’s not about money. It’s about you doing something that we ordinarily do— Get in somebody else’s business. It’s time for you to not accept the language that these people are speaking, which will take them nowhere. What the hell good is Brown V. Board of Education if nobody wants it?

In addition to giving several speeches along these lines, Bill Cosby has written a book with his friend Alvin F. Poussaint, who is a Psychiatry Professor at Harvard Medical School. The book is called Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors. I picked it up at the library last week, and I think it's very good. Not funny, but definitely honest and challenging.

The book contains a quote from former Cincinnati mayor Dwight Tillery:
The high school graduation rate in Cincinnati for black males is 25 percent, compared to 43 percent for white males.

Those numbers shocked me, so I did a little bit of research and found out that there's been some significant progress for Cincinnati Public Schools in the past 7-8 years. According to the latest data, the overall four-year* graduation rate has increased from 51% in 2000 to 79% in 2007.

[*NOTE: Four-year graduation rates don't reflect kids who drop out before 9th grade. Tillery's statistics are specific to males, and they may or may not include boys who never made it to high school.]

While a 20% drop-out rate leaves plenty of room for improvement, Cincinnati Public Schools (and the Gates Foundation) deserve credit for the overall progress that they've made in a relatively short period of time. They also managed to eliminate the gap in graduation rates between blacks and whites, which is a huge accomplishment.

Bill Cosby's book also includes this quote from Malcolm X:
Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.

I think that's a great metaphor. What happens if you arrive somewhere new and different without a passport? Customs agents will turn you around and send you back where you came from.

Many of the kids in the Cincinnati Public School system know all about poverty, violence, and drugs, but they don't know anything about the world that exists outside their neighborhoods. They may sense that there is a gateway out there, but they also know that there are guards who are waiting to turn them away at the door. They need a passport to get through.

What we can do for kids is show them views of the big world that's out there waiting for them: interesting jobs and careers, opportunities to travel, healthy communities, stable families, comfortable homes, and financial security. And then we show them how to get a passport that will open doors for them: learn how to study, stay in school, work hard, develop technical skills or earn a degree, start a career.

I believe that education is a passport into a world of opportunity, and I believe that every kid needs someone who can show them how to get that passport.

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