I always wanted to work with kids. Two men I looked up to growing up were orthodontists. I loved their ability to help kids feel better about themselves. I was one of those kids. I was going to be an orthodontist. Although I was a good student in high school, I struggled with Chemistry in college. I worked extremely hard, long nights, year after year; I had tutors and got up when knocked down. I took the same class three times. After the third run, Dr. Cook (Dean of Morehouse’s Bio Department) sat me down, and we had an honest conversation. I wasn’t going to be an Orthodontist.
Picking myself up, I tried to pivot my purpose, considering law school. This led me into politics for a while with the Obama campaign and Transition Team, which renewed my optimism regarding my future. Seeing the boss transition from the campaign to the Oval Office, I believed anything was possible and was ready for a challenge.
I found that challenge in The Heinz Fellowship, where I was one of ten African American males chosen from across the country to help turn a school that had been struggling for decades. It was an innovative effort with a newly organized administration, millions of dollars in non-profit investment, and a split-gender academy. We were going to change the game. It didn’t work. Students didn’t have schedules, there didn’t seem to be a plan and the community soon lost faith in what we were doing.
By Thanksgiving, we also had over a dozen teachers leave before year’s end, and the school had a Title-9 suit brought against it. The plan was scrapped for a more generic model. It’s hard to be radically innovative in large bureaucracies.
It’s been humbling. I was naive when I started and thought things could be turned quickly. You can’t rely on “hope” to “change” the narrative. Some of that is the idealism that comes from youth. Still, more of it resulted from a need for more experience within the field to understand the Collective Bargaining Agreement and how unions, boards, and politics play a role in shaping a school. I’ve also realized that just because I perceive something as suitable doesn’t make it so. Everyone has their own priorities, viewpoints, and beliefs.
I didn’t know how much poverty affected everything: your energy, behavior, outlook on life, and ideas. Poverty plays a role in everything. Furthermore, when you have concentrated poverty, trauma, hunger, violence and anger often follow close behind. As an academic team, we’re constantly trying to navigate through the consequences of that reality, and it can be hard to ever get to the content when that reality is often omnipresent throughout the environment. Long-term exposure to these environments wears on you. Pushing against a system so reluctant to change pushes buttons you didn’t know you had.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how schools often mirror societal norms.
I’ve had over ten administrators since 2011. One of them would often say, “No one is coming to save us.” The longer I’m in, the more accurate that statement becomes. If I’m honest, I’ve begun to feel resentful. I’m not saying I’m right or fair, but it’s present.
When I have some spare time ride my bike or walk through different communities in and outside the city, take a walk in Shadyside, Upper St. Clair, Mount Lebanon, or Pine Richland. These all seem like great places to live. The homes are massive and well-kept. The streets are clean, and the schools are award-winning. Their dogs purebred. Life seems good. I don’t see people that look like me or my students in these areas. All the while, I’m saying to myself “These folks are eating good.”
Teddy Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Ok, but why are the economic dynamics never switched? Ever? Where can I find this flip in Pittsburgh? Should they be the only ones eating good? What am I missing?
Why do I say this, and how does it connect to education? Pittsburgh claims to be an extremely liberal city, but its communities look more like an apartheid state. Even the most liberal of people maneuver children there, supporting the cycle of poverty for black and brown people.
Where the privileged go, so go the resources. It’s not all about just sitting white children next to black children. Although I believe many of our social problems would be curved if children were not racially and economically isolated. But more importantly, it’s the hoarding of resources, which hoards opportunity, exposure, adult advocacy, future networking opportunities, and influence, continuing to concentrate such high levels of poverty in certain places only to promote the current circumstance.
I’ve shared my opinion with some, and it’s made them uncomfortable. That’s ok. If being uncomfortable compels those holding the levers of progress to take action, even if it means they’d have to sacrifice a little on their end, so be it. You couldn’t walk by two houses a few years ago without seeing a Black Lives Matter sign. During this time, I was cautiously optimistic about the movement’s authenticity. It seemed like selective outrage and that folks missed the mark on the root of the problem. And yet I hoped. I hoped this energy would find its way into our city schools, and that those, that the people chanting, for once, would sacrifice the privilege so that others could reap the harvest they’ve indulged in for so long. I wanted us to come together. Such an investment would long-term help both communities.
Wrong again, Sean.
If someone shows you who they are, believe them.
I love history. I’m a history teacher. One of the most heartbreaking but fascinating years for me was 1968. We lost Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King that year—tireless advocates for a more just America. Bobby Kennedy was a man of privilege, but he used that to help others, even going to South Africa without security to speak on the injustices of the apartheid state. One of the lines he often said was the final line his brother Ted echoed at Bobby’s Eulogy:
Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.
That’s the rationale behind many of my sentiments. Going back to your original question, the utopia I hope for us all to realize is one where black children are expected to have similar outcomes to their white peers. I’m not pushing assimilation or self-hate. I just want us to love ourselves so much that we no longer stand for second class citizenship. Why can’t our children dream similar dreams as in the affluent suburbs, Pine Richland, Fox Chapel, North Allegheny—the list goes on. Why can’t we expect to have the resources, exposure, opportunities and quality of life we see others partake in every day? I’m tired of being told to be patient and hearing that “Rome was not built in a day.” When will the privileged be stripped of their “fast past” to prosperity? Why must our children be standby, watching, as other children continue to “eat good.”
Martin Luther King’s letter to a Birmingham Jail both a great piece is a strategic marvel. Today however, I lean more toward his perspective in later life. Especially his Dr. King’s advocacy in regards to a redistribution of wealth in America. Yes, there is so much more to life than money. But you often get to see that other side of life when you’re not worrying about it. Money can feed a child whose belly aches. It can soothe an elder’s knees or increase the likelihood that a mother will bring a healthy baby into the world. If a father makes a living wage on at his job he can go home in the afternoon and read to his children, instead of leaving one job to commute to another.
Again, I ask those who have always had the leg up to give back, to relinquish a bit of the softness, ease, and entitlement linked with segregation. Let’s all be in it together if we’re all in it together. The door is open.
I’ve thought of it. I’ve mulled over it for sure. There are plenty of jobs out there, and I completed my coursework. However, from what I’ve seen, there are limitations to what you can do while at the same time having expectations that don’t line up the resources provided. It would help if you had the autonomy to make quick decisions. Many administrators need to have that at their disposal. They need more freedom to make executive decisions. Administrators often have to make tough decisions, but necessary ones. They often feel less inclined if they have to jump through countless hoops to execute those decisions. It takes too much time to make simple decisions.
A building leader should be the buildings leader. Free to make quick but calculated decisions at every level that impacts their building with minimal red tape.
I ask myself that from time to time. I’m currently enjoying building the Justice Scholars Program with my colleagues. It’s been positive, and I want to continue to build this for the schools and children within the program. More importantly, I want every child that walks through our doors to know that they are a priority—to not just our teachers, but for our district, our society, and for our policies to reflect such a statement. We have great kids, and they deserve the best. I’d also like to lead a push to change policy that prioritizes certain schools at the detriment of others. If we want to change the narrative, we’ll have to change policies.
On a more personal level, I’d like to get my family closer. We all reside in different states. That’s just becoming old, and I miss them. I’d also like to own a home with grass, a few pets and retire earlier than later.