I fully acknowledge that I would not be where I am, or who I am today, if it were not for those generous individuals who’ve helped me along the way. Those individuals who throughout my entire life, have dedicated their precious time, and resources, and have significantly contributed to my personal well-being. Their contributions, however small or large they came, pulled me closer to the shores of my true potential, and further away from the rocky banks of despair and hopelessness. I’ve vowed to pay it forward, and dedicate my life to helping others the same way those individuals helped me. Therefore, I accepted the calling to become a social worker.
For my final project, I decided to create a digital story, outlining some of the struggles that I’ve encountered over the years, as well as some of the protective factors that ultimately saved my life. The reason I chose this project is because I wanted to open up, and allow myself to be vulnerable, something I struggle with even to this day. But also, to highlight the importance of having protective factors readily available in low income communities. These events no doubt have shaped my life in ways that I could not have imagined at the time. This project forced me to look back upon the adversities that I’ve face, reminding me of why I worked so incredibly hard to get to where I’m at today. I have for many years, grappled with the demons of my past, and somehow concluded that forgetting would bring me peace of mind. However, this was never the case. But what I’ve realized today, is that because of where I’ve come from, I’ve been able to reach others that many could not. I realize now, that I indeed have a story that is worth telling, as we all do. This is the story of how I went from a G.E.D, to a graduate student.
I have for quite some time, been keenly aware of the social forces at work that contribute to social injustices. I am also aware of my privilege that comes from having access to higher education. Rather than taking the knowledge I will acquire out of my community, I plan to take it back and help my community. With a concentration in community organizing, and a minor in social policy and evaluation, I fully intend to create change on the structural level to increase the life chances of those within our communities. As one who has witnessed many of my childhood friends fall victim to the prison industrial complex, and as the older brother of 4 young black males, I believe it is my societal duty to fight for an environment in which they will be able to thrive and live meaningful lives.
I attribute much of my success to three interventions. Protective factors are probably a more accurate characterization. Those are; The Center for Occupational and Personalized Education (COPE), The Michigan Youth Challenge Academy, and lastly but most importantly, my family, specifically my daughter. Without the resources, the guidance, and support of these protective factors, my life very well could’ve taken a much different and drastic turn. Much of what I remember begins in my early teenage years. I believe that my upbringing in the church contributed greatly to my comprehension of social issues. Christian values such as loving your neighbor as you love yourself, and, defending the rights of the poor and needy, have always been central to my way of thinking. In fact, I’m certain that it was my faith, that has pulled me through so many trials and tribulations throughout the years.
However, despite most of my childhood being spent in the church, it was not enough to shield me from the ills of my surroundings. My family moved around quite often, sometimes every other year. It seemed as though we could never really get settled. Poverty for us was a normal way of life, or so it seemed. Both of my parents were hardworking individuals, but like so many other families in America, we were constantly one financial dilemma away from homelessness. In fact, there have been multiple times that I remember, where we were. The uncertainty of not knowing whether or not we would have a roof over our heads weighed heavy on my younger siblings and me. Members of our church family took us in, allowing us to stay with them until we found another place to stay. I will forever be grateful to them for their selfless acts of kindness and benevolence. And although our family was split up at times, we remained close. Two of my younger brothers went to live with a close friend who helped to provide them with a sense of stability. They went on to be star basketball players at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Moving from place to place added a constant strain to an already sensitive situation. We ended up moving to an area where the public schools were predominantly white. I noticed immediately the difference in treatment that I received at these school versus what I was given in the predominantly black neighborhoods. The students of color received much less guidance and support from the majority white staff. There was a lack of resources for community based programs that would give us young people an outlet to express our frustrations. My grades in school began to decline, and I started to get into trouble. As I grew older, I began to hang out with people who I felt at the time, could understand where I came from. This for me was a coping mechanism, or so I assumed. I stopped going to school on a regular basis, and was charged with truancy at the age of 15. Now on probation, I was removed from my public high school and forced into an alternative school.
This alternative institution was The Center for Occupational and Personalized Education (COPE) in Ypsilanti, Mi. Described as the “last option” for struggling youth in Washtenaw County, the Center for Occupational and Personalized Education (COPE) began as a residential facility for high-risk, court-involved females, But as the county’s needs changed, it quickly evolved into a comprehensive program for 13- to 17-year-old students who were expelled from the county’s traditional school districts, sometimes for bringing weapons to school. The emphasis was on remedial education and skills training. It was at this alternative institute that I met a Principal/teacher/counselor named Nate Reid, who would change my life forever. For once, I felt that I was under the supervision of a teacher who cared for their students. It was the compassion, yet firmness, of this instructor that compelled me to do better, and be better. This forced me to look at life much differently.
Despite having to watch some of the students from the juvenile detention center walking to class in chains and shackles, the environment was one that was centered on love and tolerance. Nate at times would pull me aside, and have real candid discussions with me about life, the importance of education, and where I saw myself in the next 10 years. Back then, I never conceived that I would one day use education as a tool to fight the hopelessness and despair that was so prevalent in our community. But Nate helped me to see the value in myself, as a young black male with a place in society.
I noticed a drastic change in my attitude about life, and my education under the supervision of Principal Nate Reid. It was at this institute that I learned of the Michigan Youth Challenge (MYCA), a military school that offers young people between the ages of 16 through 18 the opportunity to change their lives, and make a future for themselves. The Academy is a 17.5 month, two phase program. The program incorporates eight core components that encourage physical, mental and moral development. Still on probation, with the encouragement and support of my parents, Mr. Reid, and with the blessings of my probation officer at the time, I decided to enroll into this program. Undoubtedly, one of the best things that could have happened to me, was for me to be taken out of my environment, and placed into a new one where I could thrive. This may have been the longest 6 months of my life, but through this institution I was taught self-determination, and discipline as a young rambunctious teen.
This allowed me the time and space to mature and develop away from my old friends. I was also able to obtain my GED while in this program. The physical requirements were demanding, but even more so, the emotional strain was exhausting. Immediately upon our arrival, many of us quickly realized that our lives would be turned upside down. The fierce drill sergeants and their expectations of perfection, left us no choice but to shape up. The goal was to break us down mentally and then build us back up. We were also taught how to work as a team. Everything had to be done in unison, and under prefect uniformity. When one of us slipped up, we all payed the price. Over time, we learned that the only way to achieve our goals was to work as a team. We all arrived as individuals, and we left as a team, as brothers. Many of them I still keep in contact with today. Our drill sergeants became our mentors, some like father figures who offered us guidance and support during our residential phase. We attended vocational classes in the evening, and took G.E.D prep courses in the afternoon, after our physical training. While obtaining a G.E.D may seem trivial to some, for us, it was a major milestone in our lives. We left the program with a new sense of pride and hope for the future.
Upon my return home, I came to the realization that many of my associates had either been incarcerated, or ended up losing their lives. I lost some of my closest friends to what Dr. Cornell West would describe as the Nihilism in Black America. Particularly, I am speaking of the profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in Black America. This to me was a wakeup call. I decided that education was the best alternative to prepare for tomorrow. So, I began to self-educate myself. To better understand the world around me, I immersed myself in books, eventually building up a small library. Influenced by authors, scholars, and public figures such as W.E.B. Dubois, Malcom X, Frantz Fanon, Septima Clark, Ella Baker, Karl Marx, Joe Feagin, Freiedrich Engels, Franz Boaz, Noam Chomsky, and Dr. Cornell West to name a few, over time I noticed that my awareness began to develop. Malcolm X once said that “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” So that is exactly what I did. I began to prepare for my future, using education as a tool to achieve my goals.
Today, I can proudly say that I have overcome many obstacles and setbacks. As a single father, a student, an older brother of 5 siblings, a mentor, a self-proclaimed social activist, a volunteer worker at various non-profit organizations, I am a living testimony that people can change, and thrive in an environment where resources are readily available. I may have given up long ago had it not been for the love and support from my family. But the arrival of my daughter in 2007, may have been one of the greatest factors that attributed to my personal and spiritual growth. I still believe she came to me in part of divine intervention. She has taught me things about myself that I could not see through my own eyes. Understanding that it is my duty to try to leave this world a better place for her, she has been a big part of my motivation.
I have dedicated my life to furthering my education in order to develop the tools necessary to recognize, and address major social issues in our society. I’ve become a mentor to young high school students, a tutor for those in impoverished communities, and an advocate for non-violent offenders in the criminal justice system. However, it is still important to acknowledge that community based programs are severely underfunded in impoverished communities. Instead of receiving services through community based initiatives, young people are pushed through a vicious school to prison pipeline, forcing them further into a relentless cycle of interactions with the criminal justice system. The Center for Occupational and Personalized Education closed in 2012, due to a lack of state funding. The MYCA faces similar challenges as they struggle to obtain enough funds to house cadets. As one who has personally benefited from these programs, I remain firm in my stance that community based intervention programs in impoverished communities should be a societal priority.
The theoretical framework that comes to mind is the ecological systems perspective. This outlook allows us to analyze the reciprocal relations between persons and their environments. Using this perspective emphasize the strengths and weaknesses in the transactional processes between these systems, and the people who interact with these systems. Social workers can be more effective in addressing this issue by placing emphasis on the importance of a community based program that could potentially alter the life direction of those within the community. This to me is just as important as education. We must make sure that people have the resources necessary to make their dreams a reality. By giving them the tools necessary to succeed, we ultimately increase the life chances of those who reside in the most marginalized and vulnerable communities. Now that I have given a brief summary of the issue, and how it has affected me, please enjoy the digital story that I have put together. 😊
Analyzing the social return on investment in. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wilder Research: https://www.wilder.org/Wilder-Research/Publications/Studies/Analyzing%20the%20Social%20Return%20on%20Investment%20in%20Youth%20Intervention%20Programs/Analyzing%20the%20Social%20Return%20on%20Investment%20in%20Youth%20Intervention%20Programs%20-%20A%20Fra
Arndt, D. (2012, June 8). COPE’s final day: Teachers at alternative school reflect on program’s 41 years. Retrieved from Ann Arbor News: http://www.annarbor.com/news/cope-teachers-reflect-remember-take-away-as-they-pack-up-belongings/
Dudley, M. (n.d.). Community-Based Programs Work, But Not Without Funding. Retrieved from Youth Intervention Programs Association: http://yipa.org/community-based-programs-work/