A report was recently released by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project which revealed astonishing findings about the realities of a severely segregated New York school system.
I write this not as a politician proposing policies and solutions, or an educator in the daily trenches of these schools, but as an activist whose personal mission the last decade has been to shed light on the disparities faced by children living in underfunded American neighborhoods (with a heavy focus on New York City), and to lend a helping hand wherever possible.
Studies such as these continue to arise, proving not only a need for change here in the US, but also just a dire need. Although it’s daunting to read the facts, it’s encouraging at the same time to think that this will awaken a movement, and a call to action to break a long overdue cycle.
I consider some of my responsibilities and goals as Co-Founder of STATE Bags and Founder of Country Roads Foundation to be the following: To motivate, empower and inspire children in at-risk neighborhoods. To level the playing field when possible and provide them the opportunities that a child in a well-funded community would also have. To expose them to a world outside their often turbulent, volatile neighborhoods. To teach them that although they may not come from much in a material sense, they still have something special to offer the world, and can always give back to better their communities and themselves.
The findings of this study are especially disheartening because it breaks down many of those goals I have for these kids. The notion that their school systems are overcrowded, homogeneous in race and often dysfunctional further perpetuate their feelings of inadequacies, difference and separation.
I would love to say that these realities could serve as fuel to the majority of these kids to beat the odds stacked against them, and although some will, sadly most won’t. It’s truly a tale of two cities, which not only illuminates the haves and the have nots to the outer world, but serves as further proof to these kids that they are in fact different, not as valued and things are separate, and not equal.
I chose to do this work because this two city tale just didn’t seem fair. When I walk the streets of East New York, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Red Hook, Brooklyn I’m always encouraged by the feeling of community and pride, but simultaneously disheartened by the challenged and frustrated stories and faces of people who are tired of battling these odds.
Reversing this cycle will not be easy, but it appears to me that the first step must be to simply put forth an effort to change the course. A conscious decision by the powers that be to desegregate. One of the most moving phenomenons that organically occurs each summer at our nonprofit camp for kids from Brooklyn is the breaking down of walls between races and cultures. Kids arrive with their guards up, close-minded to those that don’t live in their neighborhoods or don’t share their skin color. In time, those shields are gone, and amidst the newly build trust and friendships is a new mindset - one that will think twice about questioning a white person’s true motives, or reevaluate the significance of hip-hop music to a teenage boy without a dad. What happens when cultures clash can often be magical, and we’re stripping our youth of those opportunities by letting this separation continue.
One of the biggest reasons my wife and I have chosen to raise our daughter and future child in Brooklyn is because of its pulsating diversity. Our hope is that simply by growing up in such a heterogeneous city, our kids will always yearn for more and challenge uniformity. If walking the streets and riding the subway is guaranteed to expose them to a beautiful variety of races and cultures, why shouldn’t it be the same for them at school? We hope it will be one day.