Changing the Story on Inner City Youth
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because moving the dial on education reform is going to require working with the movement’s ultimate targets—students.
Three and a half years into a Ph.D. on post-industrial cities, I’ve learned why the challenges such places face can seem daunting to resource-pressed policy makers and community members. I currently live and work in Baltimore, a city whose sky high murder rate, gang turf wars, blocks and blocks of vacant houses and systemic dysfunction were depicted all too realistically in The Wire. And—as the show aptly portrayed through characters like Michael, Dukie, Randy, and Namond in Season 4—public schools can become a sort of field hospital, where teachers and staff attempt to staunch the bleeding from a range of institutional, familial and socioeconomic wounds.
Or so the story goes.
While we need to acknowledge that “our kids are essentially living in war zones,” as Zeke Berzoff-Cohen, executive director of The Intersection, describes it, the mistake this narrative too often makes is casting students as passive victims of larger forces. The Intersection wants to help change that narrative, by transforming Baltimore City high school students into leaders and advocates for themselves, their peers, and their city.
Start thinking of our kids as the leaders of the education reform movement.
Founded by Berzoff-Cohen and fellow Teach for America alums Yasmene Mumby and Matt Stearn, The Intersection teaches participating students the basics of classic community organizing: systematic listening, research into public problems and possible solutions, and coalition building to turn those solutions into realities.“Stop thinking of our kids only in relationship to the achievement gap. Stop using the victimhood lens when you look at our kids,” insists Berzoff-Cohen one rainy Sunday afternoon in his office. “Start thinking of our kids as the leaders of the education reform movement, because that’s what they need to be.”
Currently, Intersection students are working on gun violence, one of the longest threads in Baltimore’s tangled urban knot. Intersection students asked some 400 people across the city how gun violence affected their lives. The responses they heard and the research they conducted led them to create the 235 Lives campaign, which works to address gun violence by creating one youth job for each person murdered in Baltimore in 2013.
For Dawnya, an Intersection student leader, this issue hits close to home. Dawnya spent the first 13 years of her life shuffling between foster parents. And the person she most looked up to—and who protected her from an abusive foster dad—was her cousin. Generous, charismatic and kind, Dawnya’s cousin was also a gang member who sold drugs to make ends meet. He died, aged 17, with six bullets in his back.
Dawnya is convinced that if her cousin had had different opportunities, he wouldn’t have been selling drugs. For her, the 235 Lives campaign is a chance to fuel her hurt into a project that might give other teenagers choices her cousin lacked. “That’s definitely a big motivator for me—no kid should have to sell drugs or be in a gang. We should [be able to] say that we gave each kid every opportunity to succeed.”
Should Intersection students succeed in this particular campaign, it would certainly be a step in the right direction towards addressing some of the issues that Baltimore City students bring into schools with them. But Dawnya’s story also highlights the difference The Intersection’s model of student organizing can make on academic performance. For starters, Dawnya’s grades have improved markedly since becoming an Intersection leader, a shift she attributes to a close-knit Intersection “family” that offers her emotional support, encouragement, and a safe place to process a bad day.
But this is also a family that sets high expectations and carries a strong sense of identity. Each cohort of students commits to meeting three times a week for campaign and college prep work, but that commitment can easily stretch to five or six days a week.
Berzoff-Cohen tells the students, “You can’t just be part of The Intersection when you’re in this office, because you’re representing us when you’re out there in your classroom or on the street. So don’t be coming to me with F’s on your report card and saying, ‘I’m an Intersection kid.’”
While critical of what he sees as an undue emphasis on changing educational outcomes through classroom shifts alone, he agrees that the larger education reform movement has been right to focus on high expectations for students: “If you keep the expectations high, kids will usually meet them, and that’s what we’ve seen with a lot of the kids here.”
Perhaps it is no great surprise that intensive, structured engagement with a small group of students leads to better educational outcomes. But what strikes me as unique as I encounter Intersection students giving speeches, handling media interviews, and in one-on-one conversations is their personal ambition, and their confidence that they can actually do something about conditions that often leave researchers and policy makers wringing their hands.
In other words, by teaching students community organizing, The Intersection is kindling a very practical kind of hope—one of those elusive qualities that doesn’t show up in standardized test scores, but is absolutely necessary to educational success.
It’s a model that’s catching on. Since winning the Teach for America Social Innovation Award last year, Berzoff-Cohen has been invited by TFA organizations in Charlotte, Miami, and elsewhere to teach The Intersection’s model of student organizing. Yasmene Mumby, another co-founder, now directs organizing work with parents and students in KIPP Baltimore. When she began the position, Mumby was one of only five such directors in the country; that number has quickly doubled, and more than ten other KIPP systems have applied for funding for similar programs.
The growth of work that helps to rewrite the story of its students from one of victimhood and frustration to one of hope and ambition is good news for Baltimore. When I ask Dawnya what she wants to be when she grows up, the answer is anything but despondent: “President of the United States,” she replies, without missing a beat.
It could be good news for the rest of the country as well. Baltimore has been the site of local efforts that have shaped national conversations before—it was in Baltimore, after all, that the Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate BUILD led the country’s first living wage campaign twenty years ago.
With student organizing and education reform, it seems that Baltimore may once again be out in front on a big idea.