What does it mean to hold on to hope in a place where the odds are stacked against you and the pathway towards success seems like an almost impossible cliff to climb? I was reminded and humbled by such a sobering reality when speaking to three young high-school aged males during a recent visit to Madison, WI. On October 17-18th, I represented our office alongside our National League of Cities partners to meet with city officials and community stakeholders to discuss “Making the Most of Out-of-School Time” for Madison youth. As part of the visit, I had the opportunity to speak with middle school students from the Lussier Community Education Center and young men from a group called Brotherhood. When arriving at the Community Center, I was met by over a dozen energetic teens brought together by Executive Director Paul Terronova and Youth Program’s Manager Daniel Steinbring. Even though the students were returning from a competitive event at school, the young Lussier middle school students engaged in our conversation. I asked them questions regarding their future dreams and aspirations, their personal gifts and talents, and mentors in their lives.
As the conversation progressed, three older teens from the group called Brotherhood arrived to the Center. The young middle school students and adults present seemed somewhat distracted (and maybe even intimidated) by the arrival of the group as the Brotherhood members did not appear eager to engage in conversation. When I asked them questions similar to those that I asked the middle school students, the older teens were at first very reluctant to answer. I sensed much obstinacy, frustration, and even anger within them as I inquired about their future goals and plans. As someone who has worked with youth for over ten years, I felt compelled to focus my attention specifically on them as the middle school youth and adults listened, wondering where the conversation would go from there.
It was at that point that I needed to let them know that beyond all of my titles and under my suit there was someone who looked like them, who, in many ways, could relate to their struggles, and who cared deeply for them even though we had just met. I knew I needed to meet them where they were – to be empathetic and show them I authentically care for them. When I began to open up to them and tell about past challenges in my life, the young men felt I was “trying to get into their heads” at first. However, when I asked what gives them joy in their lives and one responded, “seeing my sisters and my mother happy,” we instantly connected, as I informed him I shared his sentiments regarding my own two sisters and mother. It was at this point we all began to truly connect, and from there the conversation flowed and would continue for another hour and a half.
When I revealed to them the obstacles that I had to overcome and some of the struggles I still face as a black male in society, they acknowledged their ability to relate and opened up about many of the challenges they face every day in Madison. With the adults and middle school youth still present, the Brotherhood members willingly shared with me their fears and doubts about their own leadership capabilities and how society often disparaged them because of their ethnicity and style of dress. I could plainly see that they desire to thrive and make something out of their lives but lack the resources, mentorship, and knowledge to maximize their potential. Furthermore, it seemed as if they, like many of our young men of color, began to doubt their own worth because of the prejudices and presuppositions they often encounter on a daily basis.
I saw them wrestle with my constant reiteration that they are more powerful and have more potential than they than they realize. It is amazing how we can plant positive seeds of confidence and encouragement in the hearts and minds of our youth once they truly realize that we deeply care about and believe in them. The more that spoke positively to them about their abilities, the more they acknowledged their own sense of self-worth. At one point, one of the students stated, “Mr. Martin, you are the first person that has even taken the time to care for us and speak to us in this manner…” Another of the three students reminded me of a question that I posed to them earlier in the conversation. With watering eyes, he said, “Chaplain Martin, you asked me what I would say if I had the opportunity to speak to the President about my community. What I want to tell you is that one day I want to be President, and I want to make sure that all communities are equal so that other youth won’t have to deal with some of the same struggles and issues that we have dealt with.”
The students continued to tell me how they want to make changes in their own community, including adding a basketball court near where they lived so that youth in their neighborhoods have positive recreational outlets. As the conversation ended, they showed excitement about the opportunities that lay ahead in their future. A member of the mayor’s staff was present during the conversation, and the student were even invited to the out-of-school time town hall meeting the following day where they would have the opportunity to meet the Mayor and present their requests to mayoral staff regarding establishing the basketball court.
I left feeling inspired and had only one regret – that I would not have the opportunity to see and speak with these youth every day. However, I have made it my goal to reach out to them as often as possible and remain a positive mentor in their lives. This conversation reaffirmed the mission of both our Office and of the Department of Education as it pertains to promoting student achievement for all of our nation’s youth. We, as human beings, have the privilege, responsibility, and power to transform the lives of our youth – one child at a time – with our work. In order to do so, we have to stand firm and persevere to the end despite any obstacles or set backs that stand in our way; for the welfare and lives of future generations depend upon our efforts.