The past couple days have conjured up some interesting conversations online about inner-city schools and what we need to do to fix this obviously very broken system that seems to perpetuate a cruel cycle of poverty and hopelessness. The catalyst for this conversation was a much maligned Forbes article called “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” I might be in the minority here, but I wasn’t completely appalled by it and here’s why…
Gene Marks stepped in a steaming hot pile of poo when he decided to pen an article for Forbes called “If I Were a Poor Black Kid.” Marks notes towards the beginning of his piece that he is a middle-aged, middle-class white man. That bit of info alone combined with the title was enough for some people to immediately give him a side-eye, but I remained open to what he might have to say. Who knows, could be insightful, right? A lot of other people read the piece too and as expected, many online pundits offered rebuttals, most with titles that riffed off of his original title. (See here and here for examples.)
I was rocking with Marks for maybe the first third of his piece. He made solid, perfectly reasonable remarks like this:
Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.
If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study. I’d become expert at Google Scholar. I’d visit study sites like SparkNotes andCliffsNotes to help me understand books. I’d watch relevant teachings onAcademic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy.
High-five, Marks! He gave a number of other really good suggestions for online resources and offered up a couple general tips on how to get the inside edge on internships and such. Not bad advice. Not bad at all.
So what has people so riled up? Well, like I said before, some took offense at the general idea of a white man talking about what he would do if he were a black child. Some were bothered that his ideas were hella simple and not exactly earth shattering and still others were bothered that the whole concept of his article seemed to be couched in white male privilege without the least bit of a shadow of an idea of what it’s like to be a poor black child today.
I wasn’t put off by the idea of a white guy talking about poor black children. I know plenty of people who do good work and are very knowledgeable about a demographic that does not include themselves. Marks is not one of those people. His knowledge of the kids on the other side of town in West Philly is quite limited as evidenced by this quote:
I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays.
This quote is telling not because it’s untrue (he’s basically right, there are inexpensive computers out there), but because it shows the extent of his relationship to the people whose shoes he allegedly steps into for this piece. Homeboy has no clue and he seems to have a very surface understanding of the various factors that intersect in the life of a poor black child.
Some of the criticism of the Forbes piece are valid, but a lot of the response has been little more than snarky finger-pointing. Makes for awesome page views (Forbes knows a thing or two about that), but I hope this wave of attention to poor black children serves as a catalyst to activism, volunteerism and philanthropy–not just clicks, giggles and side-eyes.
For me the issue is that the Forbes piece leads one to believe that if only these kids cared more about their education and took a more pro-active stance, they’d be so much better off. Of course one prefers for children to be excited and pro-active about education, but this view is quite simplistic and reveals the limited knowledge of the author about the core issues at hand. I don’t pretend to be able to solve such dilemmas, but I do know that what Marks offers in terms of solutions (in his own misguided way) is only part of what it will take to really tackle these issues.
So below, I offer up a few actions you can take that could make a real difference. A lot of times we feel like problems are so big there’s no way for one person (YOU!) to do something that makes a difference, but that’s not true. Good work matters. Try some out today!
I’m part of a great organization called Girls Write Now that pairs professional women writers in NYC with high school girls who are aspiring writers. I love writing and want to make a positive impact on young people, so GWN is awesome for me. Find an organization that works for you! Different orgs have different time commitments and goals. There are a lot out there. National Cares is a good place to start looking for your next mentor opportunity.
Think outside of the box when it comes to volunteering. You don’t have to stick to programs that already exist. If you see a need, fill it! Find out if your local high school could use help with editing college essays or filling out FAFSAs or if the middle school down the block could use another career day speaker. These things matter. You never know what will be the thing or person that sets a youngster on a different, more positive path.
Donating is always about money. Think about that two-year old laptop you’re about to get rid of. The community center around the corner could probably use that. Feeling closed in by that pile of books in your bedroom that you’re never going to read again? Give them to your local library or school.
The Forbes article offered up lots of good online resources. When you stumble upon little gems like that, forward that information along to the principal at a local school or youth pastor at the church around the way. Doesn’t cost you any money, just time.
Bottom line, get your panties out of a bunch and go do something!