21. That’s the average life expectancy of a black male residing in the West Side of Chicago, according to one of my colleagues. There are days when I listen to the news and fear that the “21” number is valid. When it comes to certain issues, namely education, poverty, and safety, there’s little doubt that we live in a divided city. Against significant odds, some urban youth succeed in breaking out of crime infested neighborhoods.
Last week, I talked to one, Jaureese Gaines, an alumnus of Bank of America’s (“B of A”) Student Leader’s program. Not even 20, (a former valedictorian of Collins Academy and now at Pomona College), Gaines has the ear of Jason Pollack, Dick Durbin, Arne Duncan, and senior staff at B of A. How did Gaines break down barriers and advance so far? My impression is that he overcame these challenges with some great guidance, enormous talent, and a little bit of luck and chutzbah. Here’s what Gaines had to say about what led to his recent successes:
1. Recognize inequality. All neighborhoods--and all schools--are not created equal. Gaines saw the “inequities” while working as a roving camp counselor at Chicago’s YMCA, a position funded by B of A’s Student Leaders program. He saw differences in reading levels between those schooled in Lakeview and those in Humboldt Park: “From my perspective,” Gaines explained, “coming from a low income area and going to a school where education is not top notch, we have a broken education system.” Indeed, as you will see below, inequities in education continue to haunt Gaines.
2. Find inspiration. It warmed my heart that Gaines said that his mom was his “biggest inspiration.” Frankly, I think that some educators and teenagers fail to realize that parental support comes in a variety of forms. Gaines’ mom taught him what acclaimed author Paul Tough would consider to be the keys to success: grit, resilience and determination. Gaines admitted, “growing up, [we] never had much. My mom did my best to raise my sister and I in a neighborhood that was one of the roughest. I’m grateful— [without her] I would not be where I am.”
3. Rely on mentors. When chosen wisely, mentors help students put things in perspective and provide needed direction. In Gaines’ case, his guidance counselor pushed him to apply to B of A’s Student Leader’s program. Gaines credits the Student Leaders program with strengthening his leadership skills and exposing him to critical civic issues: “B of A brought more of the leader out of me—take risks, don’t be complacent. Get out in the community. [They] taught me not to fear.” The program also taught him how to give back to the community.
4. Be open. I loved Gaines’ “what’s in it for me” approach to the Student Leaders program. Though prodded to apply, Gaines took advantage of the opportunities given to him that summer. The Student Leadership Summit (“Summit”), which is taking place this week in D.C., had a profound impact on him. Gaines was struck by the accomplishments of other student leaders and the group’s collective energy. Now a frequent guest lecturer at Student Leader’s programs, Gaines encourages students to be open, build relationships, and make friends.
5. Dig deep when you stumble. Education isn’t a race; it’s a marathon. When Gaines first got to Pomona College, he realized that his high school did not adequately prepare him for the rigorous curriculum. Being on the football team didn’t help, either. Gaines found himself in a “rough [first] semester.” Rechanneling his energies, he focused, and “killed second semester.” Now Gaines is pursuing a Politics, Philosophy, and Economics major and hopes to go to graduate school for educational policy and perhaps even law school.
6. Keep the dialogue going. While interning, Gaines spent a fair amount of time talking about the inequities in the Chicago school system with B of A mentor Tristan Slemmons and they formed a close relationship. He comes back to visit Slemmons and Julie Chavez (Gifted Matters, 7/06/2014) at B of A, describing them as “always being in his corner.” Over the years, Chavez and Slemmons have encouraged Gaines to pursue his passions, and dream big.
7. Dream big and don’t be shy. At a relatively young age, Gaines discovered his passion for education. When opportunity knocks, Gaines positions himself. Just after he finished the Student Leader’s program, Gaines caught the eye of director Jason Pollack. Pollack, preparing a documentary called “Undroppable” which featured inner city students who had beaten the odds, chose to profile Gaines while visiting Collins Academy. After Pollack introduced Gaines to Duncan, Gaines got the courage to ask Duncan for a job. That job, in turn, opened the door to a summer internship with Senator Durbin.
Education is Gaines’ passion. Foremost on his mind is “what can I do as a person to help contribute to make our education system better.” While working for Duncan, Gaines created (and copyrighted) a tool for undocumented students to help them further their education at higher education institutions. Great foresight! Frederick Douglass once said “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Gaines’ story is on track to have a happy ending, but there are too many broken men and even more marginalized children in our cities who need support. Right now, the odds are not in their favor.
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