What Arne Duncan misunderstands about his new Chicago role

How wonderfully privileged that Arne Duncan can pick and choose his causes and decide what he’ll do, how he’ll do it, and who he’ll do it with—and who he won’t do it with.  I listened to former Chicago Public Schools CEO and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s interview on Chicago Public Radio this evening.

Arne (I learned he likes first names when I worked at central office) announced a new effort to tackle youth violence. He says he’ll focus on “disconnected youth—young men who are out of school or who don’t have a job."  He’ll do this with funding from the widow of Steve Jobs and the Emerson Collective.  Steve Jobs’s widow called him “one of the extraordinary leaders of our country.”

In the affluent world, yes, Arne Duncan is extraordinary.  But for those of us who actually work and teach and raise children in the consequences of his leadership decisions, no—he is not.  Arne Duncan is out of touch with the realities of the young people he aims—and aimed—to help.

So without knowing and understanding the complex reality of the problems he wants to fix, he will again—like an idealizing undergraduate—make changes that misconstrue the problems faced by disconnected young men–and young women--of color.

In the interview, Arne describes how he went to a jail to meet with a group of young men who could not find legal, dependable ways of making an income.  One young man told Arne he “was tired of hearing his mother cry.”  So he did what he had to do.  Now, these young men are doing time in jail.  Duncan says he asked a disconnected young man, “Did you have a mentor?”

“He looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language,” Arne said.

Maybe you did not understand his language, Arne.  Maybe he thought the question was ridiculous.  I certainly think it was.  And it was disconnected--out of touch—with that disconnected man’s reality.

“The only way to create safer communities and give young men and women a chance to build successful lives is to give them concrete reason to hope, which means real jobs.  If we do that,” Arne says, “we can compete with the gangs.  We can compete with life on the streets.”

I don’t know your entire reality Arne, but I hope you’re not using the concept of competition you learned playing elite college basketball.  You’re talking about having disconnected young men compete within a reality whose rules are the antithesis of what the privileged consider a fair game.

The educational system, the social system, Melba Lara (a WBEZ journalist) asks Arne, has not worked for these young men—even when Arne led the schools.

Arne goes back to his core message: “What has been missing is the concrete ability to get a real job.”

So Arne thinks a three-month coding boot camp will automatically lead to good jobs in advanced manufacturing, in retail.  Because, Arne says, getting paid while training is the missing link.

No, Arne, you’re wrong.  There are many missing links disconnecting these men.

Right now, Chicago’s unemployment rate is 6%--180,000 people are unemployed.  You’re forgetting the low literacy and numeracy skills that these young men also need to improve.  You’re ignoring the physical or mental health issues many young men also need help with.   You’re forgetting the social skills, the self-advocacy skills, the cultural conflicts these men must prepare to face.

Today, by chance, I overheard a group of young men in their early teens—young men who run the risk of being more disconnected—discussing their lives with an adult male mentor.  To respect their privacy, I won’t share the details.  They talked about the challenges they face and the decisions they’ve been forced to make.  One young man’s decision was determined because of another family member’s choices.

But Arne thinks that all a disconnected man needs is to get paid while training for a job.

No, Arne.  A disconnected man has forged or been forced to make solid ties that he cannot simply tear away like a check stub.  A job-training program is a starting point.  But don’t oversimplify this complex urban situation by saying this program will give them all the hope they need.

What about the young men connected to another country at birth but trying to re-connect in this country as an undocumented immigrant?  They deserve hope, too.

These disconnected men also need a good home in a gentrifying city.  They cannot simply pack up and move away like a privileged kid going off to college and sever connections to family members who have been, for good or bad, their entire network.

According to DNAInfo, “a recent real estate report showed median one-bedroom rent is up to $1,970 a month across the city, about 11% higher than a year ago."  That’s for a one-bedroom place. Disconnected men still have family connections.

Unlike your gig with Chicago Public Schools that you got by chance, unlike your stint in the U.S. Department of Education that you got with help from a well-connected network, unlike this new role you hand picked, by age 17-24 these “disconnected men” have long-term connections you cannot simply cut with a paycheck.

I’m not against your program.  Start it.  Grow it.  Make it flourish and help all the men you can.

But don’t insult them by sounding like a traveling salesman at their front door selling a new-found path to hope.

I have hope.  I hope you, Arne, start to understand the problems you aim to address are not as simple as they look from a privileged reality that has disconnected you.

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