One Good Question with Darren Isom: Are you preparing your students to become your peers?

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Equity / informal education / One Good Question

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

I back away from the “education” conversation because I think of my work as more about youth development than formal schooling.  The pivotal and catalytic moments in my own learning and development happened outside of the regular school day.  Even though I attended rigorous academic institutions throughout my life, it was my out of school experiences, often afterschool and summer activities and programs, that offered me the opportunities to suture my academic experiences and make them real and relevant.  I recognized my talent for writing outside of school and recognized my ability to lead and manage via summers working at Summerbridge/Breakthrough Collaborative.  We spend so much time thinking about academic performance and that comes from a place of privilege.  When you’re white and privileged, all you have to do is to be smart to succeed.  When you’re black, privileged or otherwise, you recognize that being smart is necessary but not sufficient.  Being able to navigate the world successfully and achieve both professionally and personally requires more than academic preparation.  I’m not saying we should downplay the role of academics, clearly they are critical, but we can’t sell kids this false promise that being smart is all that you need. Youth development makes kids fuller – it gives them the tools they need to navigate the world with those smarts.

Our education perspectives are really based on the education that we received, which then informs what we see as the drivers of success.  What we need to be asking ourselves is “What actual role do we want our youth to play in the world?” I educate the kids in our program expecting them to become my personal and professional peers.  I remember when my first student from Summerbridge went to Howard, my alma mater.  A fellow white teacher said “Isn’t that impressive!  Did you ever think that she could go to Howard?”  And I replied “That was the whole point of our working with her, no?”  We have in many ways these unarticulated hierarchies that manifest themselves in our expectations of our students.  Even when we’re serving kids to help them academically, we don’t do so with the belief that they’ll become our peers.  We do so with the expectation that they’ll “do well for their setting.” I feel very strongly about upward mobility.  That’s what America has meant for me and my family.  I don’t just believe in it, but I think that certain kids have obligations to it – folks are counting on them. We’re raising these kids with the expectation that they’re going to do magic – jumping numerous social tiers and integrating and succeeding in worlds their parents didn’t even know existed.  If we expect them to do magic, we have to be prepared to give them the tools, tricks, and confidence they need to do so successfully.

It’s become common for schools to position arts programs as supports for academic gains (i.e. music improves math), but is that the most important function of arts education? 

Kids should be allowed to be kids.  You have your whole life to be an adult and adulting ain’t fun or easy.  I’m a cinephile and the theme that always gets me crying is when kids are forced into adult situations at a young age, like in Life is Beautiful.  Those situations are just so unfair.  Life is tough and you should have a good 15 years where you can be a child.  There’s something to be said about giving kids space to be playful and young and youthful.  We have to give children a space to dream before we start telling them what they can’t do.  You’ll spend your whole life with people telling you what you need to be, what you can’t do, where you can sit, where you can live.  Can you have some years to push the boundaries?  Children excel at having fun.  It’s an asset.  We should leverage it.

At Memphis Music Initiative, we give kids fun, meaningful, high-quality music opportunities.   Very often we go into black and brown schools with well-meaning white Boards and leadership and when we talk about what we’re trying to achieve, they’ll say “That sounds great, but we don’t want to distract the kids from academic learning with music and arts.”  It’s problematic because these same rich, white folks would never be on the Board of [insert fancy private school here] and characterize arts and music education as a distraction.

In youth development, we should be working to create the world that we want our children to be in, not somebody else’s poor children.  You have to think about it selfishly.  Seeing music and arts engagement as a “distraction” speaks to a disconnect in how communities experience art.  Wealthy families see art as a distraction, a way to fill your free time, an activity of leisure.  As Black Americans – wealthy or not ­– art is much more than that.  It’s the way we navigate life, diffuse anger, celebrate successes – it’s a way of creating beauty in a world that’s often everything but.  A white home without music or art is simply bland or boring.  A black home without music or art is without joy.  Our ability to give our kids these opportunities is necessary in their development, critical to their joy.

An organization that I admire is the Sesame Street Foundation.  I’ve been enamored by their campaign to send puppet trucks to refugee camps as part of their belief that children have the right to be children no matter what their situation is and that the most dire and desperate situations only mandates these youthful opportunities for youth.   There’s a recent article questioning when schools became such joyless places  that resonated so strongly for me. As a child, I loved school, my school and teachers loved me.  I was good at school and my teachers did a stellar job of creating a protective environment for me – an awkward, nerdy, gay kid. As educational elites, we’re so busy experimenting with what schools for poor black kids should look like.  I just find all the experimentation really confusing.  We’re experimenting when we actually know what works. Why don’t we recreate for them the type of education that we had growing up? The kind that worked for us? The kind that made us smart, empowered, and world ready?  Are they not worthy of it?  Do we think that they can’t digest it? I recognize that education reformers would say that we haven’t changed schools since rip Van Winkle,  and question what we should be doing differently to prepare kids for a fast-changing world and not handicap them.  But what’s fundamentally broken?  Is it the model or the implementation that’s failed?

Darren Isom headshotDarren’s One Good Question: There is something inherently wonderfully beautiful in all of us.  How do we support our youth to manifest that beauty? I worry that we are encouraging our black kids, our gay kids, our poor kids to literally cover elements of their beauty for the sake of integrating and giving them one path to success and forcing them to abandon their uniqueness, their greatest asset, to get there. How do we enable kids to embrace and showcase that thing of beauty while readying the world to accept and embrace it?

About Darren: Prior to leading Memphis Music Initiative, Darren was a manager with the The Bridgespan Group where he was a strategic advisor to nonprofit and foundation leaders in youth and community development, foundation strategy and education policy.

Before Bridgespan Darren worked in direct services in New York, with funding for public art and performance initiatives throughout the Times Square District (Times Square Alliance) and youth services (Groundwork).  Darren worked as the director of Global Logistics for CSI, an international trade finance group, where he managed strategy, organization, and change management projects in Belgium, Spain, France, The Netherlands, and Germany.

A seventh generation New Orleans native, Darren is a graduate of Howard University, Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, and Columbia Business School’s Institute for Nonprofit Management.  As a volunteer, Darren has been an activist around issues concerning disconnected youth and LGBT communities of color. He has served as an advisor to the leaders of several Bay Area and national foundations and currently serves on the board of Horizons Foundation.

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The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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