“We’ve got trouble?”
It was the fifth time in about as many days that I had heard this question from Arion… and, despite the fact that it generally came on the tail of some kind of classroom disturbance, it always made me smile inwardly. Arion was a troublemaker – it’s true. But he was also the student I would impact most deeply (and he me) during my time as a corps member with City Year Cleveland, an AmeriCorps program.
2003 – the year I served my country through AmeriCorps, was a disruptive and transformative year in my life. I was only 18, and had uprooted myself from rural Kansas to come to Cleveland wanting to help kids, like Arion, succeed in schools and neighborhoods where the realities were stacked against them. Arion’s family had emigrated from Albania when he was just 4 – and though he was 10 now, his English and reading skills paled in comparison to those of his peers – especially peers who, unlike Arion, were not trapped in a blighted neighborhood within a struggling city.
My time with Arion caused me to ask new & uncomfortable questions of myself - how is it right that I have opportunities that have been denied to so many of America’s children? Simply because of a neighborhood, city, economic bracket, family, whatever…why was Arion not afforded the same basic level of opportunity that should be assured in this country?
Now, at this point, you’re probably reading my questions, and saying to yourself “ya, ya… heard this a hundred times, white/privileged/small town guy goes to the inner city, ‘helps’ kids, and feels badly about how good he has it…so what?” Well – I actually agree. I didn’t know it then, but the questions I was asking myself about social justice, while important, are about as worn out and tired as any we ask ourselves. I’m know we’ve made strides to bridge the achievement gap, but the simple truth is this: deep community transformation has eluded us. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars, public support, community redevelopment, you name it, kids like Arion still fail disproportionately in this country.
And why does that happen? It happens because too many who can do something are doing nothing. I’m not pointing fingers – I’m guilty of it too. But, you see, I’ve recently realized that all of those questions I was asking myself are completely meaningless unless I couple them with action that bonds me to a community that needs me. Let that point sink in – action doesn’t equal a political standpoint – action equals creating a bond. It equals solidarity with the communities we seek to help. I get it… policies, funding, and political will are all important to crush the distance between my world and that of Arion’s. But none of that will truly ignite until my generation chooses to become a part of Arion’s life.
I’m a millennial, and I’m speaking to all millennials when I say we have the power to change this. Our generation is THE generation that will move beyond these tired questions and old solutions into disruptive action that will jar our communities together.
How do we do this? We do this by tying our destiny to the destiny of all Arion’s out there. Get into the parts of your community that are suffering – I know you know where they are - and find a child like Arion. Make a promise to yourself and to that child that you will not allow circumstance to destroy their destiny. And here’s the most important part: keep your promise by becoming a regular figure in that child’s life. Not just for a month or even for a year – but devote yourself to spending at least 5 hours each month with him/her throughout childhood and adolescence.
We millenials share the unique distinction of being the most socially aware generation ever, but we’ve got trouble. Despite our social connectivity, our communities are more divided than ever before.
For this reason – I’m making a promise today, and I hope you will join me. I’m promising you that from 2015 on I will spend no less than 5 hours each month mentoring an Arion. I will be a part of his life for as long as he asks me to be. I will not leave him, I will not fail him, and I will work to get him anything he needs.
You can think that my promise won’t be sufficient – you can think that I won’t do enough good or create enough change, but I don’t care. I know that if I change one life, I’ve changed the world. And I also know that if enough of us take the simple action I’ve laid out above we can desegregate and bond ourselves with our communities in ways that were previously unheard of.
We’ve got trouble America, but you can help. If enough of us follow the guide I’ve laid out above, I promise it will lead to deep and transformational change.
It is for Arion that I do the work I do every day to empower change agents and change my community – if this story stuck you, please don’t let that feeling go – find a way to help our children. I truly believe it is the only way we can restore community in this country.
Will you join me? Click here for a list of mentoring programs you can link up with.