In the wake of the Newtown tragedy, my end-of-year column resonated with many readers and elicited the kind of response that both affirms and assures a commitment to those who can use a helping hand.
Wow, I did not expect this response from the Truthout readers.
My last column for 2012, Slow-Rolling Massacre, was very personal to me as I explored our country's reaction to the tragic Newtown massacre while looking at an equally tragic slow-rolling massacre that is happening just a few miles from my house, in the town of Richmond, California. I was able to peek into this tragedy just miles from me while my son was the only white kid on an all-African-American youth football team, the Richmond Steelers, in 2003-2004. My husband and I were really shook up to see how the players, parents and coaches faced the reality of constant violence and death for the children and the people who were trying to keep them from facing a bleak future. As I wrote last week, this memory came flooding back to me when some of the grieving Newtown citizens said this type of gun tragedy was not supposed to happen in their town. I wrote about our football team's awards ceremony:
At the end-of-the-season awards ceremony that year, we were the only white couple and enjoyed watching each group of kids getting awards and advancing up to the next team. Since the Steelers won almost all their games and were champions year after year, the mayor of Richmond and many of the clergy of Richmond were in the packed auditorium of parents. The room grew somber as the father of Terrance Kelly spoke and encouraged the kids to stay in school and study.
As my son Nick went up with his teammates to receive his awards, they had a special ceremony for the 14-year-olds who were graduating out of the Steelers to their high school teams. But then they lined up the boys and one of the clergy and the coaches went and put their hands on the shoulders of each boy to pray that he would live to adulthood. My husband and I were stunned. The fact that at age 14 these boys had to get blessings to make it to manhood shook us to the core. I felt extremely guilty when they did the same blessing for my son because I knew that as a white boy in El Cerrito, he statistically had an excellent chance to make it to adulthood. This was a paradigm that was almost beyond my comprehension and I realized that I really didn't and perhaps never could understand what these parents went through, and also how it must have affected the younger kids.
I also talked about how the three coaches of my son's team were trying to pull these kids out of any attitude of a preordained destiny of violence and death and give them a chance for education and a different life. Two of the coaches were brothers and one of them, Waleed Elahi, was gunned down himself while we were involved in the team. That death shook the team and the remaining coaches - his brother Khalid Elahi and the head coach Fred Harris - but they continued on with the season. Coach Fred died several years later, but after the Newtown massacre, I looked up the surviving coach, Khalid several weeks ago. He quit coaching shortly after his brother was killed but has dedicated himself to personally pulling kids out of this lifestyle and has, since 2005, gotten 10 of these kids in college and graduated with bachelor's degrees. He has a skeleton of a nonprofit to build on his individual effort, but didn't have the money or resources to get help beyond his personal efforts.
I ended the column by saying that I could not change the whole world of these kids and others like them all over the country by myself, but I decided to act locally to help Khalid put his foundation together. I urged my readers to look and see if they could get out of their comfort zone and locally help people like Khalid to raise the education success for these kids who happened to be born into poverty and violence.
The column was widely read and I got a lot of advice, stories and scoldings from the readers. There were the usual letters saying that nothing could be done, or that the whole system needed to be changed and I was just putting a bandage on the problem. There is some truth to that but I can't just sit back and moan about the world as it is. There were others who said that the US (and I) were hypocritical about helping our children in Newtown and Richmond when our drones are killing children around the world. Since I frequently investigate the Pentagon, I am also painfully aware of that problem that needs to be fixed. But I have decided to see what I can do, right now, locally and was heartened that many readers also wanted to help. Here are three examples:
I am frankly not sure how to do this part, and I'm not even quite sure if I'm 100 percent ready to do this. But by God I have to do something. These are my kids and my neighbors and my brothers and sisters.
What a story. Thank you for giving me something to do besides wring my hands and weep. I live overseas, but used to live in Oakland and spent time in Richmond, know what you're talking about but not the details. The only thing missing in your op-ed is an actual "call to action." How can we get involved?
These are not just "disadvantaged" or minorities or even just kids. These are our fellow humans, our brothers and sisters, ordinary, normal people who are being damaged not just by the unevenness of opportunity, but also by the overwhelming wash of guns everywhere.
I also got personal emails, including one from a woman in San Francisco who said she would find attorneys to properly set up Khalid's foundation and then contribute some money.
Khalid was also overwhelmed by the article and the offers of help. He said that even though we both grew up in totally different worlds, that the article captured what he is fighting every day in his town. Although I had talked to him over the phone for the first column, we decided to get together to see what is realistic for him, and what Truthout readers could do locally to help. I took my son, Nick, along to also see what we could do. Nick, now 22, is home from Willamette University in Oregon where he is getting his MBA. (See picture of Nick's and Khalid's reunion last week.) We had a great brunch and laid out what we thought needed to be done locally; we have a plan to have Khalid get help and contributions in his quest to help as many kids as he can through education and opportunities.
We all agreed that education and opportunities to see outside their world is the most important thing for these kids that face constant poverty and violence. In my column, I explored how Khalid and I grew up; I had constant encouragement and opportunities and actually thought college was mandatory until I was about 12; Khalid, though he saw his white and Indian friends planning by age 12 to go to college, didn't have the paradigm, knowledge and encouragement to seek higher education himself, and didn't even know how to try.
So after we talked about helping his personal effort, we talked about what Truthout readers could do in their local area. We realized as we talked that there were elementary schools in our district in the affluent areas that, even though they receive approximately the same amount of money as the elementary schools in the poorer parts of Richmond, raise money and resources from the parents and the surrounding community to make those schools a place where kids do well in learning, and see the opportunities education can bring them. If the school district can't fund it, these parents find ways of making sure that there are resources for things like computers, field trips and extra curricular activities.
Khalid talked about how the elementary schools in the poorer areas have parents who are struggling themselves with poverty and even drug problems. These parents and their children spend their time just trying to make it day to day. Most of the parents don't know how to organize a fundraiser to help their school, or don't have the knowledge it takes to show kids what is possible beyond what they see in their daily lives. Khalid also told us that the teachers and the principal of these schools are just trying to keep it together daily with kids of many ethnic backgrounds, and they deal with many kids, even at this young age, who have been damaged by the violence.
My son said there would not be equality in education until your education was not dictated by the circumstances of your birth. We realized that these local elementary schools in the poorer areas could greatly benefit from volunteers in the more affluent areas who already know how to do the extra work to supplement the lowly per-student allocation from the school district and the state.
So to those who want to help locally, I would suggest you go to the nearest school district that has disadvantaged elementary schools, and ask them how you can take your knowledge to organize an effort to raise funds and opportunities for that school. You can also help by joining or organizing a tutoring or writing coach program to help these kids get the skills to go to college. Many school districts require you to register to protect the kids when you volunteer, but I believe that they would be very happy to get the help. You can start with elementary schools, but if you are willing to get more out of your comfort area, the middle schools and high schools can also use your help. Ask the school district what is needed and then think about the skills you have from your daily life and experiences, and put them to work to keep these kids from the unfair circumstances of being victims of their birth.
As I was researching the equality in opportunity and the gap of the affluent schools and the poorer schools in California for this column, I was pleased to see that my governor, Jerry Brown, is just now going to try a different formula for how all schools are funded in the state. He is, starting this year, instituting a plan of monetary allocation that takes into account that the kids in the poorer areas have not had the advantages in education and experiences. As the Los Angeles Times reports:
Gov. Jerry Brown will push this year to upend the way schools are funded in California, hoping to shift more money to poorer districts and end requirements that billions of dollars be spent on particular programs.
Brown said he wants more of the state's dollars to benefit low-income and non-English-speaking students, who typically are more expensive to educate.
'The reality is, in some places students don't enjoy the same opportunities that people have in other places,' the governor said in an interview. 'This is a way to balance some of life's chances...
'I want to align more closely the money schools receive with the problems that teachers encounter,' Brown said. 'When somebody's teaching in Compton, it's a much bigger challenge than teaching in Beverly Hills.'
He also is working to stop earmarking of programs with complicated state rules that make it harder for extra money to be directly applied to the students who need it. Brown has already been getting howls of protest from the status quo of some the California school districts and administrators, but he is pushing to implement this radical change this year. It will be interesting to see if it works, but in the meantime, these disadvantage schools need private boosters to put their skills to work to try to even the playing field.
None of this will be easy, but you never can estimate what can happen with even a small start. In the early 1980s, my husband and I met with three other people in our living room because we were concerned about the huge increase of homeless people in Washington, DC because of the Reagan cuts in welfare and Social Security. We were told by churches that ran shelters and food programs that many of the newly homeless women were afraid to come to eat at the shelters because of the real fear of rape. We started, with the help of our church, just bringing prepared food to the existing shelters until we took the plunge to having a dinner program for women five days a week at our downtown church. I was the cook and we fed 50 to 200 women a night. It was doing well when I moved away after working on it for three years. But I had no idea of what it would grow into. Thirty-three years later, the program, which was known as the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, is now called Thrive, where they serve breakfast for men and women, dinner for women and children, and have a whole top-to-bottom social service program to pull people out of homelessness and unemployment. They served more than 81,000 meals in 2011 and now are a staple in the safety net in Washington, DC with a budget of more than $1.3 million. So if you take the plunge and go to help these disadvantaged schools, start small, but think big.
Thanks for all your encouragement and offers and I will keep you posted on my progress helping Khalid and his kids.