Monday, December 12, 2011

What If I Was a Poor Black Kid

So I was at work the other day when I read an article that sparked my interest on an important issue, racism and inequality in America. Two weeks before, a friend of mine had sent me a video of a poor African American woman in Florida with fifteen kids and no money. So today, I thought to myself, What if I was a poor black kid in America with no money?

Last week, President Obama gave a speech in Kansas City about inequality in America. He said, ‘This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.’

He’s right. The gap between the rich and the poor in America has gotten wider over the decade. In recent weeks, Occupy “this and that” has been the popular movement in America. Why? A majority of American citizens are tired of the current state of the economy.

The article I read and the President’s speech got me thinking. The rich kids I have tutored are no smarter than the kids from the inner city. The richer kids have it much easier than their counterparts from the ghetto. The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing their dream harder. This is a fact in 2011.

I’m not a poor black kid. I was raised in Nigeria in a family of seven. My father worked around the clock with the hopes of providing food, clothing and shelter. My mother worked as a teacher with the hopes of providing additional income, but the Nigerian government never ceased to delay her salary by at least six months in a row. That granted, I’m an African man in my twenties living by myself with hopes of maximizing the resources that this beautiful country has to offer. So the fact that I immigrated to the United States means that things should have been worse for me. Why? I’m black and I have a thick African accent.

But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% controls the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. It takes hard work, perseverance, brains, a little luck and a little help from others. It takes an ability to know how to use the resources that are available. Like technology and others.

If I was a poor black kid, I would first and most importantly make sure that I have the best grades possible. I would make it a top priority to read sufficiently and effectively. Even if I attended the worst public school at the worst community, the truth is that the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.

If I was a poor black kid, I would use the technology available to me as a student. Libraries and schools have computers available. If I cannot afford a computer at Best Buy, I would check Tiger Direct, thrift stores or Dell’s Outlet. Professional organizations like accountants and architects often offer used computers from their members, sometimes at no cost at all.

If I was a poor black kid in America, I would use the free technology available to help me study. My best friend would be Google Scholar, and I would become an expert at sites like Sparknotes and Cliffnotes to help me understand books. I would watch relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TED and Khan Academy. In addition, I would get my books for free at Project Gutenberg and learn how to do research at the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia to help me with my studies. I would take advantage of study websites like Evernote, Studyrails, Flashcard Machine, Quizlet and Free Online calculators. I would use Skype and Oovoo to study with other students who want to do well in school.

Is this easy? No. It takes a special kind of kid to succeed. And to succeed with those tools is much harder for a poor black kid than for a white or rich kid from the suburbs. The fact is that the tools, technology and opportunities are there.

There are nationally recognized academic magnet schools in every state. Yes, they are more difficult to get into, but more than 90% of the kids that attend these schools go to college. Most private schools are filled to the brim with the top 1%. But most of these schools have scholarship programs that provide opportunities to kids that can’t afford the tuition. These schools want to show diversity. They want to show smiling, smart kids of many different colors and races on their fundraising brochures. If I was a poor black kid I would make it my goal to get into one of these schools.

And once admitted to one of these schools, I would make it a point to seek advice of teachers and make my guidance counselor my friend. Why? These are people that would one day help me go to a college. They would advise me on financial aid options, college scholarships, grants, job programs and minority programs.

A poor black kid who goes to college will have opportunities. America is a country of business owners who are starved for smart and skilled people. Yes, President Obama was right in speech. There is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality, its ignorance. A lot of kids from poor black communities don’t even know that these opportunities exist for them. Many of these kids come from single family homes who mom (or dad) works at least two different jobs, and is too tired to do anything within the few hours they are home.

Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves, unless they are lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system to push them in the right direction. Several resources can help these kids, but only if they want to be helped. Yes, there is racism and inequality, but there is still opportunity for those who are smart enough to go for it.