I began this internship eager to see things from a different lens after being somewhat unsatisfied with results I observed while offering educational support in my community through different organizations. Experiences prior to my internship made me aware of shortcomings in today’s available educational programs. I knew we needed education-focused nonprofits and programs who would seek to offer more well-rounded educational services for low income populations. This insight, however, proved part of a much bigger picture by the end of the internship.
A variety of programs intend to close the “education gap.” Most programs focus on offering tutoring services to students in low-income areas or providing information about college. Others, including the programs I am involved in, offer a neat alternative to simple tutoring and pair academic tutoring with mentoring in an effort to offer low income children a more complete educational opportunity, helping them strive socially as well as academically. Nonetheless, the missing piece, it seems to me, is in offering education driven opportunities that focus on equipping students with tools to manage their emotional and mental health as well as their academic and social lives. Like most things worth attempting to solve, this is easier said than done.
My internship with Austin Voices for Youth and Education (AVEY) offered much more clarity and perspective to this insight. Although I am far from obtaining clear answers for recommending how to address the education gap with programs for emotional and mental wellbeing, I left Voices with a clearer understanding of what is needed. After my internship experience, I understood that solutions to today’s social issues will require creative, approaches that may appear non-intuitive.
In “Locking Up Our Own,” James Forman explains the history of how mass incarceration developed in this country. He looks specifically into the entrenched discrimination against blacks in our criminal justice system. He argues that black neighborhoods hit by drug and crime crises have reacted in counterproductive ways. They advocated for mandatory minimums and sought to end crime by focusing on what seemed intuitive, putting black people who would undo “the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement” in prison. Forman’s main point, which I took to be key in putting it all into perspective, is to ask: what if D.C.’s leaders had labeled the issue “a public health disaster” rather than a criminal justice problem? “What if” he says, “[D.C.’s leaders] had proposed a massive increase in treatment beds, as opposed to prison cells? What if they had worked to eliminate the waiting lists at all clinics and treatment facilities?” Forman advances the idea that it will take creative, not necessarily always intuitive, approaches to solving today’s issues. Since most social issues were caused by a combination of factors it, will take multiple different solutions to effect positive change.
AVEY applies a similarly creative approach to its purpose of reducing the education gap. The directors successfully unite the concept of schools and community. They don’t simply serve their community; the directors have become a part of it by deciding to live within the same neighborhood and among the people with whom they collaborate and serve. The staff does not simply help plan back to school days or parent teacher conferences but also organizes community walks, dinners, and executes driveway conversations with people in the neighborhood after observing that many lower income families spend evenings convening and chatting in their driveways.
In both structured and unstructured ways, AVEY is able to integrate opportunities for emotional and mental health wellbeing into their wider educational purpose. One of the programs AVEY brings to the community is an adult education program. Many who join the program are women, some who simply want to learn how to read and others who are working their way up to a GED. The director told me of a time a woman experiencing domestic abuse at home was able to earn more than knowledge of reading and math but also a sense of self-worth and emotional support from the family of women in her new home. The woman, fearful of cutting her long hair without her husband’s permission, had neglected doing so for a long time. With the emotional support she received from the group of women, she gained the strength to get the haircut she had been wanting.
I had the chance to experience a significant lesson during our food distribution events in the Family Resource Center located on the public-school grounds of a northeast Austin middle school. A lot of work and organization is required for a smooth distribution and the people behind the work were people who were themselves being served. This was a beautiful sight because it offered recipients an opportunity to use and enhance their skills. Some came early and volunteered to set up and organize the food; another was a secretary for the day, in charge of checking paperwork; and another oversaw what every family received. My favorite assigned task was to the person responsible for talking to recipients as they went around deciding which food products to choose. She informed them about other AVEY events, sharing adult education opportunities, and more. It was extremely refreshing to see people with similar needs helping one another and building a bond far stronger than they would have if the director had executed the entire affair. The recipients were able to see themselves in the people that were helping serve them and were more likely to participate in future AVEY events. This had effectively begun a cycle of building up each other.
Another insight into promoting the emotional wellbeing of the community AVEY serves concerned places of underrepresentation of people living under poverty. We do not often see poor children partaking in Boy Scouts or poor families using quality recreational spots, and even lesser highly rated camping sites. AVEY thinks outside of the box to help the people they serve look after their own wellbeing by opening the door to these things. I clearly remember when I was being shown around the neighborhood and took a detour into a housing project area in which the director knocked on a house to get the signature of a mother whose kids were a part of the Boy Scouts club of one under resourced middle school. The director of AVEY, the troop leader, was noticeably disheartened by the fact that no one was home. After I inquired, the director told me she was trying to touch base with a mother whose child was a part of the boy scouts troop. The mother had frequently neglected to sign permission slips for her kid to attend trips and take part in summer opportunities, and appeared to be repeating this pattern for an upcoming summer camping trip. I discovered the interest AVEY has in pairing with camping sites in the Texas area in order to introduce underrepresented communities into unique recreational experiences centering on relaxation and reflecting. Visiting one camping site myself, I understood what a place with so much nature and planned activities can bring to families who cannot afford the cost. This is one of AVEY’s most creative approaches to serving its families in a way that encourages mental and emotional wellbeing.
Beyond AVEY, creative approaches have also been a part of the solution to alleviating poverty. We cannot expect schools to be a community hub for everyone. School will always have negative associations for some. I discovered another creative approach from a lady I had the pleasure to meet this summer. The community that AVEY serves includes an older African American lady known as “Grandma Wisdom,” a motivational speaker who works with foster children and youth. She has made her house into something like a museum. Her yard is filled with motivational quotations and her house contains presentation boards with pictures and articles detailing events in her life that help inspire others. The same day I met her, she gracefully gave me a tour of her house and shared ideas for her next project. She prides herself with building the house she lives in, and, along with that, having built the only in-ground pool in her neighborhood. One of her ideas was installing pool exercise equipment and opening the pool to the community. A set time would be reserved for women only. Once there, she would take advantage of the time to teach them how to read and to talk with them about ways of giving back. She also works to educate other grandmothers in the community about their important role, as she is certain that they all have stories that offer guidance to their grandchildren that can benefit them. She calls this “another way of teaching,” and I consider her a great example of someone thinking deeper and more creatively about solving problems associated with poverty in her community. AVEY’s community approach helps support an environment for this supplement to in-school education.
When Forman writes about the criminal justice issue and specifically about a solution to the problem of mass incarceration, he notes a combination of solutions, not just one. “By the end of the [1970’s],” he says, “instead of an all-of-the above response to drugs, violence and disorder (federal investment in longer-term root cause solutions such as welfare, education and job training programs), black America had gotten only one of the above: punitive crime measures.” Speaking about his book, at the SHECP closing conference, he emphasized the message of developing creative solutions. He says we need alternatives to prison we can discover only when we are not “constrained by our own imaginations.” Taking cues from Forman’s idea and my experience with AVEY has allowed me to see that more sustainable and effective solutions to education inequity requires creative and inclusive approaches. Forman and AVEY helped to bring perspective to my insight that tutoring and mentoring isn’t enough. My firsthand observations and reading reinforce my belief that incorporating emotional and mental health development opportunities into education can create more holistic solutions to educational inequity.
Forman, J. J. (2017). Locking up our own: Crime and punishment in Black America. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
McPherson, K. E., Kerr, S., McGee, E., Morgan, A., Cheater, F. M., Mclean, J., & Egan, J.
(2014). The association between social capital and mental health and behavioural problems in children and adolescents: An integrative systematic review. BMC Psychology, 2(1). doi:10.1186/2050-7283-2-7