By Andre Ware
I strolled into my Poverty Studies class on a typical Monday afternoon in Niagara – cold, gloomy, and windy. But this day was a different day; my poverty studies professor, Dr. Kevin Blair, was out of town for a conference and in replacement was a man named Dr. David Taylor. Dr. Taylor, a former professor and community enthusiast, ranted about how hands-on opportunities outside the classroom not only reinforce what you learn inside the classroom, but how real world experiences solidifies skills and lessons that would otherwise be forgotten a year after. What are some ways in which colleges and universities could take an unorthodox approach to education? I sat and thought about the question and his message spoke volumes. I am an example of someone who has forgotten plenty of classroom curriculum that was emphasized to be memorized. Admired by his rant, Dr. Taylor and I exchanged contact information, and I immediately went back to my dorm room to forward him a copy of my résumé and a short autobiography.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, I had the opportunity to attend an up-and-coming high school: the High School for Global Citizenship (HSGC). HSGC was incepted in 2003 by a non-profit called Global Kids, and in 2006 my sister enrolled in the school that promised smaller class sizes and student trips abroad. Two years later I was following in her footsteps. She had traveled to Peru with the support of the school to participate in community service work (through the YMCA), and many of her peers traveled to Kenya, Mexico, and other countries. Who would pass up the opportunity to travel abroad as a teenager [without parents)? The High School For Global Citizenship was quintessential to my understanding of global issues and the epitome of what a high school education should look like for African-American youth like myself (HSGC was 99% African-American/Black during my four years). Following my freshman year of high school, I applied for an abroad trip through the Experiment for International Living, an organization that groups a diverse set of students and sends them through an Emersion Project abroad; I was accepted to the Chile North program – community service and tours throughout the Northern cities and towns of Chile. I met 13 other amazing high school students from around the country as we bonded over our commonalities and differences.
Fast forward a year later, and my high school peers and I were walking the streets of Nairobi, Kenya—Kibera to be more precise. Inside one of Africas largest slums, Kibera houses 170,000 people according to the 2009 Kenyan housing census, but from the naked eye it appeared to be much more dense than the Kenyan government claimed. Struggling to stand on the slippery mud, my peers and I formed a straight line as we marched through Kibera in search for one of the rare schools. I remember holding my breath as we walked through Kibera, and I’m sure that the “mud” I was slipping on wasn’t in fact solely mud. Once we arrived at the school, I watched teenagers play jumprope with cassette tape, and soccer with a deflated ball. Still, some of these young Kenyans would partner with us to cultivate an organization via social media in an effort to tackle poverty-related issues in Kenya. The group with which I worked, Team Matumaini (Hope in Swahili) was charged with the task of raising awareness of youth unemployment in Kenya via Flickr, a photography and social media based website. During our month stay, The American and Kenyan students laughed with each other. Learned with each other. And shattered expectations; 14 year olds producing tangible results, giving Kenyans resources and tips on how to be successful entrepreneurs during a time in which unemployment was high.
I enrolled at Niagara University in 2012 to pursue a Bachelor of Arts as a Political Science major. Everything I accomplished in high-school I wanted to times by two. I wanted my college education to be more wide-ranging. Looking back at my previous experiences both at home and abroad, I wanted to learn how the perception of poverty in the United States was constantly being distorted, and why. I wanted to know why local government isn’t effective (or hasn’t been) in curbing poverty levels. This involved me not simply taking a history course, but a poverty studies course and then supplementing my education by interning for the Mayor of Niagara Falls, taking the advice Dr. Taylor gave me in pursuing outside-the-classroom-opportunities. (There was also a community service requirement for the course that the internship fulfilled.) Enrolling in history courses not only allowed me to understand the intercity plight, but combining that with poverty studies and my internship with the Mayor [sort of] prepared me for the Shepard Poverty Program.
I arrived in Dorchester Bay, Boston, as a Shepherd Consortium intern not knowing what to expect other than the fact that I would be working at Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation (DBEDC) with high-school youth that are called the “Youth Force.” By the end of the month, I met a group of teenagers who influenced me to believe that youth advocacy could indeed change the state of politics. A journal entry I written at the time truly captured my thinking:
“I worked with 17 highly-intelligent and curious high school students. Each student, ranging from ages 14 to 18, was paid though a government source, that is, the Massachusetts summer youth jobs budget, as well as funding from private donors. Youth Force was a sort of an ironic twist for summer programs; we essentially protested government policies ranging from mass incarceration to gentrification—and voiced our opinion on issues in Boston pertaining to race, yet the state government was the one funding the program. Youth Force students in the past had been fortunate enough to brush shoulders with some of the biggest names in politics in an effort to promote the benefits of youth summer jobs. Prior to the election of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Youth Force members made him pledge that if he were to become governor, he would increase the youth employment budget. As a matter of fact, he delivered on that promise. In 2008, the summer youth employment budget in Massachusetts was proposed to be cut down to $12 million. Today, thanks to courageous youth activists from Youth Force and other community organizations, the youth employment budget is $31 million.”
On top of accomplishing major goals in the budget for youth summer jobs, we fought to give high school students in Boston free transportation to and from school, and we registered hundreds of citizens in Dorchester Bay and the Boston area in an effort to increase voter turnout. I learned how Dorchester Bay transformed from one of the most violence-riddled neighborhoods in Boston, into a neighborhood that welcomes all classes of people. Dorchester Bay provided an example of a neighborhood, similar to Niagara Falls, which could be resurrected into a diverse and thriving community. One day at a time, we will continue to find solutions that will make Niagara Falls the “honeymoon capital of the world” again. What I learned outside the classroom allows me to come to terms with the economic catastrophe that Niagara Falls has become, but it also gave me knowledge on how a community once destroyed, could be rebuilt again; and on a national level, to reform facets of our society including our draconian drug laws and justice system, our inefficient education system, while making an concerted effort to engage our youth in politics. We are only as strong as our weakest, and I learned it will take a village to raise our neglected neighborhoods and communities.
I will be taking my knowledge on the road again, this time to Ukraine. I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts a semester early to join the Peace Corps Community Development program, departing March 2016. While in Ukraine, I will be working with NGO’s and government to improve the lives of Ukrainians, while boosting the perception of not just Americans, but African-Americans. When non-westerners think of Americans, they see wealthy, blond hair, blue-eyed individuals. Well, Ukraine will be in for a big surprise and this will be a learning experience for both parties. I hope to take what I learn in Ukraine, potentially a multitude of various community service projects and bringing them back to my own community. Lastly, I want to emphasize the importance of traveling abroad to disenfranchised youth, who believe there isn’t anything outside of their own neighborhoods. But I can’t stress the importance of traveling without recognizing the impact that poverty studies has had on my life – without it, I wouldn’t understand the various issues plaguing our society. For me to help fix it, I will have to leave and learn a bit more; but when I’m back, I want to make it so my educational experience isn’t atypical for black youth.