Guest Essayist Keynon Lake – My Daddy Taught Me That

     For nearly a decade, Asheville City Schools have been labeled as having one of the country’s worst achievement/opportunity gaps. The gap between the test scores of black and white students has been so wide that leaders have declared a state of emergency to remedy the issue. As someone who works closely with youth; I constantly hear and directly deal with impacts of this troublesome issue. I know all too well the realities and emotional toll these “gaps” are having on our black youth.
     Recently, while talking to one of my homeboys, he told me about students in a country in Asia who are very excited about and striving to become astronauts. The focus on young people was so great that it became national news. While I didn’t hear this news firsthand; it struck me that this had made its way to one of my peeps who then shared it with me in a casual conversation. I googled it and found several articles about the dreams and achievements of Chinese students.
     I continued to think long and hard about it and about how great it would be for our youth to be astronauts; to have a program that helps them pursue a path. The vision inspired me – Asheville adults, from my community, together gathering information about our planet, and the solar system, and helping to shape the world and the future. To me, it was a slam dunk! I needed to figure out how to get the youth I work with that same opportunity, to at least have the option to become an astronaut. Then reality hit, how are our youth going to be working in space when they can barely read down here on earth?
     The statistics about the failings of our youth by the Asheville City School system goes back years and years, it’s not hard to look up. I can tell you that some of the most recent data that has been published shows that ACS has met the expected growth for black and brown youth, but only two schools actually met proficiency. It is worth celebrating that educators and students are making progress, while not forgetting that our system failed to keep students on grade level for many years prior.
     Ultimately, this all has an impact on students transitioning to college and career readiness. Meeting expected growth is something to celebrate, but to me, it’s also an unacceptably low bar! If each year, students grow but still fail to reach proficiency level, it will continue to be death by small cuts. Let me be clear, ANY change to eradicate this issue is a great thing. But we are still very much in the weeds and have a long way to go. Here’s where we are in real-time today: if I have 10 African American or black youth attending all but 2 schools within the ACS district, statistics say that 7.5 to 8 out of them are not on grade level in reading proficiency.
     With a focus on reading and language, I remember a time in 2018 when I was in Montego Bay, Jamaica. I was at a resort with people from all over the world. As the outgoing person I am, I found myself talking to everyone, hearing their accents, and asking them what part of the world they were from. Two young ladies from South Africa caught my attention. As the days went on, I questioned who the young ladies were with, because they appeared to be very young. My curiosity got the best of me and on day three, Keynon (“Karen”) Lake broke out his American get-in-other-people’s-business card and I asked these two young women a bunch of questions. Where are y’all’s parents? Where are y’all from? Why are y’all traveling alone? Are you two not aware of sex trafficking and being so young in another country by yourselves? Yeah, I know, dumb American, right?
     These two young women told me that they were perfectly fine. The older of the two girls was 26 years old and her little sister was 18. They said they take two trips out of their country each year. They have been traveling alone together for the past three years. They told me that while sex trafficking is a problem worldwide, they do not have the same fears they feel most Americans have.
     The 26-year-old was a medical student; her little sister had just graduated and was also attending college. They both spoke three languages and stated that they loved traveling the world. After having the conversation with the two young South African women, I felt a small sense of enlightenment and some relief that they were perfectly fine. But also, what stayed with me was a sense of sadness. Folks, by American standards, I am somewhat educated from the standpoint that I acquired higher education, and I earned a college degree. However, at that moment in Jamaica, I didn’t feel so educated. I must have had 50-plus different conversations with other guests at the resort. What I found is that everyone I spoke to, spoke at least two languages. This meant that these people had more international views and more knowledge and experiences across the world than I had. 
     Let me get to the point!! The achievement/opportunity gap is so large: we’ve known African American / Black youth’s access to quality education is disproportionately lower than white youth in this country. And I’m now believing this is true – not just in our city, state, or nation but now, also around the world. While I cannot speak to all youth experiences across the nation, I can speak on the culture of our youth in Western North Carolina. In certain communities, our African American/Black youth are still fighting over a street corner, a block, or a housing project in a neighborhood they will never own. Meanwhile, their counterparts are preparing to leave the planet and venture out in space.
     I know race does not influence the intelligence or capacities of our young people. So why does it impede their access to opportunity and success? We still need to address the structural and institutional barriers that impact the black youth in our city and country. Questions I get asked often by city officials include, “What are the dreams and goals of the youth who live in low-income housing? How are youth living in neglected neighborhoods dealing with the violence in their communities?” Even finding words to respond – in not too emotional of a way – can be difficult. It feels like the words “underprivileged, marginalized, and minority”  indicate that the people being referred to are the underclass or the black sheep of society. Therefore, I choose to highlight my firsthand experiences with hardworking and resilient local youth in order to spark different questions. I’ll ask, What do you think the youth are dreaming about if they’re heavily exposed and consumed by an environment that produces no positive structures, opportunities, resources or support? What dreams or goals do you think can come to life when the conditions are so contrary?”
     Not only youths, but so many are living in environments and communities where they must navigate the impacts of unfair conditions and lack access to basic things like healthcare, healthy food, meaningful work etc. Folks are in survival mode. People and families are simply trying to make it from one day to the next, as safely as possible. In most societal systems, the citizens conform and follow the rules of the laws of the land. So, while our youth may have some of the same dreams, same aspirations, same hopes and desires of youth around the world, they don’t have the same opportunities.
     In these communities, certain blocks and corners garner more attention than others. Typically, these are the blocks or corners that make fast money, often by selling drugs. Different blocks or areas in drug communities have access to more money so it can also become about a displaces sense of responsibility to protect territory in “my hood”. Many claim places because they grew up there, my family was raised here, and this is MY HOOD. Therefore, they feel obligated to defend it. They are simply following the rules of the law of the land in their neighborhood. This fills a hole of ownership, belonging and community. They will never own that block or government public housing development; however, it is their connection to something that feels real.
     A current issue and barrier is the lack of engagement with local leaders. Government officials and institutions have known that these conditions are present and have been for a very long time. Where are the goals to help and change the communities that face barriers and obstacles that impede survival and make thriving not dream-worthy? Makes one ask, who’s benefiting from neighborhoods like this?
     I’ll close with this – While statistics, data and numbers talk in great detail about the opportunity gaps and that things have “improved”, I’ll simply say: Some of our youths are still fighting to get off their blocks and the street corner; while youth around the world are preparing to leave the planet and explore space…LET THAT SINK IN…
Education is the key to help our own kids shoot for the stars!      ~Keynon Lake