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It Just Takes Everything We're Not Doing Now

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“You don't have to be a Black male educator to teach Black students. You just have to love Black male children and believe that they have unlimited potential and opportunity, and they’re just as smart and capable as anyone else and caring. And it’s hard. Sometimes you have to go the extra mile,” said Michael Tubbs, an extraordinary young leader and teacher who is part of the Children’s Defense Fund youth leadership development movement. “It takes school, church, neighborhood, government, partnerships. It takes relevant curriculum. It takes love. It takes trial and error. It takes being creative. It takes messing up. It takes getting back up. It just takes everything we're not doing now.”

Michael Tubbs earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees last year from Stanford University, where he became a Truman Scholar, interned at Google and the White House, and was awarded the Dinkelspiel Award, the highest award given to a Stanford undergraduate student. A few months later he became at age 22 the youngest city councilmember in the history of his hometown of Stockton, California, earning more than 60 percent of the vote. Today, in addition to serving on the City Council he is an adjunct professor at Stockton’s Langston Hughes Academy. He shared lessons from his first year of teaching and many years of mentoring young Black men at a June symposium on “Black Male Teens: Moving to Success in the High School Years” convened by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and CDF at the National Press Club. This was the third in a series of ETS-CDF symposia on Black males. The first addressed their needs from 0-9; the second the middle school years. A final symposium on the college years is scheduled for June 2014.

Michael’s own background might have made him just the kind of Black boy for whom some people would have had very low expectations. He spent his childhood in poverty and was born to a teenage mother and a father who has been incarcerated Michael’s entire life. Yet the adults who surrounded him still helped make education a priority for him from the very beginning, aided by the support of some safety net programs that are under siege in budget battles today:

Number one, my mom,
grandma, and aunt, even though they weren't educated, they valued education and
created a space where excellence was a requirement. It was never okay to bring
home a B, despite the fact my mom had me at 16. She said, ‘I don't care what I
did. You have to get A’s because you can
get A's.’ I would say the second thing ... a lot of these government
entitlement programs under fire are the things that made me who I am, so it was
Head Start that the government paid for that put me on the path ... to reading at
an early age. It was people from the
church giving me books when I was little that taught me how to read and read at
a very high level. It was quality magnet programs in public schools that really
pushed me to achieve academically, and then it was Pell grants that helped me
get to college. So I think all these government programs we fight for are
really important and are really testaments to why I'm on this stage today.

These kinds of critical supports in childhood helped shape the young man Michael went on to become -- a student who succeeded despite cultural, economic, and academic challenges in one of the nation’s 1600 high-poverty low-performing high schools known as drop out factories. He was the only Black male in his rigorous International Baccalaureate high school program, an undergraduate who soared at Stanford, and a rising political and educational leader already for whom the sky is the limit. But who knows how many millions of other Black boys have not had the chance to live up to their potential because they never received the same kind of family, community and government support?    

This was the latest in a series of ETS-CDF symposia focused on best practices for helping Black boys succeed at different developmental stages. At this symposium policymakers, practitioners, and advocates focused on research, strategies and college- and career-readiness models aimed at creating high schools where opportunities for Black males prevail. Speakers highlighted the unique challenges facing these youths and examined the most effective practices schools and communities should adopt in order to help close achievement gaps as well as foster college and career success.

Michael was part of the opening panel, “Lived Experiences: Young Black Male Leaders Set the Stage,” chaired by Cedric Jennings, the director of the D.C. Council's Office of Youth Programs and the subject of the national best-selling book A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League, by Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind. It chronicles Cedric's life growing up in Washington, D.C., and attending Brown University before going on to pursue master’s degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan. Michael and the other young Black male leaders on the panel were passionate about continuing to expand opportunities for Black young men and sharing their ideas about what worked -- and what didn’t -- in their own educational experiences. 

Michael is working to change the odds for children in Stockton today -- and he was joined at the symposium by over four hundred others who are changing the odds for Black boys across the country. I will be sharing their successes with you in future columns because we know how to make a positive difference in the lives of so many poor Black males. But we have to close the gap between what we know and what we do. We don’t have to keep doing the things we’re getting wrong. We can learn from what’s working. As Michael says, one starting point is to change everyone’s expectations about what young Black boys can become: “We have to change the whole narrative ... We have people in these schools teaching these children who have no understanding about what these children can be because they haven't been exposed to what the children can be, just like the children haven't been exposed oftentimes to what they can be ... Dream big.” Raising expectations combined with raising resources to get children what they need is a powerful recipe for Black boys’ success.