Those of us who work with young people do our work hoping that we are somehow making a difference. On occasion, we are able to see growth in our youth, and witness the development of a broadened worldview and a thirst to become active, life-long learners and good citizens. But, most of the time, we do our work in good faith, never knowing for sure what effect we've had.
I think back to Mrs. Lamy, my fifth grade teacher at my school just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. On the heels of vicious protests due to court-ordered busing to address segregated schools, our country was celebrating its Bicentennial and its place as the world's greatest democracy. There was increased attention to both discrimination against girls and the disabled in the education system. Concerns about "standards" were creeping into discussions as more immigrant and lower income children were taking the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. In the international arena, we were still in the throes of the Cold War.
Rather than ignore these issues, Mrs. Lamy embraced them. She emphasized the need to be engaged with the world and understood that issues were complex, but not outside our grasp -- even at 10 years old.
She would show "news of the week" filmstrips that focused on current events both locally and globally. We explored communism and détente, learned how to pronounce Zbigniew Brzezinski, and discussed the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. When the principal gave the boys the field every day at recess and we complained, she slyly told us girls about Title IX, and we soon organized a protest. She infused the arts into our experience, as a way to teach history but also to explore deeper themes. We put on a play, My Brother Sam is Dead, which realistically depicted what happened during the American Revolution, and she allowed me to play Sam even though I was a girl. We learned that war often gets glorified, and the voices of those who suffer are seldom heard. She never assumed we were incapable of exploring sophisticated themes, even though most of us were from working-class and immigrant backgrounds.
Today, I am the Executive Director of Global Kids and as the organization prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary, I reflect on the ways in which our pioneering work has engaged youth from underserved New York City and D.C. communities. Mrs. Lamy never knew how deeply she shaped my perspective on the world and my perception of myself. But through a special project documenting the stories and experiences of 25 of our alumni who now range in age from 19 - 43, I am hearing of the profound impact of our collective work at Global Kids over the years.
Global Kids was founded at a time when there was deep mistrust of urban youth, and little faith in their ability to contribute to society. Exposing them to global affairs and calling them leaders seemed preposterous to many, when drugs and violence seemed so prevalent and New York City schools were considered dangerous. From the start, we tapped into the innate optimism and creativity of young people. Through our dynamic youth development approach, global education workshops, leadership training, and mentoring from caring staff, young people who were put down were able to rise; young people who were considered problems were able to create solutions; young people who were seen as a woeful statistic were able to become their own positive one.
Yearly, over 90 percent of our seniors graduate from high school and over 90 percent of them go on to higher education. Our alumni have gone into international development, education, law, government service, media, business and other fields. Many of these "at-risk" youth are now exactly what our government and corporate leaders say we need to stay competitive in the world. Our alumni understand how to work collaboratively across cultures, are creative problem-solvers and critical-thinkers, and have the global competence and grit they need to succeed.
Everyone wants a "metric" nowadays, and statistics can be useful. But statistics never tell the full story. Over the next several months, we will be working with The Huffington Post to publish the stories of our Global Kids alumni, in their own words, because nothing tells the story better than the person whom the story is about.