This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Drug abuse. Violence. Incarceration.
Those are the pitfalls that plague far too many young men of color in America, according to the White House.
In order to steer young men away from that fate, President Obama has started the initiative called My Brother’s Keeper, a federal effort to call special attention to the plight of young Black and Latino men and develop best practices to help them fulfill their potential.
Young Black men now make up 6 percent of the U.S. population, but 43 percent of its homicide victims.
As part of the effort to alter that trend, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan hosted a roundtable discussion Friday at Community College of Philadelphia. He joined Mayor Nutter and about a dozen young Philadelphians of color who have overcome significant obstacles.
"The real question is how do we make your kind of success the norm, not the exception?" Duncan said.
In addition to stressing the importance of extracurricular activities and arts programs, all the young men articulated the overarching importance of establishing relationships with adults who care about them.
Many grew up without fathers or in neighborhoods where options were few and expectations low. The most important thing to break that cycle, they said, was finding a teacher or other mentor who would take the time to get to know them.
Life or death choices
That took a while for Quaris Carter. After years of drug use and two felony incarcerations, he finally found guidance from a teacher at Community College of Philadelphia.
Now attending La Salle University, he can still vividly remember his old mindset.
"I’m going to either go to school and do the best I can and talk to an instructor or teacher and tell them what’s really going on with me — or I’m going to go shoot this heroin in my arm or I’m going to go smoke some wet," he said.
"Or I’m so angry that I see someone who’s actually progressing in school and I just take the anger out on them."
For Carter, the path to change began when he read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," while sitting in jail.
"I just didn’t want to die in poverty," he said.
Many of the other students at the roundtable echoed Carter’s experience.
"I think what really makes a difference is just teachers that are engaged and talk to you after class," said Nicholas Gross, a Boys’ Latin graduate who attends Kutztown University. "I know the reason I’m here now is because I had teachers who would talk to me after class, give me that one-on-one time."
Derrick Brockington, who’s going into his senior year at Mastery’s Shoemaker campus, said it’s hard for many of his North Philly peers to have the patience to think long term.
The appeal of making fast money selling drugs is too real and tactile an option.
"A lot of us need more male figures in our lives," he said. "That’s where it starts. … It’s crazy because I look at my neighborhood and I see some people’s parents just right there next to them, just doing what they doing. So there ain’t no motivation."
Brockington’s older brother was murdered in November.
"He was in the streets, and I don’t want that to happen to me," he said. "I want something better for myself."