Monday, September 28, 2009

The Core of the Problem: RIP Derrion Albert

Well, Chicago's youth made national news again this week. But not in a very positive way, I'm afraid.

I'm sure you've all seen the amateur footage taken in the savage and fatal beating of Fenger High School honors student Derrion Albert. If not, just Google it and easily find a network near you that is happy to indulge you with gruesome footage of kids killing kids.

As we've discussed in the past, this week is one of those weeks where "teen violence" has risen to an editorial level, and everyone is temporarily asking, "why is this happening?" This week it took the national stage...

Monday afternoon, I caught CNN talking head Rick Sanchez interviewing Chicago Police official Ronald Holt. (Ronald Holt's child was killed in random street violence two years ago, so he brings an intimate knowledge of the law and Chicago's street violence.)

Here's the full transcript.

During the interview, Sanchez asked Holt the big philosophical question that everyone - and certainly we here at Tutor/Mentor Connection - struggle with:

"Why does this happen? Why are we so damn violent? And especially children, 15, 16, 17, 18 years old, what would cause them to have this much rage, this much hate?"

Holt responded that to understand the anger, we need to first address "the core of the problem," explaining that, "A dysfunctional parent can only develop a -- a dysfunctional child within a dysfunctional home... And you have to find a cure for that parent, who doesn't -- who lacks the life lesson skills and management to pass along to those children."

Holt further explained...

..."your first known teacher is your parent or grandparent... Are they equipped with life lesson skills to pass on to those children to raise them properly? ... you have to go back to the core of the problem, and you have to treat it there. Some of these children... They're not nurtured at home. They are miseducated. They get out here in the streets. They don't have a ... positive male role model in their home or in their lives..."

Sanchez challenged this, in classic nature vs. nurture fashion, proclaiming that, "something's got to be real wrong with a person who at that moment continues to do something like that and almost revel in it as I saw in that videotape that goes beyond parenting and social skills, does it not?"

Holt tried to argue that it's not that simple, stating that, "it has to start somewhere. And that's the nucleus of it..."

Holt then shared his belief that there is indeed "an unsalvageable criminal element out there that has made crime and violence a daily reality for a lot of law-abiding citizens in our country."

... and with that came the end of the conversation. Sanchez had clearly found the juicy bait he needed to feed his Twitter audience (that's "his thing" - he indulges the faceless Twitter crowd, broadcasting the mass's opinions on hot topics). He cut Holt off abruptly...

"I'm going to stop you with that word. 'Unsalvageable' is what you just said. 'Unsalvageable.'"

He continued, "And you know what? I think you're right. I agree with you. I think there are people out there who could possibly very well be unsalvageable. And maybe we as a society need to start treating them as if they are just that, unsalvageable."

(He later wondered, while sorting through the Twitter feeding frenzy he ignited - about whether Americans living god-knows-where believe kids who are at-risk are "unsalvagable" - whether, "Some people then might be dispensable?" ... Yikes!)

Well, assuming most people reading this blog buy into the notion that kids living in poverty are "salvagable" (and certainly not "dispensable")... and that some people prefer to get their knowledge from real academia-reviewed and statistically-sound sources, versus random Twitter messages and talking heads, please check out the book American Apartheid, by Douglas Massey and Nancy A. Denton.

I've mentioned this book on this blog in the past, but Chapter 6 seemed important for this discussion in particular. The chapter, "The Perpetuation of the Underclass," goes into great detail - rooted in statistics and history - about how opportunity and social mobility in hyper-segregated high-poverty neighborhoods have been systematically curtailed throughout history - by politicians and others (the book uses Chicago as a case study)... the book shows how generation after generation, families in these neighborhoods have faced unique barriers to resources such as jobs and education... and that their political and spatial isolation, combined with generations of hopelessness and frustration have created not only anger, but - as the author argues - alternative value systems that occasionally get the kids in trouble.

Simply put, to end this cycle - and ultimately curve (if not end altogether) poverty and violence, we need to address the "core of the problem" and help kids make better life choices in many cases. We need to help them place better value on themselves and their futures. We need to equip them with the tools to succeed if they choose to pursue career or educational dreams.

Tutoring and Mentoring Programs would clearly fit into any comprehensive solution that acknowledges this definition of "the core of the problem."

The problem is, we're only talking in sound bytes and tweets these days. Spend some time looking at the maps on this site and you'll see there are very few tutor/mentor programs in most neighborhoods. Read some of the stuff Dan Bassill posts on his blog (he's the president of Tutor/Mentor Connection, a 30-year veteran of such work, and my personal boss and mentor) and you'll see diagrams that try to help make sense of this complex problem, requiring complex thinking, and involvement at many places, at the same time, and for many years, to get to the core of the problem.

Unless people like us are willing to spend time learning (which still means 'reading'!)... and reflecting... not much will change. We can't let the "problem" be spoon fed to us!

Unless we then look for ways every day where we can use the available time and talent and money needed to build the systems, and link the world to systems that can address poverty and crime, not much can change.

If you just found this blog, browse my tags at the right there to find maps/stories that show how Tutor/Mentor Programs and our maps work, toward addressing this core problem. You'll also find links to others who are thinking about this topic (not just me and Dan and Tutor/Mentor Connection).

Meantime, it is my hope that Officer Holt is doing something consistent to raise visibility and support among those in his ranks... and with his access to media muscle... to support programs and leaders that work in concert with tutoring/mentoring.

And we hope you stand up and do something. Buy American Apartheid and give it a read.

Challenge the community leaders you know to support new and existing programs.

Donate to help Tutor/Mentor Connection and Mapping For Justice continue their work.

Use my maps or the online program locator we built to find a program near you, and enlist to help fight the core of the problem.


Steve Bogira said...

Your comments are right on. People prefer to talk about individual rather than group responsibility, because the latter implicates us all. You're right about the book American Apartheid, too; it has greatly informed my work. Thanks for your mapping as well.

Tutor Mentor Connections said...

People can find a summary of the American Apartheid book at