This confession is hard to write. Since 1998, I have pursued opportunities to talk about their sexual decision making with teens in “at-risk” communities (that’s the nice way of saying black and brown, urban, and poor.) Other people who do what I do, want to talk to middle-school girls, or youth groups, but I want the hardened groups. I want the kids that everyone else writes off. Because the consequences of their choices are so devastating. Black babies are aborted at higher rates than whites, and 70% of children of color are born into families with no dad. Children raised with no dad are 5 times more likely to live in poverty; 9 times more likely to drop out of school; 20 times more likely to end up in prison. Growing up with a dad is the greatest factor in success, which means these at-risk kids are starting out in life with one foot in a hole. But it gets worse. Most of our talks are with high schoolers who can barely read or write. Every kid turns in anonymous feedback after every presentation. Their written comments have to be read phonetically, and sometimes creatively, in order to understand their meaning. Which is how I get to my confession.
I have dumbed down the form I created to get their feedback. The forms I use with other groups like charter schools and youth groups have more space, because they will have more to say. But the one I use for the kids-at-risk has simplified multiple choice options. Its takes most a long time to just read the questions and the choices, so checking a box is quicker for them and easier for me to collect the data I want. I have rationalized that my time with the students is so limited. But, based on feedback from more literate students, the ideas and challenges we present are often life-changing. Those students are effusive in both appreciation and insight. They tell us how our story, our mistakes, radically impacted how they see themselves and their decisions. Statistically, telling someone else reinforces our decision and typically extends the behavior, so expressing gratitude makes it more real, more valid. So, now I’m asking myself, have I robbed the at-risk kids of their chance to reinforce their decisions, because I needed to collect the data that measures effectiveness for our supporters? Let’s be real. People donate sacrificially to my nonprofit so Jim and I can go into at-risk communities. The schools have no money. The sheriff department’s youth program has no money. We do it for free, but there are operating costs. We are willing (even eager) to go, but we can’t do it without support. I light of all the articles I’m reading about white privilege and unconscious racism, I wouldn’t be surprised (although it would crush me) if there were people of color who assume the reason I want to talk to kids at risk is because – like Margaret Sanger the founder of Planned Parenthood – I want them to stop having so many babies. That I want people of color to stop spreading STIs that will eventually impact the white community, and which drain financial resources. There is no way to measure how devastating such an accusation would be to me. Nothing could be farther from the truth – and I value truth above all else. I mean that literally. I was raised to be a first-class liar. Becoming a truthteller was the hardest thing I ever tried to do. It took years, and it is still a struggle because I want to make myself look good just like you do. But the TRUTH is what set me free. The truth about Whose I am, and who I am. The truth about what I’ve done. The truth that was shaded, concealed, twisted and hidden from me while I was in my liberal, well-educated bubble. The truth that everyone has darkness, selfishness and cruelty in their heart. So what am I confessing? I confess that I should have done more. One of the school districts my nonprofit serves is Los Angeles Unified. LAUSD has $7.59 BILLION annual budget to serve 734,641 students. That’s $10,331 per student every year, or $123,979 for 12 years of education. Only the Oakland USD is ranked lower than LAUSD in California, and my state is ranked 40th of 50 states, plus D.C. To be honest, LAUSD bludgeoned my nonprofit. They tried to regulate our content, set up impossible obstacles and threatened us with lawsuits. They have deep pockets and we don’t, so they won. They keep us out. Even though we would serve their kids for free. Our message about personal responsibility and the benefits of sexual self-control is not welcome in their kingdom. I confess I am one more person who lets thousands of kids in my neighborhood, and my community, go to schools that will teach them poorly, teach them to be victims and teach them lies. I am one more person whose taxes support a system where incompetent teachers get paid the same as great teachers, whether their students learn of not. I am one more person who “accommodated” the students’ low reading skills. I am one more person who fell in with the bigotry of low expectations. I confess I let them beat me.