“Today there are rare occasions when you find people who are willing to visit, teach high school students, and enjoy it. Especially at a predominantly African American school where we are looked down upon with stereotypes and chosen to fail. What makes you different, is that you wanted and cared about us differing from our surroundings. With your encouragement I have walked away with the knowledge of running a business. Personally, what I have learned thanks to you, I was completely unaware of in the beginning . . . Thanks to you I have found a whole other view of the world and the kindness of strangers.”
Over 25 years ago, I stepped into an inner-city school in greater Washington D.C. and began a journey that changed my life. And to my absolute delight, it changed a number of young Black lives along the way. I want to tell you about that journey not because this is the time for white people to stand on their podiums and say, “look what I did.” It’s not. Rather, I want to inspire others – no matter what color, age, or societal class you associate with – to consider joining in such an effort. I believe it is one of the greatest ways we can prepare our next generation for success. And where better to start than in neighborhoods and public schools that don’t necessarily have a model for that success?
But let’s back up a moment. First, why get involved in public schools in the first place? Well, for starters, the overwhelming research says it is critical. In its “Great Jobs, Great Lives” study, Gallup researched how well America is preparing its students for a productive work life. This was the largest representative study of its kind. Gallup interviewed over a million constituents including students, graduates, professors, administrators, parents, and employers. In short, Gallup found a huge disconnect between how prepared educators think their students are for 21st-century jobs and how (un)prepared business leaders are actually finding those same students.
Specifically, 98% of chief academic officers say they are “confident they are preparing students” for success in the workplace. Yet, “only 11 percent of C-level business executives strongly agree” that these graduates have the skills they are seeking as employers.
Gallup concluded that students were twice as likely to be engaged in their work and a sense of well-being later in life if they had two experiences while in school: 1.) the one-on-one attention from an adult to encourage goals and dreams, and 2.) an ability to apply learning to a long-term project, such as a job or internship while in the classroom.
How many inner-city students are getting these two experiences in classrooms? I can tell you, with nearly three decades of hands-on experience: almost none. What can you do to make Black Lives Matter? Mentor. Share yourself. And share your life’s experiences – all while engaging students through projects. Bring real-life topics and projects into the classroom. I call this Project Based Mentoring®. And I promise you, your efforts will not only change the lives of students, they will change your own life, and likely even make an impact on future generations as well.
As Chris Gardner, the author of The Pursuit of Happyness, once told me, “You have made a difference in the lives of these kids, and most likely you have made a difference in the lives of their kids as well. They have grabbed hold of your light, maybe because they had no other.”
How can you be that light for others? How can you impact Black lives for the better? Please allow me to share a few things I have learned – often through lots of trials and errors – so that you can consider doing it yourself. And if you read about my experiences, you may even take some shortcuts and avoid some of the mistakes I made. That’s the least that I can wish for you.
Picture this. A 60-something, write, upper-class and educated woman comes in to talk to a Black 14-year-old at Prince George County High School. We are intergenerational. We are interracial. And we have a tragically large economic divide. What could we possibly find to talk about?
The answer is: a project. One that matters to Tiffany. Or one that matters to Khaled. Perhaps it is a business that you suggest they think about. Perhaps you have a few projects from your own business that they may find interesting. Light the fire, and you will witness truly amazing things.
As Khaled said to me, “At that time, business was not one of my goals, but the way you talked about it and gave everyone advice, because of that I decided to accept the challenge. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be where I am today, running my own business and loving what I’m doing. What I’ve learned from you is to give and never wait for anything back. This is how it should work.”
Khaled went on to place in the top 10 at a national business competition. And I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. I was that spark, and I hope to do it 1000 more times.
When I wrote the book Teach to Work, which was based on my own experiences mentoring underprivileged youth and starting up nationwide mentorship programs, I researched this subject for six years. I took notes on what worked and didn’t, and I crafted advice so that many others can follow suit. It doesn’t matter if your implementation is intergenerational, interracial, inter-socioeconomic, or all of the above. You can throw distinctions those out the door. I did. And you can, too.
What does matter is connection.