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Monday, November 21, 2011

another young man lost to a bullet

Three years ago I lost a young friend in a senseless gun accident. Last night, another young man I have known for years was gunned down without rhyme or reason. Again, I am in a state of shock that this could happen to a young man I have known. Again, I am speechless at the tragic loss of a good life - he was an eagle scout, a senior in high school, ready to enter the military. He was a good kid. Again, I am reading the facebook messages left on his wall - sorrow, disbelief, anger, and healing - all kids who have to mourn the loss of a peer. This shouldn't be.

Rickey King was a kid at Gordon Parks elementary when I met him. He was part of a group of gentlemen being mentored by my friend airick west. I accompanied the group to the symphony, to the art museum, out for frisbee, and on Sunday mornings for pancakes at my house. He was a funny guy and loved, loved, loved his cars. He particularly liked my Acura 6 speed RX-S. I took him to the auto show one year and we ogled the cars. He was quite sure he would get a Mazeratti one day.

Most recently he had decided to join the military after graduating from Southwest high school.  He figured he would be safer there than on the streets of KC. The irony is draining my heart.

I realize young men die on the streets, but I always wanted to believe they were hanging with a dangerous crowd, making bad choices, or some such. I know there are innocent kids killed all the time who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Apparently, that's what befell Rickey. Wrong place. Wrong time.

So now I am left to try to make sense of this, again. I couldn't make sense of it the first time it happened. I can't make sense of it now. I hope I never have to face this kind of tragedy again, but I am not naive enough to think that it might be me who ends up like Rickey. He was killed on Prospect at 10:15 at night on Saturday. He wasn't at a club, he didn't deal drugs. He wasn't in a gang. He didn't hang with the wrong crowd. I have no idea how this happened to him. In time, the story will unfold. The person he was with was shot but is still alive. He lived with his grandmother for many years. She protected him. I can only imagine her grief. He has a family of mom and brothers and sisters, cousins, and friends. I am sorry for their loss as well as mine.

We don't need a vigil. We don't need a speech. We need to somehow make the streets safe so decent kids like Rickey can live long enough to grow up and live their life. I don't have a solution. I don't have an answer. I wish I did. I wish someone did.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

3 steps to address urban crime and education

So many pieces of flotsam and jetsam have floated by my urban window in the last few weeks. As I observe the debris and am affected by it, I struggle to find an effective position for reflection and assessment. This is not an easy task. It's a wonder that anything makes sense in the world of urban revitalization given the emotions, financial issues, power struggles, intergroup competitions, and so forth.

Kansas City, MO is in the midst of a serious homicide rate over the last month. When homicides spike, everyone gets nervous. Neighborhood people stuck in the midst begin to worry that they might find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have heard more gunfire in my neighborhood in the last few weeks than in the last 6 months. Politicians get nervous that they better have a response lest the public hold them accountable. I heard KC Mayor James speak on this the other day. He said that the new Police Chief has a strong plan to attack crime and even in this spike, he has managed to generate more arrests for homicides than usual. What makes me nervous about all this is that no one thinks about addressing the cause of violence. We just don't seem to pay attention to reality.  When the economy was strong in the 1990s and early 2000s, urban crime rates steadily declined. Yes, there is a relationship.

KCMO has been struggling with its urban core school district, now known as KCPS - Kansas City Public Schools. New name, same district. The state is rattling its saber to intervene or take over because the school district is not successful. The state freely admits that most urban school districts are not successful, but no matter, they are going to intervene and do...something. They have no idea what that ill be despite that the district is in the midst of implementing a significant effort to improve student achievement. A questioner at a recent public meeting asked, why is it that the 3 majority black districts in the state (2 in St. Louis and 1 in KC) are the ones that can't make accreditation? Maybe it's that we don't EFFECTIVELY support accreditation in urban districts because it is, by its very nature, intractable? We have to go beyond the classroom to deal with urban education.

Crime and Education are related. Race, crime, and education are related. White power brokers don't seem to get this and instead are crusading about, claiming to be here "for the children," "for the victims," "for the average citizen."  It's time to stop the madness. This Emperor has no clothes!! But as our state commissioner of education said, we cannot let poverty and racism stop us from successfully educating kids. But she also implied that schools would do nothing about those conditions. You can't let it stop educational achievement, but you can't ignore it either. A conundrum that may explain the poor performance of St. Louis and Kansas City school districts. Rearranging the deck chairs won't change a thing, Commissioner.

Kids going to inner-city public schools come in with very specific life issues that suburban kids do not have. It ranges from dealing with violent crime in their neighborhood to the daily stress of poverty. If you've never been really poor for an extended period of time, you have no idea what the stress is like. These life environments and stressors affect education. Put inadequate nutrition on that list too. Urban food deserts explain part of that issue. Often overlooked is the horrendous quality of urban school food that comes from large, institutional food servers. How do kids learn without nutrition? They don't. It's our job to fix this.

So what are we, the average citizen, the fearful potential victim, the parents of children, the removed suburbanite, the concerned leader, and the disinterested resident supposed to do? As I have said for years - we must take responsibility.

Is it really so hard to understand? If a significant portion of our community is suffering to cope, unable to engage, ill-prepared to contribute, and stuck in the cycle of discrimination and hostility from us, then we must take responsibility. I constantly read on other blogs the following comments that are in direct opposition to my admonition.

  • "Why should I have to take responsibility for the inadequacies of others?"Because we contribute directly and indirectly to at least some portion of their inadequacy. 
  • "People should make their own way and stop blaming others." Convenient, when you are the one being blamed. 
  • "Just because I am white does not mean I am directly responsible for the plight of minorities." White privilege is a part of every white person, whether you like it or not. Deal with it. 
  • "Parents must take responsibility at home for their juvenile delinquents. Don't expect the schools or me to do it for you." And these inner-city parents are as overstressed as their kids. Who or what is supporting the parents in this maelstrom? 
Every white power broker in Kansas City that is trying to direct the governance, operations, and policy of crime and education needs to take personal responsibility and stop blaming others. This does not mean taking personal control. Neither does it mean ceding control without accountability. 

Here's how I would solve both the crime and education problem in KC. Feel free to adopt and use. 

1. Unless it is a violent crime or homicide, use mediation to deal with crime. This builds communications. Command and control is too expensive and will not last. Neither will it stop crime. This is not coddling. This is humanity and the most effective use of resources.

2. Triage the urban core to actually work for the kids: jobs or other economic support, business development (even if home based business), and whole, fresh food retail. These are not short-term programs, but a long-term intervention. Out of a sustained environment you will grow lots of support systems because there will be a place for them to succeed. Nonprofits are struggling because of the tidal wave they can't manage. 

3. The City must support neighborhoods and the schools within those neighborhoods and not just with lip service. You can't sidestep this, finesse this, or otherwise look the other way. The city needs to stand for the inner-city schools and put its resources, power, and support behind them. Then, triage its neighborhood support services to the urban core. It's not fair to the other neighborhoods, but too bad. Those neighborhoods have not been fair to the urban core in the last 80 years. The city has for too long followed an equal disposition of resources by council district. End that now! Focus on the urban core and you will see schools improve. 

There you go. Three steps, though not easy. Even I'm not sure I can be optimistic in the face of the unlikelihood that any of this will happen. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Our Children, Our Schools, Our Voice

How much do you value your right to be represented by a duly elected official? It matters a lot to me. I bristle at appointed representation that is not accountable to me, the voter. I recognize that there are instances and circumstances where it is more expedient to have such. But when you mess around with my existing elected systems, I really get mad.

The Kansas City Missouri School Board is about to be replaced. The state Commissioner of Education, Chris Nicastro, has asked the duly elected School Board members to step aside by January 1. They will be replaced by an appointed board. And not just any board, but a politically negotiated board that has been in the works for some months.  Key civic leaders have been organizing behind their closed doors with this state appointee to overthrow the KCMSD Board of Directors in a civic/bureaucratic coup.  My hyperbole aside, this is a real abrogation of our democratic process.

A parent-led resistance has formed and is engaging all communities in the KCMSD to stand up for Our Children, Our Schools, and Our Voice.  Here is a link to their press release, issued on Oct. 31, 2011

Their concerns are justifiably centered on what the state plans to do once it takes over the district.

Our Children are not known to the leaders in Jeff City and one look at how St. Louis has turned out under their supervision is enough to give pause to any parent.

Our Schools are currently implementing a transformation plan that 350 Kansas City residents, parents, and leaders worked on and support. The state is coming in without a plan. Will they stay the course? Will they come up with something new? Will their appointees break faith with those that have already begun the work of this plan?

Our Voice is being silenced by the state that is "interpreting" away the customary 2 year window to regain accredited status, despite their earlier statements assuring that they would not take over the district anytime soon. The fact that the state Commissioner of Education has seen fit to meet secretly with certain civic leaders to hatch this plan for takeover, is in itself a rebuff of our open government system.

I am not absolving the KCMSD of their poor performance in the past 40 years. I have, however, chosen to stand with the transformative leadership, plan, and progress that is currently taking hold in the district.  Our scholars deserve the best. What makes anyone think that Jeff City, via an appointed board, is what they deserve?

Others are supporting Our Children, Our Schools, Our Voice for their own reasons. I urge you to look at the statement of our District Advisory Council of parents and Teachers' Union.  Stand with these Kansas City residents and KCMSD parents and leaders who know our children and schools better than anyone. Decisions are afoot and will be confirmed December 1 and implemented January 1. There is no time to waste.