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Take ghetto out of ghetto kids

"A radical approach based on common sense."

Take ghetto out of ghetto kids

By Stebbins Jefferson, Palm Beach Post Columnist
Saturday, February 14, 2004

I always had thought of Lenora Fulani as being out of touch with the black experience as I know it. Most of what I had learned about this nationally known political activist and educator had caused me to conclude that she is singularly intent on taking radical political stands just to be different.

Dr. Fulani helped to create the Independence Party and ran for president on its ticket. In 2001, she advocated that blacks in New York who traditionally vote Democratic instead vote Republican to ensure that their votes would not be taken for granted. Though I readily concede that, from time to time, the convoluted realities of race in America can cause all of us to question each other's sanity, I had decided long ago that Dr. Fulani was too way-out for me.

Then Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. featured her as one of nine "Ebony Towers" in his latest book, America Behind the Color Line. Out of respect for his scholarship and integrity, I felt obligated to take another look at this bold black woman.

In 1981, Dr. Fulani, a psychologist, and white therapist Fred Newman established the All Stars Program in greater New York City. Each year, this independent, not-for-profit school serves about 20,000 young people between the ages of 5 and 21. The primary goal is not to produce more rap stars and entertainers but to engage impoverished youngsters in theater activities that enlarge their worldview. Dr. Fulani argues persuasively that what predisposes minority youths to repeat the counterproductive lifestyles around them is not a lack of intelligence or inability to gain a formal education. Rather, what stunts these children's growth is a lack of real-life experiences in mainstream society that would inform them of other options.

Through her work, she has found that ghetto kids living in the most dynamic city in the world have no vision of life beyond the street corners near their homes. One might think that television would allow adequate access to the larger world in which they should aspire to live, but such doesn't seem to be the case. Nor does the knowledge that there are prominent black role models, such as Colin Powell, make much of an impression.

Hence, too many poor black youths are growing up unable to cope with the world beyond their neighborhoods. Lacking communication skills needed to relate to Establishment society, they tend to label the societal behaviors they have not mastered as being "white." Blacks who speak standard English, adopt standard dress and commit to formal education are indicted for "acting white."

Dr. Fulani believes that disabusing all black children of that notion must be our primary goal. She insists that to rescue those who might perish, we must teach them that what they call "white" means "middle class." They must understand that the primary issue is class, not race. If they want to have a middle-class lifestyle, they must learn how to perform in that arena.

To that end, Dr. Fulani's leadership training program sends ghetto teenagers to Wall Street as interns to teach them Establishment behaviors: how to dress, how to speak, how to conduct themselves. Believing that all the world is a stage requiring different performances for different roles, she advises those who accept the interns to demand that they adopt the protocols of the workplace and model themselves accordingly. She tells those who supervise her kids that to ignore departures from prescribed standards would be a disservice to youngsters who must change to succeed. The consistent goal must be to have those youngsters adapt by "participating in performances" previously unknown to them.

My generation learned the more sophisticated social protocols from our teachers and through our churches. Encouraged to continually seek upward social mobility, we benefited from the civil rights movement. Today's isolated youths are less likely to reap such benefits unless they learn how to discard narrow ghetto identities.

Such a radical thinker as Dr. Fulani offers a common-sense approach to our biggest problem -- breaking the cycles of black poverty. She would have us provide experiences that take poor kids out of the ghetto in order to get the ghetto stereotypes out of them. That concept may not be politically correct, but it seems worth trying.

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