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Privledged - Comic by Wes AllenI don’t like to get into racial conversations (online or offline). Most of the time, race is just a layered excuse for something else that’s not willingly talked about. And yet, I come into a day after a conference where of the attendees, I was one of two who were definitely darker than the rest. I kind of thought that I could get past the feelings of grim disdain that I felt when I introduced myself there. And then, I see this article in my Twitter stream. No… now, I’m not quiet.

The article was posted at Forbes. I like Forbes. Its unintentionally honest. The magazine is literally designed for a financially-aspirational audience, and yet it is one of the few companies which consistently publishes the kind of information that makes it utterly clear the class system that exists across the USA. Weirdly enough, the way Forbes does this happens in its industry, regional, and cultural coverage, while also tending to make itself seen in the writing styles of its contributors (yes, class can be determined from the grammatical structure of sentences, even when an editor has had their paintbrush to apply to it). So, Forbes. This, isn’t a knock. Just one of those apparent things you do which are transparent to those who are and aren’t parents yet see the slants that all media channels chant in one way or another.

If I Were a Poor Black Kid is the title of the article, and Gene Marks (the contributor to Forbes for this piece), sets the environment in West Philly. I’m from Philly, specifically Southwest Philly. My parents (yes, I came from a 2-parent home, like Tebow), didn’t want me or my sister to go to any of the neighborhood schools. Even though we were in one of the “better” parts of the city, they were adamant that we’d not be like some of the kids of our neighbors (suburban thugs would be the context-analogy if viewed from today’s neighborhoods). So, they sent us to West Philly for school. Catholic school too. No, no. Can’t go to public schools, and didn’t test well enough to get a scholarship for the private schools. So, St. Rose of Lima in West Philly, down the street from Overbrook HS, down another street from Shoemaker (middle, elementary), and around the corner from Hanna (elementary) schools. Yes, this was also down the street from where that basketball court scene from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was filmed.

So, if my sister and I went to a Catholic school, there was no way we could be considered poor, right? Nope. Between family loans, refinancing our home several times, too many credit cards, and the generosity of people whom I’ll probably never know of, our education was financed. So was everything else it seemed. Mom was adamant about coupons, and could turn $20 into a Ford Aerostar minivan full of groceries from Save-A-Lot and several other stores. Dad kept the lawn green by water, water, and water (what’s manure for fertilizer) and the cars running by doing his own oil and a few other fixes. Though, I will say that the education thing was the sticky. If the grades weren’t As and the behavior exemplerary, we weren’t making good on their investment, or their example.

And it wasn’t just education, I was constantly put around people who flat out kept excelling, setting standards. My uncle co-founded Genesis Non-Stop Productions, founded several music artists on constant play on smooth jazz stations, and had a beauty salon of his own. My mom held down the house, while working more-than-full-time at Bell Tel/Verizon while knocking out 4.0 grades for her (dual) Master’s degrees. My dad worked the kind of crazy hours that made you wonder why he’d still commit to being vocal in the neighborhood watch, cycling, and other engagements community-surrounding. These three persons kept introducing me to people (pick a race, pick a financial background – all of them) who basically set the standard for life and how I should pace for it. I don’t even want to get into everyone else – literally, single and married folks surrounded my sister and I with constant pushing, enabling, accesses, and successes. We weren’t financially flush, but socially, we had some amazing and persistent examples.

Technology… ha! My dad wouldn’t let me touch the family computer until I started getting take-home assignments in my junior year of high school (oh yea, that was also West Philly, West Catholic as a matter of fact). He was literally not in the mood for the financial burden of fixing it if I broke it. So, I learned Mac and PC on the fly. I learned which platform to have my floppy and ZIP disc formatted for so that I could learn Mini-CAD in the only school that had it computer lab in Philly. Evernote, ah… I wish. When there wasn’t something in housse – my tech was borrowing someone’s TI-86 so that I could keep up where my calc and I couldn’t write fast enough in Physics and Math classes. So, if you think I know mobile (thanks Wes), its by accident and grace. I wasn’t built with that one.

My friends in other schools didn’t have that kind of environment. I constantly heard my friend Ant, who lived down the street from me and went to Bartrum Communications, how they had to constantly fight for the materials for their art classes. Like me, he was an artist, but he was good. And the students there had to pump out quality work with substandard materials – the teachers and school were hamstrung by resources to give them the best of anything – however, their fundamentals were always solid.

Then there were the guys I’d see on the court. These guys couldn’t test to get into Engineering and Science (I did, my dad didn’t want me there because of the areas across the street from the school that weren’t Temple U-controlled), Masterman, etc. These guys had parents that literally worked overtime like it was normal hours. It was normal for them to be in the afterschool program and then the streets, that is, if their basketball game wasn’t good enough to get them on the school’s team (there are only so many spots, and never enought sports/activities).

In high school, when I started my first job at Southwest Community Services as a peer mentor and health educator, these were the guys whom I was giving lectures in their schools on safe(er) sex, begging them to graduate, and handing to them condoms and information cards about jobs or STD testing. You see, they didn’t have a support system, mentors, and I was that lghti-skinned guy coming from a perspective of life that looked like everything was together, so they were not wanting to listen. Yea… they were poor like I was… but moreso because it seemed like their parents couldn’t create for them a world that enabled, matured them when they couldn’t be there.

So, I read this article within those contexts… and I nod. Marks is right. These are the services and options available. However, like many people devoid of the context of life for that poor (black, white, Latino, Asian, Indian, African (usually East African), mixed) kid, they miss that its the literal structure of their environment that has caused the propagation of so few successes. If they all had mentors (an issue we had too often at the community center), then did they have standards that were high but achievable? If they had those standards and mentors, did they have the tools to get there? And if they had all of those, did they have the people in their lives telling them the truth when they succeeded or when they failed?

Marks makes several “if I were this kid, then this is what I’d do” statements. Been there. And no, kids (teens even) don’t always have the ability to make those decisions. They literally need guides from inside and outside of their neighborhood showing them some of the steps, making them not shy away from others (do you know how hard it is to get African American and Latino students complete an application for a grant when they are in college, I do… I’m on a scholarship committee, and this is our key challenge). I wish it were so simple… but no. Their poverty isn’t financial (my parents went into crazy debt just to give me an opportunity that I’ve turned into college, several faces of an IT career, and Mobile Ministry Magazine amongst other items), its closer to the core of living. 

Their poverty is the health of their living conditions. They health of their schools (teachers, administrations, governments, and processes). The health of their parents’ lives (mandatory overtime, shame on you business owners). Their poverty, their context of being poor, is because all of us weren’t transparent enough with our struggles and successes to be the right kind of light to every kid. 

In high school, I used to give out condoms to my classmates. In a Catholic school, this was not allowed. Only one teacher knew about it (that I knew of), and I had one reason to do so – I wanted to see them graduate. If they didn’t have their high school diploma, it would be impossible for them to face the 21st century with any kind of strength. I used to give them out by the hundreds each month. And yes, there were some (women) who took so many I really wondered after graduation what became of them (I’ve literally seen only 3 people from that graduating class). But, they graduated. Their parent’s investment – at least the tuition of West Catholic, didn’t go for nothing. After that, being poor was on them, now it was about their choices. I don’t have kids of my own, I have several God-children. No way I’m going down the road seen too often in high school of those single parents (men and women), struggling to give their child better and they didn’t even finsih high school. Every kid deserves to start out with better, right…

If I were a poor black kid, and didn’t have the help of parents, people I knew, and people I didn’t know… yea, I’d be making it poor as an adult too. But I didn’t get out of Philly, make it thru college in 5.5 yrs, and finally find my stride as an vocational-professional adult. And it wasn’t because of me taking advantage of what resources were around me. It was luck, a lot of prayer, and the push of people who wanted more for me than what they have achieved. If Mr. Marks’ Forbes article can spark that kind of change to West Philly and beyond, then we can truly address the poverty issue for what it is.

If Marks’ and others who don’t have that context don’t admit to their misunderstanding of the context of life for everyone they speak towards, then being poor is more of a matter of what we – who have healthy social, economic, political, and vocational lives – don’t enable, not about what others don’t take advantage of.

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3 thoughts on “Rebuttal (of Sorts) to Gene Mark’s Forbes’ Article, If I Were A Poor Black Kid (in West Philly)

  1. Great article!! I did break down and finally read the original article by Gene Marks. He’s not exactly dealing with reality well. That’s no surprise to me! Thanks for this great biographical reality check!!

  2. Thanks for reading/replying Susan. He doesn’t deal from a full-deck on the issue, and hasn’t for several pieces. But, its not so much him that I’d rebutt, just the issue that poverty is financial… that’s an effect of something bigger. Denial of accountability is what I’d call it. And in his case, or at least the way Forbes’s editors allow his words to frame his character, there’s not much worth being accountable for on the way to meeting some aspirational, financial dream.

  3. You’re welcome (*grins*) and nicely put. We have similar issues in Palmyra, there are resources available, but a culture that seems to be negatively disposed to education. Parents don’t push, teachers who care get yelled at by parents who don’t (and administrators who are frightened), and failure seems to be assumed, rather than confronted. Yesterday I was waiting for my son and overheard two little boys expressing how they hoped they could, one day, get suspended from school.

    We all have to be enablers of a culture which values community, education, and self-giving. They way your parents so EXCELLENTLY raised you.

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