A brief response to Gene Marks, “If I Were A Poor Black Kid,” Forbes, 12/12/11.

Last week, I had breakfast with a good friend (Amy) who is a college placement counselor at a charter school network. She specializes in placing “at-risk” kids – high achievers in every respect, who come from traumatized communities – in to four-year colleges. For a lot of her students, getting to college isn’t the biggest challenge. It’s persevering in college once you get there, which is based on a fundamental question: “Do I belong here?”

I appreciated Gene Marks’ knowledge of the opportunities available to those who can find them. Marks argues that these opportunities are equally available to youth of all classes and races. He states his case with the hopeful optimism that is the privilege of the white upper middle class.  While I admire his optimism, he omits a few external and many critical, internal barriers to success for “at-risk” youth. In doing so he misses half the picture. It’s not just what you do or what you have that helps you succeed. It’s how you see yourself, your place in the world, and the possibilities for both.

First, the external barriers. Many of the youth that Performing Arts Workshop teaches live in communities in crisis, where safety is paramount, and everything else comes later. In traumatized communities, youth may even technically have access to the internet and tools like SparkNotes (one of Marks’ suggestions); but SparkNotes and succeeding in school comes 32nd on the list of “things to do to keep me safe and help me succeed”; behind things like – earning money, buying food, taking care of siblings/relatives, and getting a good night’s sleep.

Gene Marks might get this. He might even agree. But the biggest omissions in his story are internal. I suspect he doesn’t get them because they are visible only to those who feel them. One of the privileges of whiteness is that you don’t have to think about the internal barriers; because individual agency is an assumed right of every person (“If there’s a will, there’s a way.”).

With all of the tools, how do you get access to good schools, to computers, to opportunities? You need to learn the language, the manners, and the codes of the educated classes. You need to know how to speak and write and look a certain way and act a certain way that communicates success in upper middle-class (white) circles. And if you did not grow up with that culture, you have to learn it.

The most insidious of barriers are those that are internal, and have to do with a young person’s belief in him or herself; the belief that “I am smart; I can be successful; I belong here.” Once you’ve learned the cultural codes of success, how do you cultivate that inner voice of success? This is the problem that my friend Amy sees her students struggling with once they leave high school. Her students excelled in their school; they took advantage of opportunities, worked hard, and got into a good college. And once there, some of them find out what many of us learn – that college is hard.

They might have to ask for help for the first time in their lives – and no one told them that that was ok. No one taught them that asking questions is a valuable part of the learning process, and makes understanding – not knowing, but understanding – deeper and more useful. So, they draw the conclusion, “I don’t belong here.” These internal biases are real, and are particularly prevalent among youth of color – primarily African Americans and Latinos, but also young women in some cases (see also: Claude Steele, “stereotype threat”).

I can’t possibly suggest that Performing Arts Workshop is the antidote for such a far-reaching problem, with deep internal and external causes. However, I do think that Performing Arts Workshop’s research has shown that the performing arts have the power to change two very important things: a student’s view of him or herself, and a teacher’s view of his or her students.

Performing Arts Workshop Teaching Artists participate in an all day professional development workshop.

Every day, our teaching artists encourage students to see themselves and their world in new ways through art. Students who may never have considered themselves “smart” create compelling theater improvisations; students who may have been “disruptive” choreograph a story through dance; the shy, withdrawn student finds his voice in poetry, and blows everyone away with his performance. At Performing Arts Workshop, “success” is creating a compelling piece of art. The act of creation, reflection, and revision of one’s own creative work in collaboration with others teaches three very powerful things:

1.      Learning is a collaborative process;

2.      Success and failure do not rest on you alone;

3.      Success is NOT having the “right” answer; so having the “wrong” answer does not mean that you are “wrong”.

All students deserve access to a high quality education. And such access is a factor of perseverance – over both internal and external barriers. The arts may not be the only answer, but they are a compelling tool in helping young people develop their own sense of self and perseverance in the pursuit of success in school, work and life.