Last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced a much-needed policy change. Minor infractions committed by students will no longer be treated as criminal offenses. This is a step in the right direction, but if we want to keep young people out of the justice system and in school–where they belong–there is still much to be done.
I was a defiant child who was expelled from school. Because someone took an interest in me, I survived the crisis and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School. It was a challenging, exhilarating journey, directed by several key influences in my life.
During the 1950s, when I was growing up, my home town of Ventura was one of California’s many small agricultural towns. My parents were among a handful of black folks–African Americans–who came to California as migrant farm workers, picking cotton half the year then heading to the coast in the winter to pick lemons and oranges.
Neither of my parents finished elementary school, so my mother was very active in our education. She wanted for me what she could not have for herself. She kept a chart in the kitchen, and anytime my brothers or I used poor grammar–like saying “ain’t”–-she would make a mark on the chart. At the end of the week, the one who used the best language would get a candy bar.
Teachers took an interest in me. I was a smart kid, but mischievous. I’d bring my little bean-shooter to school and shoot beans and throw spit wads at people. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Rice, could see that I was bored, so she started bringing in Reader’s Digest. Rather than giving me the spelling words the other kids had, she’d hand me the vocabulary list from Reader’s Digest. When she moved to another elementary school, I wound up getting in trouble. Before long, I was expelled. So I took a bus every day to the school where Mrs. Rice was teaching.
Because my mother, Mrs. Rice and others believed in me, I was the first in my family to graduate from college.
The desire for education once was very strong in the African American community. Now we somehow seem to have developed a culture that celebrates ignorance. I find that to be very disturbing. The thing my parents and grandparents thirsted for most was education. We’ve got to figure out how to rekindle that desire, that thirst for learning that we once had in our communities.
If we’re going to do something for our communities of color, we have to figure out how to make the public education system work properly, because it’s the one institution that touches the lives of almost every low-income kid. We also have to be thoughtful about how we deal with mischievous kids who may end up being kicked out of school for being “willfully defiant,” which I clearly was, even as a second-grader.
With the BLOOM (Building a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men) Initiative, we’re taking an active, positive interest in young black boys who are at a crossroads. Given the benefit of some intervention and support, these young men can become productive citizens. I’m enthusiastic about it because I can see myself in the youths we’re trying to serve. That’s why I’m bullish that we’ve got to reach more kids, that we can do more, because I know first hand the difference that constructive intervention can make. At the right time in your journey, it can change your direction, your aspirations, your life.
Virgil Roberts is an L.A. attorney, community leader and advisory committee member for the BLOOM Initiative through the California Community Foundation.