Success breeds separation. That's the thing no one tells you, the thing sometimes you don't realize, the thing that might make a child turn from his own potential. Success is like a pyramid, broad at the bottom, but narrow at the summit; the higher you go, the fewer people go with you.
It's a frightening thing for anybody but especially frightening, perhaps, when you are young, gifted and black and coming of age in a culture where "everything" - from the shows on television to the friends at your side - says there is a certain way people like you are supposed to walk and talk and act and be.
The young men and women of Self Enhancement Inc. know all about it. Take Emanuel Ford. He is 18, a student at Grant High. Ford was born in Inglewood, Calif., in the territory of the Bloods street gang. His parents were both drug addicted.
Then his mother straightened herself up and moved him here, where he is flourishing. He looks back at the old places and, yes, he says, he feels that separation. "My cousins and all my family members down there are still doing the same thing, still smokin' weed, still bangin'. I feel like if I was still in that kind of position, I'd probably be shot, probably dead or in jail. By the grace of God I ... changed my life, got on the right road and now I'm headed on the right path."
For 11 years, Ford has been a client of SEI (www.selfenhancement.org), a network of support programs - tutoring, college prep, sports, counseling, music and more - serving 2,300 students a year between second grade and age 25. It is featured in this installment of What Works - my series of columns on programs that are making a difference for black kids - because it, well, works. Two-thirds of its students improve their grades and behavior; 98 percent of its high school freshmen graduate on time; 85 percent go to college.
SEI is a non-profit founded in 1981 by Tony Hopson Sr., a man who had thought his future lay in the NBA, until he found it in a field less glamorous but far more important. If you're looking for quick fixes in this field, he says, forget it.
"The problems in black America are based on decades of neglect. If you're going to start doing this, you've got to understand that it's a marathon and that the problem ain't goin' away tomorrow. You're talking about starting with kids young and staying with them over a very long period of time ..."
Solving the problems, he says, requires continuity, comprehensiveness, relationship building, and a realizaton that children do not exist in a vacuum. "At-risk kids go home to at-risk parents. We do not have a youth problem in America; we have an adult problem in America. So unless you also begin to follow kids home and impact what's happening in the home site, you can't arrest this problem."
Another key to SEI's success, I think, is that it gives achievers a peer group. It makes separation OK. As Ford puts it, "What SEI stands for is, it's OK to have good grades, it's OK to be a nerd or whatever, it's OK to be smart."
Which is a reminder black kids growing up in dire places probably need more than most. "I came from a home where my mother was addicted to drugs," says Sean Brannon, an SEI student, "and her husband was a drug dealer and he went to jail when I was around four or five and he's still in jail. And my mom, she was addicted to drugs so hard that she's now paralyzed and can't move from her chest down, just because drugs messed up her body. The house we lived in got shot up by a drive-by because of their drug activity. The car we were in got shot up by a drive-by because of their drug activity. The group of friends that I grew up with, two are in jail and one's dead. I thank God everyday that I escaped that."
The moral of the story, then, is this: yes, separation is frightening. But sometimes, separation is grace.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.