Walking through downtown Chicago it’s hard not to notice that President Obama is a native son. There are pictures in the windows, banners that hang from street posts for whole blocks, and among the people there is a heightened sense of opportunity and possibility. Yet, on the south side of the city, there is the sense that this sense of possibility has not and will not penetrate the everyday reality of young people who make their way to school, stray on the corner, and who live with the statistics.
Seated in a barbershop days after the Inauguration, a group of black men straddling 40, apparently out of work or without steady employment, took measure of what this meant for them. What’s your excuse now? What are you gonna do? There was a sense that even if the problems haven’t changed, their response to it should. With the recent election the ceiling of possibilities has shifted, but the question lingers, what are we going to do to raise the floor?
At The Young People’s Project, we operate between possibility (aspiration mode) and street level reality (survival mode). Our innovation is Math Literacy Work–young people organizing themselves to learn pieces of math and share it. We’ve inherited this work from the Algebra Project and have begun to broaden the frame for our work from Math Literacy to Literacy Work. More so then ever, young people need to develop multiple literacies and have the creativity, flexibility and imagination to put what they know to use, to not only be employable, but to be prepared to be among the changemakers and innovators who are helping to shape our future.
And so you can imagine high school students in a gymnasium playing math games with elementary students, or young people using spoken word and poetry to help children read and write, or young people using digital media to conduct research and share stories and create platforms for communication, or teaching other young people how to build and program robots to perform functions, or college students working with programmers to teach high school students how to create video games that become tools for learning about math, science and culture.
We think of this as learning and teaching, and as the pretext for young people leading and organizing. Young people who have invested in learning and teaching have extended themselves into their neighborhoods and communities, hosting NeighborCircles, organizing community conversations about quality education, transforming dormant space into environments for learning and sharing, and, in the case of the Baltimore Algebra Project, advocating in the streets and in the halls of local government for institutional change and accountability.
In order to raise the floor of success, achievement, and possibility for all children we need to invest in young people to work the solution. The investment in young people to do literacy work, will yield more in the short and long term, greater social and economic returns than current methods of working the problem, and stands in direct opposition to the trend over the last two decades to invest in the failure of students. Each one teach ten, or for those shopping for a social and economic bargain, ten for the price of one.