I came across ‘Harvest of Shame’ a few days ago, a 1960 documentary by Edward R. Murrow for CBS News. Harvest depicted the universal squalor of black, white, and Latino laborers, their struggles to organize and educate their children in the best fed country in the world. Murrow found an interesting group of kids in a town where potatoes were picked.
Bright-eyed, 11 year-old Laura wanted to be a teacher, as did Harriet. Nine year-old Patricia Ann wanted to be a nurse. Otis (yes, the kids were all black) wanted to be a dentist. Laura’s teacher, however, doubted she would finish high school despite seeing great progress from year to year. It was the same with Harriet (who was one of six siblings in the school). Back in 1960, only 1:500 children of migrant workers finished elementary school and only 1:5000 graduated high school. According to Murrow, there hadn’t been a single recorded case of the child of a migrant farmworker finishing college. It was depressing.
Fast forward to today: Lisa* wants to be a lawyer; Jamal* wants to be a writer; and Tommy* isn’t sure of what he wants to be (but he’s been told he should go to MIT). Making A New United People, or MANUP, is a non-profit mentoring program serving roughly 150 at-risk youth in Takoma Park and Silver Spring. Initially founded in 2009 to reduce gang participation by local youth, we have been working to launch a college admissions prep program this summer. Despite a ton of initial interest from our mentees and various do-gooders, getting set up has been a major challenge and learning experience. Four of the most enthusiastic mentees are high school dropouts and need to get GEDs before moving forward. We lost one young lady to beauty pageant prep and several boys to a summer basketball league. One of our funders questioned whether the teens we work with were even ‘college material.’
Entering a half-empty classroom at the library, I had my own doubts. Then Lisa explained how she wanted to be a lawyer – or a psychologist – to help people navigate the immigration system she’s been dealing with since arriving from West Africa. With no transcripts and limited knowledge of English, she was forced to repeat high school. Now a rising senior (for the second time, actually), Lisa showed up to find out anything and everything there is to know about college. Of all the people I’d expect to be sick of school, she was actually the most enthusiastic.
Jamal wants to tell stories that encourage struggling people – like the stories he tells himself to get by. I saw Scott’s* eyes grow as bright as Laura’s had been when he learned his grades may make him a good fit for a couple of specific schools. His posture completely changed for the rest of the night. In fact. each young person commented on how realistic going to college was starting to feel. Tommy asked if he could bring friends to the next class. When the computers all shut off automatically at closing time, the library director reset them so the kids could go another 30 minutes.
This is not 1960 and our kids are not the children of migrant workers (anymore), but the challenges they face are real. And the low expectations persist, including among many of the kids. The story’s not over (no harvest yet); it was only the first class and there’s a lot of material for the kids to work through. We also have separate tutorials for the GED students to complete. But good seed was planted, my hope is still alive.
*not their real names