By Pat Dillion of Madison Magazine
When Daishon Boyd hit another kid outside the South Madison Capital Hill Apartments, a neighbor called the police. Who started the clash or threw the first blow isn’t clear, but when a town of Madison police officer attempted to slap a disorderly conduct/battery ticket on Daishon, his father, Jamada Norris, was incensed. It had been a year since a friend of Daishon’s mother had dropped off the boy and his older brother, Malique, saying merely that she didn’t want them anymore, and raising African American sons as a single, low-income dad was tough. His plan was to get them educated while protecting them from the allure of street life, a culture in which he’d been embedded as a child in California, but he hadn’t counted on protecting them from the police. Certainly not now. Daishon was only four.
Norris recalls Daishon’s behavior that day as nothing outside the norm. It’s the type of behavior we’re all subjected to when there’s a frustrated toddler on the loose—crying, screaming, kicking and the occasional whack at the perpetrator. According to Norris, that’s all it was. So when the officer validated the report with an attempted arrest, Norris’s natural response was to protect his young son.
“The police officer said there was a law that if he’s called to the site, he has to take someone to jail,” says Norris. “The officers were about to grab Daishon when I pulled him back and said, ‘You’re not taking my son.’ I got loud with him so they were going to arrest both of us, until the neighbors came forward, outraged. They backed down.”
Unfortunately, the story of Daishon’s early brush with the law is not uncommon. We just don’t think of collecting statistics on toddlers who’ve been arrested or come dangerously close to it. All that comes later.
GROWING UP, FACING THE FUTURE
Forty-year-old Norris sits next to his now fourteen-year-old son at the Kennedy Heights Community Center on Madison’s north side. On one side of the door anticipation throbs with quick feet and excited voices over an upcoming field trip. On the other side, Daishon, who will soon join the others, thumbs through his phone like every other kid his age. Like every other parent, Norris tells him to put it away. Without resistance, Daishon sets it down, readying himself for questions from a reporter.
Daishon is strikingly sweet. It’s hard to imagine this kid crossing any lines beyond an eagerness to please—certainly not in anger or aggression. He’s quiet and gentle, his manner of speaking a bit hurried, but there is no trace left of a speech disorder that once held him back. He answers questions in short phrases but without hesitation. Does he like school? “Yes.” Did he have a teacher who helped him? “Ms. Drill, she always helped me when I needed it, invited me over to her house to help me get my work done.” Does he have a favorite subject? “I really like art.” Any obstacles at school? “For me, low self-esteem.”
Norris jumps in and explains that he thinks his lack of confidence came from not having a mother around and the hard transition of leaving her. “Daishon is the type of child who wants to be perfect in everything,” says Norris. “As soon as he messes up or fails, he shuts down. I have to let him know that sometimes failure is our greater teacher.”
Has he ever been suspended? “Yes.”
Years ago, Daishon outgrew the tantrum stage. He went on to be a happy preschooler and a determined grade-schooler, recalling his pride in finding four ways to spell his name even before first grade. He liked school from the get-go and flourished. Things weren’t always perfect at home, but his father set the bar high—a father whose voicemail message says, “Keep your head up, keep smiling, keep your spirit strong, God bless.” It takes only a short time with Norris to believe that his message and stories are from the heart. So when he talks about Daishon’s suspension, the tone of residual despair is real.
“In second grade, at Sauk Trail Elementary School [in Middleton], some kid climbed up the monkey bar and pushed him off. Like any other kid, he went back up the monkey bar and pushed that kid off.” According to Daishon and his father, a playground supervisor witnessed the event and backed Daishon’s story. Still, Daishon, only seven at the time, was suspended and the other child, who was white, was not.
Norris’s accounts of what he believes were blatant acts of racism may seem far-fetched to people who’ve never considered racism a factor in what might hold their own children back. People who drive through any community without feeling followed or watched, or fearing they’ll be pulled over for no reason other than being born with the wrong shade of skin color. It is not unusual to hear a Black man in Madison say he steers clear of white neighborhoods for fear of being profiled. Some call it “Blacking it alone,” and say they won’t do it without a white friend present. And with the national media infused with images and stories of brutality perpetrated upon unarmed Black teens and young men for little more than heading home, cranking music, trespassing or wearing a suspicious-looking hoodie, their defense mechanisms are not unwarranted.
Daishon graduated from Black Hawk Middle School last spring with a shining 3.5 GPA.
TELLING REAL STORIES, SHARING REAL DATA
Even as notable steps are being taken to confront them, racist structures continue to feed disparities that thrive in our low-income neighborhoods, our institutions and our schools, where recent data is particularly damning. When one week this fall the Wisconsin State Journal publishes the Race for Results, a follow up to the Race to Equity report released by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, which concludes the state has the highest disparities for Black children in the nation, and the next week publishes an announcement that Madison has been ranked America’s most livable city, without noting that its livability is good only for primarily white folks, it begs the question of whether or not we are publicly dismissing the welfare of our children of color. When sixty percent of our city’s out-of-school suspensions are made up of African American students, who only make up nineteen percent of the entire school population, according to the Madison Metropolitan School District’s 2012–13 Behavior Report, it’s time to dig in deep to find out why. And impressive local people and initiatives are doing just that (see Steps Toward Change sidebar below). But when community members dismiss or tolerate the presence of disparity in our city as little more than a piece of a larger national picture, they should take a look at how frequently our inequities double, or more, national averages.
“There are structural, institutional and historical factors,” says Erica Nelson, the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families’ Race to Equity project director. “Plus, there aren’t a lot of employment opportunities for folks who aren’t highly educated in a highly credentialed labor market. And, as progressives, there’s our own self-perception about how we’re making improvements in the circumstances that aren’t actually happening.”
According to Nelson, continuing to tell the stories in tandem with the data is important to raising awareness for people not affected by disparities.
“It’s not that people don’t want to participate in the solutions and don’t care. It’s that the degree of awareness and understanding has been limited,” says Nelson. “In many ways you can make data and statistics abstract, but when you add the lived experience, I think that improves or raises the level of discussion. The qualitative and quantitative cannot be separated from each other.”
If there’s any misperception that Madison’s racial disparity problem applies only to communities of people who simply don’t try, Daishon’s stories disprove it.
Daishon and his dad try. Hard. Norris is a champion role model. Even while battling Usher syndrome, an incurable genetic ear and eye condition that ravages his vision and will eventually render him completely blind, Norris chooses to work rather than live entirely on state disability insurance. He worries daily that his children will exhibit symptoms of this hereditary illness while working around the obstacles it creates in his own life. Due to his sight deficiency, he is no longer able to work in the travel industry for which he was trained, but he takes full advantage of state resources that find him jobs that fit—like his current janitorial work at the Manchester Building on the Capitol Square. He also values the community services that act as a safety net for low-income children, such as free meals at schools and community centers, tutoring and teen programs that keep kids like Daishon productive and off the streets. Norris’s story of perseverance makes the barriers all the more troubling and kids like Daishon stand out. Despite inequities that hold many low-income kids back, Daishon graduated from Black Hawk Middle School last spring with a shining 3.5 GPA.
Compared to 5.5 percent of white youth in Dane County, well over half of Dane County’s African American children reside in below-poverty households, making the disparities an issue of race as much as class. For impoverished children in Madison, the implications are high risk of suspension and expulsion, low graduation rates and arrest. Last year’s Race to Equity Report shows Black teens in Dane County were six times more likely to be arrested than white teens in 2010.
“Unfortunately it only takes one contact with the criminal justice system, or a school suspension, or father being put in jail or deported to get a student sidetracked or detoured and on the wrong path,” says Oscar Mireles, executive director and principal of Omega School, an alternative to adult basic education and diploma completion program. “This is how the disparity in enforcement of rules and laws as it relates to students of color sometimes offers enough discouragement to get students to give up on themselves and not even try to make their lives better.”
High school achievement can make or break a child’s future, and while Daishon shows great promise, the odds that he will graduate and steer clear of jail or prison are not in his favor. Not only do kids like Daishon live in a city that’s proven to be the worst place in America for low-income kids of color to grow up, Wisconsin relentlessly locks up its Black males, a fact that was underscored by a study on mass incarceration by the University of Wisconsin’s Employment and Training Institute. African American men in Wisconsin are imprisoned at twice the national average, giving us the highest incarceration rates of Black men in the U.S. Here in Dane County, adult Black males accounted for 43.5 percent of new prison placements in 2012, even though they account for just 4.8 percent of the county’s adult population. Those are scary statistics for families raising children of color anywhere in this state, boys in particular.
With a near arrest and a suspension already on his curriculum vitae by the time he was seven, Daishon sits squarely on the at-risk chart. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Youth Adolescence shows that being suspended or expelled from school increased the likelihood of arrest in that same month. Surprisingly, it says that the effect was stronger among youth who did not have a history of behavior problems and when those youth associated with less-delinquent peers.
EXPLORING THE VILLAGE THAT RAISES HIM
Still, despite brushes with the law and episodes of school discipline, none of this has yet to block Daishon’s path. He’s an earnest kid who plays the drums, was named the most achieved musician at Black Hawk Middle School and is a gifted high jumper. He uses much of his downtime to draw characters inspired by video games, and what he lacks in natural aptitude he works diligently to improve upon.
Tracy Drill is a Black Hawk special education teacher who was moved by Daishon’s eagerness to learn. Although Daishon is not a special ed student, he benefited from Drill’s drive to help all kids who are looking for a little something extra. Drill is so dedicated that she once opened her home to a homeless student until his mother found housing. She and Daishon formed a bond that extended outside the classroom.
“Daishon was one of those kids who is such a good boy you think he’s doing his work. So while we’re handling other things, you come back to him and he hasn’t done a thing because maybe he didn’t understand it,” says Drill. “So I started to take a little more time with him and he clearly wanted a little more from me. So we spent Monday afternoons at my house. I took him trick or treating, he’d play with my kids, things like that.”
Daishon has also looked to his nearby community center to fill in where his father can’t. Located in the Kennedy Heights neighborhood where Daishon lives with his father and brother, the center services a complex of federally subsidized Section 8 housing, townhouses supporting a densely populated integration of ethnicities and nationalities: Black, Latino, Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, people of Iranian descent and others. Despite barriers its residents face, like language and cultural differences and low-income status, the place vibrates with activity. Residents tend to small urban gardens in summer and fall, their vegetables and flowers tumbling from containers and raised bed plots, while children are hard at play in adjoining backyards. The community center parking lot is a concrete corridor leading to opportunity.
Since the end of fourth grade, Daishon has been a community center kid reaching for the brass ring in a neighborhood where, despite all the positives, drug sales and use form a natural undercurrent of the stress of poverty. Daishon is at an age when a kid often stands at the crossroads of choosing integrity or deception. In communities like Kennedy Heights, where scarcity is so plentiful, kids too often drop into a fast lifestyle predicated on even faster-made money. But Daishon has used the center as his beacon to achievement. Throughout middle school he was a regular face, an enthusiastic participant who religiously showed up to finish homework or join programs that nurture curiosity and bolster self-esteem. He enjoyed Boys Group, which promotes health and fitness, academics, leadership and service, and parkour, a rigorous group activity in which the kids navigate the urban landscape using obstacle course techniques. This is a place blanketed in cultural competence, Daishon’s safe place—his and that of the hundred-plus kids that come in and out of the center in a week.
“He’s inspired me,” says Jamada Norris of Daishon, his spirit, his drive, his good decisions and his leadership qualities.
“I feel strongly and passionately about community centers,” says Kennedy Heights Community Center executive director Alyssa Kenney. “One of the most compelling things about it is we work with kids and families for years. It doesn’t stop in June. We have a relationship for a really long time.
“Plus parents are real partners to our kids who come here,” she continues. “They have to allow it and value it and support it. It’s a place where change can happen, and Daishon has a real sense of success about him. But some kids want to join center programming but can’t fully participate because they help with child care or help get food to the table. These are real barriers that families and kids face.”
Ask Daishon if he feels the racial disparities that plague Dane County’s low-income populations, and without hesitation he says no. Ask his dad, a man who has been jailed numerous times, often for frantically defending what he believed to be his basic rights to be where he was, doing what he was doing, incidents that have profoundly interfered with raising his children and holding down a job, and you hear a different response.
“I try to stay out of any negativity with the law, and I try to teach that to my boys, because they’ll arrest you for anything here,” says Norris. “With a criminal record it’s hard for us to work or open up a business, they look at your criminal background so hard. That’s the thing that hurts. It’s what robs the children of their dreams.”
Daily, Norris navigates a byzantine social system he says is not set up for single dads. And being Black intensifies it; the barriers are high and the disparities are deep. According to the Race to Equity report, in 2011 Dane County African Americans were 5.3 times more likely to be unemployed than their white neighbors, a terrifying reality when you’re raising kids. A terrifying reality when you’re not. Even when he couldn’t afford daycare to keep his full-time job, Norris was forced to file for full custody of his sons before he qualified for government assistance, a situation that plagues low-income single fathers who don’t have full custody. And getting wrangled into handcuffs is as common to his life as getting fitted for a suit is to a middle-class white man.
Norris has watched friends in James Madison Park be arrested for little more than what the police report called “eye-balling” a female passerby. He’s also been arrested while just living life, once while celebrating on New Year’s Eve with the same gusto the rest of the world is allowed. While others cranked up their brand of “Auld Lang Syne,” Norris was at his home with friends doing exactly the same thing, until a knock came on the door. He reenacts the event with passion and astonishment. As he speaks, he dials a friend to corroborate his story.
“It’s twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve,” he says. “The neighbors were all there, we were wishing everyone a happy new year when the police knocked on the door and said I was playing my music too loud. I said, ‘OK cool.’ I turned it down and they said I was under arrest and took me in. I had to bail myself out for $200. I didn’t fight with them or nothing.” Without hesitation, his friend validates his story.
Despite his resolve to dodge the crosshairs of racial profiling, Norris’s Wisconsin Circuit Court Access record shows seven arrests and five disorderly conduct citations between 1998 and 2005 for what he calls “defending his rights.” Once, he was put in jail for possession of marijuana, an offense seldom resulting in jail time for white folks, who are six times less likely to be arrested for committing the same offense, despite identical rates of use. And a policy put into place to protect victims of domestic violence, while noble in intention, has produced an unintended consequence in the eyes of some. When a physical abuse or verbal confrontation between a man and a woman is reported, in many cases the man is arrested. And if he’s on probation it can easily be revoked, on just a claim. Norris has fallen victim to this no less than three times. When he provided a place for a female friend to stay for the night and realized she used his phone to make a drug deal, he told her to leave. Instead, she called the police and claimed he was in her space. Despite a lease that showed he was the rightful tenant, the officer arrested him and he was held in Dane County Jail for three days. In a similar incident he was arrested and spent three weeks in Dane County Jail and eighteen months on probation. He also lost his job.
“Anecdotally I’m struck by how often this happens,” says David Liners, director of WISDOM, a statewide organization that addresses economic, racial and social disparities in incarcerated populations. “I can think of five different people I’ve talked to who have told me the same exact story. This is something that really needs to be looked into.”
Liners’s organization is in the middle of a campaign to reduce Wisconsin’s prison population by fifty percent, from 22,000 to 11,000, by the end of 2015, a laudable goal with a long way to go.
“These accusations sometimes seem to be weapons in nonphysical disputes, a sort of trump card,” Liners says. “Certainly domestic abuse is a huge problem, and it needs to be taken seriously. But we need to take a really hard look at a one-size-fits-all solution to every complaint, which seems to be a reason why so many people are sent back to prison. We need to do this better.”
Jacqui Boggess, a UW Law School alumna, is co-director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice, a nonprofit advocacy organization that was founded in 1995 to incorporate the needs of low-income men of color into conversations about poverty solutions. The center’s research addresses systemic and structural barriers to economic security, with a particular focus on child support and social welfare policies.
When looking at the barriers Norris reports, Boggess is in agreement with Nelson of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. Her research shows that men and women of color interact with systems, agencies and policies that are not overtly racially discriminatory, but that have disproportionately negative impacts on the well-being of their families and communities.
“I don’t want to indict police officers because that’s too easy,” says Boggess. “This is about systems and structures, and implicit bias [attitudes driven by stereotypes that unconsciously drive our decision making rather than overtly racist views]. Individual interpersonal racism is not that big of a deal. To change social welfare, education, zero tolerance, employment, we have to look inside those policies and restructure. If we keep concentrating on the behavior of people who are reacting to the stress of their lives instead of changing policy, people will not have equity.”
A FATHER’S STRUGGLES, A FATHER’S HOPE
Somehow Norris escaped the drug-infested, chaotic California neighborhood where he grew up. He was raised by a mother he loved dearly, and who helped him raise his own kids, but she suffered from chronic drug addiction. While still on the west coast he received certification from the International Air Academy in California to pursue employment. Norris moved to Madison via Chicago in 1995. He found work at a restaurant and a paint store before getting back into the travel industry. He was a maintenance worker at the Dane County airport until his disabilities made it too difficult. In 2007, he participated in the Grassroots Leadership College, a training program to help residents improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods and communities. But like many non-white residents who’ve struggled with racial injustices and poverty through the years, Norris feels strongly that the rights of kids like Daishon and parents like him have often been ignored.
Ongoing awareness-building discussions, forums and workshops are taking place throughout the city for people like Norris who want to be an active part of change, and participants are signing up in droves. Some events are easy to access with free or minimal registration, like the Justified Anger Coalition, United Way’s Agenda for Change or MOSES Madison, an interfaith organization that works to change persistent over-incarceration. Others have fees (but offer scholarships) and target businesses, corporations, community workers and leaders and teachers dedicated to creating an equitable community, like Holy Wisdom Monastery retreats, the White Privilege Conference that was held in Madison last February or the YWCA’s Racial Justice Summit that brings in local and national experts on equity and change. The YWCA also holds racial justice workshops throughout the year and trains community members to lead racial justice discussions. And as part of the Madison Metropolitan School District’s new Behavior Education Plan, the YWCA is training Madison and other area school educators in restorative justice strategy, an alternative discipline model that keeps kids in school and out of the justice system.
Jamada Norris wants society to hold the same high expectations for his son Daishon as it would for any other student.
While some people are divided on the issue of what racism is and how to combat it, most people agree that low-income children of color should not have to pay the price for our ignorance. No institution is working harder than the Madison school district to fix the damage done by its substantial racial achievement gap, a persistent inequity that’s been looming over our children of color for decades, long before 2010 when Kaleem Caire, then the president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, pushed the “minority achievement gap” issue by exposing the inexcusably low rates of Black and Hispanic students graduating on time—then forty-eight percent of black students and fifty-seven percent of Hispanic students compared to eighty-seven percent of white and eighty-two percent of Asian students, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction—when proposing a charter school for youth of color, a proposal that didn’t fly.
The event woke up many, but few were shocked. As far back as 1995 the gap had been “officially” identified, prompting the development of United Way’s Schools of Hope, a program that places volunteer tutors into schools districtwide, and now in Middleton and Sun Prairie. There are a multitude of structural reasons for the gap, such as a chronic lack of training in cultural sensitivity resulting in limited cultural competence in the classroom. And many go much deeper than that—socially and historically. But the most publicly discussed culprit, low academic expectation and accountability, is fed by what Gompers Elementary School principal Sarah Chaja calls an “equity trap” trend, a deficient thinking model that sets up excuses for children from low-income homes who might not finish homework or be late for school or sleep during class. This form of benign neglect is one Norris felt the strongest.
“That would insult me so hard,” says Norris, who says this plagued Daishon’s elementary education. “If Daishon had a cluttered desk, or missed homework, they were not looking at what was wrong in school, they were always looking at what was at the house and say, ‘We understand Daishon comes from a broken home.’ I’d say, ‘What are you talking about? He doesn’t come from a broken home.’”
Gompers’ individualized School Improvement Plan is one example of the new districtwide strategic framework under superintendent Jennifer Cheatham aimed at narrowing the gap. And it’s working. Gompers, a feeder school to Black Hawk Middle School, is made up of fifty-five percent low-income students and twenty-six percent English-language learners. Chaja calls the twofold plan “The Will and the Skill,” driven by the belief that all families are assets and all parents want their child to succeed. In 2013–14, just one year after Chaja took the reins, Gompers saw a forty-five percent increase in reading growth within the African American population, a nine percent increase in reading proficiency and a nineteen percent increase in overall reading skill growth goals.
The “Will” portion of the Gompers plan began in 2012, Chaja’s first year as prinicpal, when she started educating teachers about culturally responsible practices through storytelling. Among other culturally relevant engagement, Chaja formed a cultural relevancy team and brought in people from different ethnic backgrounds to talk about their personal experiences going from poverty to success. Then in 2013, a grant from the Foundation for Madison Public Schools funded six teachers to go to Los Angeles to see where once failing schools servicing impoverished, non-native English-speaking students were now thriving. From that, Gompers overhauled how they relate with families.
“We recognize that there might be challenging things in a child’s life, but we still have the same expectation for all parents and all families,” says Chaja. “We truly believe every family wants their child to succeed, so we reach out to families, go to homes, bring them to school, send taxis to anyone who doesn’t have a ride to an evening event. I don’t allow those to be excuses for a child’s failure.”
The “Skill” part is what Chaja calls a “living, breathing document that they keep coming back to,” with checkpoints and timelines that are achieved—or they find out why they weren’t. “It isn’t something we just make as a backdrop,” she says. “It’s this disciplined way of thinking that targets strategies and closes gaps in learning and opportunities for students.”
ALL SIGNS POINT TO SUCCESS
According to the 2013–14 Madison Metropolitan School District Annual Report, high school graduation percentages grew for Hispanic and Asian students, but dropped a percentage point for African American students. But institutions like the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County and United Way, active partners in change, fund programs designed to doggedly work toward an equitable school system. United Way of Dane County has added much-needed manpower to its Schools of Hope program. And the presence of AVID/TOPS and AVID/College Club, a partnership between MMSD and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, aims to get every youth of color into college by providing students, especially future first-generation college students and those historically underrepresented in college, with the skills and knowledge needed to be successful in high school and postsecondary education.
Daishon is now a ninth-grader at East High School. This is the year academic performance is cited as possibly the single most important factor in a student’s successful graduation. When told what the on-time graduation rates are for boys like Daishon, he said, “I will.” No doubt. Last year East High’s Freshman Academy program helped reduce its out-of-school suspension rates of African American ninth graders by fifty-nine percent, and increased those on track to graduate by ten percent. And with the Kennedy Heights Community Center across the street from home, his father’s support firmly in place and a city anxious to correct its broken systems, Daishon’s future looks promising.
“The good thing about East High is that there’s just something for everybody,” says Drill. “Plus Jamada really cares for the best for Daishon all of the time. You can really see the difference in the kids that have that and the kids that don’t.”
As Norris looks into the future, he doesn’t just see the faces of his sons; he sees all African American boys, Black youth headed to college and those for the streets. He sees the numbers swelling within the walls of corrections facilities across the nation. The predicament. His response is heartfelt, absolute desperation in his tone.
“When I look at Daishon, I look across the whole United States, what’s happened in Missouri. I think about all boys’ futures,” says Norris. “I think of my sons, I think of my sons’ friends, I think of my cousins, I think of my uncles, I think about your friends. It’s not just me that’s suffering, it’s not just in Wisconsin, it’s everywhere. We shouldn’t have to suffer for the color of our skin.” ♦
Making Their Way
Meet three more city high schoolers whose hopes and dreams for the future rest on good grades, family pride, community connections and believing in themselves
Lee Pao Yang
PHOTO BY TODD MAUGHAN
Lee Pao Yang and his three siblings live in Kennedy Heights with their parents and grandparents, Hmong refugees from Thailand who escaped “the Secret War” in Laos in the late 1970s. Lee Pao’s a hardworking fourteen-year-old who, for a kid his age, has a deep respect for his mother and father. He says he’s grateful for how hard they work and that they’re the most supportive people in his life. As the first member of the Yang family to get an education, Lee Pao, a freshman at East High, has honored his parents’ commitment to him and his future by concentrating on his schoolwork and maintaining high grades. Last spring he graduated from Black Hawk Middle School with a 4.0 GPA.
According to Peng Her, assistant director at theCenter for Resilient Cities, grade performance like Lee Pao’s is the exception among Madison’s Hmong youth. “In all of the Asian American categories, the Hmong are the ones who are not doing so well,” says Her. “They’ve got the lowest median income, college attendance, graduation rates, so in the Asian subcommunity they are struggling.”
While many Asian Americans excel in education, get good jobs and have low arrest, suspension and expulsion rates, Hmong children have a completely different cultural reference than Asian Americans like the Japanese or Chinese immigrants who’ve been assimilating to American culture for generations.
“What people don’t realize is the Hmong are people who were taken out of the jungle and put right into the twenty-first century,” he says. As a result, their barriers to success stem not only from cultural and language differences, but also the community’s lack of understanding of why the Hmong are even in the United States and their struggles.
As refugees in Thailand, the Yangs led transient lives with no schooling. In Thailand, Lee Pao’s father, Xy Yang, was a jewelry maker. Now he does assembly work at Electronic Theatre Controls in Middleton, where he’s paid $14.80 an hour, an increase from $9 when he started, plus he gets health care for his family. It’s a good job, he says, providing security, but it’s hard not being able to help his kids with homework. The despair Yang feels about his lack of education is evident when he talks about how important education is for Lee Pao and his siblings.
“I never had school, moved all of the time, don’t know English well, don’t know reading or writing. It’s my dream he has the chance,” says Yang. “He has to keep going. I pass the university, I see so many people, students downtown, and I feel bad for myself. I want my kids to work hard to go to school.”
At least for now, Lee Pao gets it. “My dad makes sure to remind us almost every day to keep on going to school, at the very least. It makes me feel good that I get a chance,” he says. “I also want to do good in school because they raised me and I want to pay them back somehow.”
The Future Doctor
PHOTO BY TODD MAUGHAN
The Boys and Girls Club of Dane County on Taft Street is solidly Deonte Seroy’s home base. He sits in the College Club room with education coordinator Allegra Chell-Lewis, one of two people he defines as his touchstones there. Deonte and Chell-Lewis exchange friendly banter, the kind that develops with trust between an adult and a youth. She skillfully guides him through the interview as he lays out the years that led him to that room.
Deonte’s been a member of the Boys and Girls Club since he was seven. He first attended during the summers he visited relatives from his home in Tomah, where he lived until fourth grade. That year he moved to Madison to live with his paternal aunt Gloria, after losing both his maternal aunt, who had raised him, and his mother, whom he lived with for a short time afterward, until she died, too. Both were lost to separate drug-related deaths.
Despite past adversity, Deonte has solid family and community support. Directly across the street from the BGC he can find his paternal grandmother and father, and he frequently does. His aunt Gloria, who parents him alone, keeps him on track. But it is clearly a joint effort—home, the Boys and Girls Club and school, where he lists his science, social studies and language arts teachers as those who helped him achieve a 3.0 GPA as a James C. Wright Middle School grad last fall.
“Deonte is an amazing kid,” says Jody Peters, his College Club tutor, whom he defines as his other touchstone there. “He’s funny, and dedicated to doing well in school, and after everything he’s been through he could have just as easily chosen drugs and alcohol, which is too common among kids that age from his socioeconomic background. Instead he chose College Club and making the very best of his situation.”
Every day after school, Deonte took a bus to BGC, where he ate dinner along with a hundred other kids, ninety percent of whom qualified for free and reduced lunch. Here he participated in activities like track and teen night, where he got to play basketball and use the computers, and received tutoring through the College Club program. Plus he was a junior peer tutor helping kids with science, his strong subject. And there’s no reason to doubt him when he says with an air of confidence that he’s going be a doctor. Despite a tough start, he now has all the right support to make that a reality.
The Role Model
PHOTO BY TODD MAUGHAN
Eric Armentea is about as poised as a fourteen-year-old boy gets. He shakes hands like a politician and moves through the stacks of the Goodman South Madison Library with confidence. He’s comfortable around books.
His daily life is as organized as his vision for the future. He tutors math, among other things, atCentro Hispano, a nonprofit that supports Latino families in Dane County. And as the son of a steadfast working-class Latino family, he digs in at home, too. While his mom cleaned houses and his dad roofed them, Eric spent every summer day watching his six-year-old sister, Julissa, in the apartment just off Fish Hatchery Road where Eric has lived his whole life. The two share a room and Eric shows no sign of wanting his own space. He says the room is divided equally; half his trophies and medals and soccer regalia, the other, her dolls and “little girl posters.”
His parents, Dario and Isabelle Armentea, both Mexican immigrants, leave the house early, so Eric prepares Julissa’s breakfast, reads her books or helps her with her writing. While he looks forward to having his parents come home, it’s not so he can bolt.
“My mom is usually happy when she gets home,” he says. “She talks to us while she cooks dinner. I get happy when my dad gets home, too, when everyone is home and we eat dinner together.”
Eric’s interest in television is limited to sports, like the World Cup. He’s a competitive Madison FC soccer player and hopes to play for a college team, but not on a free pass unless he’s earned it academically. He’s a solidly committed student, having graduated with a 3.5 GPA from James C. Wright Middle School, where he worked hard and learned study skills through the AVID program. As a freshman at West High School he has a rigorous schedule. He’s one of thirty Madison students selected for the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Information Technology Academy, a program that provides services to kids of color to increase their enrollment, retention and graduation rates at the Madison campus. If he completes this four-year program, he’ll get a free ride there. Eric is determined to get there.
Not having a parent or family member to model the college process could easily be a barrier to Eric’s academic success. But according to Sara Winter, his AVID teacher/coordinator, this isn’t holding him back. “It’s sometimes difficult to engage the class, to get one kid to volunteer, but Eric was always on point. I knew I could depend on a few students to take a leadership role, and Eric was one of them,” says Winters. “He was able to recognize where there were opportunities and always willing to take them.”
Eric’s respect for his parents has nothing to do with diplomas or higher education; it’s about their dedication to him. “When I see my parents do hard work and put a lot of hours into their work, it makes me think I have to do the same for them,” says Eric. “Also, I want a good future for me, my wife and my kids. I don’t want to grow and be nobody. My mom always says I should grow and be somebody in life, so I have that mentality, I should be someone in life. I always keep that in mind.”
How did Dane County become the most racist place in America? The worst place for low-income children of color? How did Wisconsin become the state that incarcerates more Black men than any other?
Rachel Krinsky, CEO of YWCA Madison, responds to these questions with: “Maybe a more interesting question is, ‘So what now?’ Here we are with terrible disparities, nobody likes them, we all want this to be a place that is wonderfully accessible to all people, so how do we get there?”
In her opening to the 2014 YWCA Racial Justice Summit, Krinsky listed all of the initiatives that are moving us forward, initiatives that have emerged just since the 2013 YWCA Racial Justice Summit. Here is the list:
• The adoption of ordinances by both the Madison City Council and the Dane County Board of Supervisors to require Equity Impact Assessments of proposed policy, legislative and budget decisions.
• The public announcement that reducing race disparities in economic status will be the mayor’s top priority for his administration.
• The launching of an African American–led coalition, “Justified Anger,” to address racial disparities.
• The revival and launch of a new countywide NAACP chapter explicitly formed to address the Race to Equity data and recommendations.
• A mayoral employment initiative to support the hiring of 1,500 unemployed or underemployed people of color by public- and private-sector employers in the city over the next five years.
• A newly approved city-funded internship program for at-risk high school students in need of work experience and greater career opportunities.
• Nonprofits restructuring their missions to address equity as an organizational priority, including commitments to diversify their governance and workforces.
• Centro Hispano’s summer announcement of a new strategic plan to address disparities facing Dane County’s Latino community.
• The Urban League of Greater Madison’s recent adoption of a new strategic plan that focuses on increasing the outreach, training, placement, retention and advancement of 250 underemployed parents of color each year over the next five years.
• Creation of formal partnerships with schools and the school district around engaging parents and teachers in actions to narrow academic achievement gaps.
• The adoption of a new Behavior Education Plan by the Madison Metropolitan School District with the aim of reducing racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates.
• The preliminary development of a Race to Equity toolkit to guide communitywide conversations on our local challenges and to better equip individuals and the community to talk about race.
• An increased commitment from local funders, including the United Way, the Madison Community Foundation, the CUNA Mutual Group Foundation, Community Shares and Forward Community Investments to support equity efforts.
• The Race to Equity Project developed a Community Ambassador Fellowship for five residential neighborhood leaders, who were given Race to Equity materials to disseminate to local residents for discussion and mobilization around issues that are important to them. This fellowship was developed as a means to lift up the voices of those in the community whose life experience was reflected in the R2E data.
• An increased public-sector emphasis (along with increased appropriations) on early childhood initiatives, at-risk youth work and neighborhood strengthening that are all designed to address the needs of both the children and their parents—a two-generation approach to disparity reduction.
• The awarding of expanded state and local workforce development grants to the Urban League and the YWCA, with the specific aim to improve job training for unemployed women and men of color.
• The announcement by the Madison Police Department of a new initiative to strengthen police relations with at-risk middle schoolers, with the explicit goal of reducing the arrest and detention rates for African Americans.
• The decision of the local association of private-sector human resource professionals to make increased hiring and retention of underemployed workers of color their top priority for 2014–2015.
• Commitment from local media outlets to significantly increase the extent and depth of coverage of poverty and race issues. Specifically, the Capital Times has created a website called “Together Apart”that looks at race-specific issues locally and throughout the nation.
• Dane County’s development of a community court and additional funding for Restorative Practices as a preventive approach to reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
• The YWCA sold out its 2014 Racial Justice summit to 565 people committed to advancing the equity agenda. ♦
Pat Dillon is a Madison-based writer who has coauthored two books on socially and environmentally responsible travel in Wisconsin. She is now working on another about Wisconsin’s Native American tribes.