I wanted you to hear this conversation.
Last week, I went to Philadelphia to observe a program called YouthBuild U.S.A. This was for What Works, my series of columns about solutions to the problems that plague black kids.
At one point, I found myself sitting down over pizza with a room full of YouthBuild students. Most of what we discussed didn't make that initial column, but I found it valuable nonetheless.
You see, I challenged them with a simple question: Why are black kids failing in disproportionate numbers?
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"Some parents, " Shardell Martin, a serious, sad-eyed 20-year-old, told me, "can't even provide a stable home for their kids. They stress themselves, they'll resort to drugs or violence or something. Something to fill that void. Some people just don't have no hope."
"The way I see it, " said Sylvester Waller, also 20, "it's a lot of teenagers having babies. Everybody's not the same, but you still got the immature people that haven't grown up themselves. So when you raise a child, you're giving your child that same attitude. It's just a domino effect. . . . The parents don't have enough structure to teach their kids structure. Then the grandparents are, like, 27."
The room laughed. Martin, whose son will be 4 in September, did not. "But sometimes, " she said, "having a baby matures you faster and makes you want to become more responsible."
"For some, " corrected Candice Paul, 20 years old and brash to the point of cockiness. "You might be grown up, but my cousin, she's 25 and she's still running the streets. Having a baby didn't stop her. She's still going to do what she wanna do. She got to hit rock bottom."
"It's generational curses we're trying to break here, " said 21-year-old Domonique Williams. "If you look at everyone in the room, we're all 20, 21, so we're all fruits of that. The crack epidemic, we're the next generation after that and it's hard to grow up in that kind of environment and do the right thing when everything around you isn't right."
I asked them if African-American kids have not come to define academic success as something white.
"That goes back to slavery, " said Martin, "from when they was tellin' the black people, 'Y'all are niggers, y'all ain't gon' be nothin, ' and they wasn't even entitled to an education."
"Most of the people we see who are successful play sports or are in the music business, " said Williams. "That's why we, as people of color, want to strive to be athletes, want to strive to be in the music business. That's where we see the most success."
"If we as blacks don't stop wanting to hurt each other, we're not going to have that many successful black people out there, " said Paul. "It seems like . . . another black person don't ever want to see their own color doing good. But you go to them white people, they congratulate their own color. I don't understand that. I never really got that."
Ours is a nation in which black kids are obsessively discussed, but seldom heard. That's why I thought you should be privy to this conversation. Consider it a challenge to conventional wisdom. I thought you might be as impressed as I am by the self-awareness of these kids. And the determination.
"Like me, " said Candice Paul, "I want to own my own business because I'll be . . . darned if I'm going to sit there and work for a white man all my life, and I refuse to struggle all my life. I refuse."
Said Lisa Rollins, 21: "We need to stop blaming other people for our faults. Step up and take the lead for our own problems. Nowadays, you see a lot of people saying, 'I can't be this, I can't do this. ... ' If you step back and take a look at yourself, you can do whatever you want to do."