I shared the following remarks at the Needham Steps Up Benefit at the Sheraton on October 7th:
Several years ago I began my teaching career in Los Angeles. I was an English teacher working in a Catholic high school set amidst the poverty and violence of Watts.
The noise of city life—screeching buses, honking horns, whistling trains—was routinely interrupted by the staccato of automatic gunfire, sirens, and the thumping of police helicopters hovering overhead. Nickerson Gardens, the largest public housing project on the West Coast, loomed over the school and was—and still is—the home of the notorious gang, the Bloods. Some of my students came from the Gardens, but many came from Slauson—Crips territory. And somehow, under one roof, students from different religious traditions, neighborhoods, family situations, and gang affiliations gathered each day to grow and learn.
To this day, the school remains an island oasis surrounded by chaotic and desperate waves of hunger, fear, and loneliness. The school nurtures the lives of young people who, in a daily act of courage, step from a battered neighborhood and into a learning environment that embraces them and challenges them to be their best.
It was in this unlikely setting that as a young man and new teacher I learned the meaning of community.
Within a neighborhood of broken and burned out buildings, vacated by families but infested with gangbangers and drug dealers, there existed a spirit of common expectations, connections, and care. There, even in this wounded city, a spirit of community thrived to serve our students. The teachers and coaches, parents and pastors, police detectives and probation officers, bus drivers and convenience store clerks and even the Bloods and the Crips figured out a way to work together to ensure the students were encouraged, supported, and loved.
There, folks from different perspectives and walks of life collaborated to ensure the young people of Verbum Dei High School received an excellent education. And the energy, pride, and support generated by a sense of community not only empowered learning, it served to diminish the factions, the fear, and the dissonance of adults and young people alike. A passionate belief in building community, I learned, breaks barriers, promotes understanding, and boosts young people.
The mean streets of Needham are a far cry from Central Ave. in LA! But I have learned that here, too, in Needham the commitment to build community is strong and it is an expectation you have of one another. Needham’s students, parents, teachers, religious and civic leaders, business owners, and older citizens understand the power of community.
As your superintendent, I have watched you work together, pool resources, and embrace uncertainty and differences to address real concerns. Your fierce dedication to young people is a vital part of a web of cooperation and commitment called community. And Steps to Success is yet another example of Needham’s steadfast support of access, equity, and opportunity for all students, including those who are often alienated and distanced from their learning and their community. Simply stated: Needham gets it!
Needham is not South Central, but we are hardly immune from pockets of broken families, economically disadvantaged youth, unemployment, ignorance, and loneliness. And Needham knows—you know—that if we participate as active citizens and work together on common problems and on behalf of young people, we will enrich their lives and, in turn, they will grow strong and achieve and become full and responsible partners in the life of the community.
Steps to Success provides high school students the opportunity to connect with a caring mentor who offers guidance, support, and friendship. And research suggests that a program like Steps to Success provides students more access to college and beyond. You should be immensely pleased that your personal contribution has enabled and empowered students! And know that your personal involvement is multiplied many times over by those around you and by many more who are not here this evening.
Working together, your voices and actions proclaim the value of young people and a commitment to their education. Thank you for all your work on behalf of Needham’s youth and families; thank you for sharing lessons of care, generosity, and humility. And thank you for continuing to demonstrate the purpose and the power of a hope-filled community.