The Power to Make a Difference

How can we break the cycle of poverty for millions of at-risk youth in America?

Better Education? Sports? After School Programs? Parents that are involved in their child’s education and engagement in school?

All of these answers may be a part of the solution. However, they often have left me feeling that my ability to make a difference, the only way to help, was to give back by standing in a picket line or writing my congressman as one small voice in a large and daunting process to change policy.

However, many studies have shown that having a single tutor or mentor for an extended period of time can improve chances for at-risk youth to attend college, become gainfully employed and escape the cycle of poverty.

Armed with the renewed faith that I could make a difference in one young person’s life by simply spending a couple of hours each week with them, I became a tutor/mentor at Cabrini Connections, and organization that has been connecting local Chicago adults and leaders with high-risk, low-income teenagers for over 35 years. They strive to empower and encourage young adults to follow life-changing solutions through the time, effort and contribution of adult volunteers.

When I first met Shaquille, I was excited. He was a charismatic, outspoken 16 year-old. He loved music, had taught himself Final Cut Express (a student version of Apple’s highly lauded editing program utilized by many major motion pictures) to make music videos of his hip-hop group, and was a talented basketball player.

Being a teenager offers many hard choices regardless of race, class and environment. The difficulty of the myriad of choices can often be accentuated when the realities of a single parent household, socio-economic factors and being a young black man in a segregated city come into play. Such is the case with Shaquille. Although, he is a bright and talented student, Shaquille’s grades were less than adequate in his first semester working with me as a tutor. Primarily because of a school policy that penalizes children for tardiness and equates 4 tardys to one cut and four cuts to a failing grade.

Despite my weekly tutoring and mentoring sessions with Shaquille, he finished is fall semester with two Ds and an F. I knew that if his grades continued to suffer that despite his many talents and intelligence, the window of opportunity to attend college would quickly be closed to him. Further, many of Shaquille’s friends were pursuing high-risk paths that could eventually lead to jail, expulsion from school or even worse for a young black man in Chicago.

So this semester, I decided that it was time to step up my game with Shaquille and give him an opportunity to participate in what I called mastery training. I was going to offer him a chance to interact with me not as his tutor but as an apprentice, to learn many of the life skills and disciplined work habits that carried me to graduating Phi Beta Kappa in Economics from U.C. Davis and have propelled me to a successful career building several multi-million dollar companies as an entrepreneur.

I wasn’t sure how he would respond and wanted to avoid the trap of telling him what he needed to do or forcing him to do it. It was crucial to me, that he opted in to the next phase of his training. So I chose attendance to a Bulls game, as the time I was going to give him this opportunity, since he is a talented basketball player, and the backdrop of a storied franchise like the Bulls would allow me plenty of examples of those who had taken the path to mastery, while their peers had taken a road to mediocrity or worse.

We discussed the idea of mastery, and what it takes to actually become a master at something. We talked about the benefits of becoming a master and he discussed his dreams, goals and aspirations. I quoted the book, Outliers, where author Malcolm Gladwell argues the point that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a master in whatever you choose.
Through a process of questions and examination, Shaquille was able to come to the conclusion on his own that it would take about 10 years, with 3-4 hours per day of practice to become a master. It was a perfect discussion when, at halftime, a master hypnotherapist came out to work his magic. We examined his options for mastery from hanging out with girls‚ to film/video editing and production, to basketball, to music. I was often tempted to give my advice about what I thought he should do, but remembered my commitment that it must be his decision. He had to opt in‚ in order for this next phase of our relationship to truly be worthwhile.

For the rest of the game, we continued to bring our attention to the mastery we saw around us, Michael Jordan’s jersey, six world championship banners, his favorite Bulls players. As we left the game, Shaquille’s excitement seemed to be increasing, the tempo and intensity of his voice raised, he shot jumpers in the air and talked about all the things he wanted to master, or at least was excited about mastering. As we pulled up to his house, I found myself filled with the hope of possibility for him and also the fear that he may simply not willing into take on the responsibility of entering into the next phase of his training. As I shared with him that our relationship was going to change somewhat, that if he wanted to step into an apprenticeship of mastery, that certain things like, non-responses to my communications would no longer be acceptable and at he may not like me in certain instances because I would be more committed to his success than his feelings, just like my mentors had done for me.

As we stopped in front of the gate of his mother’s apartment complex, I finally asked him “Are you ready to enter the next phase of your training?”  “Do you want me to support you in becoming a master?”

After a long pause, he broke out into a broad smile and said “Yeah, I’m ready, let’s do this.” With that, we shook hands and began his long road of training towards mastery. I am hopeful this next step will help him to not just step out of the cycle of poverty, but will assist him in the achievement of his dreams and aspirations.

Nevertheless, I don’t actually know how Shaquille’s story will end. Whether he will endure the trials and tribulations that are sure to come his way; whether he will continue to choose this path when all signals tell him to quit and all hope seems lost. But I do know that he has, at 16 years old, make a conscious choice, a choice of more responsibility, a choice to embark on the road less traveled, a road that will hopefully lead him to mastery.

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