This article was written by guest contributor Blake Jones.
GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is a federally funded program aiming to positively impact underserved middle school and high school students. Activities range from tutoring and mentoring to the facilitation of lessons and conversations about financial literacy and college readiness. I’m currently working as a GEAR UP Coach at Ben Franklin High School. This experience has honestly been life changing in some of the most unpredictable ways. I did not have any expectations of walking into the school like someone’s savior, just as a student trying to help others. There’s a certain level of authenticity within the students that one can never fail to appreciate, especially if you communicate that same level of genuineness.
There was one instance in which a student asked about the prevalence of shootings across the country. She brought up how the outrage surrounding the violence only focuses on the guns when it happens at Predominantly White Institutions (PWI’s) and places with a comparatively lower concentration of racial/ethnic minorities. This frustration came in the middle of us working together through a set of polynomial equations. The goal of the assignment was to simplify every equation, and then give an example of a set of values that would be a solution to the equation. This is relevant in the sense that the student I was working with did not expect the material to be so difficult, and as a way of detracting from the work, she started talking about the prevalence of gun violence. Trying to avoid talking about classwork is a common practice when tutoring high school students, but this seemed to be a very important topic to her. She spoke about her own personal experiences with gun violence and how it had affected her life, and I had done the same. This sort of conversational authenticity and mutual respect is a situation allowed by the GEAR UP program is a clear example of how talking out issues can serve as a form of healing and mutual understanding. What does it mean to listen? What does it mean to be a mentor? While working through this conversation, I was engaging with these questions. She asked me about my perspective, and I shared my truth, of concern over the trajectory of gun violence in some of the most vulnerable areas of the United States. I spoke about my own history with gun violence and its effects on my life. The students of BFHS ended up staging a walk out (with coordinated assistance from the teachers) to protest gun violence in their communities and all across the country.
It is important to be able to have these conversations with students and actively express that this tendency towards violence is rampant, but it is abnormal and should not be treated with any macadam of normalcy. No one expects you as an individual to be able to solve the problem, and nor do they want you to; however, it is crucial that you seek to understand the viewpoints of young people and how their experience contributes to that state of mind. Using the platform of coach, mentor, teacher, etc. to actively examine and empathize with the concerns of students is a critical role in promoting free, open, and informative discourse on relatively harsh topics. Think about the impact of your interactions with young people. Create spaces for growth, innovation, and understanding.