Lessons on the Path to Change

March 7, 2014

I was twelve. My brother Charlie and I walked side-by-side carrying infant diapers and plastic shopping bags overflowing with powdered baby formula to our car parked around the corner from the crisis pregnancy center in Rahway, New Jersey. It was May 15th and our family of five became seven that day. We adopted Anton and Vickie who had been removed from the custody of their mother who earned a living via prostitution and abused narcotics. Anton was seven; Vickie, seven months. Anton, who lives with Down syndrome, had never been to school.

My now youngest brother and sister sustained the severe effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and physical abuse. They had lived for seven years in the back seat of a rusted ‘87 Toyota Camry. Watching my parents fight for the best school placement for Anton was my first exposure to engaging the system in place at the local community level to drive change and accomplish what was needed.

Anton began Kindergarten at the same tiny independent school my biological brothers and I attended, but the lack of resources to help children with learning exceptionalities quickly came into focus as Anton was failed at every turn. He moved to the local public school, which at first was a strong learning environment for him. However, three years later new lines were drawn for school zones and he was moved across town. Again Anton was without the resources he needed to succeed and my mom, a former special education teacher and social worker, began to dig in, do her research, and lobby the district for a placement at ECLC, an exceptional Special Education school one town over. Since my mom decided to leave the professional workforce when she had my brothers and me, she had time to study local law and statutes on education, hire lawyers, and regularly meet with school administrators. When Anton was finally placed at ECLC, it was entirely due to her unwavering commitment to provide him with the best educational fit.

My parents were able to expend considerable time to pursue this task, but for so many parents of limited financial means, there is not the knowledge or skill to confidently engage with leaders in the community and information necessary can be convoluted or difficult to interpret and apply. With a majority of underperforming schools clustered in urban centers serving predominantly Black and Latino children, the need to expand access to quality education cannot be understated.

I believe that if any school fails to provide children with a quality education, parents should be empowered to take their children out of that school and put them in another school. All children, regardless of their family’s financial means, should have the right to have access to the quality of education they need to succeed. If the voice of parents is silent, if leaders are not engaged by the citizens they are elected to represent, such change is not possible.

Anton thrived at ECLC. His academics improved, he was captain of the basketball, soccer, and softball teams. He made the New Jersey softball National Special Olympics team and now works full time at a local hospital. His school played a critical role in his development.

On the tenth anniversary of the day we brought Anton and Vickie into our home, I enrolled in a two-year service-through-teaching program where I earned a Masters of Education degree. I taught for two years at an underserved school in Kansas City. In the east side of a double-wide trailer parked in the lot next to the school, feral cats climbed through holes in the floor joining my 5th graders – most regularly when it was raining. After school, I worked as a life skills instructor for Kaufmann Scholars Inc., an organization preparing at-risk youth for college. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching, curriculum creation, and inspiring a love of learning in my students, but needed to relocate to New Jersey for family reasons.

When I returned to New Jersey, I began to work with children with learning exceptionalities as a cognitive skills trainer. During this time, I began to volunteer with E3, Excellent Education for Everyone, a non-profit organization with a mission to “Educate, Organize, and Empower parents, voters, policy makers, business leaders, community and religious groups and the media to advance the cause of dramatically improving educational options and standards for urban children.” E3 was my first foray into the advocacy world of education.

Noticing a marked absence of a substantial unified voice of parents with children in urban schools in the education reform debates, I co-wrote the founding grant for a not-for-profit corporation, We Can Do Better New Jersey (WCDBNJ). WCDBNJ was tasked with building this statewide network. WCDBNJ gave me the opportunity to mobilize urban communities of New Jersey around legislation that would help provide greater educational access for low-income families in underperforming school districts. I helped develop program messaging and a social media campaign to empower urban communities to lead the education reform debate. Our approach was people-focused. We worked with civic, community, and thought leaders capacitating them with a grammar to further engage their own communities and political leaders. We hosted a rally in Trenton with over 2,500 people and coordinated legislative office visits with constituents from each district. I worked with teams at Google and YouTube to create ad campaigns around education issues and built a social media presence for our small non-profit.

Ultimately, we did not achieve our goal. The bill did not pass, but the experience was invaluable. I learned about how communities cling to their schools, how neighborhood schools serve to weave the social fabric of families in the community. I witnessed the reservations of suburban families to fully jump in to support reform initiatives that might bring their children into closer proximity to children from urban and low-income families. I saw the political power of organized negotiations and how even voices of constituents can sometimes be drowned out by campaign donations. In all of this, I saw the resolve of those who have given their lives to be a voice for children, and the passion that stirs them to regroup after each failure and try again. In a sense, each failure was a new scar to bear witness to the fact that they have found something worth fighting for.

Sitting with a table of high school seniors at Hudson High School this past fall while a Fordham Democracy Coach led a lesson on creating a communications campaign for the policy agenda adopted by her class earlier in the year, I realized how Generation Citizen is adding students to the ranks of citizens who take civic duty seriously. Intensely yet respectfully debating issues they wanted to influence. They raised issues by which I had not personally impacted, but hopefully I was able to challenge them to push beyond some of their emotional talking points to drive closer to the heart of what they hoped to change.

Our issues were different, but the same desire to be an agent of change I witnessed in my work permeated the Generation Citizen classroom that day. It is my wish that when they need to fight for the proper placement of any of their children in schools, like my mom and dad, they will have the skills and knowledge to effectively engage with the right community leaders to realize the change they seek.

 – Dominic Pepper, Generation Citizen Junior Board

Dominic is the Head of Philanthropic and Family Mission Planning at McManus & Associates. He also serves on the New Jersey Planning Board  for National School Choice Week, is a National Council on Teacher Quality committee member, a Community Organizer with We Can Do Better New Jersey, and is a Young Professional Board Member of the Tri-County Scholarship Fund.

Generation Citizen is a nonpartisan, 501(c)3 tax exempt organization which does not endorse candidates; our goal is to engage our staff, participants, and stakeholders in political and civic action on issues that matter to them personally and in their communities. The opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the writer alone and do not reflect the opinions of Generation Citizen.

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