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Higher Achievement - GoingPlaces! Benefit 2010 - Alumni Address

Higher Achievement - GoingPlaces! Benefit 2010 - Alumni Address

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Published by Tariq West
A response to the question posed by the green skittle.
A response to the question posed by the green skittle.

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Categories:Types, Speeches
Published by: Tariq West on Nov 01, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Higher Achievement – 2010 GoingPlaces! Benefit – Alumni Address – Tariq West
A few weeks ago, at Higher Achievement’s Ward Eight Center, the evening’s activities beganwith a little game. We, the newly minted mentors and the bright-faced scholars, were meetingfor the first time, and the game was meant to break the ice.The scholars were grouped three or four to a mentor, and each scholar and mentor received ahand-full of skittles. Each skittle color represented a question, asking of the players in thissharing game, that they reveal something about themselves.Fast-forward a few minutes and I was on my fifth skittle draw. I closed my eyes, shuffled theskittles around on the desk, and then selected one skittle. It was the green skittle, the mostimportant of them all. And the question the green skittle posed was this: “Why are you inHigher Achievement?”The three scholars in my group had already drawn the green skittle and in their answers to thequestion it posed echoed a common theme: “We are here so that we can do better in school,attend a good high school and go to college!” And now it was my turn.I paused for a moment, not sure how to answer.The green skittle’s query, it seemed, demanded an answer longer than a 5
grader’s attentionspan. “How”, I thought, “might I relate in the space of a few short words, a journey that startedover a decade ago and brought me full circle to Higher Achievement, to this brilliant, spiritedgroup of scholars.”---I grew up just a few blocks away from the Ward Eight Achievement Center in Anacostia. Oneof eight children, I was raised in a pancake-yellow house that shared a block with a church,two half-way homes, a liquor store and Ketcham Elementary, one of the worst performingschools in the nation.As my favorite poet Jack Gilbert once wrote, “There is laughter every day in the terrible streetsof Calcutta”; and so too was their laughter in the streets of Anacostia. I recall hopeful, evenidyllic moments from my childhood on the block. Others are tinged darkly.Hearing the joyful shouts and giggles from Ketcham’s playground at midday, you could almostimagine that this was a hopeful place, a place safe for the dreams of children. The parking lotnext to Ketcham’s playground, however, was a pit - an epicenter of drug and gang activity. Iwent to sleep many nights to the sound of gunfire, sirens, helicopters.In the darkest hours, the violence on the surrounding blocks was so brutal that the NationalGuard was called in to stand sentry, with their humvees, m-16s and banks of spot lights thatstaved off the darkness and the things that came inevitably with it.Unlike most of the kids I grew up with, I had two parents. They were hard-working and smart,principled and supportive. They did their best to shelter us from the realities that we lived with.But despite their best efforts, the ills that marked the neighborhood also marked our family.
One brother spent time behind bars and barely escaped the gang life alive. Another, a musicalgenius, fell into substance abuse and committed suicide. Others were harassed by police andbeaten by gangs of lost boys. At one time or another we were all lost as the chaos took peoplewe loved.In the recent film, “Waiting for ‘Superman’”, education reformer, Geoffrey Canada capturespitch-perfectly the sense of hopelessness that abounds in neighborhoods like mine.He recalls, “One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me ‘Superman’ didnot exist. Cause even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought he was coming … Shethought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one wascoming with enough power to save us.”--As I entered middle school, I was struggling – academically, emotionally. I struggled with whatit meant to be a young person of promise in a place so toxic to dreams. My parents wereextremely concerned. As they had twice before, for two of my older siblings, they sought thehelp of Higher Achievement.Spending an extra six hours a week and most of the summer, studying math and literature, istaxing, and not always fun. Despite this, many of my fondest childhood memories are of mytime in Higher Achievement.I remember having a teacher-crush on Maureen Holla. And how could I not? She had thisspecial way of making every child feel that they could be extraordinary. One summer, as areward for having won an academic contest, she took me out for a burger. It was such a simplegesture, yet it was one of the happiest days of my young life.I remember reading
Down These Mean Streets
with John Branham, and discovering that thewritten word could be magical and healing – that someone else’s story could make you feelless alone with your own problems. I remember the face, if not the name, of the mentor whohelped me, finally, master long-division in the 6
grade, and the sense of chest-filling pride thatcame with that.Certainly the academic results Higher Achievement helped me achieve were remarkable. Butacademics were only part of the gift I was given. Higher Achievement helped me - a shy, quietkid, unsure of my place in the world - find my singular voice.It was just over eight years ago, before a crowd as distinguished as this one, that I addresseda large audience for the first time. I’d been elected Ward One Ambassador by my fellowscholars and to this honor was added that of addressing scholars, staff, family and supportersat the annual Green Apple Awards.As I prepared to take the stage that night, I was absolutely terrified. But over the past threeyears, there’d been something growing in me.In Higher Achievement the expectation is that when you address a classroom or introduce
yourself, you do so with your head held high, making eye contact, your voice projecting. Andevery time I did this, I became a little bit more comfortable with my voice, a little bit moreconfident of my place in the world.And that night, something bloomed in me. As I left the stage to thundering applause, to theencouraging shouts of my fellow scholars, I knew that I was powerful, that my voice couldmove people. And so it was, that as my time as a Higher Achievement scholar came to aclose, I left with so much more than just a certificate.--The challenges of upward mobility did not end with attending a top high school. Not by anymeans. But that voice that I’d found in Higher Achievement, and the sense of purpose andagency it embodied, gave me the confidence I would need to straddle two worlds – the world Igrew up in and the world where I went to school.I participated vigorously in student life at Washington International School and mine was oftenthe voice of reason to my schoolmates, the sons and daughters of executives and diplomatsand princes. They elected me to lead our student government and followed my lead on stageand the track.The theme of ‘voice’ came to characterize my life outside of school as well. And not just in thesense that I talked way too much, which I did. I became fascinated with the idea of giving voiceto the voiceless.This fascination led me to co-found two non-profit groups, targeted at communities in Sudanand Washington, DC respectively. It led me also, to start my own company, providingtechnology services and communications strategies to non-profits and small businesses.To bring an end to the high-school chapter, I stood again on a stage, recruited by myclassmates to speak on their behalf, at our graduation. I was no less nervous than I’d been atthe Green Apple Awards four years earlier, but now I had a much better sense of what was atstake, of where my voice could take me.I’d become a leader in the classroom and in the world beyond it. I’d interviewed for many of thenations most prestigious scholarships, and won them. I’d lobbied admissions officers at the topuniversities, and was admitted everywhere I applied.And most importantly to me, as I left the stage that day, again to wild applause and thecelebratory shouts of my peers, my father, his voice swollen with pride, gave me his blessingto go out into the world on my own.Shortly thereafter, I left home for Stanford University, following in the footsteps of an older brother and sister, both Higher Achievement alums. There my voice would get me in trouble onoccasion, but also opened the door to incredible opportunities.I interned with companies like Deloitte, eBay and Microsoft. I was a leader in the engineeringand business societies, and in student government. I lead classroom discussions and lent myvoice to protests and political campaigns. I was on the Dean’s list and received Stanford’s

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