This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Benefit – Alumni Address – Tariq West A few weeks ago, at Higher Achievement’s Ward Eight Center, the evening’s activities began with a little game. We, the newly minted mentors and the bright-faced scholars, were meeting for 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 a hand-full of skittles. Each skittle color represented a question, asking of the players in this sharing 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 the skittles around on the desk, and then selected one skittle. It was the green skittle, the most important of them all. And the question the green skittle posed was this: “Why are you in Higher Achievement?” The three scholars in my group had already drawn the green skittle and in their answers to the question 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 5th grader’s attention span. “How”, I thought, “might I relate in the space of a few short words, a journey that started over a decade ago and brought me full circle to Higher Achievement, to this brilliant, spirited group of scholars.” --I grew up just a few blocks away from the Ward Eight Achievement Center in Anacostia. One of 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 performing schools in the nation. As my favorite poet Jack Gilbert once wrote, “There is laughter every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta”; and so too was their laughter in the streets of Anacostia. I recall hopeful, even idyllic 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 almost imagine that this was a hopeful place, a place safe for the dreams of children. The parking lot next to Ketcham’s playground, however, was a pit - an epicenter of drug and gang activity. I went 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 National Guard was called in to stand sentry, with their humvees, m-16s and banks of spot lights that staved 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 musical genius, fell into substance abuse and committed suicide. Others were harassed by police and beaten by gangs of lost boys. At one time or another we were all lost as the chaos took people we loved. In the recent film, “Waiting for ‘Superman’”, education reformer, Geoffrey Canada captures pitch-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’ did not exist. Cause even in the depths of the ghetto you just thought he was coming … She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.” -As I entered middle school, I was struggling – academically, emotionally. I struggled with what it meant to be a young person of promise in a place so toxic to dreams. My parents were extremely concerned. As they had twice before, for two of my older siblings, they sought the help of Higher Achievement. Spending an extra six hours a week and most of the summer, studying math and literature, is taxing, and not always fun. Despite this, many of my fondest childhood memories are of my time in Higher Achievement. I remember having a teacher-crush on Maureen Holla. And how could I not? She had this special way of making every child feel that they could be extraordinary. One summer, as a reward for having won an academic contest, she took me out for a burger. It was such a simple gesture, 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 the written word could be magical and healing – that someone else’s story could make you feel less alone with your own problems. I remember the face, if not the name, of the mentor who helped me, finally, master long-division in the 6th grade, and the sense of chest-filling pride that came with that. Certainly the academic results Higher Achievement helped me achieve were remarkable. But academics were only part of the gift I was given. Higher Achievement helped me - a shy, quiet kid, 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 addressed a large audience for the first time. I’d been elected Ward One Ambassador by my fellow scholars and to this honor was added that of addressing scholars, staff, family and supporters at the annual Green Apple Awards. As I prepared to take the stage that night, I was absolutely terrified. But over the past three years, 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. And every time I did this, I became a little bit more comfortable with my voice, a little bit more confident of my place in the world. And that night, something bloomed in me. As I left the stage to thundering applause, to the encouraging shouts of my fellow scholars, I knew that I was powerful, that my voice could move people. And so it was, that as my time as a Higher Achievement scholar came to a close, 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 any means. But that voice that I’d found in Higher Achievement, and the sense of purpose and agency it embodied, gave me the confidence I would need to straddle two worlds – the world I grew up in and the world where I went to school. I participated vigorously in student life at Washington International School and mine was often the voice of reason to my schoolmates, the sons and daughters of executives and diplomats and princes. They elected me to lead our student government and followed my lead on stage and the track. The theme of ‘voice’ came to characterize my life outside of school as well. And not just in the sense that I talked way too much, which I did. I became fascinated with the idea of giving voice to the voiceless. This fascination led me to co-found two non-profit groups, targeted at communities in Sudan and Washington, DC respectively. It led me also, to start my own company, providing technology 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 my classmates to speak on their behalf, at our graduation. I was no less nervous than I’d been at the Green Apple Awards four years earlier, but now I had a much better sense of what was at stake, 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 the nations most prestigious scholarships, and won them. I’d lobbied admissions officers at the top universities, and was admitted everywhere I applied. And most importantly to me, as I left the stage that day, again to wild applause and the celebratory shouts of my peers, my father, his voice swollen with pride, gave me his blessing to 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 on occasion, but also opened the door to incredible opportunities. I interned with companies like Deloitte, eBay and Microsoft. I was a leader in the engineering and business societies, and in student government. I lead classroom discussions and lent my voice to protests and political campaigns. I was on the Dean’s list and received Stanford’s
Boothe Prize for excellence in writing. And when it came time to say goodbye to Stanford, my classmates chose me, yet again, to give voice to their sentiments on the occasion of our commencement. The anxiety that I’d felt speaking at the Green Apple Awards eight years earlier was still there. But also, there was deep reflection. I found myself tracing the course of my life, from those days playing in the needle-littered streets of Anacostia to speaking in the hallowed halls of a great University. I thought about the many, many thanks that I owe institutions like Higher Achievement, and the duties that my privilege demands of me. As I left the stage that day, this time to the cheers of the professors who’d guided my intellectual budding, there was no doubt in my mind that Higher Achievement would feature prominently in my future as it had in my past. Every year since the beginning of high school, no matter how meager my means, I’ve given back to Higher Achievement. But this year, as I returned to DC to begin a career in management consulting, I knew I could do more. I could fundraise and friend-raise, and most importantly for me, I could impact the lives of promising young people directly – I could mentor. And that brings us full-circle, back to the mentoring session at the Ward Eight Achievement Center, back to my lively scholars and to the question posed by the green skittle: “Why are you in Higher Achievement?” My answer to the scholars, and to you today, is this: “I was a Higher Achievement scholar. I know the challenges you face in the world, and what it means to aspire to something better. Higher Achievement taught me the power of my voice and gave me tools for success. I am here to do the same for you.” Thank you all so very much for being here tonight. Thank you for supporting an organization that continues to safeguard the dreams of young people and give them the tools required to make them real. Thank you for giving another crop of talented youngsters the opportunity to answer the question posed by the green skittle.