I recently heard someone say, “The choices we make, make us”. Ironically I had just finished two books, Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir entitled My Beloved World and Wes Moore’s book, titled The Other Wes Moore, One Name, Two Lives. In each book Justice Sotomayor and author and activist Wes Moore talk about the choices they made, both growing up amidst poverty.
I have often spoken about the important role LEAP plays in providing social capital to our students. And as I pondered this statement about choices, I realized that it was more than making the right choices that made these two individuals. It was the social capital they each had as well as the aspirations they held close. Social Capital, Aspiration, Choice – All of these so intertwined it would be hard to separate the value of each.
Think about it. If you have social capital (parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, employers, role models), the number and quality of your choices expand substantially. And if you have aspirations (which is influenced by your social capital), you are more likely to make the right choices because you have a goal, a dream.
Both books are written by two people whose choices, aspirations and social capital led them to greatness and both end their memoirs wondering why them when others growing up in similar circumstances found greatness out of reach,– lives ending up too often in tragedy. Justice Sotomayor, as we all know, is a Supreme Court Justice and Wes Moore, a Rhodes Scholar, former White House Fellow, and currently running a Baltimore non-profit called STAND.
Both had fathers who were alcoholics who died early but both had extremely strong, intelligent mothers and grandmothers. Both grew up in extreme poverty. Both had other adults in their lives as strong role models and mentors. By identifying good role models and accepting help from them, each made a choice.
Neither let the color of their skin or being poor (and, in the case of Justice Sotomayor, her juvenile diabetes) define them.
However Justice Sotomayor, on the death of her cousin and close friend Nelson, a drug addict who died of AIDS wonders: “why him and not me”. Suffering from survivor’s guilt she wonders why two people, living in the same neighborhood, from the same family, same grandmother and same opportunities – a person she always viewed as smarter than she, ended up a victim of his surroundings. She wonders “why did I endure, even thrive, where he failed, consumed by the same dangers that surrounded me? She concludes it was drive and aspirations, the sense of protection and purpose and the determination to serve.
In the book The Other Wes Moore, our Rhodes scholar author, chronicles his life and that of another young African American male also with the name Wes Moore. The other Wes Moore grew up in the same poor Baltimore neighborhood with a single mother, going to the same schools but this Wes Moore is now serving a life sentence for murder. In pondering why two African-American males from similar backgrounds, same neighborhoods, ended up in two such different places, he acknowledges the importance of his mother, grandparents, a supportive family network and mentors. However, he then goes on to point to the “decisive power of information and stories” the kind that is modeled by friends, family, mentors and inspirational leaders. His own reading of Colin Powell’s book, My American Journey made him realize the power of stories to change people’s lives. Mr. Powell’s story proved to many young black males that “we can be in control of our own destinies and each decision we make determines the course of our own life stories”. In each of these books both Wes Moore and Justice Sotormayor tell compelling stories.
Here at LEAP for Education, we provide a lot of academic support. But more importantly, we offer our youth information, stories, experiences and social capital, in order to guide them in the development of their own aspirations for college, careers, civic engagement and personal growth. However, our student’s willingness to accept this help and take responsibility for their own destinies will be the premier choice they ALONE have to make. There are so many stories here at LEAP. Stories of students who performed poorly in high school but made the choice to hit the reset button and go to college. Students who had babies but made the choice to stay in school. Students who struggled to learn English as teenage immigrants so they could succeed in college. Students who didn’t let their rigorous sports schedules or way too long hours working in a job keep them from making the right choices. What you will find here at LEAP are opportunities to learn and aspire. Every student who walks through the door at LEAP has made a choice.
As advisers, and we are all advisers, we can only guide, provide information and offer stories – our own and others – From these stories, we hope our students can develop the aspiration that will catapult them to their own personal successes so that some day they, too can tell their stories to the next generation.
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