The One Son Who Got Away
By Dr. Andre M. Perry
About a year ago, Ms. Chanda Burks met me in my office to discuss establishing a mentoring program for black males through her sorority Delta Sigma Theta. Ms. Burks brought along her adolescent son Jared Michael Francis to take in the conversation. One year later, just a few days ago, I bumped into Ms. Burks at a NOLA for Life event. There, Ms. Burks informed me that her son Jared died from multiple gunshots in front of their home in the hushed neighborhood of Tall Timbers. He died September 15, 2012. He was an 18 year-old senior in high school.
After hearing this horrible news, I immediately recalled the robust conversation we had about mentoring and staying in school. I remembered how encouraged Ms. Burks and her son left the meeting. Ms. Burks in fact told me during our recent encounter that our past chat made a positive impression on Jared. But, deep down I knew a conversation wasn’t enough. I missed an opportunity to save a son.
A balance of regret and responsibility motivated me to call Ms. Burks a few days later. I also wanted to get a sense of what happened in between the time we last met. Ms. Burks told me that he lived the typical life of a middle-class teenager. She saw few negative signs. Ms. Burks acknowledged the presence of one peer that showed a penchant for trouble. No one as of yet has been charged with his murder. I told myself that a few more conversations could have reached Jared and his troubled friend. But ephemeral conversations are not enough.
I like many others have abdicated our community responsibilities to teachers, community based organizations and City Hall. To a fault, we’ve placed undue responsibilities on police and prisons to restore order. Given the magnitude of our community problems, everyday citizens must unlearn how we made disengagement an acceptable behavior.
According to the report, Building an Inclusive, High-Skill Workforce for New Orleans Next Economy from the Greater New Orleans Data Center, 14,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 24 in the New Orleans metro are neither enrolled in school nor employed. Disconnected youth is the latest tag used to describe this horrible state of anomie. It means that fourteen thousand youth in the New Orleans metro are adrift and disengaged from the social anchors that could instill the type of character that incite youth to fight injustice instead of producing it.
Jared did not qualify as someone who we deem as disconnected, but those we take for granted are receiving the collateral damage of socially dysfunctional communities. We cannot escape ourselves.
The overwhelming statistics demand intimate and intrusive engagement that rises above fleeting conversations. But they’re reasons why we don’t get close enough to embrace a young man or woman. We’re scared. The annual murder counts are more than alarming. Murder creates an environment of fear that facilitates a hands-free ethic of care. Consequently, even the best of us essentially drop in from our collective ivory towers only to helicopter out with deliberate speed. We never become a part of the social milieu. We’ve become what I often refer to as arms-length advocates.
Arms-length advocacy can’t replace the strong hugs our children actually need. We can’t let fear or disengagement deny ourselves opportunities to prevent the unnecessary loss of yet another Jared. The community involvement we need is so simplistic it’s almost insulting to repeat. If more of us who care are fully present, murder rarely happens. If family members, neighbors and friends displayed the courage and love to take the gun away, report the crime and redirect the anger, we would not be our current situation. If those who are not expected to save a son took every opportunity to act, the ongoing professional work could gain traction.
Ms. Burks and I simply can’t let another opportunity pass. If the community character is not present, we must develop it. Moral discernment must be taught, displayed and executed. Therefore, we ask everyone who reads this to take opportunities to build our capacities.
Each year for my birthday (October 12) I try to give back. I’m privileged. Service is the obligation of privilege. My birthday always seemed like the perfect date to give back. This year I asked Ms. Chandra Burks if we could become mentors and direct our friends to deeper mentoring opportunities. She agreed. Over the next week we are directing people to the New Orleans Kids Partnership Mentor and Tutor sign-up program < http://www.nokp.org/mentortutor/>.
New Orleans Kids Partnership has coordinated a variety of proven mentoring and tutoring programs across the Greater New Orleans region. NOKP made it very convenient for anyone to choose an organization that fits our busy schedules. They also provide training and guidance on how to mentor or tutor. We can’t assume that everyone can serve as a role model. Many “mentors” need mentoring. Nevertheless, NOKP and its partners make youth engagement a safe and organized process.
When you sign up, please indicate in the appropriate section that you heard about NOKP’s mentoring program through Ms. Chandra Burks.
As Ms. Burks and I meandered through our discussion, she could not keep straight the number of children she currently had. She would say, “My three…I mean my two children.” She may have lost a son, but she certainly gained a brother. Hopefully, we will soon begin losing track of how many sons we have gained rather than from how many we have lost.
Andre Perry, Ph.D. (twitter: @andreperrynola) is Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola University New Orleans and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City.