“For these are all our children. We will all profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.” – James Baldwin
Flashback to 1993, NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley famously told us in a Nike commercial how he was not a role model. Back in September and again earlier this month, I heard two stories about why role models are so important: the first, from a young man who credits the caring adults in his life for part of his success; the other, from a successful CEO who shared how he didn’t have a role model, but could have used one back in the day.
D’Andre Hill is a young man who acknowledges making some poor decisions growing up, despite having supportive parents. Those decisions resulted in him spending a year in a Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Detention facility. Shortly before his release, a counselor referred D’Andre to PVJOBS, one of five community based organizations across the country selected to implement the Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative (Right Turn), a project of the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL), funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. Right Turn – Los Angeles provided D’Andre with education and training opportunities, work experiences in construction and a chance to get his high school diploma. Right Turn also provided him with caring adult role models in the form of mentors, counselors and coaches to assist him with everything from exploring education and career options to connecting him to supportive services like childcare and finding appropriate attire for work. When asked about his life before PVJOBS and Right Turn, D’Andre will tell you how he “didn’t feel like [the] role model” he knew he needed to be to his daughter. Back then, “I didn’t feel successful” he admitted. Since then, D’Andre has realized success in several areas of his life and feels differently about himself and his prospects in life. “I learned that I can do whatever…” he will tell you with confidence, “…just as long as I stay focused.”
Like D’Andre, John Robinson had to overcome some significant life challenges en route to his success. During a recent panel discussion on job recruitment and hiring, John shared his personal story of triumph in the workplace over preconceptions associated with his physical disability. He talked about the challenge of getting prospective employers to evaluate him based on his abilities and skillset rather than any assumptions of what he couldn’t handle because of his disability. Toward the end of his time on the panel, he matter-of-factly shared that while he now works to create employment opportunities for others, he had not always benefitted from having a role model in his life, especially during his college years to help him navigate the world of work – and he wished he had.
Today, both stories have particularly happy endings. In September D’Andre was named Right Turn – Los Angeles’ 2014 Right Turn Participant of the Year and was honored at PVJOBS’ 16th Annual Recognition Luncheon, Journeys of Courage for having overcome significant boundaries. As for John, he is the Managing Partner and CEO of Our Ability, a company owned and operated by people with disabilities to support people with disabilities. On October 14th, the White House honored John as one of the Disability Employment Champions of Change for his work ensuring that people with disabilities receive equal employment benefits and opportunities. The White House Disability Employment event coincided with Disability Mentoring Day and National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).
Yes, D’Andre’s and John’s stories are both impressive. But, for every success story like theirs, there are many more accounts of equally resilient and capable individuals who ended up falling through the cracks of the vocational rehabilitation system or who ended up in juvenile detention settings which disproportionately trap young men of color, especially those with disabilities.
For all youth, particularly those that are disconnected (e.g., youth in the juvenile justice system, youth with mental health needs, and other youth with disabilities) navigating the critical transition years are a challenge. NCWD/Youth’s Making the Right Turn: A Guide About Improving Transition Outcomes for Youth Involved in the Juvenile Corrections System offers a framework that identifies effective interventions covering a range of activities including career preparation and work-based learning experiences and exposure to role models in a variety of contexts. Right Turn utilizes the Guide to highlight specific experiences, supports, and services relevant to improving transition outcomes for youth with and without disabilities that are involved or at risk of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.
It was important for D’Andre’s personal development to have caring adults like those from Right Turn – Los Angeles in his life. And while John is doing great today, the experience of not having a role model still motivates him to pay-it-forward. Whether Barkley stands by his TV ad from 20 years ago is anyone’s guess. For those of us who work in juvenile justice world, D’Andre’s story serves as a reminder of the significant benefit all children reap when parents, role models, mentors, job coaches, etc., positively impact their lives. For youth who aren’t blessed to have caring adults in their lives, I imagine the “I am not a role model” narrative just sounds like an excuse.
Fast forward to 2014, DeMarcas Cousins, another NBA player, takes a different stance when it comes to how he views his responsibility to youth, explaining, “I come from a place where there are not a lot of opportunities.” “I absolutely believe I am a role model,” he declares.
The reality is that whether we choose to identify ourselves as role models or not, our children – as Baldwin’s quote tells us – are ultimately impacted by everything we do, from the time and money we give, to the legislation and policies we support and promote, to the very lives we live. As such, we are all role models whether we choose to be or not.
By Byron Kline, Project Manager for the Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development.
- Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative (Right Turn)
- Making the Right Turn: A Guide About Improving Transition Outcomes for Youth Involved in the Juvenile Corrections System
- Guideposts for Success for Youth Involved in the Juvenile Corrections System
- Improving Transition Outcomes for Youth Involved in the Juvenile Justice System: Practical Considerations (InfoBrief)