It seemed like a good idea at the time. Ten years ago my family (Veronica) was living in a severely under-resourced neighborhood in southwest Atlanta with the desire to make a positive impact on the educational outcomes of kids and teens in our community. A good education can open so many doors, and education leaders often say that “up until third grade you’re learning to read, after that you’re reading to learn.” Most of the kids in our neighborhood were several years behind on their reading level and the same in other subjects.
So we decided to launch a weekend tutoring program – run out of our home – with community members and friends from church serving as volunteers. We talked to the kids about it to gain their buy in, went shopping at a teacher’s school supply store, bought healthy snacks, and proceeded to spend our weekends running a mini non-profit program. It was worth giving up our precious limited free time because we were sure it was going to make a difference. Sacrificing Saturday mornings was a small price to pay for getting these kids past the finish line of high school graduation and entrance into college!
The program had some sweet moments. I remember watching my family members tutor Caleb and Isaiah. I could see in just a few short sessions that the volunteers loved the kids like we did and wanted them to succeed. Caleb’s quick wit and Isaiah’s celebratory dance breaks kept everyone smiling, even when math worksheets seemed impossible. We’d eat animal crackers and write sentences on the giant chalk board wall in our study and repeat the mantra “finish what you start”. Our big, old house was filled with love and good intentions – both on the part of the volunteers and the kids.
But after a couple of well-attended weekend sessions, the program barely limped along. The kids stopped coming regularly. They didn’t keep calendars and their parents often had other plans on Saturday morning, their only time during the week to run errands. The volunteers would show up on time, but the kids were nowhere to be found. I took to walking the streets and just inviting any kid I saw to free food and tutoring… no takers. Once a man in a large, unmarked van stopped and asked me what I was doing. In hindsight I realize he was checking me out, but at the time I just excitedly told him I was recruiting kids for a tutoring program happening right now and did he know anyone who needed help in reading or math. Turns out, he didn’t.
As we tended to do, we doubled down and tried harder. We invited more kids, distributed flyers, talked to parents, moved the location to the park’s rec center, blogged about small wins (even creating a music video to Smooth Criminal to show awesome dance moves that can be attained when celebrating academic success). We added incentives for report card progress, took educational field trips, toured colleges, turned playing pool into a geometry lesson… and the kids’ grades only marginally improved. Despite years of this effort, almost none of them graduated from high school and no one went to college. Where did we go wrong? Why were the outcomes so poor?
The outcomes were disappointing because the tutoring program was only a tiny variable in a much larger environmental equation. Social determinants of health (SDOH) were exerting a powerful downward pull on these kids that could not be easily reversed in a few hours one day per week. The other six and a half days of the week the kids were dealing with neighborhood blight that kept them indoors and prevented exercise. When they did venture out it was cautiously because of local crime and stray animals. Once Caleb showed up to tutoring with a bloody hand – he had been attacked by a stray dog cutting through a neighbor’s yard. The kids didn’t have access to regular, nutritious meals nor did they always have their own bed to sleep in or heat in the winter. Sure they needed tutoring. But they also needed better schools, safer streets, solid housing stock, sidewalks, drug-free spaces, less harmful advertising, and cleaner air… just to name a few.
The kids didn’t just need one specific service; they needed a web – a safety net of interconnected organizations working together to drive outcomes – funded by donors who understand that gains may be small, and sometimes merely buffering decline. The kids needed the kind of environment I am looking for in a Kindergarten for my five year old, Aubrey… a place that offers them the best in education and supportive services.
I wish I could go back and talk to the confused, tired younger me standing in the middle of our street on an overcast day wondering what I was going to say to our volunteers. I wish I could tell her to zoom out, to realize that the failing tutoring program was not the point, in and of itself. Instead of sending those volunteers home, we could have brainstormed what pursuing health equity for those kids would have looked like – drawing a huge asset map and figuring out what was missing in the neighborhood. We could have pushed the local clinic to send mobile unit services or transportation so Caleb could have gotten his sports physical to play football. We could have met with the Atlanta school leadership to lobby for increasing resources at the local elementary school, which was overcrowded and had failing scores.
Most importantly, I wish I could tell myself that disappointing outcomes were an opportunity. They were a chance to look around and see the bigger picture of the conditions in which the kids were living, studying, and playing, and how those conditions were fostering sickness, not health.
In this New Year, would you resolve with me to be a person who sees the big picture of health equity, yet is willing to work on the nuts and bolts to create #healthyneighborhoods? Because,
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead