We spent five months at Harper High School in Chicago, where last year alone 29 current and recent students were shot. 29. We went to get a sense of what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances. We found so many incredible and surprising stories, this show is a two-parter; you can listen to Part Two here.
The stories of students living in what amounts to a war zone left me frustrated, angry, sad, and despairing. Shortly after hearing part one, I attended Leadership Greater Chicago’s “Celebrate Leaders Dinner.” Ric Estrada, 2013’s honoree as Distinguished Fellow, gave a sobering acceptance challenging the audience on whether we were modeling behaviors – defending ward or organizational boundaries – that led to our current climate of violence. He drew a direct line from the leaders sitting in that room to the environment that creates gang wars. Piled on top of my Harper High listening, I felt pretty hopeless in the face of the challenge.
At that same dinner, someone at my table suggested I meet Imran Khan, the Executive Director and Founder of EMBARC Chicago. Imran and I connected this morning at breakfast. I had Googled him in relation to EMBARC and was curious about how they did their work. EMBARC provides students in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods with cultural and social opportunities to expand their world view and help them build social-cognitive skills. As he told me his story, Imran mentioned that he was also a teacher. I asked him where. He replied, “Harper High.”
I am sure I gave him a look he is quickly growing tired of seeing. “Have you heard the This American Life piece?” he asked. I replied that everyone in education had heard it.
Imran then gave a poignant outline of what his four years at Harper have taught him. In the midst of what he described as a place more violent than Afghanistan, he has learned to be hopeful. He shared stories of how EMBARC and the leadership at Harper have come together to create opportunities for students to expand their horizons and learn self-advocacy. He remains stubbornly committed to the idea that these students want to rise above their surroundings and achieve greatness. We talked about how many of his students become CCC students, and we took some small tentative steps on figuring out how we can work together.
One of the things I love about my job is that I meet so many amazing people who refuse to accept the status quo and put everything on the line to change things. This morning, I met another.