Forging the Food Justice Path: Part 2

Forging The Food Justice Path: Part 2

Tue 10 Sep 2013

Story by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow
 

Read part 1 here.

THE ROOTS OF EMPATHY

Like Geoffrey Canada, the education reformer who founded the Harlem Children’s Zone, Smith is a reformer who himself succeeded against the odds. He was born to teenage parents—high school juniors who were asked to leave their small hometown of Camino, California, when his mother became pregnant. He and his mom spent his early childhood moving (twenty times, by his estimate) to stay with friends and family who would give them a place to sleep. In the fifth grade, he lived alone for a time, surviving on food stamps and walking himself to school, as his friend Derek Van Rheenen recalls in the 2010 book, Out of Bounds: When Scholarship Athletes Become Academic Scholars.

Yet Smith was also talented, hardworking, and fiercely determined. By middle school, he was already thinking about how he could get himself to college. He considered joining the Navy and working on a submarine but realized that at 6-foot-3, his height made that impractical. He then settled on football, which seemed to offer the most likely pathway out of poverty for someone with his size, strength, and skills. With the help of an uncle, he wrote a plan to win a football scholarship to a Division I university—detailing, for example, when he would need to win an all-city title and become team captain. And then he set out to meet his goals.

His stature—helpful in football—served as a double-edged sword, however, causing coaches and teachers to expect him to behave like an adult when he was still only a high school student. It was a lot of pressure for any young person, let alone one already shouldering more than his share of adult responsibilities. But at a few critical moments, Mike Coulson, the football coach at Eldorado High School, stepped in with fatherly support. “He would say, ‘This guy, he’s a kid first. He’s been through a lot. And he is uncommon. So you’ve got to not punish him for not being what you want him to be. You have to understand who he is.’ He made room for me,” says Smith, taking a pause, and then repeating, “He made room for me.”

In high school, Smith loved poetry as much as slamming into guys on the field. When he graduated, he’d earned recognition as both English Student of the Year and captain of the football team. He went on to attend the University of California, Berkeley, on a football scholarship and studied English under Robert Hass, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet and U.S. poet laureate. After graduation, the young man known for being a kind-hearted offensive lineman who helped his teammates with their English assignments signed with the Green Bay Packers and later the San Francisco 49ers. Injuries forced him to leave both teams; by the time he was twenty-four, the football career he had planned as his pathway out of poverty was over.

In an effort to regroup, Smith considered studying law. But Jo Baker, the director of UC Berkeley’s Athletic Study Center at the time, strongly suggested that he consider teaching. “He was always interested in others’ development, not just his own,” says Baker, who had known Smith since he was a freshman. “He was able to break things down, make things easy for people to absorb. And he’s an optimist. To me, that’s a teacher.”

Convinced that Baker was right, Smith returned to Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in language and literacy from the School of Education. This experience, he reflects, helped shape his approach to reform in Oakland, because it helped him understand the history of education and the reasons why schools are designed the way they are. Above all, his studies helped him recognize how schools reinforce cultural and class inequities: Even the notion that only a few make it to the top, he says, serves as “a powerful way to keep things where they are.”

Smith is, of course, one of the few people with such a background who found success as an adult. But although his determination and well-rounded intelligence certainly contributed to his success, so, too, he insists, was the support he received from educators, coaches, and other individuals along the way. “I wasn’t cared for in the ways I should have been, but I was cared for by people who chose to care,” he says. “And I know for a fact that if not for other people—a coach or teacher who said, ‘Come here, you need to stop doing what you’re doing; you have worth; you have skills; come this way’—I would not be here today.” That is the kind of transformative support he wants to offer now, not just to a few individual students, but to a whole school district situated in a community that has more than its fair share of challenges.

Part 3: In tomorrow’s installment of this five-part series, the authors of Ecoliterate take a look at the “two faces” of Oakland and the racial achievement gap in the city’s schools.

About the authors: In the new book, Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman and the Center for Ecoliteracy's Lisa Bennett and Zenobia Barlow profile inspiring educators, activists, and students who embody this new integration of intelligences as they creatively address food, water, and energy issues. In this story, Oakland school Superintendent Tony Smith shares his vision of a “full-service community school district” that provides an array of services to students and their families so that all children have an equal chance to thrive.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Jossey-Bass, a Wiley imprint. From Ecoliterate: How Educators Are Cultivating Emotional, Social, and Ecological Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, Lisa Bennett, and Zenobia Barlow. Copyright © 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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