Recently, I came across a blog post written by a high school teacher, speaking to NBA MVP, Stephen Curry. The post is titled, “Dear Steph Curry, Now That You Are MVP Please Don’t Come Visit My High School,” and can be found here.
I believe the teacher that wrote this letter is well meaning and cares deeply about the future of his students. I can relate to his experience: working with youth who idealize pro athletes and celebrities. I also have a deep awareness of the impact of the underlying messages we as a society have been perpetuating with young men and women of color about their options for career choices and career success.
If you walk into one of these marginalized communities, sit down with a group of young people, and ask them what they want to do with their lives, the common (but not only) responses you will receive are “I don’t know,” “I want to be a pro-athlete,” “I want to be a rap artist/singer,” or, “I want to be rich.” These responses stem from a variety of different experiences. Though, I would argue that these responses are overwhelmingly a result of a lack of exposure to individuals who come from their same backgrounds and neighbourhoods, who have overcome the challenges they have faced, and who look like them, and have found success in careers outside of the entertainment industries. Not that these individuals don’t exist. Rather, that they aren’t exposed to them as regularly as they are to mass media and pop culture.
These messages, can be traced back even further, to a social history and culture that has used and abused a group of individuals, to their advantage and for their entertainment. To this day, college athletics continue to engage in practices that are tremendously advantageous to the owners, coaches, and stakeholders, at the expense of young student athletes. While not in every case, many African American youth, from low socio-economic backgrounds, are given athletic scholarships to schools they otherwise could not afford to attend. On the surface, this appears to be an incredible opportunity to reach their dreams and in some (albeit rare) cases, leads to a successful career in the professional leagues.
In the worst case scenarios, these scholarships and opportunities become their ONLY means to achieve success. For example, there have been many stories of student athletes, such as Stanley Doughty, who have been given an athletic scholarship to play sports at various colleges and universities. After suffering various injuries during games and practice, they are no longer able to play, they have lost their scholarship, and were forced to withdraw from school due to an inability to pay their tuition, and therefore were not able to obtain a degree that would allow them to enter a new career field. Many are also waived of any compensation for medical bills or treatment. These young men and women are left with no other options than to return to their home community, with even greater challenges than they left with. This is only one example of how this well-meaning opportunity can impair a youth’s career achievement, though not the only example.
More generally, we as a society, continually send minority youth the message that their only means to achieve success is by following in the foot- steps of these pro-athletes, celebrities, and music artists. We do this by how we portray people of color in the media, who we hire in leadership positions in our businesses and organizations, through our social systems, and through interpersonal dialogue. And for this reason, I felt compelled to respond to this teacher’s open letter to Stephen Curry. Again, while I believe he is well meaning, and I do agree with some of his rationale: that we tend to overemphasize the value of pro-athletics as a career path for minority youth and limit their career options and career achievement in the process, I strongly disagree with his conclusion.
It’s true. Many of our vulnerable and marginalized youth have not been afforded the physical capabilities, talents or resources needed to achieve the level of success that Stephen Curry has been blessed with. However, I believe there is significantly more harm that can be caused by telling a young person that the odds of failure are 99.9 to 0.1 and so they should never try, particularly if that young individual is of a racial minority status.
Because these young individuals are more aware of the challenges they face than anybody on the outside looking in. They are faced with experiences and situations that remind them every single day that the odds are stacked against them. They are wise and intelligent enough to look around their neighbourhoods and communities and see that the majority of their friends, family and neighbours are not “living the good life.” And every single day, they have to find the strength in themselves to believe that they still have a choice. They don’t need reminders from the people who have accepted the responsibility of helping them grow, learn and succeed, that this is an uphill journey... They already know.
Conversely, I believe the harm in not trying to achieve your dreams, no matter how improbable, far outweighs the harm of trying and failing. Learning how to overcome failure and your own limitations in ability, resources, and access, is exactly what leads to success.
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” - Maya Angelou
When I was a child, I wanted to be a singer and actress. Anyone who has ever heard me sing knows that this was an unattainable dream. Not only do I lack the talent and ability to sing well, I was also quite shy and had a deep fear of speaking in public. None the less... it was my DREAM.
When I told my dad that this is what I wanted to do, he easily could have sat me down and explained that this dream was unrealistic, (there was a 99.9% chance I would fail) and encourage me to choose a path that was more suited to my skills, but he didn’t... No. Instead, he got me an audition for a part in a local musical. When he told me about the audition, I panicked and wanted to back out. He could have let me. Instead, he pushed me. He drove me down to the audition, sat in the waiting area, while I had what we both hoped would be my “first big break.” It wasn’t.
The audition went just as anyone could have anticipated. I attempted to sing, act and dance my way into this role, and I was shy, quiet, and from what I can recall, quite mono-tone. But, I did it! I walked out of the room knowing that I was not going to get the part. I also knew, I wasn’t going to be an actress or a singer. More importantly, I did something I was afraid to do and I realized, I could try anything.
Next, I tried out for the school basketball team, I played soccer, baseball, piano, I did gymnastics, figure skating, bell choir, golfing, snowboarding, dancing, kick boxing, I took art classes, web design, I ran for class president... When I got to college, I tried to start my own business, which I later realized was a pyramid scheme, I became licensed as a real estate agent, and never sold a house... If you haven’t figure it out yet, this is just a list of all the things I’ve failed at. And I’m sure I am forgetting a few... LOL.
All the while... My dad encouraged me, supported me, drove me around, paid for my lessons, and wouldn’t let me quit without trying. If you asked him, he’d probably say he realized very early that I was not going to succeed in any of these pursuits. Yet, I can’t remember him once telling me it wasn’t possible. What this taught me, was that it’s okay to fail. That if I keep trying, I will find my purpose and my talent. And it instilled an unwavering belief in myself, that if I want something, nothing is stopping me from going after it but myself. Many of my dreams were not possible. Yet, they were all a part of my journey of self-discovery and allowed me to figure out what it was I actually was good at and how I wanted to spend my life.
I didn’t know at 16 what my options were. I saw all the beautiful celebrities in magazines and on T.V. and I wanted to be happy and successful like them. I learned through the media that entertainment was the way to happiness and success. Over time, I came to learn that there are an infinite amount of possibilities to achieve those things. And I learned so many of the skills that I would need in the future through these experiences. And I truly believe that creating a generation of young people that know how to dream big, try anything, fail, and keep moving, is the key to a happier, more successful, future for our communities.
So, to the teacher who wrote this letter, and anyone who believes they are helping young people by encouraging them to be realistic about their life goals and their career options, please re-consider.
If our youth, from marginalized communities, planned their lives around what was “realistic” (which many of them are already doing) then they will be setting themselves up for a life of poverty, incarceration, unemployment and further marginalization. Stephen Curry may be representing the 0.1% but more importantly, he represents passion, drive, commitment, and hope, for so many young people who know that hope can be fleeting.
To Stephen Curry, keep doing you. We need the Stephen Curry’s, the Derrick Rose’s, the Kendrick Lamar’s, Beyonce's and the August Alsina’s, in our schools and in our communities to inspire our youth to try... try something. Try anything... just don’t give up.
As one of our own has pointed out in telling his life story, in The One., these athlete and celebrity role models are needed. He grew up idealizing the local drug leaders, believing he could make millions, selling drugs while maintaining his core values. And he is not alone. Derrick Rose, NBA star, showed him there were other choices. Derrick Rose inspired him to think about his lifestyle and to weigh his options. Playing pro ball, being just one of many.
To the young people that are reading this, I want you to know that no matter how distant or improbable your dream is... you should go after it. Fight for it. Give it everything you have. And if you fail, don’t stop moving. Keep trying, keep putting yourself out there and never lose your drive. You all serve a unique purpose and there’s only one way to find out what that purpose is. Go ahead... Give it all you’ve got! You are ‘The One.’
“It Always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela
As always, we welcome your thoughts and comments below.