My wife and I have chosen to raise our children in Philadelphia, despite the many challenges our city faces.
We stay in spite of the violence that occurs in many city neighborhoods including our own.
We stay despite the 28 percent poverty rate that wreaks havoc on everything from our tax base to our educational system.
We stay notwithstanding the apathy many Philadelphians feel toward such problems.
I used to be angry with Philadelphians who ignore our city’s grim realities, but over time, I’ve come to understand how easily one could simply overlook suffering.
It’s easy for those who live outside Philadelphia’s poorest communities to feel disconnected from the closure of nearly two dozen school buildings in a single year.
It’s easy to look past the 40,000 vacant properties that pepper the city’s most impoverished areas.
It’s easy to ignore the 331 homicides that occurred in 2012, since most of them occurred in other places.
But not all of us have the luxury of pretending these problems don’t exist.
Philadelphia’s public-school students face our city’s problems everyday. They attended the 24 schools that closed in June. They live in the neighborhoods that are peppered with vacant properties. Their friends and relatives are among the young people who are victims of violence.
But, in my interactions with Philadelphia’s public-school students, I’ve found that they’re among the most pragmatic and honest people I’ve ever met. That’s because they live in a world where there’s precious little room for pretense.
Last week, I spoke to hundreds of those young people at the Taco Bell Greater Philadelphia College Workshop at LaSalle University.
I discussed the hardships I’d overcome on my road to getting to and through college. Hardships like an environment rife with poverty and crime. Hardships like bad choices and bad influences. Hardships that sounded familiar to students still facing the same things I did more than 25 years ago.
They listened because young people respond to truth, especially when the truth refers to their own realities.
Truth and misperceptions
The reality for Philadelphia’s young people is that they live in circumstances they didn’t create. They suffer through problems that others are supposed to solve. But there is one more reality about Philadelphia’s youth that overrides the rest: Our kids are nobody’s fools.
They understand that they are often portrayed negatively by the news media.
They understand that cuts to school funding and increased prison spending is a reflection of the state’s plans for their futures.
They also understand that their destinies are in their own hands.
All of that is what makes our young people so amazing. They face low expectations and negative environments yet still they rise, they dream and they achieve.
At the college fair, I listened to three African American young men bragging not about their physical prowess, but about their grade point averages, which ranged from 3.0 to 3.8.
I watched young women take copious notes as they spoke to college recruiters.
I watched hundreds of students who believed there was something more for them than society would ever expect.
None of this surprises me
I’ve worked with young people in high schools like the now-shuttered FitzSimons in North Philadelphia and at Bok, the South Philadelphia high school which closed in June.
I’ve been to Camden High School in New Jersey and Bartram in Southwest Philadelphia. And in every neighborhood, at every school, I’ve met young people whose voices need to be heard.
Last week, when I spoke to the young people at the college workshop, I saw young people with voices, dreams and hopes.
They were much like the students in the high schools I’ve visited. Their intellectual curiosity: Real. Their outspoken honesty: Refreshing. Their commitment to the future: Ironclad.
These young people are natural leaders, and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to meet them for myself.
They are our city’s future, they are our city’s hope and, as much as anything else that our city has to offer, those vibrant young leaders are the reason I choose to stay.