In Rachel Whittaker's New Orleans Times-Picayune article yesterday about Phoenix Mercury point guard Temeka Johnson's new book Meek's Moments, Louisiana State University assistant coach Bob Starkey described the origins of his former player's foundation, Meek's H.O.P.E. (www.MeeksHope.org).
Bob Starkey, one of Johnson's coaches on the LSU women's basketball team, recalled a day when she walked into his office as a sophomore and told him of her dream to start a foundation to help children.
Starkey said it was endeavors like this that cemented Johnson as a leader for the Lady Tigers.
"I've never heard of a college student thinking that far ahead," said Starkey, who joined Johnson in Phoenix for the weekend. "She thought about leadership 24 hours a day."
Although Starkey's description of her might make her seem like an extraordinary individual, it's worth noting that Johnson considers what she does as far more ordinary than the praise of her coach and the positive press she's attracting seems to indicate.
Giving back to people, as Johnson described in an interview with Swish Appeal prior to last Tuesday's 91-85 loss to the Seattle Storm, is something that has just always been a natural part of who she is, regardless of whether she was doing so under the auspices of an organization or simply being a compassionate human being.
"It was nothing spectacular -- not in my eyes it wasn't spectacular," said Johnson, while recalling the ways in which she gave back even before founding Meek's H.O.P.E. in 2005. "It just seemed like the normal stuff, the normal things that people do: helping out kids that needed help and listening to people that needed to be talked to. It's always been something that I've done."
In order to fully appreciate the work that Johnson is doing as part of Meek's H.O.P.E., it's important to understand that it's not just the result of an idealistic vision she's had since her sophomore year in college, but a natural extension of who she is and how she interacts with the world. The organization is just a way to formalize the ways in which she influences others, both directly and indirectly.
"I think the 'hope' part came in through the basketball part: when people would always tell me because I'm small and playing a big woman's game how much hope I'm giving them," said Johnson. "I think that's very inspiring to me, not only for the people and the things that I do. They inspire me more than I inspire them honestly."
Established in 2005, Meek's H.O.P.E. is a donor-advised fund focused on providing hope to underserved youth, particularly in her home state of Louisiana. It includes a combination of athletic and academic programs, including adopt-a-school programs, mentoring efforts, and a scholarship program named after her grandmother, Jewel Johnson. Most importantly, the vision of the fund is inspired by that "basketball part" and her desire to help New Orleans overcome the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, of which she is a survivor herself.
Johnson's effort to transform a natural sense of responsibility into concrete action is a direct reflection of her grandmother, a public school teacher for over 33 years who died of cancer in 2008. The fundamental interpersonal characteristics that a difficult profession like teaching demands were things that Jewel displayed on a daily basis in her interactions with the world.
"The same characteristics that she showcased everyday," said Johnson when asked to recall her memories of her grandmother as a teacher while growing up in the Greater New Orleans area. "It brought her so much pride and joy seeing those kids grow and learn and get better. Just being someone that those kids could depend on and I'll always remember that. I even tried to get her to retire early and travel with me and she was like, 'It just brings me so much joy to see those kids that need me and go on and become what they become in life.' So it was just something that she was passionate about."
So perhaps Meek's H.O.P.E. is an embodiment of her grandmother's passion in two ways: contributing to the betterment of society and directing her passion toward education. And although the economy, health care, and war seem to dominate the national political landscape, an emphasis on education is as urgent now as its ever been. The spirit of Meek's H.O.P.E. is one small representation of the much larger collective commitment that's necessary to improve U.S. public education.
Prof. Gloria Ladson-Billings describes the "education debt" in February 2010.
The Education Debt
Politely stated, we have a lot of work to do to improve the education we offer youth in the U.S. and it will require a collective effort to do so. Yet at some point, we must get beyond "politeness" and acknowledge that we face a very troubling systemic educational problem.
In a 2006 speech to the American Educational Research Association (AERA), education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings made a presidential address suggesting that the challenge facing U.S. public education is not an "achievement gap" but an "education debt", a burden that is not the sole responsibility of those falling behind but a national charge to address inequalities that have systematically disadvantaged millions of children nationwide. Although some conservative voices would dismiss AERA or Ladson-Billings as a mouthpiece for liberal politics, the crisis Ladson-Billings described is hardly a matter of partisan politics. As an example, regardless of your opinion of President Barack Obama's education speech entitled "What's Possible For Our Children" last Tuesday, there is one aspect that is quite undeniable: the kind of education that we currently offer students in the U.S. is morally unacceptable.
As described by Communities for Excellent Public Schools (CEPS) -- a national coalition of community-based organizations composed of parents and students in low-income communities -- there are over one million students attending schools described as "persistently low performing" and 81% of those are students of color. That's not to mention the number of students in less pejoratively labeled public schools who are also being failed by our education system. Beyond the present situation, it's the long-term effect of these circumstances that become more troubling: the Alliance of Excellent Education released a report in February 2007 describing the impact of high school graduation on household wealth and in turn the impact of household wealth on educational attainment, noting that the historical factors that created inequalities in wealth for people of color continue to exacerbate inequalities in educational attainment.
Finding substantive hope in post-Katrina New Orleans
Despite the best efforts of some people to ignore the gravity of the situation or suggest these problems don't exist, one can only imagine how the phenomenon plays out in New Orleans, Johnson's hometown and a city that had its public school system decimated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Pushing aside partisan politics and ideological debates about the harms of various initiatives that have taken place in post-Katrina New Orleans, what Johnson is most concerned about is that there are still some people fundamentally concerned with the well-being of children on a daily basis.
"It's still a work in progress," said Johnson. "The schools are trying to come back from it. And I think that the teachers are trying to do their best to give the kids as much as they can but there's still a ways to go. And I think with the things I'm involved with this year, there's some people that's still concerned and still care about their education. And I think that we're moving in the right direction."
In that context, when Johnson invokes the notion of "hope" it is not merely a buzzword devoid of substance - for some children, hope through education for a future that might legitimately seem out of reach is as essential to overcoming the "education debt". As President Obama has referred to on multiple occasions since his 2008 campaign, it's a mutual responsibility that all of us must take responsibility for.
That's exactly the responsibility that Johnson has assumed in choosing to channel her energy into working with "underprivileged youth" through Meek's Hope.
"It's something that's very important because there's some kids -- and people need to understand that there's a lot of people that this is true for them -- that the environment that they're in and that they see everyday doesn't mean that that's the environment that they have to repeat," said Johnson. "There's so much out there that some kids don't get the opportunity to see."
Getting beyond the achievement gap
However, consistent with the spirit of addressing the education debt, one reason why President Obama's speech has drawn so much criticism from civil rights leaders is that eliminating this debt is not merely about increasing hours of instruction, "time on task", or standardized test scores. Schools alone did not create the current situation and schools alone will not solve them. There are also class, health care, and psychological matters - none of which can be disentangled from the fact that 81% of our children attending our least effective schools are students of color, as Ladson-Billings notes -- that need to be addressed in order to rectify a situation that should be far more frightening than most people give it credit for. To remedy this situation, a more expansive approach is necessary, as described by Noel S. Anderson.
What Obama needs is a poverty agenda, with education as one aspect of it. We need a poverty agenda that boldly integrates education, health and housing policy for children. We need to stop bifurcating policy at the federal, state and local levels when we know all poverty related issues are interconnected. We need a bold new plan, not quick strategies that don’t work.
Whether it be from watching her grandmother work with youth who needed hope or something innate to who she is as a human being, the necessity of a more holistic approach to serving students educationally is something that guides the vision of Johnson's organization.
"They need the hope from every area: not just in the school stuff and not just in sports, not just in things that people [recognize]," said Johnson. "Meek's Hope won't determine what category somebody has to be in -- it's from every different angle and I think that's the best thing about the word "hope"."
The fundamental importance of staying active
One of those angles that Johnson has chosen to address is the health, particularly with keeping youth active. With many of the schools described as persistently underachieving choosing to eliminate recess and physical education in favor of instructional time, on far too many occasions the most disadvantaged youth in our society are simultaneously denied the benefits -- educational and otherwise -- of a healthy diet, lifestyle, and living environment. Among the many negative youth development outcomes of such a situation is childhood obesity, something that is preventable with the right opportunities for children to stay healthy.
"That's one of the things we try to speak up on," said Johnson when asked about the importance of sports to a well-rounded education. "One thing we say is that it starts at home and now with the games that we have, kids don't like to go outside -- it's too hot or all this other kind of stuff. But obesity is taking over the younger generation and I think it's really, really, really important for these kids to stay active and make their health a fun thing and not just sitting around and not doing anything.
"You find so many kids in this generation getting bored if they're not playing a game. And I'm not that far removed from them and I just remember always wanting to be outside. And it's a shame to hear that they're getting their education, but ignoring the most important things and that's one of the things that helps: keep the kids active as well as keeping them healthy."
Sustaining the vision
Of course, it would be wrong to imply that Johnson is the only professional athlete concerned about giving back or using their platform to contribute to political discourse or the betterment of their communities. The WNBA arguably has a stronger emphasis on giving back, both in the way they actively hold up their players as role models and routinely highlight their contributions to their communities. However, the challenge for many professional athletes is making both effective and sustainable contributions to the common good, something that the Seattle Times highlighted in a 2007 series. Johnson plans to avoid the pitfalls of others by staying actively involved in Meek's Hope rather than leaving the execution of her vision to others.
"I'm hands on -- everything that goes on with the H.O.P.E. Foundation -- Temeka Johnson's Hope Foundation -- Temeka Johnson is hands on and I'm a part of it," said Johnson. "I'm not just putting it in somebody else's hands and telling them to 'do this and then I'll come in behind'. No, I'm hands on with everything that's going on and I want to be up front with everybody: if I can't do it, I won't do it, but I'll do my best to make sure that I'm a part of everything. And as of right now, everything that's going on with the Hope Foundation is hands on and I'm not just shifting it on anybody else or dropping it on anybody else's table."
In addition to Johnson's considerable efforts, Meek's Hope also receives support from the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (www.BRAF.org) and Fuzion Athlete Management, which represents her, and the strategic support of Starkey, her former coach.
"Coach Starkey's somebody that has the same drive and the same passion as I have and I'm glad to have him on-board," said Johnson. "He also has connections with people back down in Baton Rouge as well as the New Orleans area as well as myself and he's my eyes and ears down there. That's just the way coach is in most of the stuff he does: he's a behind the scenes man even on the basketball court. He could easily be up front, but that's not what he wants to do. So his drive and his passion to giving back and helping kids and has always been on the frontlines for him. I'm just happy that he's on our team."
Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, has said time and again that when it comes to education, "help is not on the way" - not from the highest levels of political leadership, the pool of retread superintendents, or even educational scholars in some cases. Dismiss that if you will, but what Canada's observation calls for is a collective effort to do our part locally and at a scale that can achieve the best results for manageable groups of youth rather than systematically uneven results for millions. In keeping the scale at a level that she can manage, Johnson is far more effective than many more grandiose visions that end up being unsustainable.
Canada's words are not meant to suggest that individuals will solve the persistent educational problems our nation faces alone, but that there does need to be a collective effort to take responsibility for moving forward rather than looking for top-down solutions that have repeatedly been proven unsuccessful. Regardless of the criticism, President Obama's fundamental idea that addressing a problem best described as an education debt will require a delicate balance of individual and mutual responsibility is at the center of what guides Johnson's vision, the spirit of her grandmother, and her interest in becoming a coach who can reach children through sports later in life.
"I feel my contribution is on a fairly high scale, but there's always more to be done," said Johnson. "One thing that I think is definitely part of President Obama's stuff goes along the lines of it takes a village to raise a child. And in this instance, it might take a whole country to raise the children that's coming up now because things are not the same and a lot of things are changing. I think I'm doing a small part but it's a big role. And I want to do as much as I can to try to continue it.
"I think the Hope Foundation is moving in the right direction and I think as long as I'm alive I'll continue to provide hope to everybody."