What's Your "Why" ?
March 1, 2020
Michael Lynch prepares 25 IYT students for their first day at the IYT Public Policy Internship Program at the State Capitol building.
Within the Social Justice community, one of the first questions we often ask each other is “why?” Why did you decide to work on a particular social problem? Why have you dedicated your time and treasure to solving this complex, hard to move challenge? In some way or another, our answers are often the same. We have a personal connection to the issue, often times because we have lived or experienced it. And for those who have beat the odds, like me, we feel an obligation to return to our community and help others. My “why” story is the reason why I co-founded Improve Your Tomorrow. It was about ensuring that young men of color had the opportunity and support to achieve a college education.
In 2011, my hometown of Stockton, California, was named the most miserable city in America. This was due to a combination of factors, including a high number of foreclosed homes, unemployment, and violence. As a single black father, my dad tried to shield my siblings and me from the challenges surrounding us. He coached our little league teams, attended parent teacher conferences, and even dressed up as Santa Claus for my school. He was one of the few, if not the only, Black Santas in Stockton!
My neighborhood had a mix of people. Although some were middle-class, most were working poor, low-income, and immigrant families struggling to make ends meet. Despite my privilege of having a loving and hardworking father, our family struggled at times. I have experienced parent abandonment and homelessness- and have witnessed my family and friends battle drug abuse and incarceration. But the people around me—my neighbors, coaches and mentors—became extended family and stepped up to help. In addition to my dad, they provided the support and love I needed to become a successful adult.
In 2002, I moved to Sacramento to attend ninth grade at Valley High School in South Sacramento. Valley is like most inner-city schools- poor with mostly black and brown students and located in a community that, for the last three decades, has been plagued by drugs and violence. Despite the tough surroundings, Valley has always had a group of highly effective teachers and counselors that helped young people achieve their academic goals. With their help, some students thrived. They went on to graduate from college and become teachers, doctors, lawyers and professional athletes.
But most struggled. And those who did mostly looked like me.
Black and Brown males at Valley faced a unique set of challenges. They were the students who were most often harassed and arrested by campus police, suspended from school, and were expected not to take advanced courses. In my honors and advanced placement classes, I was often only one of two Black males. This was not because my peers did not have the ability, but most were not encouraged or given the opportunity to academically excel.
In addition to the challenges faced in school, they had to navigate a neighborhood where gangs, drugs and violence were most likely to affect them. The majority of my peers did not go to college. After high school, if they graduated, a large percentage of them sold drugs or committed other crimes and were eventually incarcerated. They were repeating the same cycle of poverty and incarceration that plagued their families—a cycle known as the school-to-prison pipeline (STTP).
Looking back on my life now, there was very little that separated me from those who did not make it. We all attended the same school, lived in similar neighborhoods, and had similar economic challenges. But, again, I was lucky. I had a positive male role model—a dad—who helped guide me. Unfortunately, having a Black father at home was uncommon in my school and community. Very few of my peers had any mentor who was a male of color, let alone a dad, to guide them through life’s obstacles.
Social Justice advocates regularly have a similar journey of challenges and triumphs. Their “why” story is often what drives them to create change in their community. My “why” was the motivation to co-found Improve Your Tomorrow. I want to ensure more young men of color, despite background or zip code, have the opportunity and support to graduate college. Nelson Mandela once said that, “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Given our country’s long history of oppression, a college education has to be the priority for America’s leaders to addres systemic inequality.