Save Our Schools: Black Men at Penn Reach Out to South Philly High
When things got heated at South Philly High last year, Chad Lassiter and Darin Toliver thought they had the solution to cool down racial tensions and ethnic violence: Social work. Listen to the kids, give them a voice, and give them straight talk in return. Cut through the stereotypes and cut through the bullshit.
Social workers and academics, Lassiter and Toliver are co-founders of The Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc., a group that focuses on violence prevention, education advocacy and efforts to fight racism. Their mission was immediately relevant to South Philly, of course, since last year’s fights were widely reported as attacks on Asian immigrants by groups of black students.
“Our overall aim and objective is to get youth of color to reduce the violence and handle their anger and aggression in a more productive manner,” says Lassiter, current president of the group. He says they are working against an attitude of black victimization and youth who make excuses for their own failures. “Young people want adults to put structure in their lives,” he says.
The two men spent an hour every Tuesday meeting with students last spring, visiting each classroom twice over the course of the semester to sit down and hold group discussions about school climate and what really went on in the hallways of the embattled high school. “We had a mileu of students,” Toliver says. “Every one of them had their own narrative.”
First, the social workers listened. “We’re not here to judge you or take sides,” Lassiter says.
“This has been brewing for awhile,” Toliver says. “There’s been a huge lack of communication.” Asian students complained about being targeted for years, while black students often felt marginalized in the classrooms. “Kids thought that Asians had special privileges,” Lassiter explains, because the second floor of the school was mostly reserved for ESL classes.
Interactions in the community outside school also caused problems. Some of the African American kids were resentful of Asians opening stores in their neighborhoods, Lassiter says. “I asked them, ‘Why when you go in their stores do you gotta cuss at them?’”
At the same time, many black kids were resentful that media portrayals blamed them as a group for the attacks. “They would say it’s just a few knuckleheads,” Lassiter explains. “But you can’t attack other students that don’t look like you.”
The school administrators bear plenty of responsibility for ignoring warning signs and previous fights, the men point out. “If the administration was more proactive listening to students, this could have been avoided,” Toliver says. “But it’s a teachable moment. We need people with passion and a profound obligation to work with children and ensure success.” However, despite injustices and unfair practices at the school real and perceived, Lassiter and Toliver stayed on message that ultimately, the students are responsible for their own success. “We put the charge on them,” says Toliver. “They need to work in a cohesive unit to change the negative perception of the school.”
A spring trip to Haiti gave the men a fresh perspective to present the students about public school conditions in Philly. After seeing Haitians struggling through death and disaster following the massive earthquake that devastated the capital city of Port-au-Prince in January, the men had less patience for students back in America who refused to acknowledge the opportunities in front of them, no matter what the shortcomings of Philly schools.
“The overall demeanor and attitude toward free education was appalling,” Toliver says. “It got heated. We confronted them.” The students seemed to respond well to what the men characterize as honest listening and tough love. However, the men haven’t been able to follow up on their efforts, because they haven’t been invited back to South Philly High yet this school year, although they did reach out to the district to express interested in continuing their program. “We want to impress on the School District that trained social workers are vital,” Lassiter says. “Where cameras were installed, we would have liked to see more social workers.”
“We want all young people on every side of the color line to feel safe and secure in their school,” he says. “Young people have answers. We don’t ask them enough.”
Chad Lassiter of Black Men at Penn
top: Darin Toliver and Lassiter work the classroom