Being an idealist does not make me naïve
I choose to believe in a universe where universal peace is possible, where every person has access to what they need to survive, where people’s individuality is celebrated. I believe in a world without war. I believe in a world without guns. I believe in a world without prisons, without death from preventable diseases, and without poverty. Every day, I make the conscious and often difficult choice to imagine and work toward this ideal, not because I believe that life is all sunshine and roses or because I think it will be achieved today, tomorrow, or even in my lifetime, but because I believe fundamentally that we deserve better and are capable of more. There is a difference between an outcome being impossible and an outcome being challenging to achieve. If we choose the least resistant or least challenging path because we are more likely to succeed in current conditions, we will never be able to truly move beyond those conditions. If we settle for the status quo, compromise our values, or defer our dreams until tomorrow, we will never find Truth and perhaps worse, we might blind ourselves to what is truly possible.
My idealism does not make me naïve. My idealism makes me relentless, courageous, and uncompromising when it comes to my principles and the way I live my life. Every day, I wake up imagining the world I seek and living in a world that falls short of that ideal. I work in neighborhoods where children are murdered, in schools where statistically more than half of students will end of up in jail or dead before their twenty-first birthdays. I live in a city where I bear witness to homelessness and untreated mental illness daily, where limitless wealth butts up against extreme poverty, where zip codes are more predictive of success than intelligence, work ethic, or attitude. I have looked into the blackened eyes of children punched by the people supposed to protect them, held the hands of children who were sexually assaulted in their own school hallways, watched blood spill from the arms of twelve-year-old’s who didn’t have any answers other than to hurt themselves. I have born witness to suffering and humanity at its worst, and my work on this earth, both personally and professionally, is challenging, exhausting, demoralizing, and painful. It would be easier to throw my hands up and settle for band-aid fixes and small-scale change. It would be easier to cry myself to sleep at night because things will never change (and sometimes I do). It would be easier to settle for doing my part and ignoring everyone and everything else. It would be easier to turn a blind eye and just focus on me and those closest to me. Yet, the easy thing and the right thing are very rarely the same. The vastness of the challenges and the persistence of evil cannot stop me from pursuing the illusive ideal, the world I know is possible. I find that it is far more powerful to operate and build from a place of hope than a place of defeat, to see love, potential, and opportunity even when faced with immorality, corruption, or evil. This road is much harder, and it is the one I am called to take.
Some people might suggest that my ideal clashes with what is possible and is therefore incompatible with realist or pragmatic positions. However, there is nothing cute, innocent, or impractical about my idealism. My idealism is intense and grows out of immense faith and profound experiences of love and transformation. It also yields results that are scalable, sustainable, and effective. In choosing to believe in miracles and designing systems to generate them, I am blessed to witness and experience miracles on a regular basis. Last year, I worked with a man who aspired to be a full-time teacher in his community. He was a natural-born educator and exactly the type of person that I would want to teach my children. When he came into our program, we learned that he had spent time in prison (as most black males from his community had). He got flagged during the clearance process and for a while, it looked like he might not be cleared to work in schools due to his criminal history. He quickly lost hope and defeatedly expressed that he would always be a felon, that he would just go back to his prior work and accept reality. Given the situation, his background, and the society in which we live, this perspective was valid. Some people may have let him walk away. Some people may have encouraged him to find an easier, more sensible path. I chose to believe in the ideal, in a world where a hardworking, gentle, natural-born educator could reach his dreams despite and perhaps in defiance of his circumstances. We sat down and redefined what “accepting reality” could mean. I told him that I saw a teacher when I looked at him and not a felon. I fought for him behind the scenes and called the Department of Education every day as an advocate. I like to think I gave him hope to believe not in current conditions but in what could be. Six months later, he was not only cleared to work in schools, but hired as a full-time English teacher in the neighborhood that both raised and failed him. Every day, he wakes up and walks the streets where he was arrested to educate, inspire, and support children, to ensure that they are not failed, that they can create a future rooted in hope and possibility rather than hopelessness and impossibility. And he is not alone.
After only two years of running the Pathways Fellowship, his story is not unique. We have created a model based in love, hope, and community that has yielded over eighty new male educators in New York City, many of whom have had contact with the criminal justice system, almost all of whom “should” not be successful based on their histories of trauma, poverty, and adverse experiences. In this program and throughout my life, I choose to redefine and transform what is possible and realistic. My idealism, therefore, becomes a means of determining what kinds of actions, processes, and results are practical. Certainly, it would be easier to operate within and according to current reality. However, I choose to look beyond the confining view of what is true right now to what we can collaboratively create for tomorrow, to the miracles of today that become the future’s normal. I choose to believe and continue to experience the power of love and idealism to transcend what is possible. No matter how hard they are to hold onto, hope and faith are not naïve if they work.