From Where I Sit #3

My last two blogs were about the University Industrial Complex and the Failure of the Democrats to put forth a policy/action agenda to deal with poverty and jobs.  This month, I’d like to combine the two and come up with a policy recommendation that is missing from the current dialogue.  We are busy reacting to Trump and his proposals instead of clarifying and articulating our own agenda.  I have been thinking about this question for about 7 years now. My thoughts on what we want started when I was in a classroom at North Lawndale College Prep (NLCP), teaching math out of a sense of calling to reach black boys and steer them in a positive direction. I realized pretty early that I had no solutions and that my preconceived notions about what to do or how to do it, were way off base.  Instead, I listened a lot.  What I heard was that my students were very angry so to diffuse the anger, we laughed a lot.  I describe it often as Kevin Hart teaches Algebra.  Every period was full of me “flaming” kids, which was their lingo for playing the dozens or busting jokes on each other.  I learned about their music and what activities they were involved in at school or in the neighborhood. I did the hard work of building relationships of mutual respect and trust. I chose the classroom next to the lunchroom so that if a fight broke out, I could stop it.  Because I was a former wrestler and a coach, I could throw kids around, but because we had relationships of mutual respect, that was rare.  All of the teachers had to choose a duty during our free period. I chose lunchroom duty (instead of greeting kids before or after school or being a hall monitor) because it was a way to see young people in their own unstructured time in school.  Like I said, I listened and learned.

NLCP is a charter high school with a mission to make sure that every kid has the tools necessary to graduate from high school, get accepted to a college and to graduate from college.  It is an amazing place with dedicated faculty and staff working in tough conditions like most inner city schools.  If you want their statistics, you can go to to find them, but what I can say without any reservation is that the leadership team, teachers, support staff, counselors, clerical staff, kitchen staff, etc.  ABSOLUTELY LOVE OUR KIDS AND WILL DO ANYTHING TO HELP THEM SUCCEED!  No magic, just hard work and commitment to meet kids where they are and to grow them so that they can reach their potential.  However, I noticed a disturbing pattern.  The boys were not doing well.  The girls were killing it in honors and AP classes and were consistently the vast majority of students in the National Honors Society and at the top of the class rankings.  It is a pattern that is replicated throughout urban centers in our country.  Again, I could bore you with all of the statistics and think tank discussions, but I’d rather hone in a possible solution for us to think about.  The statistics and think tanks don’t have one.  They point out the problem, but are short on solutions. The solution is a different kind of education: vocational education mixed with entrepreneurship and advocacy.  College for All is dead.  The Talented Tenth is dead.  Let’s focus on trade schools for the Forgotten 90th.

How did I come to this conclusion?  I listened to my students a lot.  Every year, I was assigned an advisory/home room with about 25 young men.  We met every day.  I got the boys that nobody else could or wanted to handle.  Over time, after I felt the relational capital was strong enough, I asked my guys how many of them REALLY wanted to go to college.  Some were honest and said that they didn’t.  They came to NLCP because it was a safe school and their mommas wanted them there, but they wanted to do something with their hands.  They wanted to fix cars or be an electrician or a welder.  I told them that my mechanic’s published hourly rate for fixing my car was $85 per hour.  I asked them did they know any recent college graduates that made $85 an hour and the answer was emphatically “NO!”  They were concerned about going in to debt to finance a college education that they were not really sure they wanted.  I told them that they should pursue what they wanted and not chase a dream that wasn’t theirs.

They desperately wanted a middle class lifestyle and were being mass marketed/manipulated by two competing factions:  the university industrial complex (see my latest blog) which brainwashes families into believing that the only way to achieve success in life is through a college degree; and, the culture of the streets which sells that you can be successful if you can do one of the following: sell illegal pharmaceutical substances, create undiscernible word play over phat beats, catch touchdowns or shoot three pointers.  Then and only then, can you escape poverty.  We have more options than these! If W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington could have worked together, urban America would not be in its current condition.  What am I saying?  If the Talented Tenth generation that represents, upholds and admires the policies of former President Barack Obama, could ever get together and support a platform for the Forgotten 90th for blue collar workers in manufacturing and trades with advocacy for jobs, we could dramatically reduce violent crime in our neighborhoods.  This is my thesis.

I went to Dunbar Vocational HS on the south side of Chicago.  We had every shop imaginable.  Aviation repair was where students worked on fixing helicopters and airplane engines.  Plumbing shop, auto body, auto repair, electricity, carpentry, you name it, we had it.  When Harold Washington became Mayor in the 80’s, he signed an executive order which mandated that 25% of the construction jobs go to women and minorities.  The trade unions responded by shutting down Washburne Trade School and Dawson and systematically defunded vocational education in the Chicago Public Schools.  Schools like Dunbar, Prosser, Westinghouse, CVS, Simeon and Flower became shells of their former selves and some eventually shut down.  Mayor Daley who was desperate to keep middle-class families in Chicago worked to create Selective Enrollment Schools like Northside College Prep and Walter Payton which quickly became the top performing schools in not just the City of Chicago, but the State of Illinois.  Add to that Whitney Young, Jones College Prep and Lane Tech College Prep, you have 5 of the top 20 schools in the State on most measures of educational quality.  While the Mayor and his team was going crazy to attract and keep the best and brightest in CPS, neighborhoods in the black and brown communities were continuing their downward spiral.  Cook County jail was overflowing with the Forgotten 90th , while billions of dollars were being spent annually on big ticket construction projects at University of Chicago, DePaul, UIC and more, road building projects, CTA projects, hotels, condos, superstores like Target and others were cropping up all over.  Very few blacks work on these projects other than security guards and sign holders.  The construction companies would always say that if we had trained workers, they would hire them.  They really meant trained union workers. I won’t bore you with the run around through bogus apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeship and pre-pre-apprenticeship programs that ensure only a few people make it through the Hunger Games like gauntlet that would “qualify” them to work on these projects, otherwise known as a convenient excuse to maintain their privilege.  Meanwhile, non-college going white kids that are family members of union workers get in the union and hired without going through this gauntlet.  Furthermore, even when black and brown folks make it through the gauntlet and get their union cards, they are not consistently called to work.  They are organized and systematic about keeping us out.  We need to be organized and systematic about pushing our way in.  A. Phillip Randolph taught us the way in Pullman.  We need a modern movement to push the trades to be fair and hire Chicagoans to work in Chicago.

To start this movement, Chicago needs to reprioritize its education agenda which is largely built on this Talented Tenth notion of “College for All and Race to the Top” and create a fully fleshed out and robust vocational education program for students (high school and community college age) who want it.  They are already doing it at my alma mater, Dunbar, largely because of the work of Ms. Dorothy Dawson, our former Dean of Students and Hall of Fame track coach and our Dunbar Alumni Association who have been hammering this issue for years.  We need this on the West Side.  I have thoughts about how to fund it, but funding is not the problem.  Political will is.  Now is the time as thousands of units are being predicted to be built in the South Loop alone.  They will no longer be able to say that our workers are not trained.  The second phase will be robust accountability and monitoring of hires. Finally, a low-interest micro-loan fund is needed for things like tools and supplies for the job so that our workers have what they need to be successful.  Our liberation will cost others their middle-class jobs in construction and no one will give that up without a fight.  Our liberation will cause losses to the prison industrial complex who won’t give up without a fight.  Our liberation will cause losses to illegal gun sales and manufacturing who won’t give up without a fight.  Our liberation will cause some of our own to fight us because they like and profit from the status quo in our communities.  They won’t give up without a fight. It’s time for a fight for our future.

At Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, we are working on a feasibility study to build this vocational school.  If you want to help, email me at 

By God’s Grace,

Richard Townsell