The Black Lives Matter movement has helped spark a national dialogue about issues of race and racism in the country. That conversation is also happening in schools.
At Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, Gabe Rosenbloom, a senior and a diversity coordinator for student government, has invited a speaker with an unusual background as a way to help bridge racial divides.
Rosenbloom said he has heard stories from African-Americans about being unfairly accused of things simply because of their race.
“This for me was a turning point in realizing, okay, as a white person, I – and I think we all – don’t have this understanding of what a person of color is going through,” Rosenbloom said.
He wanted to bring someone to his school to talk about ways to foster more understanding. So he asked his grandfather, Larry Sagen, for ideas of possible speakers. Sagen, who has a background in juvenile justice work, suggested his friend Andre Norman, who grew up in Boston and served more than a dozen years in prison.
Norman said that of his mother’s six kids, he was the one who “fell through the cracks.” When he hit his teenage years, he said he didn’t have any dreams or goals.
“What’s in front of me is drug dealing. What’s in front of me is gangs. What’s in front of me is robbery. What’s in front of me is short cuts,” Norman said. “I can’t see beyond that anymore because I didn’t have the dream or the goal.”
But while he was serving his time, he set his sights on a goal: He wanted to go to Harvard once he got out. First, he knew he had to get his GED. He did it while he was in solitary confinement.
“There was a nice little old lady who came down to the segregation and started teaching me,” Norman said. “She didn’t care that I was a gang member. She didn’t care that I was in for violent offenses. She didn’t care. She said, 'Hey, you want to learn? I’ll teach you.’ And she taught me.”
When he got out in 1999, Norman worked with kids involved in gangs and eventually became a motivational speaker. While he didn’t wind up studying at Harvard, he said he has given lectures at the university’s law and divinity schools.
While he was working with African-American teens, a colleague told him to branch out and start working with white kids, but Norman said he originally thought white students didn’t need his help because they didn’t have any problems. Then, he visited a school with a lot of white kids and spoke with them.
“I said, 'At least you have dads. We don’t have dads in the ‘hood. You’ve got dads.' The kids said, 'You mean the guy who sleeps upstairs?’ I said, `That’s a dad where I come from,’” Norman said. “They said, 'No, no, no, that guy works 75 hours a week. He comes only to mandatory events in the school and he doesn’t engage with anyone, stands in a corner and is forever on his phone. That’s not my dad, that’s the guy who sleeps upstairs.’”
Norman said that opened his eyes.
“Never again will I judge a scenario based on my ignorance or lack of knowledge,” he said.
Norman said he doesn’t come into any school with prescribed advice for students. Instead, he said he tries to listen to them and help them come up with their own solutions to problems.