Launching from the Bottom Rung: Grit and Hope and Reality Changers

By Barbara Davenport, author of Grit and Hope: A Year with Five Latino Students and the Program That Helped Them Aim for College

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

In the midst of the worst recession in eighty years, five Latino students are writing their college applications. Robert lives with his grandmother and his uncle in a garage without a bathroom. They don’t eat breakfast, because they don’t have enough food. Dinner most nights is baloney and tortillas; some nights it’s just tortillas. Jesse’s single mother supports him and his younger brother on $9000 a year cleaning houses. For most of her junior year, Suzie waitressed forty hours a week, 3:30 to 11 pm, 2 am on Fridays and Saturdays, her salary and tips the only income for her family of four. Her guidance counselor advised her not to apply to four-year universities, because “people like you should go to community college.” Daniel, who swims on his school’s varsity swim team and takes AP English Lit and AP physiology, is undocumented, ineligible for state or federal scholarship assistance. He needs to get into a private college that can provide a full ride scholarship. Jorge’s girlfriend is expecting their child, and her family is pressuring him to quit school and get a job. He doesn’t know how he’ll finish high school and support his new baby, much less go to college.

Grit and Hope: A Year with Five Latino Students and the Program that Helped Them Aim for College tells their stories. The program is Reality Changers, a college readiness program that, over the last fifteen years, has changed the game for disadvantaged youth in San Diego. Its students come from the city’s poorest, most violent neighborhoods. They are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Some are citizens; some are undocumented. Their parents are hotel maids and fry cooks and landscapers. They aren’t cherry-picked high achievers; some enter the program as academic underperformers, chronic truants, gang affiliated or homeless.

Christopher Yanov was twenty-three, substitute teaching at a middle school where the students spoke twelve languages, and gang wannabe’s ruled the courtyard, when he founded Reality Changers in 2001. He saw that many of his students had as much innate ability and determination as the middle-class kids he’d grown up with. What they lacked was the scaffolding of family and social supports that middle class students take for granted: an ambitious vision of what they could accomplish and a milieu of peers and adults who validated their ambitions and helped them reach their goals. He founded Reality Changers to provide that scaffolding. Reality Changers now serves more than five hundred students a year. Its alumni attend all the University of California undergraduate campuses and many of the Cal States, as well as Harvard, Columbia, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Duke, Stanford, and Princeton.

I wrote Grit and Hope because I’m interested in launching, the era when teenagers navigate from the circle of family and high school to find their place in the adult world. Launching’s a critical period; the strengths and weaknesses people bring to this life passage, what they aim for, the roads they take and those not taken will shape the rest of their lives. It’s hard work for all adolescents, significantly harder for those who start from a the bottom rungs of the social and economic ladder. As inequalities in income and opportunity America have become increasingly stark, I’ve grown concerned about what it’s like for youth growing up on the have-not side of the gap. How do the brutal inequalities of their lives skew their efforts to launch?

I figured best the way to answer that question was to listen to youth who were doing it—launching themselves from those bottom rungs—and tell their stories. I found them at Reality Changers. I followed Reality Changers for five years, talking with students and their parents, with Yanov, his staff and the volunteer tutors.

Grit and Hope reveals their personal struggles: a student’s undocumented status that loomed over every decision he made, whether to ride the trolley, whether to have a girlfriend. A firstborn daughter’s conflict between helping her younger siblings when a parent was unable to function or going to college for herself. A mother with a diagnosis of Stage IV cancer. An outstanding student plagued by gnawing doubts about whether she belonged in college.

Their stories need to be told. Statistics and research can alert us to problems and document their scope, but stories help us see the people who are living in the problem: their courage, their pain,and the costs of their dreams. Seeing the people is the beginning of change.

This is a gritty book. Not all the stories are about successes. There are setbacks and derailments and painful losses.

The stories in Grit and Hope also highlight some of the most urgent issues facing the country: immigration reform, especially the status of the Dreamers, integrating immigrant and minority youth into our democracy and our economy, and a particularly brutal inequality, inadequate funding for urban schools, where students who need the best teachers and the most resources get neither. How we address these issues, or fail to address them, will shape our society for decades to come.

On a winter night in 2002, Christopher Yanov sat with a handful of eighth graders and college-student tutors in the Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana. The one-story cinderblock building in Golden Hill, near San Diego’s downtown, looked more like a fortress than a church. Iron grillwork covered the windows; the door was a slab of hardened steel.

Yanov and the tutors and students sat on folding chairs around two tables in a room facing the street. The kids settled into their homework, and the room was quiet, punctuated with occasional murmured consultations.

Reality Changers was eight months old, with a census of twelve, six boys and six girls he’d recruited at Ray A. Kroc Middle School, where he was a substitute teacher. Students were expected to come every week, but attendance was spotty. Tonight just six kids showed up. He didn’t know whether Reality Changers was going to fly.

            A rock clattered against the bars. Heads snapped up from books. Another rock crashed on the bars, and rattled the glass. Salvo after salvo of pebbles followed, clanging against steel and glass.

Then the shouts.

“Kiss-ass schoolboys! Little pussies!

            “How come we’re out here and not in there!”

            “Hey, Chris! You forgotten your friends?”

A brown face pushed between the bars and pressed against the glass. “Chris! You only talking to the smart kids now?”

            The tutors looked at Yanov, eyes wide. They were freshmen from UC San Diego, worlds away from the Iglesia; they hadn’t bargained for this. The kids shot sidelong looks at each other and tried to look cool. Perla Garcia knew the guys outside; she wished they’d just go home. Jorge Narvaez pretended to read, and hoped they’d be gone by the time he had to walk to the bus stop.

Just ignore it and keep on working, Yanov told them. They’ll get bored and quit.

“Losers! Wait’ll you get out here. We’ll fix your asses!”

The rocks kept clattering. The shouts got louder. Kids stopped even pretending to study.

           Yanov rolled his eyes and exhaled with exasperation. He stood up and walked out the front door in his shirtsleeves. The night was cold; in the light from the street lamp he could see his breath. He stood a shade under six feet, shoulders squared, chin high, dark hair and beard cropped close.

A dozen eighth and ninth graders stood under the street lamp. All of them lived in the neighborhood and most went to Kroc. Their heads were shaved and they wore the cholo uniform of baggy jeans and oversize black nylon jackets. He’d invited every one of them to join Reality Changers.

They’d have to bring their grades up to a 3.0. Come to meetings every week for academic help and lessons on values and life skills. Instead of a gang, be part of a group where everyone was aiming for college, and kids helped each other. He guaranteed that if they stayed with the program through high school, they’d get into college, and they’d have the scholarships they needed.

He’d worked especially hard on Jonny, who lived across the street from him, a few blocks east of the Iglesia. He was a sweet, soft-looking boy with a shy smile and lush, dark hair that fell over his forehead. His notebooks overflowed with drawings of cars and characters from video games and words in bulging, kinetic letters. Yanov knew Jonny from subbing in his honors algebra class, but lately he’d seen him in the courtyard at Kroc, where the guys from Lomas26 hung out by the coral tree. The Lomas26 gang ran the streets in Golden Hill, and they were leaning on Jonny to join. Last fall he’d shaved his head and started to dress like them. Yanov knew that if he didn’t get to Jonny soon, Lomas26 would.

Now here was Jonny, throwing rocks. “Hey Chris, no fair,” he yelled. “You didn’t let us in!”

“You guys know you’re invited,” he said. “You just got to get your grades up.”

“Aw-w, man.”

“Kids inside did.”

“We know you better. You’re our guy. You should just let us in.”

“When you get your 3.0, we’ll be glad to have you. Tonight’s not a ‘no,’ it’s a ‘not yet.’ See you around.” He waved and walked back into the church.

Rocks rang the bars like chimes. The kids and tutors were rattled. Not much homework got done that night, and the tutors chalked up the meeting as a loss.

Yanov couldn’t stop grinning. Those guys wanted in. He knew he had something.

Barbara Davenport is a writer and psychotherapist in San Diego, & the author, as Barbara Davenport, of The Worst Loss, How Families Heal from the Death of a Child.