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Victor Rios: Help for kids the education system ignores

November 2, 2015

Define students by what they contribute, not what they lack -- especially those with difficult upbringings, says educator Victor Rios. Interweaved with his personal tale of perseverance as an inner-city youth, Rios identifies three straightforward strategies to shift attitudes in education and calls for fellow educators to see "at-risk" students as "at-promise" individuals brimming with resilience, character and grit.

Victor Rios - Educator, author
Victor Rios seeks to uncover how to best support the lives of young people who experience poverty, stigma and social exclusion. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
For over a decade,
00:12
I have studied young people
that have been pushed out of school,
00:14
so called "dropouts."
00:19
As they end up failed
by the education system,
00:22
they're on the streets
where they're vulnerable to violence,
00:25
police harassment,
00:29
police brutality
00:30
and incarceration.
00:32
I follow these young people
for years at a time,
00:34
across institutional settings,
00:38
to try to understand what some of us call
the "school-to-prison pipeline."
00:41
When you look at a picture like this,
00:48
of young people who are in my study ...
00:50
you might see trouble.
00:55
I mean one of the boys
has a bottle of liquor in his hand,
00:56
he's 14 years old
01:00
and it's a school day.
01:03
Other people, when they see this picture,
01:05
might see gangs,
01:07
thugs, delinquents --
01:09
criminals.
01:11
But I see it different.
01:13
I see these young people
through a perspective
01:15
that looks at the assets
that they bring to the education system.
01:19
So will you join me in changing
the way we label young people
01:24
from "at-risk" to "at-promise?"
01:29
(Applause)
01:34
How do I know that these young people
01:41
have the potential
and the promise to change?
01:43
I know this because I am one of them.
01:46
You see, I grew up
in dire poverty in the inner city,
01:50
without a father --
01:54
he abandoned me before I was even born.
01:56
We were on welfare,
01:59
sometimes homeless,
02:00
many times hungry.
02:02
By the time I was 15 years old,
02:04
I had been incarcerated in juvy
three times for three felonies.
02:06
My best friend had already been killed.
02:12
And soon after,
02:15
while I'm standing next to my uncle,
02:17
he gets shot.
02:19
And as I'm waiting
for the ambulance to arrive
02:21
for over an hour ...
02:23
he bleeds to death on the street.
02:27
I had lost faith and hope in the world,
02:32
and I had given up on the system
because the system had failed me.
02:36
I had nothing to offer
02:40
and no one had anything to offer me.
02:42
I was fatalistic.
02:46
I didn't even think
I could make it to my 18th birthday.
02:48
The reason I'm here today
02:52
is because a teacher
that cared reached out
02:54
and managed to tap into my soul.
02:59
This teacher,
03:02
Ms. Russ ...
03:04
she was the kind of teacher
that was always in your business.
03:07
(Laughter)
03:12
She was the kind of teacher that was like,
03:13
"Victor, I'm here for you
whenever you're ready."
03:16
(Laughter)
03:19
I wasn't ready.
03:21
But she understood one basic principle
about young people like me.
03:23
We're like oysters.
03:27
We're only going to open up
when we're ready,
03:29
and if you're not there when we're ready,
03:32
we're going to clam back up.
03:35
Ms. Russ was there for me.
03:38
She was culturally relevant,
03:39
she respected my community,
my people, my family.
03:41
I told her a story about my Uncle Ruben.
03:46
He would take me to work with him
because I was broke,
03:50
and he knew I needed some money.
03:52
He collected glass bottles for a living.
03:54
Four in the morning on a school day,
03:58
we'd throw the glass bottles
in the back of his van,
04:00
and the bottles would break.
04:03
And my hands and arms would start to bleed
04:05
and my tennis shoes and pants
would get all bloody.
04:07
And I was terrified and in pain,
and I would stop working.
04:12
And my uncle, he would look me in the eyes
and he would say to me,
04:16
"Mijo,
04:20
estamos buscando vida."
04:21
"We're searching for a better life,
04:24
we're trying to make
something out of nothing."
04:27
Ms. Russ listened to my story,
04:32
welcomed it into the classroom and said,
04:35
"Victor, this is your power.
04:38
This is your potential.
04:40
Your family, your culture, your community
have taught you a hard-work ethic
04:42
and you will use it to empower
yourself in the academic world
04:47
so you can come back
and empower your community."
04:53
With Ms. Russ's help,
04:58
I ended up returning to school.
05:00
I even finished my credits on time
05:03
and graduated with my class.
05:07
(Applause)
05:09
But Ms. Russ said to me
right before graduation,
05:17
"Victor, I'm so proud of you.
05:20
I knew you could do it.
05:23
Now it's time to go to college."
05:25
(Laughter)
05:28
College, me?
05:31
Man, what is this teacher smoking
thinking I'm going to college?
05:32
I applied with the mentors
and support she provided,
05:36
got a letter of acceptance,
05:40
and one of the paragraphs read,
05:42
"You've been admitted
under probationary status."
05:45
I said, "Probation?
I'm already on probation,
05:49
that don't matter?"
05:51
(Laughter)
05:52
It was academic probation,
not criminal probation.
05:54
But what do teachers like Ms. Russ
do to succeed with young people
05:59
like the ones I study?
06:02
I propose three strategies.
06:04
The first:
06:07
let's get rid of our
deficit perspective in education.
06:08
"These people
come from a culture of violence,
06:12
a culture of poverty.
06:14
These people are at-risk;
these people are truant.
06:16
These people are empty containers
for us to fill with knowledge.
06:18
They have the problems,
06:24
we have the solutions."
06:26
Number two.
06:30
Let's value the stories that young people
bring to the schoolhouse.
06:31
Their stories of overcoming
insurmountable odds are so powerful.
06:37
And I know you know some of these stories.
06:42
These very same stories and experiences
06:48
already have grit, character
and resilience in them.
06:51
So let's help young people
refine those stories.
06:57
Let's help them be proud of who they are,
07:00
because our education system
welcomes their families, their cultures,
07:02
their communities
07:06
and the skill set
they've learned to survive.
07:07
And of course the third strategy
being the most important:
07:11
resources.
07:15
We have to provide
adequate resources to young people.
07:16
Grit alone isn't going to cut it.
07:21
You can sit there
and tell me all you want,
07:25
"Hey man, pick yourself up
by the bootstraps."
07:28
But if I was born
without any straps on my boots --
07:31
(Laughter)
07:34
How am I supposed to pick myself up?
07:35
(Applause)
07:37
Job training,
07:45
mentoring,
07:46
counseling ...
07:47
Teaching young people
to learn from their mistakes
07:49
instead of criminalizing them,
07:52
and dragging them out
of their classrooms like animals.
07:54
How about this?
07:59
I propose that we implement restorative
justice in every high school in America.
08:00
(Applause)
08:06
So we went out to test these ideas
in the community of Watts in LA
08:13
with 40 young people
that had been pushed out of school.
08:18
William was one of them.
08:22
William was the kind of kid
that had been given every label.
08:24
He had dropped out, he was a gang member,
08:28
a criminal.
08:31
And when we met him he was very resistant.
08:34
But I remember what Ms. Russ used to say.
08:36
"Hey, I'm here for you
whenever you're ready."
08:39
(Laughter)
08:42
So over time --
08:43
over time he began to open up.
08:46
And I remember the day
that he made the switch.
08:48
We were in a large group
08:51
and a young lady in our program was crying
08:53
because she told us her powerful story
08:56
of her dad being killed
09:00
and then his body being shown
in the newspaper the next day.
09:03
And as she's crying,
I don't know what to do,
09:11
so I give her her space,
09:14
and William had enough.
09:15
He slammed his hands
on the desk and he said,
09:18
"Hey, everybody! Group hug! Group hug!"
09:21
(Applause)
09:27
This young lady's tears and pain
turned into joy and laughter
09:34
knowing that her community had her back,
09:41
and William had now learned
that he did have a purpose in life:
09:45
to help to heal the souls
of people in his own community.
09:50
He told us his story.
09:56
We refined his story
09:58
to go from being the story of a victim
to being the story of a survivor
09:59
that has overcome adversity.
10:04
We placed high value on it.
10:07
William went on to finish high school,
10:09
get his security guard certificate
to become a security guard,
10:14
and is now working
at a local school district.
10:18
(Applause)
10:22
Ms. Russ's mantra --
10:31
her mantra was always,
10:33
"when you teach to the heart,
the mind will follow."
10:35
The great writer Khalil Gibran says,
10:42
"Out of suffering
have emerged the greatest souls.
10:47
The massive characters
are seared with scars."
10:52
I believe that in this education
revolution that we're talking about
10:57
we need to invite the souls
of the young people that we work with,
11:03
and once they're able to refine --
11:08
identify their grit,
resilience and character
11:10
that they've already developed --
11:13
their academic performance will improve.
11:16
Let's believe in young people.
11:23
Let's provide them
the right kinds of resources.
11:25
I'll tell you what my teacher did for me.
11:28
She believed in me so much
11:31
that she tricked me
into believing in myself.
11:34
Thank you.
11:39
(Applause)
11:40

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Victor Rios - Educator, author
Victor Rios seeks to uncover how to best support the lives of young people who experience poverty, stigma and social exclusion.

Why you should listen

Based on over a decade of research, Dr. Victor Rios created Project GRIT (Generating Resilience to Inspire Transformation) a human development program that works with educators to refine leadership, civic engagement and personal and academic empowerment in young people placed at-risk.

Rios is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He received his Ph.D. in comparative ethnic studies from the University of California, Berkeley in 2005. His book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys discusses the many ways in which young urban males of color encounter the youth control complex: a ubiquitous system of punitive social control embedded in what has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

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