Leah Davis remembers the first brochure she saw for the after-school and college prep program Educational Excellence.
It pictured a Latino boy and the words: “If it wasn’t for EE, I’d be in jail or in a coffin.”
To Davis, who went on to direct and reorient the program, and to Bianca J. Baldridge, who wrote a book about it, the brochure symbolized all that was wrong in the program.
The narrative of “saving” youth of color from jail or death completely failed to affirm the young people who were served. It lacked any focus on their strengths and gifts, and it failed to acknowledge the larger societal obstacles the youth faced.
Educational Excellence is not alone, Baldridge wrote in her book “Reclaiming Community: Race and the Uncertain Future of Youth Work,” published in 2019.
Community-based organizations serving youth of color are threatened by a spreading market-based ideology that willfully fails to understand how race and class impact young people, she wrote. This “deficit narrative” of youth coupled with colorblindness refuses to acknowledge how society treats youth of color differently.
Baldridge, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studied a youth development program in a large Northeastern city. She gave it a pseudonym, Educational Excellence. The name Leah Davis, given to the executive director from 2002-12, is also a pseudonym.
But what is true, Baldridge wrote, is that youth-affirming spaces carved out in black communities are losing out as gentrification and for-profit educational reforms reshape cities.
What Educational Excellence was like
Baldridge worked as a volunteer in Educational Excellence starting in 2009, and she studied it from 2011-17.
She visited and revisited the organization, observing it, interviewing staff, holding focus groups, surveying former youth participants and examining the literature.
She listened as executive director Davis described tossing out messianic brochures and retooling the way Educational Excellence communicated about its kids. Davis ushered in what Baldridge terms the “Golden Era” of the program.
Educational Excellence was a comprehensive program whose goal was to support the academic and personal development of kids from sixth grade through high school to gain acceptance at competitive colleges. Davis hired staff with strong backgrounds in education and youth work, and she built up the youth leadership part of the program, which provided classes in social identity, media literacy and making healthy choices.
Originally serving Latino and African-American youth, the program became mainly African-American as the neighborhood changed.
In youth leadership classes students explored “the significance of racial, cultural and political identity in ways that were integrated into their academic identity,” Baldridge wrote. A critical analysis of their own location in society was vital to the youth being able to navigate in a racist world, program staff believed.
It was part of a broader and, Baldridge argued, necessary focus on the whole person, not just the academic side of kids. After-school programs, in contrast to schools, can offer that. Long-term relationships with kids and their families were a crucial piece, she wrote.
Educational Excellence was founded by a white businessman and philanthropist who was active on the board. Davis and the majority of the staff and students were black.
Davis had a sometimes-tense relationships with the founder — a major donor — and she protected her programming from a board that didn’t understand or value it, Baldridge wrote.
While the program was not trouble-free, it provided a vibrant and familylike environment that supported youth.
A swift decline
Ultimately, when Davis left after 10 years, the program underwent swift change, according to Baldridge. When Davis was no longer present to prioritize its wholistic programming and communicate an asset-based vision of black youth, a staff exodus began.
Previously the organization had “recognized that minoritized youth needed support in fighting against external political and social forces that shaped their academic and social lives,” the book said. After Davis left, one staff member worried about how well black and brown children were going to be served by leadership that “has no clue about their experience.”
As part of organizational culture, the staff, too, had explored how race shaped their identities and interactions.
“Through professional development, hiring interviews and teaching, race and racism were always discussed as a permanent factor of American life,” the book said.
The organization’s focus shifted to expansion, with the development department beefed up at the expense of the programming department.
Relationships that had been “the anchor of the organization” were becoming transactional rather than deep, Baldridge observed.
“The board’s plan to transition EE into a drop-in model reflected a neoliberal consumer efficiency model detached from deep connection and engagement with youths and communities,” Baldridge concluded.
She believed the change in model would result in running numbers of kids through a college prep program without a sense of what made them strong and knowledgeable as youth of color. And ultimately it would lead back to seeing these youth “as objects to be commodified, fixed and rescued,” she wrote.
Baldridge sums up the problem under the label neoliberalism, a word sprinkled liberally throughout the book. In doing this, she paints with a broad brush. While this political label has clear meaning for the author, readers might be better served by references to specific policies and trends she deems neoliberal and their impact on schooling and after-schooling.
More discussion of the race and class analysis provided to youth could have been helpful, although perhaps outside the scope of the book.
However, the book makes a connection between education policy and the pressures on community-based organizations serving youth of color.
Community organizations work to shape their own course in the face of both government policy and donor expectations, Baldridge wrote. They are in a dance with these political structures.
The trend toward privatization of education treats schools like businesses. Both schools and community organizations feel pressure to act more like profit-making entities focused on numbers (high-stakes tests, number of kids served, etc.). These gains come at the expense of treating kids wholistically, although a wholistic approach is the real strength of community organizations.
And, most important to Baldridge’s argument, analyzing race is a critical part of a wholistic approach.