I Wanted to See the Stories of My Community in the Mainstream

Today on the blog, I interview Jerelyn Rodriguez. Rodriguez founded The Knowledge House, an organization in the Bronx that helps youth to engage in entrepreneurship, through connecting them with technology professionals and innovative ideas from around the world. She grew up in the Bronx and was a student at the first KIPP charter school in New York City. Rodriguez has a unique perspective on the linkages between education and poverty, which she shares in this first part of our conversation.

Me: Tell me your story.

Rodriguez: I lived in the Bronx my entire life. I’m the first American born person in my entire family. My parents are from the Dominican Republic. I grew up with a single mom. The story of how we got here is very inspiring. Because of my mother, I’ve done everything. My mom has a teaching background. She was a teacher before she left the “DR.” When she came here, she had to start over. I watched her go through an associate's degree, then a bachelor's degree, all while learning English. After she got her associate's, she became a paraprofessional in a school. She’s always been in the classroom and has helped people. I’ve always valued paying it forward because of her. She was a UFT member, and we had health insurance because she worked in a school.

My mom is the oldest of her siblings, so she’s been the one responsible for making sure that everyone in the family who comes from the DR to the US is taken care of. I grew up low-income. My mother only made twenty-four thousand dollars per year, and that was stretched among grandparents, aunts, cousins, and anyone who lived with us.

Early on I wanted to be an author and filmmaker. I got into this program called the Ghetto Film School. My entire high school and college internship experience there was about telling people’s stories, those that don’t have a platform. In choosing college, it was between film school and the Ivy League. I got into Tisch at NYU, and I got into Columbia, and I chose the Ivy League. I think people were pressuring me, to be honest. Also, NYU didn’t give me enough money, and Columbia gave me everything.

At Columbia, I thought a lot about education. I wasn’t doing hands-on filmmaking. I got into clubs. I started the Columbia University Society of Hip Hop, and I joined the Dominican club. I was also interested in education reform. The first internship I had in high school was at Democracy Prep. After that, I interned at the  KIPP Foundation for a summer. My senior year of college, I was student teaching. I taught fifth grade writing at a KIPP school. My heart was in teaching.

After college, I was lucky enough to be recruited by Students for Education Reform (SFER), so I took that job. I liked it. I liked community organizing. I realized that I could have more of an impact organizing people. I like to re-imagine whole systems.

It was also very important to me that the leadership in education reform changed. My work at SFER was challenging. The leadership wanted diversity, but as soon as we talked to the black and Latino folks on campuses, they were not interested in reform. I spent my last few months at SFER recruiting for more diversity.

I also realized that the charter movement wasn’t ready for student activism. There was a lot of hesitation among the charter networks. I don’ think that students have negative things to say, it’s just that schools realized they needed to do a lot of preparation with kids before they could speak up, and they weren’t ready to do that work.

Me: Do you think the charter networks just prioritize other things?

Rodriguez: The charter networks need their schools to be strong. They get so much criticism over drilling, creaming, expulsions, and other accusations. So they need to get great results to combat that stuff. You can talk about culture and whether or not schools are too strict, but if they’re getting great results, it’s like, “Can we move on to the next issue?”

I was talking to Stacey Childress, and I asked her how come charter schools don’t develop alumni to speak up, which would help them to become entrepreneurs and to secure high paying jobs? And she said that school leaders are too busy building great schools to do that. So they’re just not doing that work yet, building community partners and relationships so that kids can get wraparound services. I still don’t think that charters do enough outreach in the tech industry.

At the Knowledge House, I’m trying to focus on that gap. If you’re a charter network, you’re focusing on K-12, and now you’re starting on college enrollment and persistence. But there’s still employment and entrepreneurship. I’m trying to work on both sides of this pipeline. We need schools to form partnerships with the other providers, so that the schools can continue to focus on running great schools. But we also partner with employers, so that they are providing feedback on the school environment, so that it prepares kids for high-powered careers. If you see college graduation as the endpoint, you’ve missed the big picture.

At Columbia, I didn’t really struggle academically. I knew the content, and I was ready for coursework. But, I don’t think I had enough soft skills to persist socially. I got distracted easily, and I wouldn’t go to class if it seemed too easy. That impacted my transcript. But my goal was just to graduate. I was the only black girl in every class. I wasn’t studying finance or engineering, and I just wanted to graduate. If I had been differently prepared, I might have thought, “Actually, I want to be the CEO of a company, I want to make six figures, I want to afford a home in NYC." I might have made different choices.

I also didn’t pay enough attention to my network building in college.

Me: It’s really interesting. You’re talking about building cultural capital. The unfortunate thing about unearned privilege is that it lends cultural capital without even trying.

Rodriguez: When I think about communities like the one that I come from, I love my community. I never want to leave. I think the average college educated person of color wants to leave their neighborhood. I don’t know how many public school students who are black and brown graduate from the Ivy League. When I was at Columbia, if you were a black or brown person, you were mostly middle class or private school educated. Most had some kind of cultural capital from economic privilege.

I want to make sure that low-income communities of color can have and build those assets. This caused me to look for value in my own community on other fronts. I wanted to see the stories of my community represented in the mainstream.

Look for Part Two of my conversation with Jerelyn Rodriguez later this week ...