I grew up in Vancouver, Canada, a utopian haven full of immigrants across a wide variety of skin and religious palettes. A place where I was so oblivious to connotations of race and religion that I spent four years with a best guy friend who I didn’t figure out was Muslim until I took a religious studies class my freshman year of college. I had to call him in McGill, to have him confirm why it finally made sense to me why he went to church on Fridays and got no presents every Christmas.
I landed at Yale, for my freshman year in 1997, wide-eyed and mystified into what was a different planet altogether. Amongst many other areas of difference from my blue collar, public school Canadian upbringing, it was a world where skin color was noted and religious difference was highlighted.
This started by a week long program before the start of school that was for people in the freshman class who were identified as minorities. I didn’t understand the purpose, but didn’t like it’s result, as basically before school had even started we were segregated by race.
Those minority students naturally became very close, having had the chance to bond a week into the most vulnerable stage of most of our lives to that point. Coming from a place where I had a very racially diverse friend group, the primary emotion I remember feeling, was being pissed off that we were being segregated and not being given the chance to make friends from the start with people across racial lines.
With this curiosity towards race in mind, I signed myself up freshman year, for Intro to African-American studies, probably the first white Canadian in the history of Yale that picked that class out of her whole syllabus to dip into at the beginning of her college career.
I’d go to class every week, utterly mystified at why again race seemed to be such a divider, and just sat and listened at some of the most passionate, articulate people I came across in my college career, spoke about items from the syllabus in class.
Things became a little more clear, once my teammates, helping me study on an away trip to Dartmouth, explained to me about slavery and emancipation, subjects not covered in Canadian social studies. It was like a light went on, and I understood why this was such a pronounced difference between the vibe in Canada and the US on race and why it was such a source of passion and tension in a way that I had never seen before.
That being said, most people in the US, hearing that I went to Yale, would gasp in horror when they would talk to me about living in New Haven, and its reputation as a dangerous place on the outskirts of the inner city. Yet for me, as a human being, it was by far the most transformative, educational part of my college career, and I am so incredibly grateful that I didn’t go to college in a college-town utopian bubble.
The most important person I came across in college, wasn’t an incredible professor, although there were many, or an unbelievable classmate, although the caliber of talent and drive were unmatched in the many people I came across, but instead the most influential, educational person I met in my time at Yale was a little girl by the name of Laqusha.
This blog is about our journey together and reunion on the streets in New Haven last year.
To make a long story short, I was paired with her for an inner city reading program my freshman year, and was so taken with this adorable little nine year old that her single mom and two little sisters, Diamond and Shaniqua, became who I spent a good part of my time with for the next 3 years.
From the inside of my ivy covered perfect dorm room, I would get calls from Laqusha about how Shaniqua’s bike had gotten thrown in a gang fight and broken, or a fight that she’d gotten into on the school bus and that she’d gotten “de-spended” from school and could I come and pick her up. I’d go to her classroom and see her overwhelmed and understaffed teacher trying to corral a group of out of control kids to just sit in their seats and listen, let alone learn anything for the day.
On the other hand, sometimes on the same day, I would babysit for my professor’s kids and go pick them up from their school on the other side of town and see airy classrooms, a plethora of books and a multitude of people helping and the injustice of it made me angry.
I’ve always had a strong desire for justice, and fairness and I just realized that from what I could see in the US this whole idea that it’s an equal competition to the top and everyone starts on the same starting line was a bunch of bullshit. These kids born on the wrong side of the tracks didn’t have a hope in hell. And it didn’t feel like anyone cared.
I would go back to Yale and sit on campus and just feel so bothered that there were so much within the square mile of our campus, and yet just blocks away, beautiful little kids like Laqusha were falling through the cracks and no one seemed to give a crap or want to do anything to help. I couldn’t help but think that what a difference even one percent of the resources and brain power around me could do to change these kids lives, and all anyone wanted to talk about was that killer job on Wall Street they were going for. I also realized they hadn’t seen what I had seen, and of course I started to accept the reality that we are all just focused in on our own bubble of life.
But I would also think back to the speech our president made at our first day freshman year about how we were the chosen ones, like we were so much better and higher than everyone else for getting into Yale, and it sat with me just as wrong a couple of years later as it did then. I couldn’t help but think that the same speech was probably being given to students at prestigious schools around the country.
We’re not smarter or better, we’ve just been given more opportunity, I thought to myself as I listened to that speech, reaffirmed when I got a glimpse of Laqusha’s life a few months later.
Could a kid like Laqusha have had the chance to go to Yale if she had a father like I did that was totally invested in helping me do what I needed to do to become a better soccer player, or parents willing to spend stupid amounts of money to re-do the SAT’s numerous times with tutors for 3 straight years to make sure that the scores needed were acquired like many of my friends?
That idea that the benefits that came from these opportunities and resources were somehow inherent gifts that made us better pissed me off for a number of reasons, most of all because from those thoughts didn’t drip an ounce of acknowledgement or gratitude for the opportunities we had been given.
And that pervasive idea that accomplishing things in our society, is an equal opportunity exercise, still sits so wrong with me because it’s a lie. It’s reaffirmed in quotes and events that surround us every day when I know the truth lies in the glass ceiling that exists for kids like Laqusha that grow up in inner cities around the country or on a larger scale, developing countries around the world and don’t stand a chance from the second they set foot in their first classroom.
And while I could talk about the institution of education and the role that that plays in opportunity, obviously for me, the role soccer could play in changing lives for the better and how that opportunity is being squandered daily, enters my mind as well.
We’re about to go into a World Cup, but how many players in this day and age from backgrounds like Laqusha have the opportunity to go anywhere with soccer? How much power and positivity from what soccer could do for these kids is being squandered because no one that’s making a killing from the game, including our national and state governing bodies sitting on tens of millions of dollars is doing anything tangible to create programs that could truly give these kids a chance to go somewhere with the sport?
Which takes me back to this idea of what’s going on in Baltimore.
I don’t support riots, and take race completely out of the equation, there’s a human component to the idiocy that will cause people, regardless of color to join a mob mentality and rip a city to shreds for any reason (Case in Point: Vancouver, Canada – Stanley Cup Finals 1994 and 2011).
But that being said, there are some real issues that are coming to the forefront through what is going on in Baltimore.
Its a conversation that needs to be had. Poverty is not a choice, it is a cycle. And its a cycle that continues unless some kind of resource is given to break it.
Soccer has the power to be that for many kids, and we’re failing them in our own little sphere of influence in not giving them the opportunity to make it somewhere that could change their lives and those of their communities.
Its action that needs to be taken to make changes, and its something that all of us should take responsibility to do something to give every person in our society a fair chance to make it.