So, I want to talk to you about the forgotten middle. To me, they are the students, coworkers and plain old regular folks who are often overlooked because they're seen as neither exceptional nor problematic. They're the kids we think we can ignore because their needs for support don't seem particularly urgent. They're the coworkers who actually keep the engines of our organizations running, but who aren't seen as the innovators who drive excellence. In many ways, we overlook the folks in the middle because they don't keep us up awake at night wondering what crazy thing they're going to come up with next.
And the truth is that we've come to rely on their complacency and sense of disconnection because it makes our work easier.
You see, I know a little bit about the forgotten middle. As a junior high school student, I hung out in the middle. For a long time, I had been a good student. But seventh grade was a game changer. I spent my days gossiping, passing notes, generally goofing off with my friends. I spent my homework time on the phone, reviewing each day's events. And in many ways, although I was a typical 12-year-old girl, my ambivalence about my education led to pretty average grades.
Luckily for me, my mother understood something important, and that was that my location was not my destination. As a former research librarian and an educator, my mother knew that I was capable of accomplishing a lot more. But she also understood that because I was a young black woman in America, I might not have opportunities out of the middle if she wasn't intentional about creating them.
So she moved me to a different school. She signed me up for leadership activities in my neighborhood. And she began to talk to me more seriously about college and career options I could aspire to. My mother's formula for getting me out of the middle was pretty simple. She started with high expectations. She made it her business to figure out how to set me up for success. She held me accountable and, along the way, she convinced me that I had the power to create my own story. That formula didn't just help me get out of my seventh grade slump—I used it later on in New York City, when I was working with kids who had a lot of potential, but not a lot of opportunities to go to and complete college.
You see, high-performing students tend to have access to additional resources, like summer enrichment activities, internships and an expansive curriculum that takes them out of the classroom and into the world in ways that look great on college applications. But we're not providing those kinds of opportunities for everyone. And the result isn't just that some kids miss out. I think we, as a society, miss out too.
You see, I've got a crazy theory about the folks in the middle. I think there are some unclaimed winning lottery tickets in the middle. I think the cure for cancer and the path to world peace might very well reside there. Now, as a former middle school teacher, I'm not saying that magically everyone is suddenly going to become an A student. But I also believe that most folks in the middle are capable of a lot more. And I think people stay in the middle because that's where we relegated them to and, sometimes, that's just where they're kind of chilling while they figure things out.
All of our journeys are made up of a series of rest stops, accelerations, losses and wins. We have a responsibility to make sure that one's racial, gender, cultural and socioeconomic identity is never the reason you didn't have access out of the middle.
So, just as my mother did with me, I began with high expectations with my young people. And I started with a question. I stopped asking kids, "Hey, do you want to go to college?" I started asking them, "What college would you like to attend?" You see, the first question—
The first question leaves a lot of vague possibilities open. But the second question says something about what I thought my young people were capable of. On a basic level, it assumes that they're going to graduate from high school successfully. It also assumed that they would have the kinds of academic records that could get them college and university admissions. And I'm proud to say that the high expectations worked. While black and Latinx students nationally tend to graduate from college in six years or less, at a percent of 38, we were recognized by the College Board for our ability not to just get kids into college but to get them through college.
But I also understand that high expectations are great, but it takes a little bit more than that. You wouldn't ask a pastry chef to bake a cake without an oven. And we should not be asking the folks in the middle to make the leap without providing them with the tools, strategies and support they deserve to make progress in their lives.
A young woman I had been mentoring for a long time, Nicole, came to my office one day, after her guidance counselor looked at her pretty strong transcript and expressed utter shock and amazement that she was even interested in going to college. What the guidance counselor didn't know was that through her community, Nicole had had access to college prep work, SAT prep and international travel programs. Not only was college in her future, but I'm proud to say that Nicole went on to earn two master's degrees after graduating from Purdue University.
We also made it our business to hold our young people accountable, but also to instill a sense of accountability in those young people to themselves, to each other, to their families and their communities. We doubled down on asset-based youth development. We went on leadership retreats and did high ropes courses and low ropes courses and tackled life's biggest questions together. The result was that the kids really bought into the notion that they were accountable for achieving these college degrees. It was so gratifying to see the kids calling each other and texting each other to say, "Hey, why are you late for SAT prep?" And, "What are you packing for the college tour tomorrow?"
We really worked to kind of make college the thing to do. We began to create programs on college campuses and events that allow young people to really visualize themselves as college students and college graduates. Me and my staff rocked our own college gear and had lots of fun, healthy competition about whose school was better than whose. The kids really bought into it, and they began to see that something more was possible for their lives. Not only that—they could look around at that college-going community and see kids who came from the same backgrounds and the same neighborhoods and who were aspiring to the same things.
That sense of belonging was really key, and it showed up in a remarkable, beautiful way one day when we were in the Johannesburg airport, waiting to go through customs on our way to Botswana for a service learning trip. I saw a group of kids kind of huddled in a circle. Usually, with teens, that means something's going on.
So I kind of walked up behind the kids to figure out what they were talking about. They were comparing passport stamps.
And they were dreaming out loud about all the other countries they planned to visit in the future. And seeing these young people from New York City go on to not just become college students but to participate in study abroad programs and to then take jobs around the world was incredibly gratifying.
When I think of my kids and all the doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, journalists and artists who came from our little nook in New York City, I hate to think of what would have happened if we hadn't invested in the middle. Just think about all that their communities and the world would have missed out on.
This formula for the middle doesn't just work with young people. It can transform our organizations as well. We can be more bold in coming up and articulating a mission that inspires everyone. We can authentically invite our colleagues to the table to come up with a strategy to meet the mission. We can give meaningful feedback to folks along the way, and—and sometimes most importantly—make sure that you're sharing credit for everyone's contributions.
What happened when my staff aimed high for themselves is that what they were able to do for young people was pretty transformational. And it's been so wonderful to look back and see all of my former colleagues who've gone on to get doctorates and assume leadership roles in other organizations.
We have what it takes to inspire and uplift the folks in the middle. We can extend love to the people in the middle. We can challenge our own biases about who deserves a hand-up, and how. We can structure our organizations, communities and institutions in ways that are inclusive and that uphold principles of equity. Because, in the final analysis, what is often mistaken for a period is really just a comma.