Reggie White, 2017 Memphis corps member, addresses his peers at the conclusion of the 2017 Memphis Institute on July 12, 2017. Below are his remarks.
I was fifteen years old when my life unexpectedly turned upside down and the weight of the world fell on my shoulders. My parents, who brought me into this world as mere teenagers themselves, were in no position to carry me through. My father was an absent non-factor; my mother was thousands of miles away in southern California, living in between cars, motels, and homeless shelters while struggling to stay afloat. My grandparents, members of the baby boomer generation defined by socioeconomic standards as “poor,” were “rich” in my eyes as they had always been my saving graces and sense of security, emphasizing the importance of Black excellence through education as a tool of social mobility.
Education was regarded as this transcendent, all-powerful, amazing thing that could empower young Black kids from the wrong side of the tracks like myself with the tools to go anywhere and do anything. It made a lot of sense that they would feel this way, as both of them were denied well-deserved access to college opportunities due to being poor and Black in the legally segregated 1950s South, where both of their high school diplomas labeled them as “colored” and “Negro.” During the last two years of my own high school experience, however, I prematurely figured out that the “cards” they spoke of being stacked against me – systems of generational poverty, structural racism, a lack of access to quality health care and educational inequities throughout our community – were alive and well, and education alone unfortunately could not break down these historical barriers.
In an sudden turn of unfortunate events, I found myself all alone as the sole caretaker of my Grandmother, who before my very eyes transformed as Alzheimer’s disease gripped her brain, erasing her memories and ability to take care of herself. I now was no longer a kid, and had to work in fast food after school during the week to provide. Without access to a car, I had to walk miles to and from work. There were nights when I would write AP English papers, calculate answers to trig and calculus problems, and read excerpts of books with flashlights and under candles because our electricity had been cut off. These real-life struggles were norms for us for years. But through it all, like many of our students, I refused to let poverty be my only defining identity – I knew I had to obtain a college education to begin the climb.
Fast forward to early 2017, and I find myself working as a corporate insurance and risk management specialist for the world’s largest privately-held insurance brokerage firm in Houston. As a first-generation college graduate, I had been privileged to help my family financially get on their feet, and was able to push my younger siblings, mentees, and even my own mother to earn her GED and enter college. But, it still wasn’t enough. I felt immensely unfulfilled and selfish in the confines of corporate America. I knew my life had a deeper calling. Because of all of the unbelievable things my family had been through. Because generation after generation had been born into and boxed into poverty. Because I am physically and mentally TIRED of the same toxic, depressing narrative and disheartening statistics. I needed to do something about it. That something was the movement of Teach For America. And although I am not a native son, Memphis is family…Memphis is me. So here I stand.
Throughout our institute experience, we have been pulled, stretched, shaken, stirred, and pushed beyond measure. We have been sleep deprived! We have been asked questions that make us uncomfortable, and have been forced to ask questions of others that push us beyond our comfort zones. We have been encouraged to look beyond our own insular worlds to see the life and community experiences of others. We have been placed in unfamiliar spaces and charged to make it home. We have lesson planned and outlined and annotated! We have been charged with digging deep within our souls to do work not for ourselves, but ultimately for the benefit of others. For others that don’t always talk like us, look like us, or even live in ways like many of us…children who were once “those” and “theirs,” but are now forever ours. Most importantly of all, we have been prepared to do this incredibly important work that is ours to see through. I can speak as a youth who emerged from socioeconomic spaces much like many of the kids we serve – we are needed. Each of you – your talents, your strengths, your enthusiasm, your very best selves – are needed.
To quote a native Memphian, the late civil rights leader, women’s advocate, and educator Mary Church Terrell, “and so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition,” it is my hope that each of us will remember your “why” as we move forward in this work. Living out our GRIND values. Providing hope. Protecting our babies. Empowering our kids. Strengthening our communities. Disrupting systems. Working together to elevate Memphis to its best self. So when asked of the city, “and how are the children?” We will be able to boldly say, “they are well,” knowing we give our everything to the future leaders of Memphis…OUR KIDS.