The University of Baltimore’s Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts held its Eighth Annual Urban Child conference, “Education and the Urban Child,” on April 7, 2016.
Keynote speaker James Cole Jr., general counsel of the U.S. Department of Education, discussed the importance of taking responsibility for young people, the mission of My Brother’s Keeper, a presidential task force that seeks to address opportunity gaps faced by young people of color.
“I was in a sense ‘kept,’” said Cole, who in January was delegated the duties of the deputy secretary of education. “Someone took responsibility for me when I was young.”
Cole’s 10th-grade English teacher, Ms. Schmidt, recognized his abilities.
“She had big plans for me,” said Cole, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and assumed charge of his family at 14 after his mother died and his father began suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. “She convinced me I have talent, she made me feel smart and created a safe space for learning in a world filled with gang fights and unpaid bills.”
Ms. Schmidt not only urged Cole to go to college, she also sent him to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to visit her son for a weekend so Cole could see that college was an attainable goal.
A few years later, Ms. Schmidt was present when Cole graduated with honors in finance from that university. She was in the audience too when he received his law degree from the University of Chicago.
“My family is all African-American and there was Ms. Schmidt with her red hair,” Cole said. “She took responsibility for me. Now I’m serving the president of the United States because someone made the choice to be my keeper.”
Cole cited troubling statistics: While 43 percent of all young adults in the U.S. have completed a bachelor’s degree, only 25 percent of young black women and 18 percent of young black men have a four-year degree.
“Compare that with the odds of incarceration,” Cole said, pointing out that one-third of black men are likely to go to prison at some time in their lives.
Said Cole: “Each of us in this country bears an individual responsibility to our brothers and sisters to truly see kids like the one I was, not to pretend we don’t know where they are.”