A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a well-known Black education reformer named Ms. Marshall. I was excited to chat with her after reading about her education work in her home city—the city in which her parents were raised—and watching her talks on the web about the inextricable link between education, poverty and policy. As a third-generation South Side Chicagoan with plans to impact public education in my city, her journey spoke to me deeply. I could tell Ms. Marshall was direct, fierce and a sharpshooter; she played no games when it came to access & opportunity for our babies.
Immediately after hopping on the call, and after very few pleasantries, Ms. Marshall let me know that she had one question for me: How did I get from Morgan Park High School (MPHS) to The University of Pennsylvania (Penn)?
This struck me as an odd question, but I shared with her that I was in gifted and talented programs since first grade. I went to a regional gifted center for elementary school, an academic center for junior high and was in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (DP) in my neighborhood high school. I came from a family of educators who understood how to navigate the K-12 school system in Chicago. Collectively, my parents taught and practiced school psychology in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and worked in labor relations with Illinois Education Association for over 75 years. My grandparents, on both sides, were educators. Lastly, almost on a whim, I shared that I was in the Collegiate Scholars Program—a 15 year-old initiative for high-achieving CPS students—through the University of Chicago (UChicago). It was then—and only then— when she said, “Got it, that makes sense now“. Ms. Marshall went on to explicitly share, “I’ve worked in [education in] Chicago, and students from Morgan Park just don’t go to Penn“.
“We don’t talk about the students who, like me and my classmates from Morgan Park, attend predominantly Black public schools, have access to opportunities afforded to us and go on to lead successful lives after college in all sectors and industries”.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m better for the programme’s academic enrichment, exposure to campus cultural activities, College Bridge courses at UChicago, college application prep and college tours. Admittedly, I would not be where I am today without the programme, in part. So, for an experienced education reformer to relegate my success to a UChicago receipt and disregard my CPS education and access to opportunity, is to not give credit where credit is due.
There are three MPHS graduates in recent history who have successfully matriculated through Penn and many more acceptances to Penn. That statement takes away the idea that MPHS—a public school that is 98% Black/African American on the South Side of Chicago—could adequately prepare a student for success in the Ivy League, and to make it plain, confer our own power, privilege and agency.
We, as folks of color who engage in equity work, are doing harm when we are not nuanced and holistic in our conversation around how power and privilege work in education intra-community. We’re adept at talking about how privilege works on the margins. We ‘get’ how those who are affluent, attend private high schools and selective colleges can go on to well-known post-graduate schools and jobs and see how they are successful. But we don’t always ‘get’ how those who might have grown up poor, get financial aid and/or scholarships to prep high schools and selective colleges and universities are catapulted up the mobility ladder to be successful. But we don’t talk about the students who, like me and my classmates from Morgan Park, attend predominantly Black public schools, have access to opportunities afforded to us and go on to lead successful lives after college in all sectors and industries. It’s almost as if we don’t exist in the conversation about Black success. And when Ms. Marshall’s schema couldn’t place our narratives, she latched on to the first recognizable example of her view of privilege: a programme for, “high-achieving public-school students” (read, Black kids) at the University of Chicago (read, a well-known bastion of privilege).
“Those spaces didn’t give me my power, my ancestors did, and no one can take that away from me”.
I have an issue with that and let me break down why. Relegating my success, and my preparedness for the spaces where folks who look like me have been historically excluded from, took away my place in the story of Black upward mobility—the desire my Floridian and Georgian families had when they moved North via the Great Migration for better opportunities. Her question took away the unwavering dedication of my parents to public school students in the Chicagoland area. She took away the sacrifice my family made to pay full price for Penn—due to making too much for financial aid, but not enough for that sticker price to not be a hardship. And she took away the dedication of phenomenal CPS teachers, like Ms. Wilson in 3rd grade, Ms. Chambers in 7th grade, Ms. Bradley in 9th grade and Ms. Mudron in 11th grade, who at every step of the way, had high expectations for me, believed in my brilliance and encouraged me to be whomever I wanted to be.
I am a proud graduate of the Chicago Public Schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. I will always put on for MPHS. I carry with me the power and privilege my collective experiences imbued in me, so that my confidence cannot be shaken by the hallowed halls of the Ivy League or by the technicolor walls of Silicon Valley. I am because my family and those Black folk before me worked hard so I could have opportunity, agency and choice. I brought that legacy to UChicago, to Penn and to Google, and I will bring it to the other spaces I will inhabit in the future. Those spaces didn’t give me my power, my ancestors did, and no one can take that away from me.
Victor Scotti, Jr. is a graduate of Morgan Park High School in Chicago, IL. He continued his studies at The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. He is an equity strategist, student development and talent manager, and coach, with a focus on Black male students. Additionally, Victor is the Chief Executive Officer for Moving Mountains, LLC, an accelerator for Black college men to equip them for personal and professional alignment in Corporate America. Moving Mountains’ not-for-profit arm, The Scotti Scholarship Foundation, awards deserving Black undergraduate students in the United States with funds to complete their degrees. Victor is also a proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.