By Marian Wright Edelman
Damien Durr is a brilliant young man who grew up in Ohio in a family of teachers where education was always stressed. No one, including Damien, ever thought he wouldn’t finish high school. When his father, grandfather and aunt all died within a short time of one another as he was starting high school, it shook him off his solid foundation. But through his terrible grief he kept going. Then he hit a roadblock: he failed the math section of the proficiency test required for graduation. “I took the math portion of the test numerous times, went to summer school, attended tutoring in school, attended tutoring at another high school, and even had a teacher from my mother’s school come to the house and tutor me – and still I could not pass the test . . . At the end of my senior year I found myself pushed out of school and unable to graduate because I could not pass one portion of a standardized test.”
Damien’s “offense” was having spent 12 years in public school classrooms that left him unable to graduate. Years later Damien wrote about how his school pushout derailed—and nearly destroyed—the course of his life. “[W]hat often is not discussed when you repeatedly fail like I did are the deep feelings which I felt of shame, embarrassment, disappointment and intellectual inadequacy … based on a test that kept reminding me that maybe I was not good enough.
“…So with no high school diploma I spent the next seven years working multiple jobs… United Parcel Service, Gibraltar Strip Steel, Labor Ready, DialAmerica, construction, telemarketing, and the list goes on. Throughout the course of those seven years I was arrested and involved in some illegal activities and found myself constantly looking for creative ways to bring in revenue.” Damien eventually turned his life around, got his GED, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees with honors from American Baptist College. That’s where he met one of his mentors who immediately saw his brilliance and steadfastly encouraged him, Rev. Janet Wolf.
After graduating from American Baptist College – which John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette and Jim Bevel attended and became key leaders in the Nashville and national civil rights movements – Damien earned a Master’s in Divinity degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School. Today, he is a minister, a school counselor, and an organizer with the Children’s Defense Fund Nashville Nonviolent Organizing Team advocating for and mentoring children and youths – mostly Black boys – and others pushed out of school and put at risk of the prison pipeline who might not be as lucky and as able to get their lives back on track as he was.
Eric Brown is one of Damien’s colleagues who wrote about his experience being pushed out and pushed away by adults. Eric, the son of a third-generation pastor, was rooted in the church. But as a teenager he started to realize adults in the church community were sometimes among the first to judge the youths around them: “I noticed my frustration with identity through my experiences of how church folk were quick to label students and young adults as criminals based on music, clothing, hair styles, and vernacular. I felt many church folks never took the chance to listen to the concerns of students, but rather preached their notions of a child’s image as evil to children they said they love . . . [M]any of my friends began to go down a road of crime based on fulfilling a destiny we felt older adults already forced on us.”
Eric was able to envision and forge a different identity for himself after finding the right adults willing to serve as role models and mentors instead of prejudging him. He also graduated with honors from American Baptist College, where he was mentored by Rev. Wolf, and received two master’s degrees from Vanderbilt University – a Master’s of Theological Studies and a Master’s in Ethics. He is a minister and a volunteer chaplain at Riverbend Maximum Security Institute where he co-facilitates the Community Building and Conflict Resolution Circle on death row.
We need to stand up and fight against unjust systems that often push young people out of school and onto the path to prison. We also need to make sure we are doing all we can as individuals to show love and care and support to young people – especially Black and Hispanic – who already often feel pushed out and pushed away.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.