Imagine living in a world in which a black president was all you knew. For many American students, that's exactly how life is. When President Obama was elected in 2008, those now heading into high school next year were barely hitting double digits in age. And when his second term is up, they'll be the next generation of America's job force.
I was curious about whether he was having an impact on the next generation in his own backyard. For a group of kids at Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, the answer is yes.
At Chavez, they aggressively foster an environment for learning. The kids wear uniforms and the teachers do too, except for Fridays when college-themed gear is allowed. The grades are arranged into cohorts named after institutions of higher learning. The idea is to get their students — which they call 'scholars' — in the frame of mind that education doesn't end after high school.
Located just off Kenilworth Avenue in Northeast, the facility is pristine. University flags hang in the hallways, and a mural reading "No Excuses" is above the elevators on the first floor.
In a conversation with a group of 7th and 8th graders in the Tiger Woods Learning Center recently, we talked about the president and King. What struck me was how aware the threat of assassination was a very real in the minds of these youngsters.
“He [isn’t] really worried about what people say about him," Deon Jones, 13, said. "Or how people wanted to kill him because he was black. Say if President Obama was in Dr. King's age and he tried to go for president, they would have been killed him.”
Sadly, as is so often the case in this country, at such a young age, the thought of life ending by a bullet is top of mind.
Other kids echoed sentiments that might seem like a cheesy bi-product of his campaign slogan: Hope. But, on a basic level, Obama is most definitely still a role model to young black faces.
"Him being president makes me feel like I was the president. Because when there's a black person in power. You feel as if you are empowered, you have the strength and you can do anything. Can't nobody stop you,” Eric Moseley, 13, said. “Before, I wanted to be a lawyer. And I thought about it, like, I wonder what white people would say about me wanting to be a lawyer. Now, as I see [Obama], you could do anything.”
It's encouraging that a president can have kids motivated to do something more with their lives. No matter the politics, no matter the heritage, a leader that has young students with their brains on their futures is promising.
When Barack Obama takes the ceremonial oath of office Monday on bibles once owned by Abraham Lincoln and King, respectively, we'll all be witness to a unique historical situation that's just as correlated as it is coincidental. In the historical continuum of race in this country, Lincoln, King and Obama are all linked.
But going forward, it's clear that the last four years have opened the door to a philosophy of inclusivity that does not take a mature mind to understand.
"I'm not African-American, but I believe that [race] really doesn't matter. We haven't even had a female president yet. Say that a female president comes and she's a different race, whatever culture she is. She doesn't care about your race, she cares about how to run the nation," Joel Escobar, 14, said of what lies ahead.
"They could be an Asian, a hispanic. There could be a gay president, we don't know. It's in the future. They could be an Asian, a hispanic. There could be a gay president, we don't know. It's in the future."
So, while we grown-ups bicker about fiscal cliffs and who's singing the national anthem at the ceremony, the next generation is visualizing more inclusive days to come, as King espoused.
And for Escobar, the Inauguration left one burning question about his own future.
"Do we have school that day?"
Yates is a columnist for The RootDC
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