First Person Singular: Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education

First Person Singular
(KK Ottesen)
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Sunday, August 29, 2010

This work for me is very, very personal. It goes back to my mother's work in a church basement starting in 1961, trying to make a huge difference, through education, in the lives of kids that had a very, very tough time. Her after-school program was literally a mile and a half from where we lived -- but it was a different world.

I grew up in Hyde Park, this middle-class, diverse community around the University of Chicago. There was a 47th Street border; no one else crossed over, but we were this crazy family that did. Growing up in a different community, a different world, is life-transforming; it shaped us. And I couldn't begin to do what I'm doing today had I not had that opportunity every day for years.

Literally, from the time we were born, we grew up with children who happened to be African American, happened to be very poor, happened to have come from a very tough, violent community. And because volunteers and folks who helped teach and tutor them, believe in them and challenge them, [they] went on to do extraordinary things.

Kerrie Holley is one of IBM's leaders worldwide and one of the top 50 black research scientists in the country. Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dreams in Hollywood and starred in "The Green Mile." Corky Lyons became a brain surgeon. Ron Raglin helped me run the public schools in Chicago. From one little corner on 46th and Greenwood, despite tremendous adversity, tremendous challenges, you saw this extraordinary success. So what was ingrained in me from Day One was: Poverty is not destiny.

As much as the success stories encourage me, I lost a lot of friends at an early age, and, honestly, it scars you. As a kid, you know, 12 and 13, you struggle to make sense of it. The friends I had who died were friends who dropped out. And because the community was so violent and so tough, it literally ate 'em alive; it killed them.

Those who got a good education had extraordinary opportunities, and those that didn't had nothing there for them, absolutely nothing. I was blessed: I went to a phenomenal school and had teachers who pushed me hard, but I grew up painfully aware of the huge disparity in opportunities and expectations I had and [those] that my friends in my mom's program had.

The stakes growing up were so extraordinarily high that the quality of education was literally a matter of life and death. That's a huge part of my motivation and sense of urgency. You just can't accept that status quo; you can't be passive or complacent when you come to understand the consequences.

Interview by KK Ottesen


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