In the Chicago public schools, and urban school districts across the nation, if you’re a black male the odds are against your going on to college. If you do, there’s a good chance you won’t complete your degree. The college graduation rate for African American males who graduate from Chicago Public Schools is a little more than 20 percent. WYSO Community Voices Producer Amy Harper takes a look at the forces affecting the life of one young man who is trying to beat the odds.
I met Willie Round in 2010, at the beginning of his freshman year at Central State University. A group of faculty and staff had started a mentoring program for new students; he signed up and I became his mentor.
Willie’s from the North Lawndale neighborhood in West Chicago. The poverty rate is high, nearly 40 percent, and gangs, guns and drugs are part of everyday life. The streets and drugs took Willie’s dad, who died in prison when he was five, and his uncle was shot not far from where he lives. Recently he saw police shoot and kill a 16-year old boy, who’d been shooting at them. From the window of his mother’s apartment, Willie saw the kid’s body jerk as the bullets hit him.
When Willie was in grade school, his mom joined the Greater St. John Baptist Bible Church in another part of town. She wanted to get her kids away from the neighborhood and expose them to a different environment, and different people.
“It kept me active in a lot of things as far as like church trips. It always gave me other things to do besides sitting at home and, you know what I’m saying, going out on the streets. It was more like a safe haven, for real,” Willie says.
At Greater St. John, Willie met Rev. Bernard Lilly, the church administrator, who stepped into his life as a mentor, role model and father figure.
“I just seen a student there with so much potential but wasn’t doing so well,” Rev. Lilly says, “But he just needed a push and just needed to be encouraged.
Willie says he wouldn’t be where he is today without Rev. Lilly, “I don’t know what it was that he seen in me but I’m glad that he did. I thank God for him everyday. Without him, I might not even be alive, for real.”
Church-sponsored outings with Rev. Lilly and after-school activities kept Willie busy and off the streets. But the thing that occupied most of his attention was basketball. He knew how to handle a ball, and he got a lot of encouragement to use his athletic skills as a vehicle to a better life.
He didn’t think seriously about going to college until his senior year, when he transferred to Kelly High School in South Chicago. He’d been recruited by Kelly to play ball, but he found another focus in teacher Brandy Garris’s radio and television production class.
“All right, I’m in my senior now, starting to think for myself a little bit more. I didn’t see a future in basketball no more. You know, I didn’t believe the hype no more,” Willie says.
Brandy Garris is familiar with that hype. “A lot of our African American males feel like basketball or football is the only way they’re going to get to college,” Garris says, “Once he realized that there was another way to go there besides that, I think it opened up a whole new world for him. There were about 15 black males that transferred into Kelly the year he did. I think Willie is one of maybe two, or three if I wanted to be optimistic, that is doing something with his life, and is in college, and continued on.”
Willie says, “We gotta make smart the new cool. That’s how I feel. Somehow, some way, we gotta flip the script.”
Willie’s in his third year now at Central State University, majoring in mass communications. In his family and at his church, there’s lot of hope riding on his success.
“To see a young man from this community go to a university, graduate, with his bachelor’s degree is a success story right there. He just became an odd beater. With him doing that, he’s coming back to help his community by that alone. You know, and he can help so many.”
The expectations weigh heavily on Willie.
“I got family just telling me, Little Will, you’re our last hope,” he says, “Why are they putting their faith in me? Like, nobody ever did that unless it was with basketball. Now y’all expect me to finish college, which, I never did good academically.”
“When I first got to college I always thought about failing. And that brought a lot of worries. I stressed a lot and I was losing hair, biting my nails every day, you know, I never bit my nails when I was in high school.”
Willie’s mom, Deveta Gill, shares her three-bedroom apartment with five kids, six when Willie’s home; the two youngest she took in several years ago, when their mother, a friend of Deveta’s, left them and disappeared into the street.
A couple of kids’ bikes take up space in the small kitchen. It functions as the center of family life in Deveta’s household. On the day I visited, she was making, jerk chicken, one of Willie’s favorite dishes. She was making enough to feed friends or family who might drop in for a visit, as often happens.
“My house is like a community center,” Deveta says, “It’s kind of quiet now, but kids come from everywhere and we all hang out and participate.”
Willie says Deveta’s focus on home and family kept him off the streets, and out of trouble.
“All I knew was my family. And we made time for each other and we stayed in the house and just chilled with each other,” Deveta says, “We really didn’t have to go outside to have a good time.”
Deveta works nights for UPS, a part-time job she’s held for 18 years. During the day, she cares for her three-year old grandson, while her daughter is working. She manages on just a few hours of sleep.
Willie struggles with constant guilt about the debt his mother is taking on to help finance his college education. He doesn’t feel he deserves the blessings he’s received. She just wants him to stay focused.
“We’re not going to worry about how it gets done,” she says, “We’re just going to worry about, doing and making it better. And I tell him a lot of times, you get unfocused when you’re feeling guilty. Why? It’s done. Just do it. Do it right. And once that door opens, open another one, open another one, open another one.”
When he’s in Ohio, in school, Willie can see his way through to graduation. He’s hopeful about his future. But when he’s home for any length of time, it’s a different story.
“It’s like, it sucks all my motivation out within a couple of weeks. Just being around people that don’t got no hope,” he says.
Last summer, he almost didn’t return to college. He didn’t want to burden his mother with more debt. And then there were his friends.
Willie says, “I had a lot of people telling me, ‘Oh, you can’t be from the West Side if you’re doing this,’ like I’m losing some of my hood credibility because I’m doing something better with my life.”
They were making money on the street; he was broke all the time. He wondered if maybe this whole college thing was really worth it. Rev. Lilly pushed him hard to return. And he did, at the last minute.
“Yeah, they had to pull me back. I mean, I lost sight last summer of my goals. It’s easy when you’re in that kind of environment to lose sight of . . . it’s like trying to adapt, like I’m trying to adapt constantly back and forth and you know sometimes it just gets overwhelming and it just gets . . . it’s tiring,” he says, “I’m tired. I’m real tired. You know, but I feel like I can’t give up. I gotta keep moving forward.”
Willie had a dream recently that he’d finally had a story air on a major TV station in Chicago. . . . only it was about his death. He’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like a friend of his who was shot and killed last January; he’d just received a recording contract and was about to leave for New York when he died.
This summer Willie received a grant that allows him to stay on campus, to work and attend classes. He says being away from Chicago will help him stay focused on his goals. His plan is to graduate next year and beat the odds.
“I know I can’t give up,” he says, “I know I gotta keep moving forward. This is something I have to do. Like, it’s no failin’. I can’t. I don’t want to go back to Chicago . . . empty handed. . . . I don’t.”