Dr. Steve Perry: How to Beat the System that Doesn’t Want You to Succeed

Decades ago, Detroit was a beacon of American exceptionalism, a thriving city built on innovation and entrepreneurship. This has not been the story of Detroit in recent decades. Detroit hasn’t been a hopeful city, a place where children felt like they had a chance to succeed, a chance to do better than their current circumstances. School choice is expanding educational opportunity to more and more children, giving them the hope their parents thought they’d never have.

Recently Detroit was the setting for a school choice rally at the Charles M. Wright Museum of African American History, where educator and author Dr. Steve Perry spoke to a crowd of almost entirely minority students. He spoke plainly, telling these school choice students, “there’s a system in place to make sure you never make it out.”

Perry said the current system keeps poor and minority students trapped in their circumstances, but it’s time to disrupt that system.

“It is the law that says where you live will determine your destiny,” he said. “That, simply by some accident of fate, somewhere in the mind of these people that you are supposed to stay put for your entire life. I want you to break that law.” Perry did not pull any punches in telling these students that the system is not designed for them to succeed, but people will want to protect that system above all else.

“It is the law that says where you live will determine your destiny… That, simply by some accident of fate, somewhere in the mind of these people that you are supposed to stay put for your entire life. I want you to break that law.”

The day before the Detroit rally, Perry had spoken in Oklahoma City where protesters “some of whom call themselves teachers,” pulled the fire alarm to shut down the conversation.

“Young people, I need you to understand everybody ain’t pulling for you,” Perry said. “I really need you to understand, I need you to wake up. Everybody ain’t got your back. Everybody doesn’t believe that you are beautiful. Everybody doesn’t believe that you’re intelligent. There are people who are so focused on making sure that you stay put for your entire life that, when they see us as a symbol to remind you of your beauty, your grandeur, what it is that makes you special, they will set a fire alarm.”

He told the kids that they care more about their jobs than the kids they are supposed to serve. “They marched outside, saying ‘save our schools, save our schools.’ What they really meant was ‘save our jobs, save our jobs.’”

For students who have the opportunity to break out of the system and attend a choice school, Perry said, there is a great deal of responsibility.

“Every single time you go home and you don’t do your homework, you prove them right. Every single time you come to school out of uniform, you prove them right. Every single time you come and get smart with the teacher or principal, you prove them right, you prove them right, you prove them right,” he told them.

“And you make it so much harder for the rest of us who spend every single day, some of us our actual lives being threatened because all we want to do is give you a chance.” And that change is always being threatened. “If these forces, these individuals, these teachers unions have their way, they’ll pull every single one of y’all back” to the failing schools they had left behind.

Perry assigned the students the job of making an impact.

“If all you do is graduate from these fantastic schools and graduate and move on, you’re holding our boat…you have an obligation to come back to Detroit or take this message anywhere your voice will carry and fight for it now,” he said. “You need to fight not just for yourself, because that fight has been won. You’re here. You need to fight for your brothers and sisters.”

“you have an obligation to come back to Detroit or take this message anywhere your voice will carry and fight for it now”

“Every single one of you has a fundamental moral obligation to take that which is given to you and turn it into something that is bigger than you,” Perry told the group.

Perry went on to say “This system was never designed to educate poor minorities, or the poor of any color. It was never designed for that.” School choice gave students a rare opportunity, he explained.

“You occupy a rare air for the first time in American history,” Perry told them. “Not since reconstruction when some of those historically black colleges were being founded, not since then have our people of all colors, not since then have we begun to break through in numbers they cannot ignore.”

He was disgusted at the way the success of these schools is dismissed as cherry picking. “So, what they’re saying about your brothers and sisters and cousins is that they are unfixable. I don’t know about you, I don’t know how ya’ll grew up, I don’t claim to know Detroit , but I’m telling you right now, you talk about my family like that, we’re not cool.”

“Not since reconstruction when some of those historically black colleges were being founded, not since then have our people of all colors, not since then have we begun to break through in numbers they cannot ignore.”

Anyone can have a chance, and Perry said the educational establishment doesn’t want word getting out. “They are saying that the only way that you and you and you can make it out of here, this system that was so effectively designed to make sure you never made it out is that you ain’t like the rest of them.”

However, the auditorium was full of attendees who do believe in these students, more “revolutionaries” as Perry calls them. “Beat the system. I need you to keep your minds right. I need you to live like the revolutionaries you are, because the most revolutionary thing you can do is extend education to the people who were never supposed to have it.”

Amelia Hamilton is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @ameliahammy.