Don’t Talk About It — Do Something!
School choice crusader Steve Perry challenges students to be agents of change — ‘You can’t hashtag your way through a social movement’
Long before he was standing in front of crowds as a school choice crusader, Steve Perry used to sit alone in his room, listening to the taped speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.
He says it wasn’t just King’s eloquence that inspired him; it was his courage and, more importantly, his actions.
“He was a man who spoke what the country needed to hear even when the country did not want to hear it — ultimately to his own peril,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot not just from what he did on the public side but from the cost. Freedom ain’t free, and the pursuit of it is even more expensive.”
Perry is the founder and former principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut — a school that has become nationally known for sending 100 percent of its predominantly minority and poor graduates to college. He was the featured speaker at the 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at Georgia Southern earlier this year, and his message to the audience, most of them students and young people, was simple: “If you ain’t doing something, you ain’t doing nothing.”
“I see people with their fists up, the latest t-shirt that says #BlackLivesMatter, but if black lives matter so much, what are you doing to make something happen,” he asked. “You can’t hashtag your way through a social movement. Are you doing something or are you talking about it? If you’re talking about it, you’re not doing anything.”
For Perry, “doing something” has meant taking a passionate stance on education in America. He travels around the country espousing his belief that schools should be accountable for their ability to educate children, and in the past has said that failing schools should be closed. These beliefs have put him at odds with teachers’ unions and educational organizations, and even put him at odds with the NAACP, which he said is in danger of “becoming a relic” because of its stance with the educational status quo.
“If you want to make sure you keep people afraid and dumb, locked up in their own ignorance, what you do is you force them into failed schools,” he said. “You call it a school when nobody in there is learning and then blame everybody in there for not learning.”
It was King’s views on education that led Perry on his path. In King’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, he said that if you pulled minority children out of poor-performing schools and gave them access to a quality education, you could change the trajectory of their lives. Capital Prep was founded on that belief, and Perry described the power of watching students learn despite their circumstances.
“I want you to see what happens when pride starts to set inside somebody when they see the hope coming through,” he said. “I want you to see that because then you can see why it’s so important for you to do something.”
Perry described the dire situation of education in America, and noted that in Georgia, normed assessment statistics showed that less than half of students were performing on grade level in reading and mathematics. Nationwide, 75 percent of students taking the ACT were deemed “not college ready,” and minority and poor children are still attending some of the worst schools in the country. It’s a picture he believes should rouse students to action.
“When I say, ‘if you ain’t doing something you ain’t doing nothing,’ what I’m saying is ‘if you’re not working hard to transform the circumstances that have created challenges for you and others then you, in fact, are contributing to their continuation,’” he said.
Doing something isn’t just a challenge, however. Perry said it’s an obligation, and students have to choose how they’re going to live with that fact.
“The way that we live in this life is one of two ways: we either make a life or we make a living,” he said. “Making a life is paying a debt. Making a living is just paying your bills.
“I want you to recognize that you’ve been put here for a purpose that’s bigger than grades.”
— Doy Cave
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