The 34th annual WIAC-UNCF MLK breakfast celebration

On Monday Jan. 16, the Washington Inter-Alumni Council of the United Negro College Fund (WIAC-UNCF) hosted its 34th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Breakfast celebration in Greenbelt, Md.  The annual breakfast which attracts anywhere from 600 to 800 people, was started in 1980 and was originally the idea of then WIAC President and Paine alumnus Fred Thompson.  In addition to keeping with UNCF’s mission of raising scholarship funds for students, the event recognized two individuals for their community service contributions, and featured a notable keynote speaker.

The mistress of ceremony for the breakfast was Nikki Strong of WHUR who led a full program which opened with the singing of, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, by all in attendance.  The historic Negro Anthem was followed by a series of speakers and musical selections such as that performed by guest gospel performer Capria McClearn.   The morning culminated with the recognition of this year’s award recipients and keynote speaker.  This year’s “Person of the Year” award recipient was Phil Freelon, founder and president of the Freelon Group which designed and constructed the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.  This year’s Grace Walker Phillips Youth Leadership Award recipient was Eunique Jones Gibson, a DC native and founder of the “Because of them, We Can” campaign. 

“Anytime history seizes you, it has to be a calling.  It has to be something that has chosen you.  The bible calls that a, ‘Cross to bear,’” said Reverend Dr. Grainger Browning as he discussed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s realization and acceptance of his mission.  “No one picks up a cross to bear. You don’t choose a cross – a cross chooses you.”

This year’s Keynote Speaker was the Reverend Dr. Grainger Browning, Jr. of the Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Md.  The theme of his talk was, “Hidden Figures who held onto the Dream,” where he outlined prominent African American historical figures who did great things and persevered leading up to and beyond Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous dream.

 We provide over $100 million annually in scholarship assistance to students who attend UNCF member institutions, other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and over 1100 other colleges and universities,” said Charles Thompson III, UNCF’s Area Development Director for Maryland, Washington, DC and Northern Virginia.  “There are two areas we consider, how well the student meets the criteria set by the donor for each scholarship but also demonstrated financial need.  Many of the students we help come from families whose income is below $25,000.”    

The MLK breakfast was sponsored by: the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce, Prince George’s Community College, Southern Management Corporation, Wegmans, and Morgan Stanley.  Visit to learn more about the organization and to make a donation.

Dr. Jonathan Mathis discusses Honor Your Future Now campaign

Late in 2015, I was approached with an opportunity to conduct an interview with Hill Harper regarding his collaboration with the National Honor Society and its “Honor Your Future Now” campaign.  I was subsequently given the opportunity to interview the director of the National Honor Society Dr. Jonathan Mathis.  The following is my follow up interview with Dr. Mathis.

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An interview was recently granted with Hill Harper to discuss the National Honor Society’s Honor Your Future Now Campaign, an effort to get young people, particularly those planning to go off to college, to think about their next steps.  A second interview was granted this time with the director of the National Honor Society, Dr. Jonathan Mathis.  In this interview Dr. Mathis, who has had a love for education his entire life, as well as helping students actualize their dreams, discusses the importance of families proactively planning for their student’s college education; particularly the all-important financial aspect.  He also discusses resources that the National Honor Society has made available to plan for college, not just for its members, but to all students.

Anwar Dunbar:  Hello Jonathan.  First, thank you for this opportunity to interview you and ask you some more questions about Honor Your Future Now.  As you know, I recently spoke with Hill Harper about the campaign. As the Director of the National Honor Society, what can you tell the audience about your organization and the campaign?

Jonathan Mathis:  I can start by giving a few words about Honor Your Future Now.  The National Honor Society and the National Association of Secondary School Principals are really excited about this particular campaign because the narrative is to encourage all students to envision their future selves, and to look at how we can help prepare middle and high school students to start thinking about college, their careers and a lifetime of success.  So for me this campaign is really important and special because we offer expert advice, programs and resources not only to our Honor Society members, but to a general, wider public audience that will focus on helping students to get to, and through college, including how they will pay for college.

AD: Just for a little bit of context here, I want to go back and ask you a basic question.  First I’m going to front it though, by saying that when I was in high school I wasn’t the most focused student academically, and I do remember having a National Honor Society Chapter at my high school (Hutch-Tech High School in Buffalo, NY).  For the readers, can you just briefly tell what the National Honor Society is as an organization?  Do you all have chapters at every high school?  What was it set up to do?

JM:  Sure.  For nearly 100 years the National Honor Society and the National Junior Honor Society have empowered students to excel at four key pillars: scholarship, service, leadership and character, with a fifth pillar at the middle school level – citizenship.  The National Honor Societies thus recognize and foster one million students each year to be engaged in their schools, to be empowered to lead change, and to be active in their communities, so when we look at Honor Your Future Now we’re not only talking to our Honor Society members, but to the broader public.  Let’s continue to plan for our future success now.  Let’s cultivate ourselves with experiences and resources that will celebrate who we envision ourselves to be.  There are 25,000 chapters active at the Honor Society and the Junior Honor Society level, at both the high school and middle school levels.

AD:  And just for the lay person, what are the requirements for joining?  Do you have to have a 4.0 grade point average (gpa), for example?

JM:  The national guideline is for students to have at least a 3.0 minimum gpa, and again to celebrate students within their school who have demonstrated scholarship, leadership, service and character.  At the middle level citizenship is important too.  We expect to see students inducted into the National Honor Society who are seen as leaders in their school community, and also in their external community.

AD:  Okay let’s circle back and focus on Honor Your Future Now.  What was the impetus for this campaign?  Why did the National Honor Society feel the need to start this?  It sounds like there’s a component to help students navigate college and it sounds like there’s a financial component as well.  Is there a need to help students navigate college?  Are there skills or values that have been lost?

JM:  You know, you bring up a great question.  There’s been some new research that we commissioned here at the National Honor Society that led us to find that 50% of college-seeking students worry that they’ll be unable to pay for their college education, so when you hear that statistic alone we start to wonder; How can we dismantle the myths?  How do we provide additional resources?  We also found that 40% of the students said that they still need help trying to figure out how to apply for scholarships and 33% of students said that they would need more information just about the process.  Based on that research we developed the additional programming and resources that begin to share this pertinent information, especially at this time of year when most college-seeking students are finding out whether or not they’ve been accepted to their school of choice, and how they may be able to finance their education.

So, for example, we know that Jan. 1 is the opening of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and we encourage students to complete that application and submit their FAFSA as soon as possible because the professionals in the field know that those federal dollars are packaged on a first come first serve basis.  So if we want to help students to address these gaps in information and their concerns about financing their education, we really want to engage families and students as early as possible.  Therefore, providing that expert advice and information can help alleviate many of those concerns.

AD:  Is the Honor Your Future Now Campaign focused for the most part on the financial component or were there other points that you all wanted to address?

JM:  Well, just one other piece about the financial component. On our Honor Your Future Now website, we talk about what students need to think about in terms of being a leader in their school and a successful student. But as we think about this time of year, the conversation in schools across the country is how do you prepare to enroll in college, so we provide timelines for the various academic years and, as we think about college, we offer information in three ways.  We ask students and families to think about their own resources first.  Second, we’re encouraging them to get financial aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and things of that nature.  Third, we ask students to consider ways to decrease costs.

So when we say consider your own resources, we help provide information around savings accounts and 529 college savings plans and, for our National Junior Honor Society members, the National Honor Society has introduced an outstanding achievement award that could provide students with a savings account.  When we talk about financial aid we’re really getting students to understand the: need-based aid and the merit-based aid, and how to go about completing the FAFSA and to secure the grants, the loans and the federal work study, and the merit based aid.

When we’re talking about reducing college costs, we’re really talking about that pillar of scholarship, to say consider taking the advanced placement and the dual enrollment paths to limit the amount of time and money needed to complete the degree.  Right now we’re highlighting those things because of the time of year, but the Honor Your Future Now Campaign is really talking about a lifetime of success.  How can I become a leader in my community?  In what ways can I give back?  In what ways can I serve?  And given the timeliness of the conversation, we’re really excited about the opportunities and  the resources that we’re providing about getting to and through college.

AD:  You know, I just read something about that in a book called Smart is the New Rich by Christina Romans.  She recommended going through an accelerated program so students could finish early, thereby cutting the costs.  Is that what you were referring to?

JM: Right. Schools may offer a dual enrollment program.  So typically, you’re completing your high school diploma concurrent to your entry level college courses.  You may hear of it described as dual enrollment, early enrollment and concurrent enrollment, or early college-high school where you could potentially earn an associate’s degree before you graduate from high school.

AD:  Okay.  Does that sum up the message you wanted get out to the masses?

JM:  Yes, and it goes to your previous question about what other resources this campaign offers.  We really just encourage students and parents to plan early, think about the potential of a lifetime of success and what we can do now to really bring to light our future selves.  So when you visit the website, of course you’re going to find great information about how to charter a chapter if the school doesn’t have one; we also want to be sure that we’re equipping students to dream big and giving them the resources to make those dreams a reality.

AD:  Jonathan, I’m going to ask you one more question.  I asked Hill this, but as someone who has been as involved with education as you have been, and now overseeing the National Honor Society, in terms of getting today’s students to be successful, i.e. the Millennials, do you think they face any unique academic challenges?  Are there things that are different from when we were coming up in the 80s and the 90s?

JM: You know, I think there is a mix of challenge and opportunity.  When we think about the access to technology and the access to resources such as this website, that might not have existed for us.  I remember when I was looking for scholarships, I was sitting at the public library on snow days or professional development days for teachers.  If I had that day off, I would go look for scholarships.  Now for example, for our National Honor Society members, we just developed a search tool where they can have access to thousands of scholarships that they can apply to based on the pillars.  Those things didn’t exist for us.  So there’s a great deal of accessibility, but the question becomes now, how do we ensure that students who have access to a great amount of information are able to really decipher it in terms of what they need to do to execute those plans, and to achieve those goals, and how do they put it into action?  And when we look at the wide numbers of students to counselors in schools, we want to begin to help students make sense of the information they have access to.

AD:  Do you have any closing words?

JM:  I just want to encourage families and students to take advantage of the Honor Your Future Now campaign and to truly begin to plan for their future success now, and to take advantage of the resources. So continue to ask the questions and seek help to make it all possible.

AD:  Well thank you, Jonathan, for this wonderful opportunity to get this extremely important message out.

JM:  Thank you, Anwar.  I really appreciate your time this afternoon.

AD:  I have one last question concerning your background.  Being director the National Honor Society is a very impressive accomplishment with a far reaching impact.  Were you an educator who slowly worked your way up?  Or did you just happen to drop into this capacity by chance?

JM:   You know, to make a long story short, I always used to play school as kid so I’ve always loved what school looked like.  Professionally, I began my career working in college admissions, and then I served in a post-secondary institution, and then in a secondary school.  I served as the director of college counseling for a charter school, and I also served as an admissions counselor and a multicultural recruiter.  I spent a lot of time doing induction programs for new students.  I completed a Ph.D. in Urban Education Policy with a focus on this conversation we’re having around access and success for students, so my career has been and will continue to be around getting students to and through college.  It’s what I’m most passionate about, and you know, playing school as a kid and growing up on colleges campuses, I know few other places as well as I know colleges and high schools, so it’s truly a pleasure to serve in this capacity.  But it’s been my career and it will continue to be; helping students actualize their dreams.

To learn more about the resources for college planning discussed by Dr. Jonathan Mathis in this interview Honor Your Future Now.  Also see the National Honor Society’s infographic which describes the three components of paying for college.

To learn more about the resources for college planning discussed by Dr. Jonathan Mathis in this interview, visit Honor Your Future Now, and the infographic for the steps to applying to college.

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JetBlue discusses initial findings from book vending machine program part two

Earlier this year I was granted a second interview with JetBlue regarding its book vending machine program.    JetBlue piloted the program and an associated study in southeast Washington DC seeking to determine whether or not making books more readily available to neighborhoods like Anacostia would increase the reading skills of children living there.  The following interview with Icema Gibbs of JetBlue was previously unpublished as it was conducted and finalized just before the Examiner shut down its operations.  At the time of the interview, Jet Blue was embarking on the second year of the vending machine study (see part one) in addition to expanding it into other cities such as Detroit.

During the summer of 2015, JetBlue and Random House partnered together on a study as part of the airline’s “Soar with Reading” Campaign.  The study looked at whether or not increasing the availability of books to residents in “Book Deserts” could reverse the low reading levels and perceived lack of interest in reading typically associated with lower income neighborhoods.  On June 9, 2016, Jet Blue granted interviews to discuss the initial results from the Book Vending Machine study with Dr. Susan Neuman who has conducted extensive research on ‘Book Deserts’ across America, and Icema Gibbs, JetBlue’s Director of Corporate Responsibility.  In part one, Susan Neuman discussed the initial findings of the program.  In part two, Icema Gibbs also discusses the study findings in addition to Jet Blue’s plans to expand the Soar with Reading Program into Detroit, MI.

Anwar Dunbar:  Hello, Icema.  It’s really good to talk with you again.  I asked Susan a bunch of questions, but I have one main question for you.  Is it true that you all are expanding ‘Soar with Reading’ into other markets?

Icema Gibbs:  You know all things equal, I think it would be our objective to expand as much as we can, but we just don’t have the budget to make it a year round program or to expand it beyond one city at a time.  Right now, we are going back to Anacostia with the vending machine component; our most successful location.  As you discussed with Susan, this time we’re testing the outcomes of the children, and we’re going to do that at a “Counterfactual” site and at the church, and really do a deep dive into trying to figure how what we’re doing makes an impact on the education of the child; their vocabulary and so forth.  We’re not abandoning the city we were in initially, but we’re spreading the program this year based on customer and crew member feedback to a new city, Detroit, where they will have an abundance of vending machines.

We’ll be there starting in July.  At the end of June, we’re having the kick-off celebration in Detroit and we will be in five locations there.

AD:  I asked Susan about which books were in the vending machines in Anacostia, and she said that you all were very particular about putting books with African American characters in the machines in terms of content and on the covers.

IG:  That’s absolutely a goal.  We worked with Random House to help us with this initiative so we’re using their roster of books.  Yes, we did consciously try to put as many books with children of color on the covers because you might have a diverse group of characters in the book, but if you don’t see it on the cover you might not know that.  We thought it was important for the kids to be able to see everybody that looks like them on the cover of the books, even more so this year.

AD:  With these being Random House books, do you have some of the titles handy?  I know Jack and Annie from the Magic Treehouse aren’t African American (laughing).

IG:  Sure.  No they aren’t African American, but they were very recognizable pictures in the airports.  And it has really helped people become more aware of the program because kids had a chance to see Jack and Annie, characters they are very familiar with.

So I don’t know if you know how we operated the vending machines, but we changed them every two weeks.  The host has to be really on top of what’s going on and continue to rotate the books regularly.  There are also different age groups.  Examples of titles for age four to five included:

So we have quite a few diverse titles which reflect diverse characters.  Christopher Grant is one of our writers and he wrote ‘Taking Flight’.  We have quite a few books that will speak to all demographics.

AD:  And these are all published by Random House?

IG:  Yes.

AD:  Susan talked about there being a lot of blaming the parents regarding the child’s reading level.  Her interpretation of the data generated is that making the books available is a major component to a child’s learning to read in lower income areas.

IG:  The reason that we wanted to form an Education Advisory Board is because we fly planes really well, and in terms of customer service, we’re probably the best in the business.  We do great things with our customers and we treat our crew members really well.  We don’t profess to be educational experts however.  We know what we read in the papers, but we convened an advisory board with Susan, who is really leading that charge, because we needed to understand some of the myths and what to look for.  We knew that parents wanted good things for their children.  You kind of know that regardless of wherever you are.  We knew that given an opportunity people would enjoy having free books.

Now when we talk about Anacostia and the lessons learned, it’s clear to me that people didn’t believe the books were free.  We had to put out signs that said, ‘Free Books’, because families thought there was a catch to it.  Parents were interested in getting books for their children and they were interested in reading with their children.  They were very interested in helping their children create libraries.  Thus, some of the stereotypes that you may have heard or read were dispelled by our study.  We did not see a parent who said, “No, I don’t want to you to read, don’t take a book,” or, “Reading is not important.”

We heard the comments of people standing in line.  We saw the parents going into the grocery stores who might have been going in to get some milk and said, “We don’t have time on the way in, but let’s stop on the way out.”  There were just so many people interested in obtaining books and in that geographic area, there were no books for them to purchase.  So for us to have been able to give out the books that we did through the vending machines really said that people were interested.

AD:  Yes, that’s definitely an important myth to dispel.  Susan and I discussed this – you all are of the opinion that the store proprietors should take on a leadership role in terms of stocking more books, but are there also roles for our elected officials and government?

IG:  I don’t know that there is a message here for our lawmakers and elected officials.  More so, I think that we have to look at offering opportunities and I don’t know if that stands with the lawmakers.  So it goes back to, “I own a business.  I care about my community.  Can I see if I can get some discounted books to put in my store?”  How do you make that happen?  When we first started this program with the vending machines, you were talking to some of your peers and the pushback we got so adamantly from one young lady was that there are libraries and that this is not necessary because there are libraries.  We talked with her a little bit further and expressed that we love the libraries.  We’re not competing with the libraries, but at the end of the day you give the book back at a library and these are books to keep.  Children who have the books to keep have a tendency to read them over and over again and to read them to other people.

It helps children to continue to build their vocabulary and gives them a conversation point when they go to school, or over the summer when they see their friends, especially if they’ve picked up the same book.  We saw that in the church where the kids would say, “We love this book…,” and finishing the sentences and just hearing about a book they had already read.  We were pleased with all of those types of situations that happened during the course of our time in Anacostia.

We’re not saying that during this election year there needs to be books in every retail outlet, but we want community leaders to stand up and say, “We need books in our community.”  We want churches and educators to talk to proprietors and tell them that we need books and they need to be reasonably priced.  They can’t be so high priced that you can’t afford them.  Everyone has smart phones and smart devices, and that’s also a way to get books, but they’re also relatively expensive. So how do you get equal access for everybody?

We found that many people didn’t have equal access to books, but when they did they enjoyed reading them and would come to get them.  When we sent out text messages people were able to opt into our program and we would text them that we were putting in new books and having reading sessions.  They would come to our locations and participate with us.  The parents were engaged in the education of their children, and they were engaged in taking books that they were able to choose.  It wasn’t a handout.  The kids were especially excited about being able to pick a book that they wanted.  It was really interesting last year for us – there was nothing better than seeing the light on the faces of the children who were able to select books and build their own library.

AD:  Another piece to this which goes beyond the scope of what we’re talking about is who actually owns the stores in the neighborhoods we’re discussing.

IG:  To be clear though, a business can be anything.  I think we first think of larger outlets, but if you are a barbershop or a hair salon, you could have books there as well.  You probably already have magazines and you can also invest in books as well, especially if the books are inexpensive.  If you can sell sunglasses you can also sell books.  So you’re right about who might own the retail outlets, but in all of these communities we should have access to books.  One thing I took for granted is that in most communities if you go into $0.99 stores, you can buy books.  I thought all $0.99 stores were alike, but in some areas they sold books and others they didn’t.

IG:  I have the locations where we’ll be in Detroit.  Are you interested?

AD:  Yes.

IG:  We will be at the following locations: the Northwest Activities Center, the Samaritan Center, the Matrix Center, Patton Park, and Rosedale Park Baptist Church.

AD:  Okay, very good.  I’m sure they’ll be very happy to have you guys there.  Do you have any closing comments?

IG:  We’re very happy about ‘Soar with Reading’ this year and we hope you’ll be able to come out and see it.

AD:  Okay, well if you let me know in advance, I can put it on the calendar.

A special thank you is extended to JetBlue for allowing me to capture their important effort and study.  If you liked part one of this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.




JetBlue discusses initial findings from book vending machine program part one

Earlier this year I was granted a second interview with JetBlue regarding its book vending machine program.  JetBlue piloted the program and an associated study in southeast Washington DC seeking to determine whether or not making books more readily available to neighborhoods like Anacostia would increase the reading skills of children living there.  The following interview with Dr. Susan Neuman of the University of Michigan was previously unpublished as it was conducted and finalized just before the Examiner shut down its operations.  At the time of the interview, JetBlue was readying the second phase of the vending machine study in addition to expanding it into other cities such as Detroit.

During the summer of 2015, JetBlue and Random House embarked on a study as a part of the airline’s “Soar with Reading” campaign.  The study looked at whether or not increasing the availability of books to residents in “Book Deserts”, could reverse the low reading levels and perceived interest in reading typically associated with lower income neighborhoods.  On June 9, 2016, JetBlue granted interviews to discuss the initial results from its Book Vending Machine Study headed by collaborator, Dr. Susan Neuman, who has conducted extensive research on book deserts across America, and Icema Gibbs, JetBlue’s Director of Corporate Responsibility.  In the first interview Susan Neuman discusses the program’s initial findings.  In the second interview Icema Gibbs also discusses the study findings, in addition to Jet Blue’s plans to expand the Soar with Reading Program into Detroit, MI.

Anwar Dunbar:  Hello Susan.   The last time we spoke, you all had started the book vending machine program in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC.  A year out from starting that program what have you found?

Susan Neuman:  So just to recap last year, we did put book vending machines in high traffic areas based on our previous work.  So we asked, ‘Where do people go and where might they hang out with one another?’  At the same time we picked what we call “Counterfactual” sites; sites where there were a lot of people who would walk back and forth, but just in different areas.  We put the book vending machines at: a Shop Rite, Saint Matthews Memorial Church, and then a Wellness Center/Salvation Army.  Our job as researchers was to do was to examine how these machines were used, how often they were used, and the effects on those who used them versus the people at the counterfactual sites which did not have the vending machines.

There was a tremendous outpouring of interest from people who saw these vending machines.  They know how to use them because vending machines are a part of our society, so it wasn’t hard to do.  We found that people really used them, and in eight weeks’ time, 27,000 books were downloaded, used and selected.  We also noted some very interesting conversations between the parents and their children, or maybe the grandparents and children including, “Which books did you choose?  Why did you choose this particular topic?”  We also overheard lots of other interesting discussions including, “Oh my gosh, this is so needed.  We needed this in our community.”  So the vending machines were really used towards the end of August when school was looming ahead.  We found that there were even waiting lists and waiting lines.  People would stand in long lines in order to get books.  So it was a tremendous success, in terms of participation.

At the same time we found that parents and caregivers recognized the titles of books more frequently, so they were able to identify children’s books.  And that’s really important, because when you go to a library it’s often hard to know which books to get.  They knew titles which are especially important for the counterfactual areas.  And they reported reading more to their children.  So, in short, those were the effects.  We saw no damage and no problem at all with the machines.  They were pristine at the end of the experiment and they showed how much the people cared about books.

AD:  That’s interesting.  Yes, a natural concern would be what would happen to the machines once they’re put into certain areas.  I want to ask you about the counterfactual sites, but first an obvious question would be which books did you all supply at the locations?  Were they the Magic TreehouseHarry PotterChronicles of Narnia – something like that?

SN:  There were a wide variety of books that Random House collected and donated.  I’m sure some of them were overstocks.  But JetBlue really made an effort to make sure that there were multicultural titles – titles with lots of African American authors as well as main characters.  Many of these books had African American characters on the cover and that was really important because we wanted children to be able to identify with characters that could be important to them.  The other thing that we found was that it wasn’t just the very early education age groups who were interested.  That was the assumption that we had – that books would be picked out that were solely for babies and toddlers, but that wasn’t the case.  Even the teenagers would use the vending machines and they would download a sizable number of books.  So that was very heartening.

Regarding the counterfactual sites, we picked areas that we thought were high traffic – not terribly close because we didn’t want to see any type of bleeding, if you know what I mean.  One of the sites was a CVS Pharmacy.  One was close to the metro station.  Another, I believe, was a 7-Eleven.

AD:  Did you say bleeding?  What’s the context for that in this instance?

SN:  Well, what I mean by bleeding is that the same people could go to counterfactual sites and the vending machine sites and we didn’t want that to happen, especially in a place like Anacostia.  What you find is that people traffic around a particular area – they lived around Main Street, for example, and that was a key traffic area.  We tried to pick a place that wouldn’t be a key traffic area – somewhat removed so that we wouldn’t get responses from the same person in different areas.

AD:  So the significance of the counterfactual site is that it was your control site?  What’s the significance of that name?

SN:  It was.  It was like our control group.  We don’t call it a control group because control indicates more control.  We basically call it counterfactual – similar to a neighborhood, but did not have vending machines there.

AD:  And so did you all test a certain number of weeks or did this go on throughout the school year as well?

SN:  Just the summer.  We were interested and concerned about the “Summer Slide”.  You’ve probably heard about that, but generally kids who live in poor areas – their scores go precipitously down because there’s just a lack of resources.  What we had noted in our previous year was that Anacostia is a little bit like a book desert – there aren’t resources for children when libraries are closed.  Interestingly we found that this particular population did not use the library a lot.  We suspected that was because libraries have fines and that patrons are worried about paying those fines.  That was another real benefit of providing books and giving them a great deal of choice.  The book titles would change every two weeks so we got lots of repeaters.  A lot of people who would come back and use the vending machines over time.

AD:  So you said that you had a questionnaire.  Was it designed to gauge how the experience was or were you looking to measure something?

SN:  We were looking to measure a couple of things.  Number one was: who they were, their reading habits, and how many books they had in their home.  By in large the population is very predictable.  They don’t have very many books in their home – less than 25 books typically.  It’s a small number and so our questionnaire was basically interested in finding out more about them.  They wanted to read and they just did not have books.  There was a separate questionnaire that was designed to determine whether or not they recognized book titles.  Recognizing book titles is an indicator that they are paying attention more to children’s books and children’s literature.  And that is likely to enable them to select a book for their kids.

AD:  So what’s the conclusion for this work thus far?

SN:  I think the conclusion is that if you put books in they will come.  We want to convince proprietors that if they begin to stock books, people will buy them.  We can’t make that presumption because we gave books to them in this instance, but our preliminary findings indicate to us that people really do care about reading, and it debunks the notion that parents don’t care about this for their child, and they don’t want to read to their children.

What we’re arguing is that there are structural inequalities in certain areas and neighborhoods preventing parents from doing what they really want to do, which is to help their child, and I think that’s a very important message.  There’s a lot of blaming of parents that, “They don’t do this, they don’t do that.  They don’t talk to their children.”  All of this very deficit language and we’re trying to convince people that it’s not true.  How can you read a book to child if you don’t have one?  So what we’re saying is that if they have books, they will read them.  That should provide proprietors with an indication that maybe they should stock some books for a change and see if parents will buy them.  I predict that they will because they care deeply about their children and they want their children to succeed.

It was very interesting, Anwar, just an anecdote.  We did a lot of interviewing and we asked parents, “What would you like to see if we were to do this again?  What would you like to see more of?”  They said, “We’d like to see more workbooks in these vending machines.”  I thought that was fascinating because many of us say, ‘Well, workbooks aren’t terribly great for children,’ but it shows us how much parents care.  They want workbooks because they want their child to be ready for school.  And if you can highlight that, I would really appreciate that because there’s a lot of blame going on which I think is very detrimental to these families and it’s unfair.

The other thing is that this year we’re now looking at child outcomes.  We are now going to be back in Anacostia in the coming year and we’re doing a study to compare children’s vocabulary over the summer to see whether we can stall the summer slide.  If they have books will their vocabularies at least stay stable or will it grow over the summer when it generally goes down?  That’s what we’re specifically looking at this year.

AD:  In this last set you asked them how using the machines went, but you didn’t do any scoring in terms of rating their reading level or their ability to spell.  Is that correct?

SN: No, we didn’t do that last year.  Last year we focused on the parent.  This year we really want to focus on the child.  It’s a three step process.  First we documented that there’s a Book Desert.  We then said, ‘Okay if you change that Book Desert what happens?’  We found that parents will use the book vending machines and get books for their children.  This year we want to see what the impact will be on child outcomes.

AD:  I have two more questions.  It sounds as though you think the proprietor is the person to court here in terms of reversing this trend.  Should government elected officials have a role in this in terms of allocating more money for this type of effort?

SN:  Yes, of course we do think that.  You know there’s a new opportunity to learn language in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) law.  I hope that Icema will begin to do this, but we would like to see that opportunity to learn focus on having access to books.  There’s all of this talk about digital access and stuff like that, but the good old book is how children begin to read.  So yes, we’re hoping to affect the opportunity to learn language with the new ESSA law.  And yes, we are trying to convince proprietors to step up because JetBlue can’t do this forever.  Proprietors have got to begin to stock books and recognize that people will buy them.

AD:  My last question is – are you all going to publish your initial findings in an academic journal in multiple parts, or are you going to wait and publish everything together?

SN:  Yes, we have one article coming out already in Urban Education, which is about the Book Desert.  We’ve submitted this year’s project to a journal and we’re waiting to hear back from the periodical.  We will definitely be putting the third phase into a journal when it’s done.  That’s what Academic’s do (laughing).

AD:  Okay, well there will definitely be people who will want to read about this work, track the timeline, etc.

SN:  Well, you always have good questions.

AD:  Thank you, Susan, and I definitely appreciate being able to help you all get the word out about this important effort.

SN:  Thank you, Anwar.

In part two of my interview with JetBlue, Icema Gibbs discusses the expansion of the book vending machine program into other markets in addition to what local proprietors can do to make books more readily available to their patrons.  If you liked part one of this interview, please share it, and leave any thoughts and comments below.

Challenging Misconceptions And Stereotypes In Academic Achievement

“A study showed that Asian students study an average of 12 hours a week or more after school.  For Caucasian students the number is six hours, and for African American and Latino students the number is four hours.”


The following piece was my second piece published on the Examiner back in November of 2012.  It was based upon an actual conversation between me and my father during my youth growing up on the Buffalo’s east side.  Early on I developed misconceptions and stereotypes about peers from various ethnic groups and what they were and were not good at – Asians in particular.

My father challenged those stereotypes which is something that empowered me later on in life and helped change my academic paradigm and world view.  The visual for this piece is a playground for young children, because at a young age before we get socialized and develop racial biases and ideas, we all start off with the same potential to learn and achieve.  It’s what happens to us as we grow up in our unique environments that determine how our lives turn out, our successes, our achievements, and our failures.

* * *

“Those Asian kids are smarter than everyone else and they’re on the honor roll every quarter,” the son said to his father.  His statement was partially true.  At his school there were students of Asian descent who were on the honor roll every quarter and consistently had grade point averages of 90% or greater.

He was an average student from the inner city.  Like many young people, his views of the world were shaped by what he saw in his community, his peers, the media and ignorance.  His older brother and his best friend, both of whom he spent most of his time with, were not honor roll students either.

The father challenged his son’s statement saying, “They’re not necessarily smarter than you; they just spend more time in their books than you do consistently after school every week.”

“A study showed that Asian students study an average of 12 hours a week or more after school.  For Caucasian students the number is six hours, and for African American and Latino students the number is four hours,” the father said citing a study he had read.  The study suggested that academic performance was a function of time invested, not the intelligence of one race over another.

The conversation changed the son’s educational paradigms allowing him to become an honor roll student himself later on.  This true story demonstrates the importance of both parenting and mentoring.  With limited experience and wisdom, young people don’t always understand the world around them and can make conclusions that aren’t accurate.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People the late Stephen Covey describes paradigms as mental road maps that guide our behaviors.  These paradigms direct us and tell us how to react in certain situations.  Paradigms largely influence perceptions of academic achievement.

Dr. Ralph G. Perrino, of the Northern Virginia Tutoring Service, describes in The Socialization Process and Its Impact on Children and Learning, that a student’s academic performance is influenced by family, school, peers, mass media, public opinion, work, volunteer groups and religion/spirituality.  In summary, the expectations and culture students are exposed to, affects their performance.

The counties in northern Virginia, for example, are inhabited by families with highly educated parents.  “These parents are willing to invest their financial resources to make sure their children do well and go to college,” said Dr. Perrino.  The 90% college matriculation rate in these counties is thus a function of values and resources, and not necessarily an innate superior ability over other students such as those within the neighboring District of Columbia.

In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol argues that the quality of education available in any community is strongly affected by economics and politics.  These two factors directly impact not only educational and neighborhood environments, but also the culture, expectations and long term goals of the parents and children within communities.

Circling back to the opening of this article, at the University of Michigan and similar research institutions, a trend started in the early 21st Century.  Many of the research labs, particularly in the biomedical sciences, were employing large populations of Asian scientists.

It wasn’t magic though.  A professor noted that these scientists were “extremely hardworking, dedicated, and not concerned with things that their American counterparts are preoccupied with things such as having social lives and lots of leisure time.”

“Not everyone in China is smart.  Similar to America, there are a lot of people who aren’t smart and successful,” said Dr. Cheng Fang, a talented scientist from China, discussing the stereotypes about his people and his country.  Simply put, some of China’s most motivated and successful families come to the United States seeking the opportunities for advancement that this country has to offer, many in the sciences, and those are the ones that are seen most often.

Interestingly, Cheng further revealed that there are no second chances in China academically.  In the Asian countries if you don’t excel early in school, numerous doors and opportunities permanently slam shut.  In the United States you can under achieve in the lower grade levels and still positively make something of yourself through higher education or other avenues such as the military, entrepreneurship or entertainment.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

The benefits and challenges of using articulate speech
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege
Your net worth, your gross salary and what they mean
We should’ve bought Facebook and Bitcoin stock: An investing story
Who will benefit from Apple’s $350 billion investment?

The Big Words LLC Newsletter

For the next phase of my writing journey, I’m starting a monthly newsletter for my writing and video content creation company, the Big Words LLC. In it, I plan to share inspirational words, pieces from this blog and my first blog, and select videos from my four YouTube channels. Finally, I will share updates for my book project The Engineers: A Western New York Basketball Story. Your personal information and privacy will be protected. Click this link and register using the sign-up button at the bottom of the announcement. Regards.

The benefits and challenges of using articulate speech

articulate-speechThe following article was my inaugural submission for the Examiner back in November of 2012, and it’s very appropriate for my inaugural post on the Big Words Blog Site.  It hit upon one of the main themes of this site; the use of articulate speech.  One of the major rules for contributing to the Examiner was not writing in the first person point of view, something the publication policed very closely.  Hence in the piece, I’m not referring to myself directly.

* * *

“Why do you use those big words all of the time?” a middle school student was asked by his classmates in the late 1980s. It was a diverse school, but these particular students were from Buffalo’s East side which, for the most part, consisted of African American families.

Articulate speech, and big words were normal in his home. Both of his parents were college educated. His mother encouraged learning professional skills such as using proper typing techniques, though the importance of such skills were not well understood at the time by her sons. There were also plenty of books to read in the house. Public speaking was also encouraged at Sunday School every week at church.

Using big words helped him to earn his Ph.D. from a world renowned university. They allowed him to make very technical presentations, publish research articles, and to present himself well on job interviews.

As a scientist within the federal government, he made decisions that affected the health of the entire United States population. Articulate speech, the use of big words, and proper grammar were a part of his job performance; whether it was setting new policies, preparing documents, making presentations, and even collaborating with colleagues in foreign nations.

Ultimately being a major part of his success, his articulate speech caused difficulties throughout his life, particularly as a youth where it made him stand out from his peers, causing him to be perceived as different. He later found that being different was actually okay. As an adult, people continued to form opinions about him, positive or negative, based upon the way that he spoke. Nevertheless, his articulate speech ultimately opened several doors for him as he grew older.

The United States faces several challenges in the 21st century, one being the competition with other countries in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). A strong command of the English language is key for success in these fields. Asia’s brightest scientists, for example, spend considerable time and energy learning the English language in order to establish their careers in the United States.

Speaking and writing often go hand in hand. In his book, Inside American Education, Thomas Sowell writes that the educational system in the United States needs to get back to the basics of teaching children how to read, write and how to do mathematics. The late Dr. Joseph Fail, Jr., of Johnson C. Smith University, published numerous articles encouraging students to be able to write effectively, particularly students of color.

In some communities speaking articulately is viewed as speaking proper or “white”. It also represents not having “street credibility”, which can be very important at an early age and even in adulthood, depending upon the social circle. This can be devastating for young people, ultimately locking them out of opportunities later in life.

In the Rich Dad Poor Dad series by Robert Kiyosaki, several compelling arguments are made for expanding one’s vocabulary, and ultimately speaking correctly. Even though financial literacy is the focus of the book, the importance of words is discussed as well. Robert eloquently describes words as important tools that unlock doors to life’s multiple possibilities.

Young people (and adults) need encouragement to the extent that a large vocabulary and articulate speech are valuable assets. They need affirmations that it is okay to read books and to speak well, even though it may make them feel different than their peers. They need confirmation that having a strong command of the English language is important in that it creates opportunities, opens doors, and builds bridges no matter what the professional field or discipline.

Thank you for taking time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

Challenging stereotypes and misconceptions in academic achievement
Challenging misconceptions and stereotypes in class, household income, wealth and privilege
Your net worth, your gross salary and what they mean
We should’ve bought Facebook and Bitcoin stock: An investing story
Who will benefit from Apple’s $350 billion investment?

If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right hand column in this post and throughout the site or add the link to my RSS feed to your feedreader. Please visit my YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussions76. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.