One of the keys to transforming urban education is the creation of powerful and loving learning communities facilitated by the young people themselves, their teachers, elders indigenous to the community, and a variety of community-based organizations. In this blog post we start with the indispensable role of youth by drawing out just one character from the novel, In a Silent Way: Lonnie. We first meet Lonnie when Jeanna, the teacher, is asking students to choose topics they are passionate about to explore as group projects. Tommie Lee, a natural leader in the class, and his fellow athlete, Big Blue, choose “What makes for a winning basketball team,” while the rebel, Karima, and the sleek Felice focus on “the struggle for racial justice,” and so forth.
However, when it comes to Lonnie, he says, “I can’t touch the likes of Tommie Lee and them all...I’m just trying to get from one day to the next, you know, survive?” Several other students who feel like failures throw their lot in with him and what becomes project “Group Survive.” Born into the bleakest poverty in the toughest part of the city, completely illiterate, and filled with shame and anger at being targeted as a “bad” kid by teachers in his previous schools, Lonnie is actually an extraordinarily resourceful, courageous, and creative young man. We discover that at age nine he becomes a newsboy, and puts food on his starving family’s table.
A few years later he becomes the newsboys crew leader, up at 4 a.m. and out into the darkness, running his crew and protecting his boys from gang violence. We see Lonnie and his buddy, Chefman who is self-educated, holding up Group Survive, and supporting each others’ literacy growth by leaps and bounds, both during and after school; the group becomes their lifeline.
Cat, another illiterate, barely surviving member of the group, confides in Lonnie about the horrific abuse he’s experiencing at home. Lonnie, in turn, asks his savvy elder mentor, Guff, for help. Guff goes up to the prison where Cat’s father has been transformed by black Muslims, and asks him to rectify the situation at home, which he does. Lonnie shares Cat’s situation with Jeanna, and she in turn visits the Black Panthers at a nearby church where she finds a mentor for Cat, free breakfast every morning, a health clinic, a men’s support group, and, ultimately, a future occupation as an EMT. Within Group Survive, Lonnie and his buddies begin to find ways to help other students with needs similar to their own, by setting up a student council to gain the necessary resources to help students obtain needed school supplies, food, clothing, escorts through gang territory, additional tutoring and mentors.
By the end of the novel, it is Lonnie and Group Survive to whom the great Tommie Lee turns when in the midst of his own life crisis, and who support him in breaking through to his own self-liberation, which in turn, may portend the transformation of a great community leader, his father.
Thus, Lonnie, one student, seemingly without resources and least likely to have something to offer, is key to his own transformation and liberation, his family’s, his fellow students, and the leadership of the broader community. Yet all this happens in the most organic and natural of ways, his power and effectiveness probably passing unnoticed by everyone, including himself. He is simply living his everyday life, doing what feels right to him, building relationships, creating community, learning as he goes, and changing absolutely everything.