The Brick Project Conversations, Part Twenty: Karim and Xochiltl
About Xochiltl Bravo and Urban Compass
Xochiltl is Executive Director of Urban Compass.
Urban Compass operates after school and summer programs at Verbum Dei High School in Watts, South Central Los Angeles, to serve the students from 112th Street Elementary School and Nickerson Gardens Housing Developments.
They provide tutoring support as well as enrichment activities and field trips to keep the children engaged in a positive learning experience – and off the streets.
Watts is an economically depressed area known for high drop-out rates, widespread unemployment, poverty, crime and gang violence. The rate of violent crime triples in the hours immediately following the school day. Local middle schools are the recruiting grounds for new gang members. Some children join as early as eight years old.
Xochiltl Bravo has a bachelors in Sociology and Secondary Education from Loyola Marymount University and a masters in Social Work from Columbia University.
Karim: Xochiltl, in my own view, from having recently met you at your office in South Central Los Angeles, Urban Compass is dealing honestly and effectively with Economic Apartheid.
I first heard the term “Economic Apartheid” almost 20 years ago when I met with Desmond Tutu who has been a mentor to me in the founding of The Brick Project.
Samuel Crompton, in his book Desmond Tutu: Fighting Apartheid, page 55, writes:
“Desmond Tutu was committed to a path of non-violent resistance. He did not advocate the use of guns, bombs, or explosives. He was outraged however, with the injustice in his homeland: ‘They have taken 87% of the land, though being only 20% of the population. Apartheid has decreed the politics of exclusion.”
The reason Archbishop Tutu advised me to build The Brick Project in Zimbabwe, was precisely because of this “politics (and economics) of exclusion“.
He had seen that same exclusive dynamic in his homeland of South Africa where, although there had been an official end to racial apartheid in 1994, the deeply embedded economic apartheid was still corrosive to the national identity
As is documented in the article excerpt below, Legacy of The Brick Project (http://www.brickproject.com/2012/09/07/legacy-of-the-brick-project), Desmond Tutu wanted me to address Africa’s economic apartheid in cities like Harare:
Desmond Tutu advised me to build the first brick with a school and community in Harare, Zimbabwe to highlight what he termed an “economic apartheid” in Zimbabwe.
Specifically, he and I discussed The Brick Project’s objective of working on a solution for hunger in the shantytown of Porte Farm, Zimbabwe. This shantytown had been subjected to economic apartheid by the government: disabled women and children had been shunned and marginalized in Porte Farm. They had been forced to live on subsistence level agriculture and were frequently malnourished.
Xochiltl, would you agree that Urban Compass is contending with the issue of Economic Apartheid in South Central Los Angeles?
Xochiltl: In South Central Los Angeles and communities like Watts, there is clear evidence of economic apartheid.
Historically, communities like these have been neglected of resources, support, and necessary reforms to uplift its members from poverty and sustainable growth. There have been short-term solutions but never long-term solutions or support to impact large numbers of families here.
In South Central Los Angeles and communities like Watts, there is an economic apartheid.
Currently, and over the past decades, Watts has seen much violence, murders, drugs, gang violence and control, poverty, hunger, domestic violence, and so much more. These factors keep our community from moving forward but also feed into each other causing a cycle that keeps the community in a state of distress. Community-based and law enforcement programs have helped reduce crime and violence in Watts, making it much safer than past years. There is still a lot to be done.
The housing developments, also commonly referred to as “the projects,” are examples of what I consider economic apartheid since these symbolize a separation based on wealth disparities.
There are literally communities of housing built for very low-income families to live. While we know that they are government housing aimed at providing shelter for low-income families but it is hard to ignore the fact that there are several of these “projects” in our Watts community alone, which demonstrates to me that this is where the low-income are being asked to live or are “supposed to live.” Housing developments cannot be found in wealthier communities in Los Angeles. Also, if you ask some of the residents how long they have lived in their apartment, you will hear many respond with several years and more.
Many generations have grown up in the housing developments, which signals to me that there is little growth or support to help families sustain themselves or move out to a better home and environment.
Housing developments, commonly referred to as “the projects” are examples of what I consider “economic apartheid” since these symbolize a separation based upon wealth disparities.
Lastly, the schools in communities like Watts with a large majority of low-income residents and housing developments are very often poorly performing as well. There are many education reforms being targeted in such communities because the inequities are becoming harder to ignore. Even with dedicated teachers and staff working in the schools, there are few resources to help create the change needed to use education as a tool to uplift our families out of the cycle of poverty. Urban Compass recognizes all these issues and is trying to use after-school programming to help support the work of teachers during the school day and address some of the challenges faced by families.
Karim: When we consider the issue of economic apartheid we associate the term with developing nations like South Africa and Zimbabwe.
My own country of birth, Kenya, also has an economic apartheid which becomes evident when one visits the slums in Kibera.
However, most people would not think to associate the term ‘economic apartheid’ with the industrialized nations and certainly not with the richest nation in the world, the United States of America.
I have taught school in many countries in the world including Zimbabwe, India and Lithuania. Most of the students in these schools consider the USA to be an affluent country with an accessible and comfortable life style.
Moreover, many of the impressions of the USA that these children have in other countries are formed through the media industry in Los Angeles – the very same city in which Urban Compass operates.
Xochiltl, what would you wish for these students in schools in other countries to know about the United States and especially about the students that you work with through Urban Compass?
Xochiltl: Like most children in the world, students in the United States are motivated to learn but face various obstacles that impede their true educational outcomes and success. Whether the obstacles are at home or in their own classroom, students will vary in their academic success based on how these obstacles are addressed. For some, home life breeds anxiety as a simple walk home instills fear when crossing through gang territories or an abusive adult will welcome them once they arrive. For others, it is the lack of equitable implementation of new district- and state-wide educational initiatives that gets in the way of their true success.
Our country is filled with diverse, eager minds that believe that they can achieve college success and ultimately live the American dream.
We know that the United States ranks low on international standings of student success but it is not necessarily the fault of our students. Our country is filled with diverse, eager minds that believe that they can achieve college success and ultimately live the American dream. Neighboring school districts frequently vary in their performance indicators, often due to varying resources.
Urban Compass youth are from the Watts community and primarily live in Nickerson Gardens housing developments, home to some of the most notorious gangs in the United States.
Even though they live in this community and come from humble backgrounds, you would never know it upon meeting them. Our students are bright, resilient, curious, confident, open-minded, and have leadership potential. They look forward to learning something new everyday. They are eager to learn and are willing to do what it takes to be successful. Our students, who are in grades K-5, are some of the most charismatic kids you have ever met. They know that they are special and we treat them as such so that they too can shine their light on the world.
Our kids come from determined and proud families who wish their students personal and professional success, despite their own outcomes. They believe education can help them achieve more.
He pleaded: “Please, I just got out of prison and I don’t want my kids to go down the same path that I did. I’m working hard for my kids so they have a break in life. I need this.”
I’ve held the hands of a young gun shot victim in the hospital and I’ve witnessed remarkable youth overcome nearly impossible circumstances to walk across their high school graduation stage or move in to their first college dorm.
Two of or our students, one in kindergarten and the other in third grade, were admitted to our program based upon the persistence of their father.
At the time, their father was recently released from prison.
This father returned home with a determination to help his children succeed and reach a different outcome than his own. He approached his children’s school principal and asked for the best program within which to enroll his children.
The principal, a fan of our program, recommended Urban Compass and said that we would provide the best attention and support he needed. When this determined father approached our program director he was told there were no spots available.
He pleaded and simply replied:
“Please, I just got out of prison and I don’t want my kids to go down the same path that I did. I’m working hard for my kids so they have a break in life.
“I need this.”
Sensing his need, our program director made some adjustments and enrolled his daughter and then later his son when he was of age. Since then, this family has remained engaged and their father arrives on time every day to pick up his children. When I asked if he is happy with Urban Compass and our programs, he states that he sees his children are doing better in school and that he likes the personalization his family receives. He enjoys reviewing his children’s homework each day after they have completed it with Urban Compass staff. He can see that his children love the program and what it offers. It makes him happy too.
Partnering with a school like Verbum Dei High School in Watts, which has an amazing 100% college acceptance rate for its students, allows us to have access to their young men as role models, mentors, and tutors for our children.
If people relied on media alone, then the above story would feel unbelievable.
Because of gang movies and hip hop culture, communities like Watts are villanized and made to seem unapproachable.
Who would want to even visit Watts?
Media often depicts the two extremes of Los Angeles: the violent side or the affluent side. You get Beverly Hills and Hollywood or the “hood” and the “ghetto.” Where is the middle ground? The majority? Or where is the next chapter in some of these stories?
You may see the story of the innercity “hood” but not the next chapter that shows the young man who overcame living in the violent community to reach his graduation day and go to college.
Our students are tutored by such young men every day at Urban Compass.
Partnering with a school like Verbum Dei High School in Watts, which has an amazing 100% college acceptance rate for its students, allows us to have access to their young men as role models, mentors, and tutors for our children. They are determined students who are set on high school graduation and college success; just the kind of role models we want for our students.
You may see the story of the inner-city “hood” but not the next chapter that shows the young man who overcame living in the violent community to reach his graduation day and go to college.
You also don’t see the community leaders who advocate for their community on a daily basis to get important resources for their members. Resources, policies, and programs may not reach and favor everyone and are not inclusive of all the community members, which is why you may often see people scrambling and fighting for the little that is available. In media, at least that which is targeted toward youth, there is little attention shown to the large Los Angeles issues of homelessness, areas like Skid Row, hunger, and immigration, which makes the youth in other countries still regard us as an affluent place, which I know that in comparison to some of the very harsh realities in Third World countries we are doing okay. Our realities are just specific to the United States and have different flavors, but our kids’ tummies still grumble when they are hungry and wince when in pain just like those all over the world.
Karim: Xochiltl, you began the position of Executive Director of Urban Compass just three months ago.
In our recent meeting at Verbum Dei High School which Urban Compass partners with, I could see how motivated and passionate you are about your new job!
What drives and motivates you about being Executive Director of Urban Compass?
What experiences in your professional career are directly relevant to your new job and how do you plan to make a difference at Urban Compass as Executive Director?
Xochiltl: I truly believe that this is where I am meant to be. My love of youth, my belief in their potential and my need to help families realize that, together, they can become stronger in the face of adversity all are part of my desire to be an effective leader for Urban Compass. Watts has always had a special place in my heart. Throughout my educational and professional career, I have made my way back to Watts to advocate for various schools, organizations, and programs here.
I left to New York City for graduate school at Columbia University School of Social Work and worked in school safety, gang intervention, youth leadership, and homeless support programs for the New York City Department of Education.
After graduation I took a position teaching an anti-gang and gang-prevention curriculum to 4th graders in Watts elementary schools. I left to New York City for graduate school at Columbia University School of Social Work and worked in various school safety, gang intervention, youth leadership, and homeless support programs for the New York City Department of Education. Returning to my hometown of Los Angeles, I worked with former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s nonprofit to support the lowest-performing schools in Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles, and Watts.
I’ve seen families and youth at their best and also at their saddest moments.
I have held the hands of a young gun shot victim in the hospital and I’ve witnessed remarkable youth overcome nearly impossible circumstances to walk across their high school graduation stage or move to their first college dorm.
Returning to my hometown of Los Angeles, I then worked with former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s nonprofit to support lowest-performing schools in Boyle Heights, South Los Angeles, and Watts.
With all my experiences with youth and families, I am not desensitized to any of it: I experience everything as though it were the first time, often crying with sorrow or rejoicing at the outcomes of each child.
The really wonderful thing is that I recently visited the SAGE Learning Center at Nickerson Gardens to donate some extra toys for the kids and the staff there recognized me from the carnival I put on for them during my junior year in college. We spent some time reminiscing on the fun we had back then and it was a true full-circle moment. I left the Center with a full heart and large smile on my face knowing that this is where I am supposed to be.
I often think about my path, and how I landed at Urban Compass. I feel like this is where I can truly be of most service to the community.
I often think about my path, and how I landed at Urban Compass. I just feel like this is where I can truly be of most service to the community. My combined education and experience sort of culminates in this opportunity. I believe that everything has cued me up to be effective in this role. Meeting our staff, students, parents, and volunteers has been an amazing experience. I have committed staff members, eager students, determined parents, and generous volunteers who all make this organization run.
I know that I am new to the title Executive Director and that I have a lot of knowledge to gain but I have never been so motivated to access all the research, tools, and resources I can to be an effective leader. I know my strengths and weaknesses and I will ask as many questions of others as needed to keep learning whatever I can to support Urban Compass. It is my responsibility, but it is more so my pleasure to do so.
What are some of the specific results that Urban Compass has achieved to date which you are most proud of?
Regular field trips outside of Watts to museums, parks, college and high school campuses, and the farmer’s market, expose inner city children to a new world of possibilities for their future and motivates them toward learning to achieve their expanded and higher aspirations.
Xochiltl: At Urban Compass, we are proud of our consistent, full enrollment at 50, K-5th grade students; high attendance and retention rate; 85% of students achieving grade level within the first year; improved grades and acquisition of knowledge per testing; improved social development; better health. Regular field trips outside of Watts (museums, parks, college and high school campuses, beach, farmer’s market, etc.) throughout the year and especially during the summer camp program expose inner city children to a new world of possibilities for their future and motivates them toward learning to achieve their expanded and higher aspirations. Urban Compass has also implemented more STEM activities (science, technology, engineering, math), which may be limited or unavailable in the home and regular school system. These subjects are essential academic building blocks without which students are at risk of future academic failure and dropping out.
What are some specific results you would like Urban Compass to achieve in the future? What are your aspirations for Urban Compass in the years to come?
What is your vision and strategy?
Xochiltl: In the future, I would love to be able to report specific outcomes on high school graduation, college acceptance, and college enrollment and graduation rates. We would like to report on key student achievement in the focus grades like 3rd grade and transitional years like 6th and 9th grades. Monitoring grade-level achievement for these years is crucial to help students reach high school graduation and long-term success.
There is so much that can be done with an organization like Urban Compass.
It’s family-centered and personalized approach can benefit many communities. Using our current model of partnering with a local elementary school and high school volunteer program, we hope to add new sites to support more families.
In late 2014 and in early 2015, we also plan to increase our access to parent engagement and support programs for parents. It is critical that we help our students’ families and guardians to make long-lasting change within the household as well as within the community.
Our goal is to add additional program sites and not additional students per site. It is our small program size at each school that allows our staff to engage with students and families on a personal level. 50 students or less per program site allows for a great student to staff-to-tutor ratio and is a manageable size to allow for us to meet family needs, as well as take students in and around their community for various field trips and learning opportunities. We are currently in the early planning phases of a potential new site in Boyle Heights, a community in Los Angeles with similar community challenges and the potential of Watts. This will also include local college volunteer recruitment to help staff this new site.
A formal evaluation of student academic and wellness outcomes will need to be conducted in the next year in order to help with a proper needs assessment to help inform our program adjustments. Without specific data and measures, we are not able to truly assess our impact and areas of growth.
It is our small program size at each school that allows our staff to engage with students and families on a personal level.
In late 2014 and early 2015, we also plan to increase our access to parent engagement and support programs for parents. It is critical that we help our students’ families and guardians to make long-lasting change in the household and the community. We currently refer to a few local programs and use in-kind support to meet some of the basic needs our families present but a large concerted effort to partner with high quality social service agencies is needed.
With all these next steps in order, there is a critical need to secure funding and long-term stability. We are a nonprofit, like many others, who are continually pursuing funding opportunities to be able to provide high-quality services in the community. For us to provide free services, there is a lot of work done behind the scenes. Too often Urban Compass has found itself thin in funding and it is necessary to work on building a large reserve fund for these lean months.