Amir Whitaker knows a thing or two about truancy and petty criminality. Growing up with 15 relatives in his grandmother's house in Plainfield, N.J., Whitaker learned to fend for himself while his parents and those of his siblings and cousins spent years behind bars. Money was a scarce commodity. At 15, after Whitaker began dealing drugs to pay for food and clothes, he was arrested and forced to navigate the juvenile justice system first-hand.
Eventually, he found a way out and up, earned two advanced degrees and is now in his second year as a student at Miami Law. While in graduate school at the University of Southern California, he researched and studied the motivations of teenagers who underperform and seem likely to abandon their schooling.
"Watching most of my friends drop out," Whitaker said, "encouraged me to pursue my Master's degree and Doctorate in Educational Psychology, to better understand the problem."
Having acquired some wisdom from his wayward youth, Whitaker is determined to impart it to those who might fall into similar straits. As part of that effort, he founded Project Knucklehead, a non-profit organization that is focused on inspiring and empowering the young, especially those considered to be at risk of delinquency. A major element of Whitaker's outreach is a series of conferences called the D.I.G. Youth Summits – the acronym stands for Dreams Into Goals – and one such summit was held recently at the University of Miami.
At the event, more than 150 students from Miami-area institutions – three high schools with dismal graduation rates, three programs for delinquent and at-risk youth, and one middle school – crowded into the Storer Auditorium, where they were regaled with good advice.
"You should always value education," said Miami Law graduate Donald Watson, J.D.'80. "There is no substitute for education. There is no substitute for hard work and applying yourself. When you have a decision to make, picture where you want to be in 10 or 15 years and make the decision that will help you get there."
When Watson, now a partner at Gary, Williams, Lewis & Watson, first arrived at Miami Law, there were only a few African-American students. Earlier, at Yale University, he was one of 65 African-Americans in a student body of 1,200. "Segregation was so instilled in people that even when the Supreme Court said the schools had to desegregate, it wasn't just automatic," he said. "It was a long process before the schools got together where we could all sit together in one classroom."
Robert Morris, an advisor to the Student African-American Brotherhood, a national organization with a chapter at Booker T. Washington Senior High School in Miami's Overtown district, said the group's motto is "Saving Lives, Salvaging Dreams," its aim to increase the number of men of color on college campuses.
"Amir's experience mirrored just what our organization is about – your current circumstances do not dictate your final outcome," Morris said. "We don't want our young men to just graduate from high school and college, but to go on. We are promoting to our kids that education is the key to success."
Andrew Dugue, a Miami Law student and a fellow in the school's Historic Black Church Program and its Educational Rights Initiative, which helped sponsor the youth summit, related his story of growing up in Haiti. "I didn't have the same educational opportunities that you have here," Dugue told the crowd. "Even if you went to school, you couldn't always get there because of violence in the streets."
He recounted a harrowing tale in which his family members were set upon by a mob and doused with gasoline, and barely escaped with their lives.
Many of the students in the Storer Auditorium assented when asked whether their goal was to be professional athletes. Long-distance runner Connor Adams, who came to UM on a track scholarship, told the audience that he had grown up wanting to be just that, but after a devastating break of a thighbone, he realized that he and every other athlete is "one injury away from not doing something you love anymore."
"I realized that message early on and I changed my ways," Adams said. "I found a major in school that could both get me a future in sports and also keep me connected with the Athletic Department in case I was not able to come back to the team."
Asiah Wolfolk-Mannin, the lead teacher at Miami Central High School's Academy of Law and Public Affairs, said it was good to get the students "thinking about their goals and how to turn their dreams into goals."
"Amir is a good example of how past doesn't determine what your future can be," said Wolfolk-Mannin, whose academy offers classes in comparative law, criminal justice, and court procedure. The students there, posing as jurors and lawyers, are responsible for determining the outcomes of disciplinary offenses at the high school. The school also benefits from Miami Law's STREET Law program, which trains law students to teach at schools throughout Miami-Dade County.
Valery Gue, an 18-year-old senior at Booker T. Washington who intends to study accounting at Florida Atlantic University, said the event at UM was very helpful, especially in how it suggested he might best use his time. "It really made me think more about the way I organize my day, to accomplish what is important first and putting fun things aside," he said, adding that furthering his education beyond a Bachelor's degree was now his goal.
A survey of students at the UM summit showed that all the participants showed increased their self-confidence as a result of having attended and were encouraged to act more responsibly, to challenge themselves, and to reflect on how their behavior could affect their futures. Ninety-seven percent of the students reported being more motivated. Seventy-two percent, incidentally, had never been on the UM campus, despite living in Miami.
Under Whitaker's program, high-school students are invited to college campuses to hear speakers, take tours and participate in other activities as a way of improving their attitudes about education. At UM, the students were rewarded for their participation with backpacks and gifts from Miami Law's Center for Ethics and Public Service; Book Horizons; and the law firms Holland & Knight; Gary, Williams, Lewis & Watson; and Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod. Whitaker was preparing for additional youth summits at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
"Almost all students who drop out of school do so because of motivational problems," Whitaker said. "Only three of my 18 friends graduated high school, all but two of us entered the juvenile justice system, and all but six entered the prison/jail system. At least five have been shot, and I am the only one to graduate from college. I'm not sure of the exact rate of soldiers being shot, but it is significantly lower than the percentage of my friends who have been shot."