Former Secretary of State Colin Powell joined Project H.O.M.E. on May 20 at a special breakfast launching the Alma and Colin Powell Education Fund at our Honickman Learning Center and Comcast Technology Labs. This Fund will help provide scholarship opportunities for youth in our community to move forward with their post-secondary education. The following is adapted from Secretary Powell’s remarks at the breakfast.
We have a problem in this nation, and it is not Afghanistan, a minor problem. It is not Iraq, another minor problem. The real problem that will determine what kind of a nation we’re going to be and how successful we’re going to be in the future is a problem that’s right here at home: It’s the problem of educating our young people for a different kind of future, for a 21st century future – a future where the jobs are going to be more sophisticated and the needs are going to be greater.
We do have to deal with Afghanistan, terrorism, the Arab spring, the African Renaissance, and all sorts of things that are going on around the globe. But when you add up all of those places, it comes to about 500 million people, perhaps 600 million people who are causing these problems in those parts of the world. What are the other 6 and a half billion doing? Are they fighting each other? Are they having ethnic clashes? No, they’re focusing on their economies. China, India, Chile, Argentina, all around the world, everywhere I go, I see nations that realize what the 21st century is about: having political stability and moving your economy forward for the future. Any country that is not focusing on that is going to be left behind.
Colin Powell receives the Golden Heart Award from Sister Mary Scullion on May 20.
China is making enormous investments in its infrastructure as well as in its educational systems. I see the same thing in Brazil, Central and Eastern Europe. And then you look at the United States of America: We have a great educational system. We have the finest universities in the world, and we’re sending some of the most gifted students imaginable to those finest universities in the world. But, there is a major problem underneath all of that: We are becoming increasingly, a minority nation. In the next generation, Latinos, Hispanics, African Americans, and Asian Americans will constitute more than 51% of our people. Fortunately, we are the only nation in the world that could handle that kind of diversity. As I said to my European and Japanese friends, you all have immigration problems, people coming from here, people coming from there. We have immigration challenges, too, but the difference is that when people come to America, they come to become Americans. It enriches us, it refreshes us, with every new wave of immigration.
In my case, my father arrived in Philadelphia in 1920, and that’s where the current Powell family got started. My mother arrived in Ellis Island and they met somewhere in Connecticut. Daddy arrived at Philadelphia from Jamaica on one of those banana boats owned by United Fruit Company.
So that’s what has kept this country refreshed. But here is the problem: I can go to a community in America and visit one of the seven schools named after me. What’s exciting about these schools is that they are mostly in suburban areas, they’re outside the core of the city, and they are beautiful. They have learning centers; they have anything you could possibly want in an elementary or middle school. They have a tax-base, because they’re in that suburban neighborhood. They have intact families, because it’s a suburban neighborhood. The graduation rate in these schools is 80, 85, 90 percent.
But when you go to the inner core of a city, inside Philadelphia, inside Detroit, inside Minneapolis, inside New York, inside Newark, you find that we have left behind those who are not as well off, those who have difficulty finding work because their skill levels are low, those who are homeless, those who are from broken families of one kind or another. And for the most part, they are minority. We cannot leave them behind because they are going to be the majority. We have to invest in them in every possible way.
My wife Alma is the chair of America’s Promise, which we founded here in Philadelphia. The principle program within America’s Promise is Grad Nation. We have to become a nation of graduates. We cannot afford not to be a nation of graduates. I was watching a television show recently which featured the president of Siemens. He was saying, “I’ve got tens of thousands of jobs. I can’t find people who are capable of doing the work.” That tells me that we are not educating enough. We are not getting enough youngsters who have a high school education, which makes them trainable for these kinds of jobs. So it’s not just high school for the sake of high school, you have learned the basic skills of acquiring knowledge that allows you to be trained for something more specialized either in college or in a technical school, and that’s where we’re failing.
Many of our inner-city kids are on the way to nowhere. We cannot afford to waste a single kid. Not only is it bad for our economy, it gives a bad example to the rest of the world. But worse than that, it is morally unacceptable. How can we be a great nation, how can we be a model for the rest of the world, when we have communities where youngsters are not being taken care of? Where youngsters are not getting the kind of education they need? And that’s why this program, and what Project H.O.M.E. does, and what all of you are doing here, is so very, very important. It goes to the future of our country.
I’m a public school kid. I never went to a private school. Right out of Harlem, where I started, then to South Bronx, City College of New York. And I was not a great student. I was a straight C the whole way. When I got into CCNY, my average was probably below what is should have been to get in there. And then four and half years later, it hadn’t improved that much. They noticed however, that I was getting straight A’s in ROTC. So my teachers and administrators rolled my ROTC grades into my overall GPA, which came out to a 2.0. They told me to get out of there quick and go to the army. So I entered the U.S. Army as a brand new 2nd Lieutenant with a bachelors of science in geology and a 2.0 average, and they said, “We don’t think we’ll ever see you again.”
But now, I’m considered one of the greatest sons the City College of New York has ever had. They named a center after me – the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, and my title is founding chairman and distinguished visiting professor. Unimaginable!
So I tell kids that it isn’t where you start in life; it’s where you end up and what it is you do along the way. Some of the greatest entrepreneurs we have, like Steve Jobs, didn’t finish college either. But they stuck with it. They never gave up. They never looked away. They always kept their eye on the ball. They always knew that if they worked hard, that if they devoted themselves to what they believed in, and if they got the additional education that was required, then they would be successful in life.
We also have to remember something else. High school drop outs are kids who drop out when they get to high school. But in fact many kids start dropping out in the second or third grade. They start dropping out, if when they show up for kindergarten or first grade, they haven’t been read to by somebody. They don’t know their colors, they can’t tell time, they have never been exposed to anything but crummy television, they have had nothing but principally fast food and not a good diet, and they come into school, but they don’t know that there’s anything wrong with them. How could they know? They’re just children. As one teacher said to me in a school in Washington D.C., “General Powell, they all show up the same way, their eyes are blazing, and they want to learn! ‘My gosh, I’m in school, I got my new schoolbag.’ But within a year, they realize they’re behind. They realize they don’t know as much as these other kids.”
There’s an immediate gap, and that gap lengthens over time unless you do something to fill it. And so we not only have to focus on keeping kids from dropping out of high school. We also have to get them ready for school in the first place: Head Start programs, early childhood nutrition, the education of mothers as to what they have to do to prepare their child to be educated. The education process begins the moment a child hears his or her mother’s voice and knows it’s his or her mother’s voice. Education begins with a bonding with the mother. Any time that it is broken, or it doesn’t work, or isn’t reinforced, we have a problem.
With Grad Nation and the American Promise Alliance, we’re focusing on what we think are the basics. Every child has to have responsible, caring adults in his or her life – ideally parents, aunts, or uncles. In the South Bronx neighborhood I grew up in, there were a lot of relatives in my extended family of Jamaicans. I had an aunt living in every tenement building as in the South Bronx, and they all seemed not to do anything but lean on a pillow, staring out on the street to catch one of us doing something wrong. And they were very good at it. Today we have the speed of the internet now, but the speed of the aunt net in the South Bronx was far more powerful.
We were told that we have expectations for you. We didn’t come on banana boats from Jamaica to Philadelphia and Ellis Island for you to stick something up your nose and not get your education. We don’t care if you get your education and go out and be a bus driver or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. We care that you not embarrass us, you don’t shame us, you get an education, and you never do anything that disgraces the family. That was it. We have expectations for you.
Project H.O.M.E. helps youngsters believe in themselves and have expectations for themselves. It helps them realize the whole world is waiting for them. Perhaps the kids started out homeless or had difficulties in their life – these are challenges, and we’re here to help you get over them. Project H.O.M.E. helps with providing an adult presence in the life of every child.
The second thing America’s Promise works on is providing kids with safe places. Third, we ought to have a healthy start for our kids. It is an absolute disgrace that the United States does not have universal healthcare and especially healthcare for every single child in America no matter what it costs us. Most developed nations in the world have that kind of care. We should be able to do it.
And then the fourth part of America’s Promise is college access, making sure that every young person has an opportunity for education that makes them employable and marketable. And finally, we make sure that every youngster has an opportunity to serve, to give back. Teach youngsters as early as you can that it is an obligation of citizenship to give to others, and that when they grow up and become wealthy or have the means, then they give back.
Alma and I are proud to have Project H.O.M.E.’s new college access program named after us. It is part of the process of making sure our country continues to move forward.