What ‘Yo Mama’ may not have taught you about your neighbors

J. Craig McClay

Growing up in the bayou of Louisiana certainly conjures images of a fertile, gumbo-esque estuary. The incubator of our unique style, arts, culture, social norms and flavor that in turn, shape us all. Parts of that mix-matched character resonates throughout our institutions, behaviors, conditions and vectors that spread those ideas. One thing that sticks out in my memory of school was playing the dozens (also known as 'Yo mama' jokes).

I remember that some kids were really good at dishing it out. Often times these matches turned into public character assassinations. And there was something else I noticed about the kids with the razor sharp tongues — they were also the fastest runners and quick with jokes to liven up heavy situations. They looked older.

These were also the kids who saw a butter knife as a flat head screw driver and a means to unlock door handles when leveraged right. They also saw that same butter knife as a lock to a door when wedged into the molding around the door frame. They were creative, imaginative, purpose driven, flexible thinkers who had grit. They were tough kids who had all the qualities we look for in vibrant, impact players in the world today.

In a phrase, they had this uncanny ability to make something out of what seemed like nothing.

Because I grew up in a time and space when and where everybody knew everybody's business, I saw that these kids were really good at insulting others because they had been insulted, put down, bullied and made to feel insignificant by older people in their lives. I witnessed their toxic immersion and the clustering of adverse experiences they could not control. I heard verbal insults directed at those kids and I saw the hurt in their eyes. And, I just stood by and did nothing. I did nothing to stop their pain.  I did nothing to console them or to heal their hurts. I didn't have their wit to cleverly intervene, distract, deflect or redirect the conversation away from their tortured spirits.

It wasn't until later in my life that I began wondering about those kids. What if those kids grew up in environments that were more nurturing of their positive qualities? What would the world look like if they were encouraged to improvise or play with solutions to cure cancer, AIDS, global warming, poverty, alternatives to incarceration, unemployment?

This may be pie in the sky and I think this is an alright way to think as long as we act with our heads.

I would like to invite you all to imagine a world where global warming has been solved by the crafty innovation of one of these kids. Or imagine these kids leading a social movement promoting reconciliation, caring for our sick and elderly, adequately educating our children and preparing our leaders to tackle challenges of tomorrow, today.

Imagine our world using the untapped potential locked away in young people who persist through poverty. I honestly think the world could be a better place if we could access their networks, skills, talents and ideas because they have had to be creative, purpose driven, innovative, flexible thinkers to survive and stay alive. We must embrace this opportunity, now.

In Don’t Call Them Dropouts, we learned that students that left school early didn’t so out of laziness or boredom with school. Most left because of difficulties they had outside of school. We also learned that young people struggling and surviving have the ingenuity and adaptation skills we need in more of our board rooms, laboratories and classrooms.

Let's not call them dropouts because we cannot afford to alienate any potential allies or potential solutions. After all, what will the generations that exist after us say about our stewardship of the world? 

Will they say that we failed to answer the challenges of our time, consequentially, leaving them a world of ashes and brimstone?

Or will they say that our generation leveraged some unlikely partnerships and generated unconventional solutions and created new standards and ways of doing that addressed the most important issues and primed a nurturing and productive citizenship that added value to their existence?

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." I don't like leaving things to chance. If we are to give ourselves and our children a fighting chance then let's roll up our sleeves and start working together. This is your call to action. If everyone reaches out to one kid, believes in them, sets goals and plans carefully, we could all start to bridge the gaps and fix our world. The opposite of poverty is not wealth.  Rather the opposite of poverty is justice.