Ex-gang member – now a scholar – implores Vista Nueva students to choose success

Kim Minugh (Sacramento Bee) | February 26, 2014

When Erin McChesney went to her principal with a new book for her high school English students, he was skeptical.

Consider the cover. The title, “Street Life: Poverty, Gangs and a Ph.D.,” is scrawled in a graffiti-style font. A cartoonish drawing depicts a man half-dressed in graduation regalia, half in trademark gangster attire.

But Bob Wilkerson, principal at Vista Nueva Career and Technical High School, agreed to read it. Not only did he give McChesney the green light to use it in her classroom, he assigned it to his entire staff to read during last year’s summer break. And after McChesney scraped together funds to bring the book’s author, Victor Rios, to campus, Wilkerson relished a day of watching his students engage so deeply in an educational opportunity.

“You know what? I’ve got to get these kids to read. I’ve got to help them read better,” said Wilkerson, a longtime educator. “What I have to think about – within reason – is what is best for my students. And if they’re going to read that – if they’re going to read the autobiography of Derek Jeter – I’m OK with that, because they’re reading.”

On Wednesday, Rios – a former Oakland gangster who teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara – spent the morning at the continuation high school sharing his story and fielding questions about his path from gangs to academia. Speaking to an audience primarily filled with students of color from the impoverished neighborhoods surrounding the East Del Paso Heights campus, Rios spoke of his family’s struggles spanning from Mexico to a drug-infested Oakland neighborhood. He talked about poverty, racism, lack of opportunity, dropping out of a school system that did not engage him – and the teacher from that system who ultimately inspired him.

Throughout the day, he spoke of striving for success rather than simply survival, and encouraged students to rise above the storyline they feel skeptics have written for them.

“I don’t see risk, I see promise. I don’t see failure, I see success. I don’t see dropouts, I see scholars,” said Rios, 36. “Imagine what you can do, young people!”

His rapport with the students was obvious. After a schoolwide assembly, students shook Rios’ hand, asked for autographs and posed with him for iPhone photos. Several dozen teens later gathered in McChesney’s classroom for a more intimate question-and-answer session, lingering afterward for a few minutes of his time. One student, tears in his eyes, thanked him for the inspiration.

“I’m pretty sure we can all relate to what he did,” said another student, Fernando Lopez, 17. “We’ve all had to do the wrong thing to survive, but we know deep down it’s not the right thing. It just takes the power inside to start making the right choices.”

It was a common theme among students, who repeatedly said they saw elements of their own lives in the pages of Rios’ book. Living in cockroach-infested apartments, never knowing their fathers, struggling with school, fighting – or getting trapped by – the lure of the gang life – these were the experiences they shared with this man who holds a doctorate degree.

Read more at: http://www.modbee.com/2014/02/26/3212012/ex-gang-member-now-a-scholar-implores.html

Posted by on Feb 26 2014. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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