Former secretary of state praised the strength of U.S. diversity
Former U.S. Secretary of State and retired general Colin Powell and his wife Alma Powell joined over 300 people October 4 in South Minneapolis for the grand opening ceremony of the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center. The 160,000-square-foot facility will be home to seven youth organizations offering a wide range of programs serving children from grades one through 12.
It is one of many facilities across the country bearing Powell’s name, but he remains honored by each gesture. “I am more than happy to have a school named after me,” he said. “I’ve received lots of awards and medals in the course of my career. But what could be a better award — a better recognition — than to have your name on a school where young people will be educated and get ready to be leaders in the future?”
The Minneapolis facility is in part a result of Powell’s contact with Art Erickson, president and CEO of Urban Ventures Leadership Foundation, who approached Powell 10 years ago with the idea for the school. Initially Powell thought the idea was a great undertaking.
“This is a pretty significant project,” Powell said, “…but [Erickson’s] passion was so great, so intense, that I said, ‘I’m going to go with this guy.’ [This project] was done by Art. It was done by the adults in this community — the people in the community who believe in their children.”
During the interview preceding the ceremony, MSR thought we might learn something of Powell’s thoughts on the upcoming election or his current views on the war in Iraq. But the general specifically requested a conversation focused on youth and education.
Considering the state of affairs for African American children in the educational system, Powell believes that the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center has a very important role to play in addressing educational disparities. “There is a particular problem in segments of the African American community…either as a result of education patterns, housing problems [or] poverty problems,” he said. “The reality is that 50 percent of our young African American boys are not graduating high school.”
What does Powell believe is the root of the problem? “The problem the African American community has is [that] there [are] still so many youngsters who are not in the proper nurturing environment. They are not in families that are cohesive, that are giving them what they need.”
Powell explained that, in an effort to address these unmet needs, he and his wife became involved in America’s Promise, an organization whose board Alma Powell also chairs. America’s Promise describes itself as “the nation’s largest multi-sector collaborative dedicated to the well-being of children and youth.”
Through organizations like America’s Promise, Powell says, “We are reaching out to the communities around America and asking them, ‘Look: Look at your children — they need mentors. They need safe places. They need a healthy start in life.’ We need to give these youngsters the education they need to be successful, and we also need to persuade them [that] they have to give back to others as they grow up.”
The MSR asked Powell how the very significant drop-out rate will affect the future of African Americans in leadership roles, especially since such great strides by Powell and others like him have been made in high-ranking political positions over the past decade.
“If they don’t graduate high school, then they are not heading for the kind of success that you’re talking about,” he replied. “And that’s the problem that we’ve got to go after and got to crack. It’s not just their schools — it is the family environment, the community environment, the political involvement, and it’s having more facilities like the one we are dedicating here today.”
Although our current educational system presents specific challenges to African American students, Powell doesn’t see the situation as bleak. “There are many young African American children coming along who are doing just fine, that are in great families. They are getting a good education.
“I’m an honorary trustee of Howard University,” he said. “…The students up at Howard University, a Historically Black College, [are] terrific… They’re going to be leaders. And I’ve watched in the course of my adult life, going from African Americans nowhere to African Americans just about everywhere.”
The website for the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center states as one of their missions: “The school [Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, one of the organizations included in the Center] will serve low-income families of any faith or culture who desire a religiously supportive, Christian value-centered, education for their children.”
Does Powell feel the “Christian value-centered education” will pose an obstacle for Minneapolis’ growing, religiously diverse immigrant population? “The beauty of this community is that diversity can become a strength,” he said.
“I was raised in a very diverse community in New York City… There were no majorities in my neighborhood. You were either Black, Puerto Rican, West Indian, Eastern European, or something else. But we were taught in our public school system that you’re all Americans. Come together, get along, and each of you can achieve your dreams and ambitions as long as you’re willing to work for it — study for it.”
Powell said that this message, which he believes resounds so uniquely in the U.S., is the message necessary for immigrant youth in Minneapolis. “America is an immigrant country — my parents were immigrants to this country — and it is so important for us to appreciate that strength in our society: how we can take all of these folks — no matter where they came from — and within in a few years they’re Americans and their kids are playing baseball, and their kids are listening to rock music and hip hop.
“They’re Americans. They never forget where they came from — where their parents came from — but they’re now Americans, and that’s our great strength. Very few countries can integrate that diversity like America can.”
For more information on the Colin Powell Youth Leadership Center, contact them at 612-638-1001 or go to www.colinpowellcenter.org.
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