Excerpted from a speech written by Joshua Davis, an alumnus of NYC Outward Bound Schools, for our 2019 gala
My name is Joshua Davis. I graduated from Kurt Hahn in 2011. Kurt Hahn is an NYC Outward Bound School located in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. At Kurt Hahn, I experienced a lot of incredible things, but maybe most importantly, I learned what it means to have a crew. In fact, I’m still friends with some of my Crew today.
The importance of having a Crew might be the biggest takeaway of my high school experience: knowing I’m not alone and that I’m a part of something much larger than myself has helped me become the confident, successful person I am today.
You see, the NYC Outward Bound Schools experience is not like any other and is different from most New York City public schools.
Let me tell you about my Senior Expedition project. At Kurt Hahn, they are a graduation requirement, similar to a senior thesis. My Senior Expedition was actually inspired by something that happened to me the summer before my senior year of high school when I was interning at a local state senator’s office. I remember working an event with the senator: Two police officers gave a lecture about how, in certain communities, young men of color are more likely to go to jail than to graduate from high school.
The officers offered some reasons for this statistic: poverty, lack of access to early education, and lack of positive male role models. They called this the school-to-prison pipeline.
I left that presentation so perplexed, discouraged, hopeless, and kind of ashamed. You see, I was poor. And black. And a young man. And that summer, when my grandfather died, I had lost my top role model. Were these officers talking about me?
That hopelessness stayed with me all summer long. I was at a loss.
I kept asking myself: Is this true? How did this happen? Who’s gonna change it? Isn’t this absurd?
Sometimes society makes it hard for a person, especially young men, to be vulnerable and ask for help. I knew that from personal experience. But I also knew that when you’re part of a crew that supports you, it is much easier to feel okay with uncertainty and to have the confidence to find a solution.
So, I went to see my principal in the middle of August before school started. By the way, what kid do you know who goes back to school during the summer if they don’t have too? [hold for laugh.]
We talked it through. My principal, Matt Brown, pointed out that the knowledge and skills I picked up throughout my high school career could be valuable to incoming freshmen who normally would be nervous, lost, confused, and scared. Like me, many of the freshmen at Kurt Hahn didn’t have a male role model. I suddenly realized: I could be that for them! I knew I could be a big brother, friend, or mentor.
And selfishly, I thought that by helping others find their way, I might be able to find my own.
So, I told my principal “for my Senior Expedition, I want to launch a mentorship program.” I wanted to prevent any of my crew or the younger students coming up, from falling into the school to prison pipeline. The Mentorship program would be very simple: My senior crew and I would hang out with the freshmen during lunch or after school and share our experiences with them; focussing on how to navigate and excel during your high school career. You see I figured if students knew the ins and outs to school, they wouldn’t get lost or be confused, which would give them confidence in the classroom, a sense of direction, someone to be accountable too. And it worked.
Attendance went up and grades were generally higher. Because the message was genuine and clear: “You are expected to do the best that you can do to graduate. But you don’t have to do it alone.” Plus, the message came from someone who looked like them and was close in age.
My Senior Expedition was a success, not only because it transformed our school and made it safer for students like me to ask for help and ultimately succeed, but because it taught me how to identify a solution when I see a problem. It taught me how to create and manage a program, a skill I still use today. And it reinforced the strength of Crew, the confidence that comes from knowing that someone’s got your back, and the character you gain by knowing that you have theirs, too.
Because of my work creating this mentorship program, I was awarded the 2011 Nagler Scholarship and I attended Medgar Evers College, where I received my Bachelor of Science in Public Administration.
At Medgar Evers College, I discovered that men of color aren’t graduating from college, either. So, I brought the mentoring program to the college through CUNY’s Black Male Initiative and worked in the Male Development and Empowerment Center. There, we focused on retention, by building a culture and community–basically, a version of Crew–that provided a safe space for young men to get the resources they needed to successfully graduate from college.
Now, I’m headed to law school and am working for the Center of Integrated Training and Education where I help to ensure a productive and cohesive experience for students from their first class through their alumni years. And I love what I’m doing.
I’m going to ask you to close your eyes for a second and….
Imagine all the students today who are without a crew. Who are sitting in that classroom lost, because what they’re learning doesn’t relate to them. Who aren’t challenged and supported to do their very best.
But now imagine a city where the students are empowered to go ask for the help they need and are encouraged to create solutions.
Imagine a city where the focus is not only on getting A’s but making sure everyone has a support system around them.
Imagine that a senior expedition project introduces a student to a passion they didn’t know they had which led them towards a career path they didn’t know existed and it turns out they love!
NYC Outward Bound Schools empowers students to achieve more than they thought possible. It challenges students to push beyond their comfort zone, to be leaders as well as followers.