Sometimes you need to find the better side of a bad story.
The images from Ferguson, Mo., have emphasized the glaring inequalities between communities in America – of poverty creating a tinderbox of desperation and violence.
In this America, law enforcement is viewed as an occupying force protecting the more privileged from young people of color who are viewed with suspicion and fear by authorities.
On Saturday, I went looking for young people who want better and safer lives. They want to be the first in their families to graduate from college. They want to be pillars of their community instead of tragedies of their community.
Thousands descended on the Sacramento State campus for a day of college preparation tailored for people underrepresented in our college ranks.
The event was hosted by Univision – the Spanish-language network – as well as Sacramento State, the California State University system, and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento. Quite frankly, it’s not one I normally would have covered. It’s one of those “Oh, that’s nice” events that sometimes gets a photo and a short story in the paper – or maybe 15 seconds on the evening news after the shootings and homicides.
But after watching the turmoil in Ferguson unfold, a nice event is a meaningful event. And getting kids through the college system before they become part of the criminal justice system is one certain way we ensure better and safer lives.
These kids are among us if we only refocus to see them.
Anna Rios, a 14-year-old high school freshman, drove an hour with her family from the Colusa County farming town of Williams so she could be at Sac State to begin preparing for college.
Her parents are farmworkers from Mexico who set a profound example.
“My parents went to college by working in the fields in the day and studying at night,” Rios said.
“They’re teachers now.”
Rios wants to be a doctor. She has friends who are college-bound and others who haven’t been able to move their lives beyond unsteady paychecks and back-breaking work in the fields.
She hopes to attend a four-year university and leave her little farming town behind.
Education as a family goal was ever-present on Saturday.
Ulisses Ponce, a waiter from Sacramento raising his family in Woodland, showed up Saturday with his eldest son, his namesake. But his son spells his name with a “y” – Ulysses. He is a senior at Cristo Rey High School in Sacramento.
Ulisses, the father, came to the U.S. with little education and earned his GED by studying during his breaks as a truck driver.
The elder Ponce now waits tables and has worked his adult life in preparation for a day like Saturday – when he took his first-born son to learn more about college.
Ulysses, the son, wore a USC polo shirt in honor of the university he hopes to attend. If accepted at USC, his humble family would face a significant financial commitment. But they intend to meet it. He wants to study law.
“I’m calm about this,” the father said. “We’ve tried to educate our son at home about life, about leading a moral life. We hope that education will see him through.”
Ulysses learned on Saturday that he’ll need to improve his SATs for where he wants to go. His upcoming senior year of high school will offer no time to coast or play.
“I’m going to have to stay really focused to do all I have to do,” he said. .
Sacramento State President Alexander Gonzalez, who was the first person in his family to graduate from college, addressed the students and their families. Timothy White, the chancellor of the California State University system, was there, too, because colleges can’t wait for students to show up on their doorsteps anymore.
Too many aren’t ready. “Those kids will find themselves wandering, not taking the right courses or having success,” White said.
Or too many other families will be too afraid to attend an event like Saturday’s because of fears about the rising cost of educations.
“We have a chance to get involved in kitchen-table conversations about college ... to remove the barriers,” White said.
The reason why White flew from Long Beach to be in Sacramento on Saturday – and why local public school superintendents and community college chancellors attended as well – is plain to see.
Data from the Pew Research Center show: “In 2012, (Latinos) accounted for just 9 percent of young adults (ages 25 to 29) with bachelor’s degrees. ... This gap is driven, in part, by the fact that Latinos are less likely than whites to enroll in a four-year college, attend a selective college and enroll full-time.”
It’s a similar story for African Americans: “In 2012, blacks made up 14 percent of college-aged students (ages 18 to 24), yet just 9 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned by young adults.”
Until those numbers are improved – until more kids attend events such as Saturday’s – the threat of more Fergusons remains.
“We can’t let the white waters of our political times get us off a fundamental truth,” White said. “Education is the antidote.”