Jaton White once was a computer engineer. Before that, her mother engineered a process to make sure Jaton would go to college, and beyond.
When Jaton was just 6 years old, her mother brought home a Commodore 64 computer and gave it to her daughter. Jaton took the computer apart and, given a little space and support, “mostly got it back together.”
Jaton White, now an Engagement Consultant for Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), works to give Northside kids a chance to grow up strong and accomplished like she did. A push in the right direction was the first step for Jaton to succeed. “I had the opportunity to articulate my own internal power,” she says. “My mother made me believe I could be anything.”
Her clients at NAZ - the organization calls them “our families” - struggle within a myriad of social inequities. Social determinants, most outside the control of families, have held generations of Northsiders back from economic advancement experienced in other demographics. “How did we get here?” Jaton asks, rhetorically. Conversant on the pervasive pattern of racial and economic disparity common in communities of color, she adds: “Northsiders face high poverty, high crime, and are politically and socially stretched.”
NAZ is a non-profit organization in North Minneapolis whose goal, according to NAZ’s website, is to turn “the social service model on its head” and shift Northside families from being the recipients of services to becoming leaders in a college-going community. Modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone of New York, NAZ’s mission is “to end generational poverty and build a culture of achievement where all low-income children of color graduate from high school college- and career-ready.”
Encompassing a contiguous 13- by 18-square block area on the Northside, NAZ zeroes in on a community “with the most concentrated convergence of negative indicators” in Minneapolis. The cumulative disparities in wealth, frequency of violence, employment, home ownership, graduation rates, and health have resulted in the nation’s widest opportunity gap between children of color and white children (Minnesota Children’s Action Network, 2011).
Statistics paint a grim picture of the Northside, and Jaton and her NAZ colleagues aim to change them. To receive a 2011 $28-million Promise Neighborhood Implementation grant from the US Department of Education, NAZ provided statistics and demographics of the “Zone.” (See: http://northsideachievement.org/i/NAZ-Promise-Neighborhood-Implementation-Grant-Application_Full-Narrative.pdf) According to the 2010 Census, Northside Achievement Zone’s geographic area contains 14,789 people:
· 47% of the population is African American; 20% White; 18% Asian; 8% Hispanic; and 7% multi-racial, American Indian, or other ethnicities
· 38% of the neighborhood’s population is children
· 50% of the children are African American
· 73% of households earn $19,000 or less per year
Other studies offer these statistics of the “Zone”:
· 24% of Zone children, grades 3-8, demonstrate grade-level achievement in math, compared to 51% of all Minneapolis children in 2008 (Mpls Public Schools)
· 28% of Zone children are at or above grade-level in reading, compared to 71% of students in the state of Minnesota (MN Dept. of Education)
· African American child rate of poverty in Mpls is 61% compared to 8% for white children (Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, 2009)
· 33% of homes in the Zone were foreclosed, compared to 8% in other neighborhoods (Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, 2010)
The statistics tell a story of deficit and missed opportunities. “Some days are hard,” Jaton admits. “The challenges for Northside families are real. I tell my NAZ families, ‘I want you to know your own power. I will help you use that power to navigate through the difficulties.’” Jaton knows the antidotes to futility come from the community itself. She and her colleagues at NAZ envision a prosperous North Minneapolis “where all children of color are healthy, secure and academically successful, realizing their unlimited potential.”
Families within the NAZ Zone can join NAZ with no financial costs to them. Parents are asked to sign a pledge stating that going to college will be a family priority, and the expectation is they will contribute to the overall transformation of the community, alongside their own achievement. Signing up for programming and wrap-around services is easy; overcoming significant psychological barriers to success can be less so. NAZ founder and CEO, Sondra Samuels, credits persistent “multigenerational poverty and an egregious achievement gap” for creating what she calls the “Belief Gap.”
Jaton invokes “belief” as a mantra as she inspires everyone around her to believe that not only are NAZ children worthy of a college education; they are capable of attaining one. “Our families know what they need, but they might not know how to get there,” she says. “We provide support [classes, emotional support, resources] to help them navigate through the difficulties. We empower individuals to close the Belief Gap. If people don’t have that belief - that hope - they get stuck. Together, we say, ‘you can own a house, you can get educated, you can be a policy maker. You have all that power.’”
Staff health and training are integral to NAZ’s engagement with the community. “Our attitudes shape how we interact with others,” Jaton says. “Beliefs don’t change overnight – because they were shaped by early experiences, over time.” Jaton, a practitioner of Tai Chi, often starts staff meetings with centering and meditation. “We hum, breathe, or sway, engaging some sort of body release.” And Jaton practices what she preaches, often taking a walk through the neighborhood when work gets stressful for her, acknowledging, “Trauma that is not transformed is transmitted.”
For sustainable transformation, staff training is essential. To communicate focus, competency, and core power to their community, NAZ staffers must find it in themselves first. “NAZ is resetting culture. We are intentional in our hiring, and we hire from within the community. We are focused on personal well-being. We take time with our staff to help them internalize their own trauma, and acknowledge core hurts. [We] carry that forward to our clients.”
Community leaders, too, believe that NAZ is doing is essential community work. Ken Powell, former CEO of General Mills, said: “This is our future workforce, our future economic prosperity. [Strengthening NAZ families] is not only the right thing to do, it’s the right thing to do for our community.” And Brian Cornell, former CEO of Target Corporation, offers this: “Neighborhood by neighborhood, [NAZ] is making a difference.”
To date, NAZ has served 2105 children from 966 families in the Northside Achievement Zone. A Wilder Research Foundation study recently showed a return on investment of $6 for every $1 invested in NAZ families (NAZ 2017 Annual Report). And for the first time, NAZ data shows statistically significant differences in math and reading proficiency across all grades (1-8), between NAZ and non-NAZ scholars.
The replicable model of working with whole families and partners to assure social, economic, academic and health outcomes seems to be the ticket. Jaton feels that momentum, and knows the community is feeling it too. “I hope NAZ is gone in 20 years,” she says, hoping the transfer of energy extends through the non-profit back to the people of the Northside. “We want our sector work (housing, health, education) to satellite out to the community.” She thinks - she believes - the community can take it from there.
Beyond belief, Jaton’s other mantra comes from her mother and aligns perfectly with NAZ’s mission: “Success starts at the heart of the family.” Jaton credits her mother with launching her own success in the work world, as a mother, and change agent, saying: “My mother said I could do anything. ‘You want to fly? Fly,’ she said. ‘You get to define your ceiling.’ My mother gave that to me. I give it back to NAZ.”