Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover
I appreciated the opportunity to speak at Breakthrough Austin’s Beat the Odds Benefit. I shared my newcomer’s perspective on the organization and made a case for helping it close the gap between the Austin Dream and the Austin reality of extreme segregation.  It’s a tough job, but I’m optimistic that the city has the resources to do it.

Here’s the speech:

My family and I moved here in May–with 3,000 other folks. We’re part of the influx of people primed to relocate by all of the Best Places lists that Austin tops.  You know, the ones that say Austin is best for young professionals and retirees. That it’s tech-savvy, green, musical, safe, educated, weird.  And somehow also manages to be the best place for barbecue, burgers and vegetarians.

Austin shows really well in TV specials and glossy magazines.  

But when you move here and see it up close, it loses a bit of its sheen.  You see firsthand that Austin has excellent homes, schools, and lifestyles–for some. But it also has incredible segregation that divides people by income, education, and class, not to mention race and ethnicity, in ways that perpetuate poverty and cripple educational attainment for far too many children.

The good news is that Austin, with its wealth and technology, intellectual capital and social conscience, has tremendous resources to address the problems that plague it.  

I know because I’ve had calls, meetings and gone on site visits with 20 nonprofits to get a better feel for the civic landscape here: What the community’s greatest needs are, who is serving them, what impact they are having, what help they need.

I’ve seen that Austin has an engaged philanthropic community doing great work in response to incredible need.

I believe that progress will come through greater awareness, focus, and long-term commitment.

Breakthrough Austin has the focus and commitment to do its part. It’s a great organization with a clear mission to serve the most vulnerable among us by giving them a pathway to college graduation and the support they need to travel it.  

Breakthrough Austin serves kids who want to go to college.  It elevates their desire into an expectation.  A desire is a strong feeling: A want, a wish, an impulse.

An expectation, by contrast, is a presumption, a prediction. Expectation takes desire and adds a strong belief that the result will come to pass.

The difference between “I want to go to college” and “I expect to go to college” is vast, especially for aspiring first generation college students.  It is a massive years-long gulf of preparation, role modeling, and support, not to mention paperwork.

I graduated from Harvard entirely because my dad expected me to.  He had friends whose children had gone there, so he knew it was entirely possible for a black girl from a public school in Northeast Ohio to graduate from Harvard.  The expectation was set.

That is my second-generation college story.  

Breakthrough Austin resonates with me so much because it sets the expectation of college for every kid who wants it.  Not just those who have excellent grades or standardized test scores. Or an incredible father to instill unshakeable confidence in them.  

Breakthrough Austin seeks out poor kids who have no college educations in their family trees and helps them set a precedent that changes the trajectory of their lives and the destiny of their entire families.

Breakthrough Austin serves kids like my dad was.  He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the eldest of four children. His parents had migrated to Ohio as teenagers after fleeing incredibly impoverished circumstance in Tuskegee, Alabama.  They sought a better life for themselves and their children.  My dad watched as they worked hard domestic and manual labor jobs, taking night classes to learn to read. What an example they set in valuing education.

The example my grandparents couldn’t set, though, was going to college.  They didn’t know the first thing about it.  So despite my dad’s potential, that expectation hadn’t been set.  

He expected to work a high-paying blue collar job. His life trajectory changed when he was drafted into the military during Vietnam and landed in Officer Candidate School, where he discovered he was college material.  He eventually went to Cleveland State with the help of the GI Bill, and the rest is history.

But I’ve always wondered, and I’m sure he did too, what would have happened if he’d gone directly to college.  If the path had been clearer.  If the path had been cleared.

That’s what Breakthrough Austin does for its students.  It meets them when they are 6th graders and says, “If you want to go to college we will help you get there directly.”  That’s what my parents did for me, because they knew how.

Breakthrough Austin plays that role for children whose families aren’t equipped to.  It is a caring community that says we will stick with you through middle school, high school and college.  We will show you the way.  We will help you do what needs to be done to stay on this path to becoming a first-generation college graduate.

I’ve also wondered about the flip side of my dad’s story.  What would have happened to him (to me) if he had not made it to college despite his detours?  He was one of the lucky ones.  And because of him, I’ve become one of the really lucky ones.  I’m here with you.  Living the Austin dream.

But the vast majority of students like my dad, those born without educational role models and college know-how at home, don’t make it.  Yes, even here in Austin, a magnet for educated people, less than 6 percent of low-income middle school children will finish college.  Less than 6 percent.  That’s appalling.

What is the 94 percent going to do?  What job opportunities will await them?  How are they going to make ends meet?

Luckily, we can intervene.  Breakthrough Austin is already intervening.  It’s helping kids get the educations they need to overcome their poverty.  The educations we need as a community to overcome our poverty.

People talk about SMART goals, meaning goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, results-focused and time-bound.  I didn’t come up with the acronym, but since my last name is Smart I’m going to go ahead and certify that Breakthrough Austin is among the SMARTest nonprofits around.

Specific? Absolutely! Breakthrough Austin is so focused in its college completion mission that they put it right in their tagline:“creating first-generation college graduates.” Period. Full stop.

Measurable? Yes.  Breakthrough Austin’s participants graduate at five times the rate of other low-income high school graduates in Central Texas.  

Attainable? Results-focused? Check and check. There’s a giant magnetic wall in Breakthrough Austin’s Eastside office.  It has a map of the United States of America in the middle.  And arrayed around the map are dozens of individual magnets showing the smiling faces of Breakthrough college students and graduates.  

There’s Anissa Capuchino who graduated from of the University of Texas.  

Jorge Munoz who graduated from Occidental in Los Angeles.

Jasmin Vara who graduated from Middlebury in Vermont.

Lynette Strickland

Shayra Madero

Rogelio Gomez, and on and on.

Literally, face after face of graduates who started with Breakthrough Austin as 6th graders with just a dream of college.

Time-bound? Check. Breakthrough Austin makes a 12-year commitment to these kids.  Think about that.  

The organization doesn’t cherry-pick the best and brightest students for the program. It accepts whoever aspires to college and commits to the Breakthrough process.  

That long timeframe allows for even students who start with the greatest disadvantages and those who encounter the worst obstacles space and support to reach the finish line regardless.

So if we’re smart, we have to ask ourselves what we are willing to commit to help Breakthrough Austin build the pipeline to real educational opportunity for all.

If we are smart, we have to ask ourselves what we’re willing to do to make sure this is a community that’s worthy of the title Best Place to Live–for everyone.

But don’t take my word for it, here’s one of Breakthrough’s many outstanding, first-generation college students, Daniel Reyes.

Listen to Daniel’s Breakthrough Austin story.  Then multiply it by 1,000 for a taste of the power and impact of this organization.


Want to support Breakthrough Austin? You may still donate online to the Beat the Odds Benefit. 


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