JRW is Exceptional. But, It’s Team Members Are Not The Exception.

“We’re African-American boys from the South Side. For so many people, the South side is only about bad things. Something good can come from the South side of Chicago, period.”

Marquis Jackson, Player
Jackie Robinson West Little League Baseball team

Marquis is right! Thirteen young boys from the South side of Chicago; they earned the title of Little League World Series United States champions. They deserve all of the individual and collective praise, recognition and professional respect that politicians, community and business leaders and sports figures can heap upon them. They filled us with pride. While I do not want to minimize the importance of expressing the pride we feel, I hope it is as much about their achievement as it is about the color of their skin and where they live because The Jackie Robinson West Little League Baseball Team is exceptional but they are not the exception.

There is a tendency to treat the accomplishments of these and other African-American boys on the South side of Chicago as if they are what the late Jerry Sternin (Professor of Nutrition at Tufts University, co-author of The Power of Positive Deviance and Director of Save the Children Program in poor Vietnamese villages) terms “a positive deviance from the norm.” They are not. But because so much attention is given to the destructive behavior of the small number of young (and not so young) African-American males who are reeking havoc on some South side communities through gang related activities, we, with the help of the media, are perpetuating the belief that the attitude and behavior of the “1%” is representative of the “99%.” That is not so. But here is a solution. Put them – the 1% – their Glocks, AK-47s and whatever other military weapons they like to shoot along with cartons of Pampers on an airplane. Their mission: Help defeat terrorism. That done, we can put this “Jack-In-The-Box” reaction to young South side African-American males who display what we used to call “home training” – well-mannered, well-spoken, polite, hard working, goal-directed and being a credit to your race – to rest, permanently.

Positive deviance is based in the belief that the solution to an “intractable problem” can be found in the environment and among the people most affected by the problem. There are, this theory holds, “observable exceptions” that can be replicated to replace “failing norms” with desirable norms. A key element, as stated by the authors is, “retraining ourselves to pay attention differently and cultivate skepticism about the inevitable ‘that’s just the way it is.” This, in my opinion, is the intractable problem – not paying attention to the many south side African-American males who are having a successful and fulfilling childhood in spite of the challenges they may face in their home, their communities and their schools. Natasha J. Cabrera, PH.D and author of an article titled, Minority Children and Their Families: A Positive Look said it best. “We know more about maladaptation than adaptation among minority children. We know more about why minority children fail than we know about why they succeed. The results is an unbalanced picture that over emphasizes the deficits and pays little attention to the assets or strengths that minority parents and children bring to the table.”

Two factors to which we need to “pay attention differently” are motivation and the quality of the guidance and direction provided by adults. I present the factors in this order because I believe there is no such thing as an unmotivated person – child or adult. Motivation causes us to do whatever we are doing and everyone is doing something. Whether a child is doing what is expected or socially acceptable or age appropriate is not what determines whether she or he is motivated. For instance, a child who does not do homework is not unmotivated. S/he is simply more motivated to do something other than homework. So, the question is not, why aren’t children motivated? The questions are: “How do adults help children understand that motivation is something they already have? How do adults assist children in using their motivation?

Whatever we are motivated to do requires an investment of time and energy. Therefore people, who are motivated to do “this”, generally are less motivated to do “that.” For instance, research shows that children who have specific educational goals tend to postpone sexual involvement or are sexually responsible so as not to do anything to disrupt the future they envision. Studies show that youth who become drug involved may lose interest in school, extra curricular activities and abandon relationship with family and close friends. Drug usage demand a lot of attention, thus robbing the person of the energy to do things that were previously important. Girls who do not return to school after their first baby is born tend to have more subsequent pregnancies than those who do.

The JRW team is made up of 13 boys who were motivated to invest the time and energy needed to practice their craft and do whatever else they needed to do to become world champions. This probably means there are things they just do not do. Since getting good at anti-social behavior requires the same investment of time and energy as pro-social behavior, I venture to say, the 1% also practice their craft. There are things they just do not do either because they too are motivated to become “world champions.”

The other factor is guidance and direction from adults. Just like all children are motivated to do something, all adults give guidance and direction. It is the quality of the guidance and direction that influences how children use their motivation. Cabrera talks about the presence rather than the absence of something and refers to that presence as “Promotive factors” – behaviors, attitudes, values – “that support the positive development of minority children.” For me this raises an important question. “What is it that we adults are promoting and how is that influencing what African-American males are motivated to do?”

I suspect JRW are champions today because parents, coaches and the other adults with whom they engage promoted high but reasonable expectations, set and communicated acceptable standards of behavior, taught consequences, personal responsibility and return on investment. I also suspect these boys cannot miss practice and do not get I-pads for showing up. They obviously get positive reinforcement when they win and meaningful support when they lose. Because of these promotive factors, they have, at the tender ages of 11, 12, and 13 began the process of answering the question, “How can I use my motivation to achieve my goals.” These are also reasons JRW Coach, Donald Butler was able to say, “They are horrible losers.”

It is no different for the 1%. The adults in their lives – either by commission or omission- promote expectations, acceptable standards of behavior, consequences, personal responsibility and return on investment. The 1% is often referred to as unmotivated. They are not. They are highly motivated because they are influenced by promotive factors too. While these factors are not what some of us consider positive they are helping the 1% “win games,” get recognition and learn how to use their motivation to achieve what they believe to be positive goals. Their coaches would echo Butler – They are horrible losers.

Many other young African-American males on the south side who are not a member of a nationally recognized team, will probably not be pictured on the cover of Entrepreneur Magazine or make the news for a gang-related crime are doing well as they make the journey from boyhood to manhood. Marquis said “something good can happen on the south side. I say something good is happening and we need to learn how to “pay attention differently.” Accomplishments by young African American males are not deviant and these young males are not nearly as unmotivated as we like to think they are. It is the quality of the guidance and direction that children get that determines whether they are motivated to be in the 1% or the 99%.

What do young African-American males need, especially from African-American adults? They need for us to stop being invested in deficits. They need us – parents, teachers, politicians and community leaders – to stop harping on what is “wrong with them.” This does not mean we should deny problems and challenges or be ashamed of our dirty laundry. It means changing our perceptions and raising our expectations. We need to stop seeing and referring to young black males as unmotivated. We need to think about how we are guiding and directing them to use the motivation they have. We need to take to heart the words of Carol Brunson, PH.D. In an article titled, Faith and Confidence, she said, “In a sense, the state of Black children is a direct reflection of adults’ values, beliefs and perceptions of them-how we see them can essentially affect who and what they become.”

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