HARLEM — Academic, author, and activist Cornel West took the nation to task Thursday for hammering inner city kids with the threat of repeated school closures and the culture of stop and frisk, saying it hampers their ability to succeed in life.
West, speaking on a wide range of subjects during his 20 minute speech at the auditorium of Harlem’s Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing Arts, which was slated for the chopping block last year, has been at the forefront of the fight against both.
“If you have to audacity to criminalize precious young people then you’re not going to put a priority on the education of young people,” West said.
West told the more than 100 people present that the community can show its love of young people by rallying together to fight what he sees as these numerous injustices — which persist despite the fact that there is the first African-American president in the White House.
“We are who we are because somebody loved us,” West said. He tasked the audience with passing that love on. For West, that love begins on what he calls “the chocolate side of town.”
Wadleigh’s new principal Tyee Chin told the audience that “With black young men and young women, and Hispanic, there seems to be a cultural shift that is happening. We are now losing our future to the streets.”
Chin came into the school this fall with the conviction that Wadleigh should be the premiere performing arts school in Harlem. Soon though, he realized that the battle for greatness was much bigger than his single school and was actually about the the whole Harlem community.
He reached out to Wadleigh librarian, Paul McIntosh, who has been bringing accomplished presenters to Wadleigh’s stage as part of a speakers’ series for years, and tasked him with finding the person who could best facilitate the discussion about the state of education and its effects on the community’s young people.
McIntosh immediately went to West.
Community members praised the school for its continued relationship with West, who they said is an inspiring voice for the area.
Carmen Operetta, 33, a whiskey distiller, has been living in Wadleigh’s neighborhood for the past six months and has been struck by the lack of “home training” she sees in the young people she has encountered. She came to hear West speak in order to pick up ideas about how to inject more education into the lives of three young people that she helps to care for.
“I’m trying to figure out how to retrain the lack of home training,” Operetta said.
Carmen Operetta, 33, a whiskey distiller, has been living in Wadleigh’s neighborhood for the past six months and has been struck by the lack of “home training” she sees in the young people she has encountered. She came to hear West speak in order to pick up ideas about how to inject more education into the lives of three young people that she helps to care for.Other attendees in the audience spoke up during the public discussion portion about their concerns ranging from charter schools crowding out public schools to the lack of strong male figures in the Harlem community. Officials said that he is now going to consider how to take the vast range of complaints and focus them in order to move the discussion forward.
As a community event, there was a cross section of community stakeholders who attended: city council members, parents, church members of the nearby First Corinthians congregation, teacher activists from across the city, local residents.
Harriet Weaver, 56, works in the community in healthcare. Though she doesn’t have children in Wadleigh, she came to hear West to regain some perspective.
“He just gives you that boost you need every now and then.” Weaver said. “He’s just so honest.”