Quoting Frederick Douglass, Sondra Samuels told a packed room at the Minnesota School of Business-Brooklyn Center campus, “It’s much easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Samuels, a national leader and education reformer, was the featured guest at a Lunch and Learn event on Tues., January 28, 2014, and says that statement from Mr. Douglass is at the core of her mission to ensure education for every child begins at an early age.
Samuels is president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ), a nonprofit organization working to close the achievement gap and end generational poverty in North Minneapolis. NAZ collaborates with more than 35 partner nonprofits and schools to prepare 2,500 low-income North Minneapolis children to graduate from high school ready for college.
Samuels, who is originally from Newark, NJ, was in third grade when she moved to the racially integrated suburban area of Scotch Plains, NJ. Her white teachers didn’t think her urban schooling was adequate and wanted to hold her back. Samuels says her teachers were expecting her to fail, and she always felt she had to prove herself. She grew up seeing increasing gun violence, and watched as many young African-American men she knew were killed. Samuels experience prompted her to work for change.
Samuels and her husband moved to North Minneapolis because they wanted to be part of America’s reworking – part of the change, and they started a movement around ending violence called the Peace Foundation. They soon realized that violence, along with prostitution, failing schools, drug use and other societal issues were just symptoms of a much larger problem.
“This is an American problem. It’s not a black problem or a white problem, or a Latino problem,” said Samuels. “At the bottom of everything, it’s an economic issue, and education is the way out.”
Samuels then turned her focus to education, changing her organization’s name to NAZ. She began reaching out to families in her own community.
“We found that no matter what Mom looked like, no matter if Dad was in jail, no matter how poor, the majority of parents wanted their kids to go to college and wanted the help to make that happen,” said Samuels.
NAZ partners with parents to inspire belief and build the skills needed to support their children on a path to college. Samuels stresses the importance of this two-generation approach, pointing out that kids can’t show up to school ready to learn if their parents don’t cooperate. Each child involved in the NAZ program is called a “scholar” from the very beginning, something Sondra says they do to plant an academic vision in the minds of the students, parents and teachers.
“The belief gap is most related to the achievement gap,” Samuels told the Lunch and Learn attendees. “We’re trying to create one system of support with one goal of college readiness. We want every scholar to feel like he or she has a team of people there to help them succeed.”