Book Review: Streetsmart Schoolsmart

This review is adapted from an original piece published in the Centre’s journal Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World.

Book review: Streetsmart Schoolsmart: Urban Poverty and the Education of Adolescent Boys by Gilberto Q. Conchas & James Diego Vigil (Teachers College Press, Columbia University: New York and London 2012)

Review by Jo Manby

This is one of the books you find on the shelves of AIU Centre that starts out as an academic study but offers up so much more in the reading of it – a real insight into the potential for social change within the American education system and into the real life issues that affect young people there.

Gilberto Conchas and James Diego Vigil bring a visceral perspective and an incisive theoretical framework to the argument that schooling is the key to allowing urban boys, from different ethnic backgrounds, the opportunity to succeed despite socioeconomic impediments.

Their essential concern is ‘how to create interventions that will facilitate the transition of young men of color who belong to gangs from the culture of the street to the culture of the school’ (p.xi) and their deduction is that it is schools in conjunction with community-based organisations that will accomplish this together.

The first chapter presents the theoretical frameworks of cross-ethnicity and ‘multiple marginality’ (p.11) which are used in the book to capture ‘the multilevel factors and influences of the Asian, Latino, and African American youth who grew up in poor neighborhoods’, addressing ‘ecological, economic, sociocultural, and psychological factors that underlie street gangs and youths’ participation in them’ (p.11).

Chapters 2-8 consist of research-based analysis concerning boys and gangs; boys ‘once disaffected but then re-engaged via linked efforts between communities and schools; and boys doing well in school despite disparities in economic and social opportunities’ (p.7). Chapter 2 examines Vietnamese gangs in Southern California where one of ‘the world’s largest concentration of Vietnamese immigrants’ (p.25) resides. The case study of Jared, son of Vietnamese immigrant parents, is used in a sensitive portrayal of ‘The Rise of Anger in a “Dirty Asian”’, as Jared entered a life of violence with gangs such as the Viet Family (VF), having fallen behind at school and having a very economically poor background.

Similarly, Chapter 3 unfolds ‘A Portrait of A Mixed-Race African American Man’, covering ‘recent economic and historical forces impacting African Americans – the Great Migration, the Watts Riots, the rise of the Crips and Bloods, and the increase in the rate of unemployment’ (p.37), before proceeding with the story of Samuel, initiated into street gangs at the age of four when he entered the Shelley Street Piru Blood Gang (named for Piru Street in Compton) and given a second chance  by his mother when he was 17. This helped him to turn his life around; although Samuel, ‘like many other young men in the streets, could have been benefited from community programs like the Big Brothers/ Big Sisters of America ….. shown to address poor self-esteem and limited hope for the future among low-income youth’ (p.48).

The third case history is ‘A Portrait of a Chicano Living in and out of the Margins’, tracing the ‘rise of Latino street gangs and the criminalization of Latino youth’ and recommending ways of increasing opportunities for ‘upward mobility for Latino youth’ (p.49). In their conclusion to his story, the authors recommend programmes that ‘institutionalize academic success and encourage high college and career aspirations’ (p.61) such as AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), discussed more fully in Chapter 1.

For ‘“I Call Myself Chicano”: Multiple and Shifting Mexican American Identities’, two Los Angeles schools were studied, one urban, the other suburban, across three time periods, 1974, 1988 and 2004, in an attempt to understand ‘the relationship between acculturation and engagement’ (p.65).

The authors concluded after this extended investigation that ‘a multilingual and multicultural strategy is the best acculturation route and one on which to build other significant elements’ (p.77). Typically of the optimism of their book, they state that ‘Latinos are poised for major contributions to the United States in the 21st century’ (p.78). Chapter 6, ‘“They Make Me Feel Like I Am Somebody”: Empowering Urban Youth Through Community-Based Action’ looks at dealing with truancy, the impact of after-school college success programmes, and youth advocacy among other topics.

Chapter 7 explores the ‘Medical Academy and the Graphics Academy’, embracing Asian, Latino and African American student perspectives on inclusion, optimism and teamwork. Chapter 8, ‘Obama Has Opened the Door: Understanding African American High School Boys’ Career Expectations in an Era of Change’, focuses on the exciting potentiality that Barack Obama’s election has broadened career aspirations for Black students.

The conclusion, Chapter 9, examines ‘The Possibilities of Comprehensive School Reform’, re-emphasising how essential social capital is in enabling urban youth to break out of the cycle of poverty. It enumerates recommendations for school improvement, and in summary underlines how ‘educational reform that embraces a comprehensive agenda is an imperative to the economy’ and how an understanding of this will help build ‘communities of opportunity’ (p.133).

Finally, two appendices chart the personal experiences of the co-authors in vivid detail as they struggled against the same kinds of streetsmart/schoolsmart issues when they were young as their respondents, which goes some way to explaining their positive empathy and encouragement of these young people.

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