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Natural-born hustlers: Combating the school-to-prison pipeline through entrepreneurship education

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Young people who live in poverty and are vulnerable to the school-to-prison pipeline benefit from entrepreneurship education because it gives them information they can use right now to create income, says Mott Hall Bridges Academy founder and former principal Nadia Lopez.


Nadia Lopez (Screenshot: STEM Pathways Summit)

“I call them ‘natural-born hustlers,’” said Lopez during a keynote Q&A at SmartBrief Education’s 7th annual STEM Pathways Summit. “I’m from Brooklyn. We’re always hustling. Kids know how to flip something into a dollar. They know how to go to the store -- to BJ’s -- and get a case of water and sell it for a dollar. They understand the premise of entrepreneurship.”

It’s about survival and economics, according to Lopez. “When you have a high rate of poverty, you are then going to see a high increase in crime as well,” she explained. Robbery and fraud were among the most common crimes she saw young people commit. “It was all the things that were associated with economics. These young people just felt like there was no other recourse for them to make money legally.”

Lopez’s experience mirrors national data on youth crime. In 2018, an estimated 131,500 juveniles under the age of 18 in the United States were arrested for property crimes, including burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson, according to a June 2020 report from the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Larceny-theft accounted for 70% of these arrests.

So how can educators help change this trajectory? Lopez shared the strategies she has incorporated in her schools and programs.

Encourage their ideas

Students are passionate, creative individuals but they may not fully understand entrepreneurship -- or that it’s something they can do right now, according to Lopez. “They overthink it,” she said. “They don’t believe what they are doing is considered an idea that can be an entrepreneurial product.”

A group of students wanted to create a backpack that changed design based on the weather but weren’t sure it would work. Lopez encouraged their idea and helped them flesh out the details -- researching paint, creating a prototype and conducting market research. “Once I said that and I showed them, they immediately felt like ‘Okay, we can actually do this,’” she said. 

Teach students that entrepreneurship isn’t just about creating a business -- it’s about freedom, Lopez said. “It's really teaching them that when you have this freedom to make money, then you can also develop generational wealth. You can invest the money  -- whether it’s in property or in your community -- or set aside for your future,” Lopez said. “All of these things that no one is teaching them, helping them understand the value of the dollar and knowing that it's possible for them.”

Introduce them to entrepreneurs

Lopez would often invite entrepreneurs -- bloggers, shoe designers, artists, authors -- to speak to students. “It wasn't about just getting famous people,” she said. “It's about people who were in the community who had their own businesses.” She wanted students to see various streams of income and forms of business.

She also wanted them to see how entrepreneurship could give a new start to those who had been incarcerated.

Lopez hosted youth forums, on college campuses, where young people could hear from professionals in different fields. The speaker panel at one event -- a young men’s empowerment summit -- included a man who had served time for robbery and fraud. He shared about the struggles he had finding a job when he was released. His crimes made him ineligible to work in certain industries. Eventually he went to work with his grandfather, who was an upholsterer. His grandfather taught him how to upholster and he started his own business. 

The man’s frank, honest message resonated with the students. “It’s really, really important for our young people to see -- especially those who have family members who are incarcerated, or they themselves have had troubles with the law -- that just because you're incarcerated does not mean that you don't have an opportunity of creating a better future for yourself,” said Lopez.

Expose them to new experiences

When Lopez was an assistant principal, she and a man named Marlon Peterson -- who had served 10 years in prison -- coordinated a student field trip to Vassar College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.. Thirty students from Lopez’s school were invited to go. Among the students chosen was a young man named Jonathan. 

Jonathan was a challenge. He was very bright but he was in a gang and his home life -- with a substance-abusing mother -- was unstable. Jonathan was once suspended for two months for threatening a teacher. Nonetheless, Lopez wanted him on the trip to Vassar. 

It proved an eye-opening, life-altering experience for the students, especially Jonathan. Leaving the city, watching the scenery on the bus ride up -- “Where are we? This is New York?” -- and walking on the campus was all new to him. He was awed by the dorms, cafeteria and students he saw, Lopez said. “Jonathan got to a place where he was like, ‘I want to come here,’” she said.

The students’ visit included a meeting with author and professor Kiese Laymon. Dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, jacket and Air Force 1s, he didn’t look like what they expected a college professor to look like. Laymon led the students through a writing exercise then asked about their college plans. When the students said no one had discussed college with them and that they couldn’t afford it, Laymon told them about Vassar’s endowment that would allow them to attend the school for free. 

“They were like, ‘Wait, what?’” Lopez said. Twenty-four of the 25 students who went on the trip would later go on to attend two- and four-year colleges. The one student who did not go to college went directly into the workforce, as a professional soccer player. 

Outcomes like this prove why exposure matters, Lopez said. “Kiese being the person in front of them was important because he looked like them,” she explained. “What they expected was a white man with glasses [and] frazzled hair. When they think about college, they think about a white space. They don't think about Black and brown people as belonging there.” 

Break the rules

Lopez recalled a social-studies and science project she wanted to do with her students. It aimed to examine the idea “all men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence through the lens of Hurricane Katrina. Administration, however, did not want her to do it and steered her in a different direction.

Lopez rejected the feedback and went forward with her idea. She admitted it was risky. “My kids were the type of kids that were very wayward and nobody wanted to teach them. Ever.”

But it paid off. The assistant principal visited the class while they were working on the project. Students were in stations, doing research, examining data and discussing their findings. The administrator was shocked by the activity and asked Lopez how she managed to do it.

“I didn’t listen to you,” Lopez told the assistant principal. It was a bold move but it won her the trust of her building leaders. “Administration never questioned me again.”

Success is not about magic -- it’s about believing in yourself and taking risks, said Lopez. “The only magic I have is believing,” she said. “There is a magic of power that comes with simply believing,” 

Want to hear more about Nadia's students and the successes they had? Grab her book The Bridge to Brilliance: How One Woman and One Community Are Inspiring the World.

Kanoe Namahoe is the director of content for SmartBrief Education and Business Services. You can reach her at kanoe.namahoe@futurenet.com

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