On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of attending the annual gala for the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), an inner-city organization that I have been involved with since middle school. It was a fantastic event all around. I even had the honor of having an extended conversation with Neil Degrasse Tyson, who serves on the Board of Directors, but one moment in the evening stuck with me.
Preeminent scholar and sociologist William Julius gave a speech. During his talk, he spent a considerable amount of time discussing the necessity of Black people needing to be in the right place in the right time, detailing his transition from faculty member at UMass Amherst to University of Chicago. Unbeknownst to him, the University was actively pursuing a tenured Black faculty member and was open to giving him a chance even though he hadn’t fully completed the general prerequisites at the time (namely, publishing a book). In short, while he was certainly an accomplished individual full of potential, as time has ultimately proven, if it wasn’t for a little bit of luck, or being in the right place at the right time, he wouldn’t have gotten the career advancement that helped catapult his academic career in the direction that landed him where he is today.
His words made me consider the impact of being in the right place at the right time had on my life. If I wasn’t in the right place at the right time when my fifth grade teacher let my not-quite-English-speaking mom know of the chance to apply to a charter program that would give me more opportunities, would I have ended up going to one of the top performing high schools in New York City? Odds are that I wouldn’t be, considering my mom had to fight to make sure the same opportunities were available to my younger brother when he went through the process — opportunities that are supposed to be free and available to everyone in the NYC Education system.
It’s a humbling thought to realize how much luck goes into making sure your potential is realized. I don’t think it takes away from any of the hard work I’ve put in myself to get to where I am today. Ultimately, I’m still the one that wrote the papers, studied for the tests, and aced the interview. But the fact remains that I didn’t make all of my accomplishments without some sort of support, which puts all of those right turns into perspective.
I was far from the only kid from my neighborhood with potential. Not all of them had adults in various systems give them the benefit of the doubt, or individuals to let them know that they believed they could accomplish what so many had told them they couldn’t. They were no less deserving of the chance to receive the same opportunities that I did. But again, right place, right time.
This is why organizations like HEAF are so vital; to work to push more and more kids into environments where they CAN be in the right place in the right time. I was lucky to have an organization like this behind me when my single mother had limited resources to navigate the New York City education system. Black lives don’t only matter when they’re being stolen at the behest of American police forces; they matter when they are entitled to equal access to the best resources of our unfathomably disjointed public education system. They matter when you realize that the difference between you and one of the kids you grew up with is that the same teacher who may have believed in you didn’t see the same chance for him and her. They matter when the potential for them to engage in class mobility is just as equally based on luck as it is hard work.