On the Ground: Looking toward the future

This is the first of a two-part feature on emerging leaders from Osborn.

Ronisha Bannerman is the first girl in her family to graduate from high school. Other women in her family dropped out, some due to young motherhood. Some went back later to get their G.E.D., but she’s the first to finish in four years – and go on to college.

I ask her why she’s different. She doesn’t have to think too long. She credits the adults around her – the network of mentors who have become her extended family.

"There’s something about seeing successful people that just inspires you," says Ronisha. “The crowd you’re in makes a difference."

For Ronisha, this "crowd" includes adults like Frank McGhee of the NSO Youth Initiatives Project (whom we profiled last week) and Andrea Jackson, the College Transitions Advisor at Osborn High School. Thanks to Jackson, the process of college preparedness begins early with trips to regional campuses.

The importance of these visits cannot be overstated. Many Osborn students have never been outside of the 48205 zip code, let alone the city or state.

In fact, opportunity to travel is something many Osborn students describe as "life-changing." Recent group trips to places like Washington, D.C. and Atlanta – and as far as Nepal, in the case of Timberlery Williams, with the buildOn program -- are recounted with great pride.

Next week, Ronisha and her classmate Stepha'N Quicksey are headed to Grand Valley State University, on the west side of Michigan. Ronisha has earned a few scholarships and grants, but does not yet have her full tuition accounted for.

She says she’s willing to "invest in good debt" for an education – which strikes me as a very adult calculation, far more conscientious than I was at her age.

Ronisha wants to be a surgeon, with a focus on pediatrics. She also has a concept for a homeless center that offers a more holistic approach to job training and placement. She wants to help more people in her neighborhood find meaningful work.

Ronisha is sharp, ambitious, and unafraid to speak her mind. As a fresh graduate of Osborn High, she has a very strong sense of what's working and what's not. Listening to her visions for the future of her high school and neighborhood, it's not hard to see her as a future member of City Council or the School Board.

When she imagines Osborn High School 50 years from now, what does she see?

"It will be the best school in the world – everyone will want to come to Osborn. It will also be the most diverse, everyone laughing together. The resources will be jam-packed; the test scores will be through the roof. There will be multiple standards, so everyone can learn at their own pace. Every teacher will be the most involved and the most passionate. Every student will be running out of school eager to go to college. It will be the highlight of Detroit."

Ronisha has a lot to say about teachers, whom she describes as "the most pivotal people" in the lives of her peers. She would like to see more of them "dig deeper" to do more than just teach. They need to care, to challenge, to connect and find each student's unique interest.

She describes successful teachers as the ones who "won’t quit, won’t ever give up."

Ronisha doesn't mince words; she believes some adults have made it possible for students to slack. She introduces me to the phrase "underlay for the overplay" – a euphemism for underestimating students, telling them what they want to hear instead of what they need to know. In other words: sugar-coating, babying, not being straight.

Stepha'N said much the same thing at our education Speaker Series event last year. He wanted to be challenged so he could compete at a higher level.

"I'm a 4.0 student, but when I took the ACT test there was a lot I didn't know," he said. "It was an 'A-ha' moment when I knew that the curriculum was not as advanced, and that I wasn't really prepared for this. Students need a better foundation for learning, or they won't be ready."

At Grand Valley State, Ronisha and Stepha'N know they might need to ask for help, and are willing to do that before they fall behind. They're also excited to record and share their college experience with Osborn students back home to demystify the process. Ronisha thinks in all the build-up and pressure, college can seem scary to some. She wants to change that perception.

She also wants to change the perception of her neighborhood. "People shouldn't listen to what they say (about Osborn). Some people are scared of the school, of the place. But everybody here wants to make change."

This said, Ronisha realizes that making change is more than just wanting it. "Change requires research, information, facts on the table. It's about networks, communication, resources. It's more than just emotions.

"It takes a lot more than talking, everyone can talk."

Claire Nelson is the publisher of Model D and Urban Innovation Exchange. Follow the "On the Ground" series on Model D's website, Instagram and Tumblr.

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Claire Nelson is the founder of Urban Consulate, a network of parlors for urban exchange. Most days you can find her in Detroit or New Orleans.