Lifting Up Local Communities to Lead Change

 

D’Artagnan Scorza is the definition of a hero—even though he’d likely never agree with that title.

When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, in response to that terrible, defining moment, D’Artagnan left college to enlist in the U.S. Navy.

“I was staying in Jersey and I saw the smoke from the towers. It had a profound impact on me as it did everyone in the country,” he says. “It moved me. I wanted to effect change, to add value to the world around me.”

A junior at UCLA at the time, D’Artagnan had worked hard his entire life—against steep odds to success and against a system that was designed to fail him—to get to where he was. He knew that education was the most transformative tool he had in his life, but he willingly put it aside to fight for something bigger than himself. He sailed out on the USS George Phillip shortly after enlisting and was eventually deployed to Iraq.

It was a transformative experience,” he says. “I understood what I needed to do and the person I needed to be—a person who would be focused on building, creating, advancing, and transforming the world around me and people’s lives to make them better.”

Ever since, D’Artagnan, an EP Alumnus, has been working to transform his community, for it was his community that first transformed him.

 

Born in Inglewood in South Los Angeles during a tough time, D’Artagnan grew up when gangs and gang violence were commonplace in his community. Drugs were taking a toll on families, D’Artagnan’s included. When his dad went to jail, D’Artagnan’s mom struggled to make ends meet with a data entry job. He remembers moving around a lot, and living with different friends and family members.

He also remembers community. “I remember growing up at a time when we could walk down the street and go to school with my friends,” he says. If he and his friends got out of line on the way, the neighbors didn’t hesitate to call them out on it.

His neighbors were also an extended support system. “When I turned seven, my mom couldn’t afford a birthday cake. But the neighbors across the street could and gave me one, and gave me $7 to commemorate my age.”

As an elementary school student, D’Artagnan excelled, and participated in spelling bees, public speaking contests, science fairs, and more. But as he got older, gang violence around him increased and impacted him personally.

“In high school, we had someone who was shot and killed on campus. I had friends shot and killed in alleyways. It was a rough time, but a unique experience to have in the context of a community that has been ravaged by drugs and gang violence,” he says.

D’Artagnan had people in his life who helped him to get to UCLA, and who also taught him the importance of “pushing through to transform my community,” as he describes it.

 

As a student at UCLA, D’Artagnan quickly realized that his initial choice of major—political science—wasn’t engaging enough for him. He switched to the study of religion, where he could study history to understand people and the cultural experiences that created our societies.  

He also took classes in education because he knew that his experiences in public schools had been very different from that of students he met on campus who came from more affluent communities and had had access to resources to help them thrive.

“In ninth grade, we didn’t have a math teacher. Instead, we had a substitute teacher the entire year. We had a very limited selection of AP courses. There were inequities that weren’t okay and I wanted to understand why children lacked opportunities in the wealthiest country in the world. There is something wrong with our system,” he says.

As part of his undergraduate experience, D’Artagnan also studied abroad in South Africa. There, he witnessed the impact of poverty in ways that he hadn’t witnessed before, an experience that he says “fundamentally transformed my world view. I understood why it was so important for me to take advantage of the opportunities that I had even though I had grown up economically vulnerable. I came to understand my privilege.”

 

Not long after he came back to the U.S., he saw the smoke from the downed Towers.

After serving in the Navy for four and a half years, D’Artagnan returned to UCLA to finish his degree and realized he had work to do at home.

He became a campus leader to increase university access and equity for students of color, and joined the African Student Union, became a student member of the Student Initiated Access Committee, served as a delegate for the UCLA Alliance for Equal Opportunity in Education, and was a member of African American Enrollment Task Force.

As he worked for equity at UCLA, the challenges that he and his family faced during his youth also surfaced.

“When I came back from Iraq, one of my family members wanted to come and live with me. He wanted to get out of Watts because he said he wasn’t going to make it if he stayed,” he says. “I understood what he meant and as I looked around, I realized that it wasn’t just him.  My dad was addicted to drugs, my brothers were incarcerated, and the men in my family were struggling. I realized, as I looked around for solutions, that there weren’t any. It was important for me to do something, and I knew that I couldn’t just talk about it.”

D’Artagnan’s experiences at home, at college, and at war in Iraq crystalized his vision for the career path he would choose.

 

“I had the opportunity to fundamentally reshape the experiences that kids in my community were having around opportunity, and the opportunity to be who it is they wanted to be and to see themselves as,” he says. “Education was a phenomenal tool to transform my own history and shape my future. I saw it being the same for others.”

Aware of acute inequities built into the education system, D’Artagnan became a researcher and a scholar who focused on the educational needs and inequities that African American male youth were facing. He also continued his leadership at UCLA, where he was accepted into the Ph.D. program.

At UCLA, he organized around African American admissions and became a UC Regent where he focused on student access and conducted outreach in local communities.

He also became an Education Pioneers Fellow in 2010 to “see the world from another angle, to see education and what was happening in the field and at a local level from a different perspective,” he says. As a Fellow, he worked with the California Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports Los Angeles communities through philanthropy and civic engagement.

During one of his courses at UCLA, D’Artagnan launched a project that would become the foundation for the nonprofit organization he would found and lead—the Social Justice Learning Institute.

“To close the gap between theory and practice, we had to come up with a project,” D’Artagnan says. “I started the Black Male Youth Academy to bring together the best practices in education for Black males from around the country,” he says. “I drew from solid examples and put a program in place to engage leaders of color, and specifically Black men.”

Drawing from his research, D’Artagnan developed a course that would become a regular academic class for high school students. The success of his work was apparent almost immediately.

“Our initial cohort was a ninth grade and a twelfth grade class,” he says. “And as we began to see those students graduating from high school and transitioning successfully out of high school, I knew I wanted to sustain this work.”

Of the eight seniors who participated in the program—many of whom had come into the program with grade point averages of 2.0—all were accepted to 2- or 4-year colleges, universities, and/or vocational schools.

Seeing his work transform the lives of young men, D’Artagnan launched the Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI) in Inglewood so that he could evaluate additional issues in the community and do something about them. What started with work with young men in his community blossomed into a full-fledged nonprofit with 16 staff and a budget of over $1 million.

“We’re successfully reducing recidivism and gang involvement,” D’Artagnan says. “We help these young men realize their potential as community leaders who work to transform our community.”

While focusing on the community’s most pressing issues, D’Artagnan homed in on addressing the inequities in education.

“We looked at the schools, and the windows were blacked out. There were no water fountains. Our schools were deteriorating,” D’Artagnan says.

He chaired a $90 million bond campaign to fix the schools, but even after the bond passed, the schools continued to deteriorate. So D’Artagnan ran for a seat on the Inglewood Unified School Board and won.

But as much as D’Artagnan believes that education is central to transforming his community, he also doesn’t believe it’s the only issue to focus on.

“It’s hard because as much as focusing on one issue is important, like making sure kids graduate and go to college, it falls short in addressing the larger systemic issues,” he explains. “If, in certain communities, kids are facing trauma because they’re dealing with significant challenges, we’re not being effective if we don’t consider the negative impacts of the political economy on our families.

“This work is multi-dimensional and intersectional. It’s about justice and equity. It’s hard for me to ignore the relationship between the conditions kids face and the role of poverty and economic vulnerabilities. Folks who lack access to economic opportunity are stuck in cycles of social reproduction that are facilitated through existing power structures and institutional, structural racism.”

D’Artagnan points out that the young people in his community not only face educational inequity, but also health and environmental inequity that all stem from divestment in local communities—and from systemic racism.

“There’s a need to facilitate healing and address trauma,” he says. “We need a much larger focus on how to heal relationships and rifts. We haven’t fully addressed what it takes to heal from racism and slavery. In communities where people are economically vulnerable, trauma and PTSD happen over and over again.”

In his work, D’Artagnan has begun to address trauma, and SJLI has brought coaches on board who can help kids process traumatic experiences and give them the space to heal. As he points out, “The healing work has to take place first. It opens kids up to want to go to college and do what’s in their own best interest.”

What D’Artagnan has seen in his own work carries important lessons for all of us who work in education or with communities.

“It’s important to rethink the way we engage vulnerable communities, and especially those who live in economically vulnerable communities of color. We have to work to facilitate agency within communities, and that’s very different from coming in and doing it for communities,” D’Artagnan says. “We must avoid having a savior complex. People already have agency to take care and charge of their own lives and to lead change.”

After all, he points out, “If a neighbor is giving a child a cake and $7 on his birthday, they’ve done more for that seven year old than a school administrator could do. We must lift up communities’ abilities to do for themselves.” 

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