From division, towards unity

By Dan Naumovich
Dan Naumovich is a freelance journalist based in Springfield.

I believe that all things are possible. I’m certainly a believer of second chances. I just want to see people better. I want to see the world better.”

Reverend Courtney Carson relayed that sentiment after telling the story of how he almost didn’t get his second chance, at a moment in his life when he needed it most. But because someone refused to give up on him, a countless number of people are better off today thanks to the lessons he learned growing up, and his unique ability to teach them to others in need.

Last year, Carson was elected to his first term as a member of the Decatur Public Schools Board of Education. It’s the same district that he attended as a child and young man, back when he was troubled and confused, and oftentimes angry. It was then, as a high school student, that he found himself caught in the middle of a controversy that reverberated throughout the nation.

In 1999, Carson and six other students were involved in a fight while attending a football game between Decatur’s Eisenhower and MacArthur high schools. It was a brief altercation that resulted in no serious injuries, but in accordance with the district’s then “zero tolerance” policy, the students received an automatic two-year expulsion. That’s when the battle really began.

The community quickly became divided on the appropriateness of the disciplinary action. Headlines coming out of Decatur eventually reached Chicago, where the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Push organization is headquartered. The “Decatur Seven,” as the expelled students came to be called, caught the attention of Jackson, at the time the nation’s most prominent proponent for civil justice. He and busloads of his supporters descended upon Decatur to protest the school district’s decision. And with them came the national spotlight.

“I wasn’t familiar with Reverend Jackson at the time, but when I saw the man, he had a halo over his head. There was a glow. He had this ‘it’ factor and an authority when he spoke,” Carson said.

To Jackson and his supporters, the Decatur Seven presented a case study of how society views minorities as expendable, and its willingness to forfeit their future by taking away the opportunity to earn a high school diploma. For those defending the expulsions, the hardline stance was necessary to maintaining discipline and eliminating disruptive influences that hinder the educational process.

The controversy brewed, at one point leading to a two-day closing of all three Decatur high schools over fears of civil dissent. Eventually, then-Governor George Ryan intervened and a compromise was reached in which the expulsion was reduced to a single year, during which time the students would be provided an opportunity for alternative education.

The decision wasn’t immediately life-changing for Carson, who continued to struggle in school, and with the law. He also still didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the national conversation that he had helped spark. But after the TV cameras and reporters left Decatur, he was aware that Jackson was still by his side. His continuing advice and encouragement instilled in Carson the will to persevere.

“Reverend Jackson took us under his wing to show us a different side of life. He really helped me,” Carson said. “The fight and the expulsion definitely changed my life. But the response to all of that really provided me a positive understanding of what life can be. If I hadn’t been threatened with expulsion and the reverend hadn’t come, I don’t know where I’d be today.”

His journey from expelled and indifferent student to respected school board member isn’t the only unlikely turn that his life has taken.

“I can’t help but to love kids. But I always said, ‘it takes a special individual to work with kids, and I don’t think I’m that person,’” he said, with a laugh.

If he doubted the suitability of his temperament to work with children, he never once questioned the call he heard to do so. Carson answered by becoming actively involved — as a preacher, teacher, and mentor in preparing young people for life and providing them the wisdom and courage to pursue their dreams.

“When I really took a look at young people’s lives and how they’re easily led astray and feel unloved and unappreciated, I decided that I had to do something about it,” Carson said. “So this provided an opportunity to expand on the work that I do on potential and promise, the different dimensions of human existence that shape people.”

Carson ’s brand of self-improvement goes well beyond encouraging words and pats on the back. He’s a student of psychology, with a deep interest in the complexities of the human condition and how people interact with one another. This curiosity has resulted in insights that serve him well as a member of a school board that must look out for the best interests of students from diverse backgrounds and with different abilities.

“For a straight-A student who is used to success, a single bad grade can be detrimental to their confidence. For a kid who lives in poverty, much of the trauma they experience comes from the things they bring in from outside the school,” he said.

The impact of trauma on the ability to learn is of special interest to Carson, and a major concern in a school district where the majority of students live in poverty. Six years ago, he went to Washington D.C. for training on how to recognize the trauma behind a person’s actions and decisions, and how to connect with them on a personal level. Teachers in Decatur public schools have since received similar training.

“I love that we have trauma-informed schools,” Carson said. “Our teachers are getting training on recognizing trauma because it’s such a scary thing. You might have a child in your class worried about when he’s going to get his next meal. How can he learn when he knows that the electricity might not be on when he gets home? How can we expect him to focus on his work when there’s someone at home who’s molesting him? That student is being disobedient because his brain is being numbed by the trauma.”

Carson is also a big believer in the use of Motivational Interviewing (MI) in teacher/student interactions. MI is a goal-oriented technique for promoting behavioral changes by asking open-ended questions to engage students, while also providing affirmations.

“I believe when teachers challenge themselves and utilize motivational interviewing, then they get the best out of the student,” Carson said. “It’s a therapeutic approach and a form of counseling. You become an aid in the change process and express acceptance of the student. It’s a way of interacting with substance, especially when dealing with a student experiencing trauma.”

With MI, the goal is to encourage students to “win” the present moment, rather than focusing on the long-term consequences of their negative behavior. By doing so, the student becomes better prepared to win the next time a situation arises.

“Threatening a student with the possibility of not graduating in a few years isn’t going to mean too much to someone who doesn’t even know if they’ll get dinner tonight,” Carson said.

When Carson got his life turned around and graduated from college, he planned a move to Atlanta. He had no desire to return to the scene of his earlier life, but Jackson told him that that is exactly what he should do. Coming back home made him realize how much he loved the community.

Despite this commitment to his hometown, he was initially reluctant when people first started encouraging him to run for school board, to bring a fresh perspective and share his unique expertise. But as with so many decisions before, his mind was changed when he received a sign.

After tentatively throwing his hat in the ring, the lottery that determined the order candidates’ names would appear on the ballot placed him fourth on the list. While most politicians covet the top spot, Carson saw providence in his draw.

“The election was on the fourth day, of the fourth month. There were four open seats. That was enough for me,” he said.

After his first year as a board member, Carson is pleased with the direction the district is heading. The district is currently working closely with the community on a new strategic plan, and a residency rule has been passed for district employees. Decatur SD 61 has also hired a director of curriculum to bring consistency to the coursework being offered at different schools so that when students transfer, they don’t fall behind.

He credits these accomplishments, at least in part, to the unity that has been established among board members.

“We’ve been able to form a bond. Not that we don’t have some strong arguments in closed sessions, but those usually produce the best results. And everyone is working towards a common goal — to educate our children,” he said.

As for the issue that cast a cloud over the school district all those years ago, the defenders of the Decatur Seven may have finally found the justice they had sought. In 2015, Illinois passed Senate Bill 100, legislation that eliminates public school “zero tolerance” policies regarding suspensions and expulsions, along with implementing other reforms. The bill received wide bipartisan support.

“SB 100 is doing a phenomenal job in making sure that our kids remain in a position to receive an education. I’m wholeheartedly a supporter of that law,” Carson said. “That wasn’t offered to me when I was in school. There was no alternative plan for the seven of us. When we were expelled, we were expelled out of an education. We couldn’t even go to the public library.”

Carson believes that it is crucial that students facing disciplinary action be placed in an alternative education setting. The practice of putting people in an empty room with nothing to do to serve out a detention is akin to tossing them in a holding cell at the county jail, an experience that instills in them a sense of hopelessness.

In January of this year, Reverend Carson had more on his plate than usual. In addition to his job as a business developer for the Springfield Urban League, his duties as associate minister at Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, and his work mentoring young men through his 20 Men organization, Carson found himself in demand at Martin Luther King Day events. He traveled to Blackburn College in Carlinville, and up north to a church in Joliet, to speak to students and congregations. He also played a big role at an event at Antioch that brought together five area churches to honor the civil rights leader.

“I spent a lot of time determining how to best articulate the spirit of Dr. King to an audience so they could gain a better understanding of who he was,” Carson said. “And to convey my own personal charge to assassinate racism by activating love, moment by moment. I want to see the white brothers and sisters, and the black brothers and sisters, and however else people like to identify themselves, to come together and practice unity. That’s the one thing we seldom try, but when we do, we always see progress.”