Charon Darris ’13, executive director of the Adams Street Foundation, makes it his mission to prepare students from underserved communities at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn, New York, to get in to and succeed in college. Last summer, Columbia Business spoke to Darris about the foundation, which supports the college access program at the school, when the world was a different place – the COVID-19 pandemic was not yet a reality.

Now, amidst a global health crisis and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to anti-Black police brutality, the students at Darris’s school are facing exceptional obstacles on the road to higher education – in addition to the many they already had to overcome. Below, Darris speaks about how the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice and its students have learned to innovate and survive, and shares his predictions for the future.

How has the pandemic affected the students and how has the school adapted?

We are a Department of Education school and in early March the Department of Education shut down all schools. Over the course of a weekend we moved to remote learning, and we weren’t prepared for that. We rounded up every Chromebook we had at the school and lent them out to every student who needed one. But that only solved part of the problem. Remote learning is a complex problem, particularly for students who are coming from lower economic backgrounds. Many of them have smartphones, but as you can imagine, those are not devices that are great for long-term learning, for writing reports or doing research. This lack of equipment was a big part of the problem. The other issue was internet access. Some of our students have internet access in their homes, but it becomes complex with multiple siblings at home and not necessarily multiple devices. Some students still have dial-up internet in their households and other bandwidth issues.

In addition to the tech issues, there’s the question of whether kids are really ready for online learning experiences. Even young people from solid, middle-class households who go to great schools and have lots of resources at home struggled when the switch was suddenly flipped and they no longer could go into school. Even those kids struggle with only seeing lessons online, with having the responsibility to check email frequently. Our students have additional responsibilities, whether it is looking after other siblings or possibly having to work. Some students have parents who either lost their jobs or who have to continue to go into work because they’re essential, whether they work in medicine or at a grocery store. There are a variety of other challenges in the household in addition to the fact that they need to sit down, concentrate, check email, and have the discipline to understand how it all works. It’s been really challenging for our students – and that’s just COVID-19 challenges.

How are the students responding to the many incidents of anti-Black police brutality that have transpired recently and how are they getting involved in the Black Lives Matter movement?

The issues related to social justice in the nation are certainly not new – our students have been experiencing and living those issues their whole lives. I think a lot of our students feel heartbroken in a lot of ways, but young people are resilient. I think they’re baffled by what they’re seeing. They are a generation that has access to more information, that is very video-focused, and so they are really inundated with this, and the injustice of it all is paramount. Our kids aren’t necessarily protesting because there is the added layer of needing to be socially distant right now, but they are certainly active on social media – Instagram and Snapchat in particular. If you went to any of their pages, you’d see many posts on the matter.

As a school, we’re focusing more of our content and our classwork around these issues. In one of our history classes, the end-of-year project is comparing what is going on now with police reform to another political event of their choosing in America’s history. At the end, they are asked to pitch their findings and recommendations to a political leader. We are going to coordinate something with our local city council person or another local political figure, and let the students send their projects in and receive feedback. Showing how public service and the political process works and how to create change and be actively engaged are things we are focused on all the time.

Of your students, 75 percent will go on to be the first in their family to earn a college degree. Why is it so pivotal that these students in particular are able to attend college?

To paraphrase Horace Mann, “Education is our nation’s great equalizer.” One of the reasons why our nation is so great, and why people from across the world for hundreds of years have chosen to come to this country, is because education is an opportunity to create a better life. Not just for individuals themselves, but for their children as well. There is no shortage of studies that show that if a young person goes on to college, and completes college, they will not only earn more but they will live longer, be healthier, and make more informed political decisions. Education is the core of making a more just society. We direct our students to go to college for that purpose: to create economic mobility and to become greater citizens of our country. There is also a growing need for and awareness of increasing diversity in our nation’s leadership and in the private sector as well. Clearly, a college degree is critical for those types of roles.

As someone who is tapped in to the next generation: do you feel optimistic about the future of the country?

First and foremost, I worry about our kids. I worry about them going on to the next phase. And so in our work, we do a lot of handholding to prepare them. But in the last couple of months we’ve had to throw that into the air. And every young person across the country right now is going to have those challenges. We’ve also seen with our most recent graduating class that we have significantly more students who are staying near home for college rather than going away. I also think about the challenge of future employment for them. Internships in college are certainly a critical first step to having a job after school and building your career, and those are now going to continue to be tight and challenging, because so much will be remote and because the economy itself in contracting. We haven’t even begun to see the major, permanent layoffs that will come from the private sector. I think our kids are going to have a lot of challenges related to that.

Having said all that, I am optimistic about everything going on in our nation. The awareness and the proactive belief around allyship is just huge. I really think that our nation is at a turning point now where we can have some real, sustainable change, in ways that we haven’t seen since the Civil Rights movement. It’s a dark time now, but I think that the future has a lot of great possibility, and I’m hopeful that our young people are going to forge and create a future that will be much better than my generation.