Author(s): CAROL ANNE BLITZER Date: May 7, 2010 Section: People
Daniel Kahn didn’t like Baton Rouge or Louisiana when he first arrived here shortly before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He came with a brand new Harvard degree and a two-year commitment to Teach for America.
“I was a vegetarian,” he said with a smile.
Now, almost five years later, Kahn, who grew up in San Francisco, has turned Baton Rouge into his calling and has adopted the local culture and cuisine.
He began as a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Crestworth Middle School and later moved to Belaire High School.
What surprised him most were the “amazing students” he encountered along the way.
“When I was teaching civics and free enterprise, I was completely blown away by the wisdom, thoughtfulness and courage of many of my students,” he said.
To succeed in school, the students frequently had to overcome monumental problems. Many were from single-parent homes. They often lived in neighborhoods where drugs, shootings and robberies were everyday occurrences. Many lived below poverty level.
Kahn wanted a better future for his students, who learned just as well as students from affluent homes, he said. He wanted his students to have opportunities that other teens take for granted, like the opportunity to attend college.
“These young people below 18 do not have access to succeed beyond high school,” he said “I said something has got to change.
Kahn began a dialogue with other Teach for America corps members to try to find some solutions. He started by working with a few young people at BREC’s Belfair Teen Center on Fairfields Avenue.
Assisted by his attorney mother, in April 2008, Kahn incorporated the Baton Rouge Youth Coalition to help teens in the community create access to opportunities and resources
His co-founders were Andy Gray, who has since moved away, and Sam Joel, who is working with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s transition team. Joel is also BRYC (pronounced “brick”) board president.
The following spring, Kahn resigned from the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and began raising funds for BRYC. In August 2009, he started the program with 15 Baton Rouge Youth Coalition fellows
“Our mission is to help them make good choices and drive their own futures,” he said. “We have a three-pronged approach – post secondary access, financial literacy and leadership development.”
In its first year of operation, Kahn and his organization have had amazing success with assistance from Teach for America alum Sarah Payne, who worked full time with the organization for four months.
The first class of fellows will be attending an impressive list of schools, and their collective scholarship awards exceed $250,000.
“What this year was really about was creating a strong and loving community, really a second family, and building a support network the fellows can build into,” Kahn said. “I want them to recognize that they are the driving forces in their lives and that they can do absolutely anything.”
BRYC fellows meet twice weekly from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. “It’s a huge commitment, especially for some of the fellows who have a million things going on,” Kahn said.
On Tuesdays during the first semester, the 2009 fellows took the Princeton Review preparation course for the ACT college entrance exam. They also worked on college entrance essays and applications. On Tuesdays during the second semester, the fellows worked with Kahn to secure financial aid.
Thursdays were devoted to leadership development. “We talk about issues in the community and issues in people’s lives,” Kahn said. The group also interviewed each fellow to really get to know the person.
Kristian Shaffer, 17, who this month graduates from Istrouma High School, started working with Kahn in the 10th grade at Belaire.
“That’s when Dan asked me to be a part of the organization he was starting,” Shaffer said. “From that time until the summer of 2009, I worked closely with Dan to build ideas and the structure of the program.”
Shaffer, who will be attending Loyola University in New Orleans in the fall, plans on majoring in music industry studies. He has been involved with music for seven years and recently built a professional-grade studio in his backyard.
“When I first walked in and saw what he had done, I was blown away,” Kahn said. “This is a young man who is going to be one of the cutting-edge music producers coming out of New Orleans.”
Shaffer received a dose of reality when all of the sound equipment was stolen from his studio. But Kahn and the BRYC fellows were there to give him support.
“I’m just so proud of Kristian for being the type of young man who can recognize that ultimately these are just ‘things,’” Kahn said. “He has the foresight not to get trapped into the common cycles of revenge and retaliation we see so often.”
Jayde Encalade, 18, was the only fellow from Baton Rouge Magnet High School. She will be attending New York University in the fall.
“I have to thank Dan for that,” she said. “I knew I was going to college, but before I didn’t have the courage to apply to colleges such as NYU. It wasn’t on my radar. All of my mentors helped open my eyes to that potential.”
Every fellow is paired with a Teach for America alum, who serves as a mentor. “There are 350 alums in South Louisiana,” Kahn said. “It’s a growing network.”
Dominique Ricks, 18, is a spoken word poet who is going this fall to the University of Wisconsin in Madison on a full scholarship. He is one of 15 students nationally selected for the university’s First Wave Spoken Word & Urban Arts Learning Community.
“These are spoken word poets, emcees, break dancers and graffiti artists,” Kahn said. “They are usually minority students in inner city areas. They put them in a very diverse culture on a majority white campus.”
Druscilla Dyer, 18, who attends Baton Rouge Community College, became a BRYC fellow when she came to Kahn for help with her ACT preparation.
“It led me to something much more,” she said. “I was in a box when I came to BRYC. They helped me figure out who I was.”
She will be attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette but hopes to go to Emory to pursue a doctorate in adolescent psychiatry in the future.
Kahn is starting recruitment for his 2010 fellows. He plans to have 15 seniors and 15 juniors. “In time, I would like to expand well beyond that,” he said.
As with anything, money is a problem. “I was really fortunate to have a network in San Francisco that was interested in post-storm in South Louisiana,” he said. After Kahn was featured in a news article, a family friend sent him $10,000.
“I cried,” he said. “This was the first moment that I realized that this could actually happen.”
He would love for the organization to have its own space and a couple of staff members. “We could serve many others,” he said. “We need a safe place where teens feel comfortable, where they can create their own sense of family.”
He would also like to help the fellows who are going away to school. How will they get there? Will they have the right clothes?
These are worries that Kahn always has on his mind.
“I’m learning every day that raising money is all part of the process,” Kahn said. So is “getting the ducks in a row and communicating the passion.”