Education

Guest blog: Twin brothers from Detroit giving back through TFA

Editor’s note: We welcome guest columns to get a variety of perspectives of the work we’re doing in partnership with so many in Detroit. Don Jordan, manager regional communications for Teach for America, prepared this story for the Rose for Detroit Blog. Please enjoy and share.

 “We hope for better things. It shall rise from the ashes.”

For Raymond and Richard Diggs, Detroit’s official motto is much more than a phrase used to cap off political speeches or frame downtown redevelopment projects. It’s the story of their lives.

Born and raised on the east side of Detroit, the 25-year-old twin brothers understand poverty. They understand violence. They understand attending struggling schools that often weren’t equipped to meet their needs. And they understand how their successes against the odds put them in a position to do great things for kids facing the same hardships they experienced.

“There is potential in every single body in that room,” Richard said about the students he works with now as a social studies teacher at Osborn Collegiate Academy of Mathematics, Science and Technology. “You can’t tell me that change isn’t possible. Anything is possible.”

The brothers are two of more than 350 educators teaching in schools throughout the city as part of Teach For America, an organization whose mission is to partner with communities to expand educational opportunity for children facing the challenges of poverty. The Detroit region of the national nonprofit began partnering with local schools in 2010, the first year of a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the Skillman Foundation.

Diggs Pic

Raymond Diggs, left, and Richard Diggs, right, stand outside Wayne State University. They both graduated from WSU and are now working in Detroit through Teach for America. Courtesy of Kenie Huber/Teach For America

The schools where the Diggs brothers teach – Richard at Osborn and Raymond at Cody Academy of Public Leadership – are both located in communities where the Skillman Foundation focuses its work. The Foundation focus its investments in six Detroit neighborhoods – Brightmoor, Cody Rouge, Osborn, Southwest Detroit, Northend Central and Chadsey Condon – and has a mega goal to see meaningful high school graduation rates improve, so kids in those neighborhoods are prepared for college, career and life.

For Raymond and Richard, the love for academics began at a young age when their mother enrolled them in a preschool program at Wayne County Community College while she took courses.

“We told people we were going to college,” Raymond said, laughing.

That experience was the first of many in which their strong, single mother emphasized the importance of education and discipline in her boys’ lives. Straight-As were the only option and chores were a daily responsibility.

“It was about excellence at a very young age,” Richard said. “If we brought home a B, we would cry.”

The brothers laugh as they explain how their mother would make them wash walls that didn’t need washing.

“We were always busy,” Raymond said. “It became part of who we were. It was taught to us from a very young age.”

Throughout their school years, the twins performed well both in academics and in basketball. The boys – who couldn’t afford nice clothes and moved constantly – found a certain degree of social status from their success on the court. Ultimately, it began to overshadow their commitment to their school work.

After two years at the more academically rigorous Cass Tech High School, the twins transferred to another local high school so that they could play basketball and attend school near their home.

“Psychologically, it was tough,” Raymond said, adding that the boys coasted through classes that often didn’t challenge them.

It was in one of these classes during their junior year that Raymond overheard a teacher speaking to a group of students about an essay contest sponsored by the Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association. The first prize was a laptop, something the boys would never be able to afford on their own.

They each submitted an essay, with Richard winning the laptop and Raymond receiving an iPod. Soon after, two lawyers from the association came looking for the boys who had won the contest. Over time, they developed a relationship with the attorneys, who let them tag along at meetings in their law offices or lunches at the Detroit Athletic Club.

“College was literally like changing worlds,” Raymond said. “I remember calling my mom and just saying thanks.”

The boys returned for their senior year with a newfound drive to go to succeed in college, eventually accepting an offer from Wayne State University.

“College was literally like changing worlds,” Raymond said. “I remember calling my mom and just saying thanks.”

The two would go on to serve as resident advisors in the dorms while earning their bachelor’s degrees in political science. In 2011, as the brothers were finishing their junior year and beginning to seriously consider career options, Raymond noticed an article in Crain’s Detroit Business that profiled Annis Stubbs, the founding executive director of Teach For America – Detroit. Her story resonated with the brothers – Stubbs also grew up in the city and attended its public schools – and the organization’s mission was enticing.

“We looked into it and it seemed like a perfect fit,” Raymond said. “It allowed us to give back to our community.”

Both brothers were accepted into the highly-selective program and, after graduating from Wayne State and completing training, they were each at the front of their own classrooms leading high school lessons on history and economics.

Raymond said he sees his students dealing with many of the same challenges he encountered as a teenager. He knows their confident demeanor in the face of violence, drugs, and poverty often disguises deep fears and insecurities.

“I have empathy for them and I know what they’re thinking,” he said. “When there is a fight, it’s still scary to me. It’s way too familiar. I don’t like that energy.”

When they were preparing for their first days in the classroom, the brothers anticipated stepping into school buildings that were largely void of community support and participation, a notion they both say stemmed from their own naiveté. Instead, they found neighborhood-based mentoring groups and professionals excited to speak to their students and support the schools.

“There are a lot of people doing great things in this community,” Raymond said of the Cody Rouge Neighborhood. “It’s not a blank canvas. There are plenty of things on this canvas.”

Richard agreed, arguing that outsiders mistakenly assume that nothing positive is happening in the Osborn community because some of the most visible problems haven’t been solved.

“There is just so much to do,” he said. “These people care. The biggest lie about the neighborhoods is that there aren’t people doing things.”

The Diggs brothers say their futures are forever intertwined with the city that helped create the men they are today. “It’s about hope,” Richard said. “Detroit will rise again. I sincerely believe in that. In some ways, we feel like we rose from the ashes. We feel connected to the city.”

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