After a storied career as the NBA’s leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is taking a different path as an author and advocate for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. His new children’s book, What Color Is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors, tells the tales of people who were leaders in their fields but who largely never received acclaim. Jamai Blivin, CEO of Innovate+Educate, a nonprofit aimed at aligning STEM education and workforce needs (which is co-sponsoring the upcoming STEM Solutions 2012 summit with U.S. News), recently spoke with Abdul-Jabbar about his new role and what can be done to help children achieve the American Dream.
What is behind the large number of black and Hispanic youths dropping out of high school?
High school dropouts are forfeiting their opportunity to pursue the American Dream. When you don’t have the fundamental skills that enable you to be trained for a meaningful job, you are placing yourself at the bottom of the country’s workforce where, statistically, you will earn significantly less money, have less opportunity for job advancement, suffer more medical problems, and have a greater chance to become a victim of a crime. When you drop out, you’re basically giving up on your future happiness.
Why did you write a book highlighting lesser-known inventors?
When I was 17, I worked in a mentoring program in Harlem designed to improve the community. That’s when I first gained an appreciation of the Harlem Renaissance, a time when African-Americans rose to prominence in American culture. For the first time, they were taken seriously as artists, musicians, writers, athletes, and as political thinkers. The talent was always there, but it had been hidden under the oppression of social bias. Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” That means we have to constantly be on our guard against prejudice because it restricts everyone’s freedom, even those with the bias. My book is just one step in that eternal vigilance: By setting the record straight, we encourage minority youth to see that they, too, can achieve greatness.
How is science connected to everyday things like music?
This may come as a shock to a lot of kids, but music and math are intimately related. Great minds have been discussing the relationship for centuries. Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who co-discovered calculus, probably explained the relationship best when he said, “Music is the pleasure the human soul experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” Music rhythms are mathematical patterns. When you hear a song and your body starts moving with it, your body is doing math. The kids in their parents’ garage practicing to be a band may not realize it, but they’re also practicing math.
You were recently appointed as a U.S. cultural ambassador. What is your greatest responsibility in this role?
To give hope. I meet with people all over the world, many of them children with limited economic opportunities. By explaining to them how the United States works to give all its citizens the opportunity to succeed and pursue their dreams, I’m offering a realistic blueprint for success.
What do you consider your biggest accomplishment in life?
My biggest accomplishment has been making a transition from athlete to author. In some ways, being an athlete was easier because I’d been doing it since I was a child. I became immediately successful and suddenly everyone knew who I was and appreciated me for my athletic ability. It’s difficult for the public to change their perspective of you. They see me as an athlete and so when I open my mouth they want me to speak about sports. And I love doing that. But I also love writing books, particularly about historical events or periods. Basically, I’m going from being an entertainer to an educator and it’s hard for some people used to seeing you slamming a ball through a hoop to also see you discussing the Harlem Renaissance and unknown black inventors. What’s interesting to me is how younger children are able to accept me as both. They appreciate what I’ve done on the court in the past, but they also appreciate what I’m doing right now.
What is the biggest misconception that is holding children back?
The biggest misconception holding back youth, especially those from disadvantaged communities, is that they are going to be the next LeBron or Jay-Z. It’s fine to fantasize, and it’s great to dream big, but the media has convinced kids that anyone can be anything, if they just keep the dream alive. That’s a dangerous lesson because it prevents kids from seeing the world realistically. It’s like encouraging kids to spend all their money on lottery tickets. They are better off if they have a lot of opportunities to choose from, not just sports or entertainment. And they will have those additional opportunities if we continue to emphasize education, especially in STEM classes.
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