It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon. Many people are relaxing and savoring the last few daylight hours before another Monday. A scattering of people find themselves deep in their work, and Taylor Eads is one of them.
In the summer of 2014, I met Taylor working alongside him as a teaching fellow with Breakthrough Birmingham, a pre-professional teacher residency for college students, and summer enrichment program for some of Birmingham’s brightest middle schoolers. For all of us teaching fellows, it was a metamorphic summer.
It’s 2017, and Taylor is doing big things. I speak with Taylor at SocialVenture, an abandoned trucking warehouse that has been converted into an office space and houses several Birmingham nonprofits working to support and uplift the city at large. The facility is bright and open, reams of paper and work supplies are stacked to the ceiling on yellow scaffolding frames.
Trussville, a suburb of Birmingham, is where Taylor was born and raised, but he calls the entire city of Birmingham home. I ask him who his people are, and he repeats, “My people.” He smiles. “There’s levels to that. In my inner circle is my family, my girlfriend, and my coworkers here, we’re a very close team. Secondly, everybody in the city! Especially all the kids that we work with.”
I’d like to think Taylor approaches people passion-first. You’re going to know how deeply he cares about the success of students before he even tells you who he is. (And you’ll already have agreed to be a part of the cause before you realize you don’t know his first name.) The Taylor sitting in front of me, the one who came to work on a Sunday, is a different person than the younger Taylor he describes to me when I ask him what he is most proud of. “I’m most proud of the transformation I made once I found what I was excited about. When I was younger and even in high school, I would say I spent most of my energy and intelligence on getting out of trouble or getting out of having to do work. And now to have found my passion, and trusting myself to dive in headfirst, to be on the path that I’m on, that’s what I’m most proud of.”
Now, Taylor is the Coordinator of Curriculum and Development for College Admissions Made Possible (CAMP), a Birmingham non-profit that focuses on college access for students in underserved situations. He explains: “We want kids in poor situations to have the same opportunities, tools, and resources that someone who went to a more affluent school would have. That includes doing everything from FAFSA workshops, helping them write scholarship essays, we take them on college trips, take them to national college conferences, we do ACT Prep, we teach teachers how to start ACT programs. Basically anything that they would need to get to college, we do that.”
Covering the walls of Taylor’s office are sheets of easel pad paper, with questions handwritten in colorful marker like “Why do ACT Bootcamps matter to you?” “What did you learn about yourself through this experience?” “What is the biggest misconception you had about the students of Birmingham?” “What are you going to do differently moving forward?”
From these posters, I already get the sense that the work that the CAMP staff does provides a transformational experience not only for the high school students they serve, but for the college students employed to teach there as well.
The ACT Boot Camps that CAMP provides to 1,400 juniors in the city allow the non-profit to touch nearly every high school in the city. The main goal of the boot camps are to allow students to practice their skills in English, math, reading, and science reasoning. The most exciting thing about the ACT program, Taylor explains, is that college students essentially run it with little help from him. His vision is that the program can be taken to any college campus in the country and replicated. “My goal for CAMP is to be a bridge between college students and the city surrounding them.” Next year, CAMP’s ACT Boot Camps will expand to Tuskegee University and at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
CAMP serves as one of the actors in a larger force to positively change educational outcomes for students in under-resourced schools. Taylor feels that the problem facing the educational system is complex and multilayered. “I feel like the deeper I get in, the more problems there are. It’s not a lack of effort on anyone’s part. If you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the kids need to feel safe, be fed, feel loved, then they can learn. There’s so many layers that teaching ends up being your 5th job. Before you realize that, it’s easy to blame the teachers. They’re the first point of attack when anyone looks at education. It’s like, ‘Well, what are the teachers doing?’ And they’re trying. They have more jobs than anyone else.”
"If you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the kids need to feel safe, be fed, feel loved, then they can learn. There’s so many layers that teaching ends up being your 5th job."
Taylor hopes that the college students who teach during CAMP’s ACT boot camps will leave with an awareness of the inequality that persists. He is motivated by the systematic oppression he sees, and he hopes they will be too. “I get all these people who would never be teachers. They’re gonna go be doctors, and lawyers, they’ve had almost perfect ACT scores, and a 4.0 in college. Let’s say that none of them go on to be a teacher. They leave CAMP with an awareness of the needs of the city and cities all over the world. I think it’s real easy and comfortable to turn a blind eye to the issues that are going on. Especially as a college kid that comes from a perfect nuclear family, they don’t understand that these kids aren’t choosing not to learn, it’s that they’re not being given equal opportunity. I think that’s something everybody knows as a conception, but to actually see it, experience it, and work with kids who are way behind, they’re going to carry that with them forever. Right now we’re at 60 college students and growing out of control, so that inspires me: that long lasting, rippling impact.”
"These kids aren’t choosing not to learn, it’s that they’re not being given equal opportunity. I think that’s something everybody knows as a conception, but to actually see it, experience it, and work with kids who are way behind, they’re going to carry that with them forever."
No matter how many different ways I ask Taylor to tell me about the work he does, he never neglects to give credit to his team of coworkers. His colleagues invigorate him, they challenge him, they give him hope. After all, he explains, they’ve been devoting themselves to the success of children for years. When I mention that he can give a shoutout to anyone or anything, he responds with a meaningful ode to a coworker in particular: “I want to give a shout-out to my partner in crime, Alexandria Croom. She’s the program director for CAMP. She’s the one who recruited me, hired me, supported me, and helped me grow into the professional I am today. She’s dynamic and can do anything and everything at a ridciulous pace. She genuinely cares about the kids and all of us and she’s a great leader of our team.”
The city is alive and the sun is shining as we sit on SocialVenture’s back patio. A train rumbles in the distance and we sit for a moment in the silence as it passes by. Across the street, there’s a beautiful mural on the side of an apartment building of a hot air balloon taking flight. All that Taylor has told me makes me believe Birmingham is taking off in much the same way. Taylor’s love for the people of Birmingham feels electric. “I think we’re really taking a holistic approach to working on the city. We’re getting people affordable housing, changing the way that we do education, there are businesses popping up everywhere that are being supported by non-profit organizations like REV Birmingham. I think it’s a massive change. It’s a massive change in mindset, it’s one of the best places for young entrepreneurs. It’s kind of crazy how fast it’s going.”
He observes that there still are divisions in the city: “If you drive down First Avenue South and First Avenue North, it’s drastically different.” But he feels that there are areas where those boundaries cease to matter, especially in his favorite place, Railroad Park. “It’s the most diverse place in the city. It separates the north and the south side. You see people from all different racial backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses. Those lines are almost invisible out there. It’s something about a park. All of the tension seems to be less dense.”
"I know no matter what, I will never understand what it’s like to be a woman or to be a black person. No matter what. Regardless of how many kids I work with, how many friends I have, how many times I visit the Civil Rights Museum, I’ll never get there. And I think that’s the first realization you have to have before you can start having conversations."
The tension that Taylor describes is a familiar feeling, as he recognizes his position as a white man working in an all-black school system. “There’s a lot of times where people come into these areas like they’re Superman, and people are defensive of that and they should be. I know no matter what, I will never understand what it’s like to be a woman or to be a black person. No matter what. Regardless of how many kids I work with, how many friends I have, how many times I visit the Civil Rights Museum, I’ll never get there. And I think that’s the first realization you have to have before you can start having conversations. I think it’s really easy – not only easy, but beneficial as a white person, to sweep all that under the rug. To say, ‘Oh my gosh, get over it already.’ But it’s [only] been 50 years since we were siccing dogs on people in Linn Park right down there. Before we can start making any change, everybody has to know that it’s not changed yet.”
Taylor stops himself abruptly and laughs. “I don’t even know what you asked me.”
Everything comes full circle. I ask Taylor if where he is now is where he always wanted to be. Taylor tells me he found a journal from 4 years ago recently, and the contents affirmed the work that he feels thankful to be able to do now.
“I have this full page of brainstorming in [the journal], where I wrote about my dream to start REACH. I thought, it can’t only be here, there’s gotta be people who want to make a difference everywhere. At the time, it didn’t all work out; I lacked the experience and skill set to make it happen. I felt like we had failed, only to find out it was going to grow into what it is today. Going in to Chattanooga two weeks ago and starting [a CAMP site] was kind of surreal. I have to say, this was kind of my plan from the start. We definitely didn’t go on the plan I drew out at first, but we’re here regardless.”
If you would like to volunteer with CAMP or find out more information about the work they do, their website is located at http://campcollege.org/index.html
If you would like to support CAMP’s work with a donation, you can do that here: https://www.paypal.com/donate/?token=XiPgd7Ai4sUaRQ9nkhj6KuM7B1wYS9v0B83eRdJLk3vxfK5JbctWAcWZ4I0OlA8Lu0ilM0