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Denzel Washington on Dropouts: ‘Most Dangerous Time’ for Kids Right After School

September 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the first installment of an 18-month series on the nation's high school dropout rate, Gwen Ifill sits down with Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington to discuss his work as national spokesman for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and making a difference in the lives of at-risk youth.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, we launch an 18-month focus on the nation’s high school dropout rate.

The American Graduate project, a partnership with public radio and television, will examine the breadth of the problem, as well as its consequences.

The numbers are staggering. One-third of U.S. high school students don’t graduate on time. And Latino and African-American boys are twice as likely to become high school dropouts, the result: higher rates of incarceration, unemployment and poverty.

Among the solutions increasingly is community involvement and high-wattage celebrity attention.

Oscar-winning film director Ron Howard joined basketball star LeBron James, singer Ashanti, and actor Denzel Washington in Washington today to unveil a new public service announcement for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

DENZEL WASHINGTON, Actor: Every child follows a path in life. For many, that path will lead them to a door, a door that gives them a place to grow.

RON HOWARD, Director/Producer: I’m a great believer and lover of the country, believer in the dream and what the country aspires to, or sometimes I feel what it purports to aspire to. And it’s up to us to act on that.

GWEN IFILL: We spoke about the dropout crisis afterward with Denzel Washington, the Boys and Girls Clubs’ longtime national spokesman.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: Fundamentally, we are failing our kids. It is not their fault. It is the — if there is fault to be — it’s the fault of the adults.

GWEN IFILL: When you say we’re failing our kids, there are so many fingers being pointed at the schools, at government, at parents, and sometimes at the kids themselves. Is there a finger for blame?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: Well, I’m not here to point fingers.

It starts in the home. I’m about solutions. You know, if three out of 10 drop out, that means seven out of 10 don’t. I’m trying to turn that seven into an eight or into a nine. The work we do at the Boys and Girls Clubs are helping to do that. In the last 10 years, we have doubled the number of children we reach.

We have gone from 1,800 clubs to 4,000 clubs, from two million young people to four million young people. So, I’m about a part — I’m about being a part of the solution. We are making progress, and we’re here in Washington to get more support. And we reach out to people across America for their support, because what we’re doing at the Boys and Girls Clubs work.

It’s one thing to sit around and talk about what the problems are, you know, but it’s another thing to get off your behind and actually do something about it. And that’s what I’m about. I’m not about complaining about what the statistics are and how awful it is. I’m about doing something about it.

And if one is not about actually doing something, then one should really keep their mouth shut or move out of the way, and allow someone who wants to help to help. We can all volunteer.

GWEN IFILL: Where are the most effective solutions to be found, in government — you’re here in Washington — or in communities?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: No, in each and every one of us.

Forget talking — asking the government. Now, we at the Boys and Girls Club get a tremendous financial support directly from the Department of Justice, but also from — you know, from the federal government.

I mean, the Department of Justice understands if they spend the money with us early, they don’t need to spend it on prisons or incarceration or policing later on.

GWEN IFILL: There’s talk that early warning signs are things that you need to be watching for in order to change these outcomes that we have been talking about.

What kinds of early warning signs should, whether it’s teachers or individuals or community groups or organizations like yours, be watching for?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: I mean, fundamentally, it’s parenting.

My mother said that your biggest influence on your children will be in their first five years, because, in those days, it was five years, because once you went to kindergarten, once you started going to school, you were influenced by others.

So it starts in the home. I mean, the fundamental responsibility, or problem, if we want to call it that, is the breakdown of the family, and that obviously directly affects the child.

GWEN IFILL: Is the solution also to be found inside schools or primarily outside of schools? Because people — there’s a lot of discussion about dropout factories…

DENZEL WASHINGTON: Right. Right.

GWEN IFILL: … and schools which don’t turn out performing or high-performing students.

DENZEL WASHINGTON:  Right.

Again, I think it starts in the home, your first four or five years of preparation before you go to school. Obviously, the teachers have an obligation. The parents have an obligation. And where we come in — and we’re — again, going back to the Boys and Girls Club, the most dangerous time for children are between 3 and 6 o’clock, when they’re out of school.

They’re going to join some club. They’re going to line up with, you know, the athletes, the jocks, or the jerks, or the nerds, or the goths, or the druggies. They’re going to do something. They’re going to be negatively influenced, unless they’re positively influenced. And that is our responsibility as adults.

GWEN IFILL: As you balance out the three prongs of this, healthy lifestyles, and good citizenship, and academic achievement, how important is academic achievement in all of this?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: Absolutely important.

I mean, it’s one thing to know — it’s one thing to make money. It’s another thing to know how to count it. But education — I remember my mother used to take us, put us in the car on Sunday, and ride us around wealthy neighborhoods. And we would imagine which house was going to be ours.

And that was a part of our education. You know, they talk about role models, and you see, I don’t know, me or LeBron James or somebody on TV bouncing a basketball. But your real role models are those people that are in your club, those people that are in your environment that affect you either positively or negatively.

If all you see every day is the drug dealer, and he’s the only one or she’s the only one that has a Mercedes, that’s what you’re going to aspire to. So it’s up to all of us to reach out.

GWEN IFILL: As you mentioned, you’re here. LeBron James is here. Jennifer Lopez is involved. There’s a Beyonce song in the video.

What difference does it make if these words come from celebrities, from well-known people?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: It doesn’t make any difference, but there are those people, like I said — when I grew up in the club, I loved Muhammad Ali, but I couldn’t get him on the phone.

But I was able to talk to my mentor, Billy Thomas, or different people in the club. I remember I had a debate. So I was about 9 or 10 years old. I had a debate with the mayor of our town. He asked — he spoke, and then he said, anybody have any questions?

And I had a couple of questions. So I didn’t particularly believe he was giving me the answers, the real answers, so I kept asking, until they made me sit down.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: And it’s a true story. But there was a gentleman in the club, Charles White, who worked at the club. And he said, “You know, young man, you know, with your smarts, you can be anything you want to be.”

And I never forgot that. I walked out of that building, and I said, wow, I never heard that before. I can be anything I want to be. Yes, OK, I count. I’m important.

So I didn’t hear that from Muhammad Ali. I heard that from Charles White.

GWEN IFILL: As you have watched children grow through this effort, have things changed? Has it gotten tougher for this generation of young people? Is it — are they different than they were when you came along?

DENZEL WASHINGTON: I think us older people are just cynical, because we have got more years behind us than we do in front of us.

You know, I remember speaking. I was doing a movie, “Malcolm X,” and we were shooting at Columbia University. And between takes, I was — there was like — we used students. And between takes, we were talking about all the issues of the day, and, oh, it’s this, and the world is — and this was 20 years ago.

I can imagine what the conversation would be like now. And, basically, I said, so what are you going to do? You going to give up? And they’re like, no, no, we’re going to change things. That didn’t even come into their mind. I said, oh, that’s me, the older, cynical one that’s thinking like that.

So I enjoy working with young people and listening to young people because young people are positive. Us older folk are the ones that: Oh, you know, it’s all going to hell in a handbasket. That’s the way we think. I don’t think that’s the way it is.

GWEN IFILL: Denzel Washington, thank you so much for joining us.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: My pleasure.

GWEN IFILL: We will report more on the dropout problem in coming months.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.