Judy’s Notebook: The Me Me Me Generation Can Be Anything But

BY Judy Woodruff  May 9, 2013 at 7:24 PM EDT

By now it’s painfully clear the younger generation has been hit hard by fallout from the economic downturn. Almost every day another report reminds us how high the unemployment rate is among 18 to 29 year olds — above 16 percent in April — and raises questions of whether today’s Millennials will be emotionally as well as financially scarred for life.

On the other hand, screaming out from the cover of this month’s Time magazine is a young woman sprawled on the floor, taking a picture of herself with her smartphone, next to the headline “The Me Me Me Generation.” (In fairness, the accompanying article explains that young people may be well-equipped to deal with the fast-changing world they’re growing up in.)

But whatever makes headlines, more and more often I come across an inspired idea a young person has had in response to a problem our older generation dumped in their laps. Given today’s debate around immigration reform, it’s especially notable when that young person is the child of immigrants.

Take 24-year-old Chantalle Carles, a native of Miami and a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Florida, who taught special education English in the small town of Henderson, N.C., for Teach for America. Now about to wrap up two years as a fellow with the Duke Endowment, a Carolinas-based private foundation, Carles has developed a project aimed at improving the literacy of children who live in rural areas in the United States.

Inspired by the southern African term Ubuntu, Carles says she couldn’t get the idea out of her head once she heard it. According to a popular translation, it means “I am what I am because of what we all are.” She decided this was a perfect fit for efforts to bring together one poor community in North Carolina’s Iredell County to support children aiming to do well in school. Focusing on literacy, which she argues is fundamental to a student’s ability to be successful in school, Carles zeroed in on the loss in reading skills that often takes place over the summer months. That so-called “summer slide” is common to disadvantaged elementary students. Carles saw that most rural North Carolina counties didn’t have nearly as many summer-based education programs for these students as urban counties did.

Working with master teachers and a Methodist church in Statesville, N.C., she developed a pilot project to provide six weeks of reading enrichment this summer for selected third through fifth graders. Titled the Ubuntu Academy, it will draw children, their parents, teachers and the church together to begin to close the gap between the reading skills of children from low-income families and those who are better off. She describes it as “data-driven” and carefully designed to frequently measure student progress.

Carles says her interest began at an early age, but it was when she taught for Teach For America that she “realized my heart belongs to my students…and those like them all over the Carolinas and elsewhere.”

She grew up in comfortable circumstances in Miami, but her parents, immigrants from Cuba and Nicaragua, did not: They studied and worked hard to gain a foothold despite moving from country to country to be safe. Carles tells me, “I can’t remember a day when they did not remind me of the reality of the world outside our safe home and the needs so many people have each day,” adding, “I consider myself blessed to have inherited and learned from the greatness that resides within each of my parents.”

Carles will be watching Ubuntu Academy from a distance this summer, as she begins law school at Duke University at the same time it starts up. But she plans to stay in regular touch with the project director and to visit whenever she can. Her goal is to see if it can be replicated in other communities.

Not a modest aspiration for someone who turns 25 at the end of May.

Author’s note: I’m a member of the board of The Duke Endowment.