How Can We Eradicate Generational Poverty?

Paul Tough
Written by Molly Sammon

Generational poverty is inherited. Generational Poverty is complex. Promise is not. Promise is granted.

Village of Promise provides assistance to families in need a pipeline of services and ultimately a pathway to success, from birth through college. It houses three programs, Infant University for mothers and babies, the Freedom School for students to grow over the summer and outside of school hours, as well as College Success, a mentorship program that maintains that Village of Promise students have access to a match college and the support it takes to graduate. One teacher, one parent or one after school program working in isolation can’t loosen the tight grip of generational poverty. It changes with a whole village.

The word promise references two things – the promise students will show after completion of the programs, and the promise from the organization to create real, visible change for all residents of Huntsville.

On September 24th, 2015 – Paul Tough, author and journalist who wrote How Children Succeed, addressed a crowd of over 500 people about what promise can look like and how to create students who are college and career ready, not only in conventional metrics of standardized testing but it the character assets that drive success. He highlights the research of psychologists who claim that curiosity, grit, zest, social-intelligence, gratitude, optimism, self-control are incredibly important – if not more so – in preparing students who persist through post-graduation challenges.  Tough told the crowd, “I haven’t seen any system more effective than this type of comprehensive neighborhood based program. It doesn’t make any sense to take on one or two of their problems.   That’s why I’m so excited to see what Village of Promise is doing with this cradle to college model. Working with college students, high school students, elementary school students and infants makes so much sense. “

It’s a tumultuous, but exciting time in education policy right now. With the National Governor’s Association sponsored Common Core, many states including Alabama have adopted a new set of standards designed to encourage these non-cognitive skills that Tough mentioned as well as prepare students at all levels to be better problem-solvers and future movers and shakers. But the shift in instruction toward common core-based instruction will take an incredible amount of time, a whole generation of learning before the plan is actualized. Teachers today are still focused on state-sponsored curriculum that focuses too much on benchmark skills, such as mastering the Pythagorean theorem or identifying an adverb, rather than the aforementioned soft skills that Tough preaches.

Village of Promise is in a unique and important position to provide these skills to young Huntsville students from their neighborhood, which needs help in these areas most. They aren’t bound by state standards.

So what can Village of Promise do to develop and stimulate growth of these soft skills that students in need and lack compared to their more privileged peers? There was evidence of each during the lecture series event, and the programs’ structure fosters them.


In the Freedom SchoolTM program, students can select their reading outside of the curriculum, learning about a topic of their interest to grow their vocabulary, increase fluency and comprehension by building on prior knowledge.


Freedom SchoolTM students learn and practice conflict resolution as well as develop positive peer relationships


College Success mandates that students are prepared for the independence that the structure of college brings to the student, and mentors provide an opportunity to continue through school.


In Infant University, ‘a cohort of mothers and their young children meet to learn and discuss many topics around raising an interested and enthusiastic child for success. They bring energy and enthusiasm for the long commitment ahead, priming their child for graduation.


Kenya Epps detailed the progress of the organization from the perspective of a parent-turned employee, expressing thanks to a group that helped her three boys have new opportunities.


Terrell Banks, a participant in the College Success program, provided the invocation at the event said that he found a career that “even I might like.”


In the holistic approach, completing the program takes 22 years – infancy through college. Participation over that many years

If it’s true that it takes a village, then Village of Promise can bring these important character traits to young people in their neighborhood.


About the contributor
Molly Sammon is an alumni corps member of Teach for America and spent three years teaching in Chicago Public schools.

To learn more about author Paul Tough click  How Children Succeed

How gritty are you?  Just for fun, we have included an online quiz.

Rasuli Lewis of Harlem Children’s Zone Comes to Village of Promise


Earlier this month, Rasuli Lewis, Director of Harlem Children’s Zone Practitioners Institute came to Huntsville to conduct a day long workshop. The workshop began in the morning with our board members  and the afternoon session included the staff and many of our partners.

Rasuli, a big man in many ways-physically and emotionally, was candid about the successes and challenges of Harlem Children’s Zone. We have been more than blessed to share a relationship with Geoffrey Canada and his organization. As such, they have always been responsive and helpful to Village of Promise. Rasuli was no different.

A lot of what Mr. Lewis focused on was the culture that exists at HCZ. Simply put, it is a culture of excellence on all levels from top to bottom because the stakes are so high. Like Village of Promise, Harlem Children’s Zone is dedicated to eradicating generational poverty by providing a pipeline of services to insure that every child is college ready. We consider HCZ the model for Village of Promise. Lewis stated that their children deserve the very best from  teachers, staff and personnel. Rasuli called it a “grab a mop, can do, whatever it takes mentality” to raise the quality of life for all children in Harlem. Whatever needs to be done, even if it is not in one’s job description, WILL get done.

He suggested that those who could not perform needed to find another line of work because anything short of graduation from college was considered a failure at HCZ. Harlem Children’s Zone currently has 843 students in college.

When pressed, Mr. Lewis told our staff and partners that they were the only ones who could determine how much of an impact that they are having in Huntsville. He stressed that they are the ones that must keep the bar high and never let up striving to do better for the children.

Rasuli told us many stories of young kids who got their first tattoo in juvenile detention, went to Rikers as young adults, and then came home to command a block in Harlem as a drug dealer. That was the only way that they saw economic advancement and status in Harlem. Harlem Children’s Zone is committed to changing that pattern, and again, doing “whatever it takes”.

After a session of questions and answers, I was reminded of this quote by Aristotle “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” We thank Mr. Lewis for giving of his valuable time and inspiring us all.