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We’re Handicapping Children With Victimhood Narratives Instead of Teaching Them How to Succeed

“If you say that there’s structural racism, institutional racism, systemic racism, then I have to insist on one other kind of racism. And that is surmountable racism,” says Ian Rowe, co-founder of Vertex Partnership Academies, a new network of character-focused, International Baccalaureate high schools in the Bronx.

Prior to this, he was CEO of the Public Prep charter school network for ten years.

“What we owe to young people is to tell them the truth about those behaviors that are far more correlated to success: education, work, faith, family formation, usually marriage before children,” Rowe says.

Last year, New York’s state and city teachers unions sued to block the creation of his new school system. But less than a week before the school was set to open, Rowe’s legal team won a decisive victory.

All students at Vertex Partnership Academies take a special course called Pathways to Power.

“There are no victims in our school, only architects of their own lives,” Rowe says.


Interview trailer:

Watch the full interview:



Ian Rowe: Welcome to Vertex Partnership Academies, which we are growing into what will be a world-class International Baccalaureate high school. We’re in District 12 in the Bronx. Something really important to know about this district, only 7 per cent graduated from high school, ready for college. And so, we thought it was very, very important to create a new opportunity, a new educational institution focused on excellence for more families who are desperate for their kids to have a shot at the American dream. Therefore we created this option, and now we’re here.

We’ve opened Vertex Partnership Academies in a beautiful old Catholic school. This building is the old Blessed Sacrament School, which was built about 100 years ago. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor actually was a student here from kindergarten through eighth grade. It’s quite inspiring for our students to know that a Supreme Court justice was educated in this school, in this building. Unfortunately, the Blessed Sacrament School closed about a decade ago. We are revitalizing the building and revitalizing the school, because this is now our home for Vertex Partnership Academies.

Jan Jekielek: Do you think that one school can nudge that 7 per cent number?

Mr. Rowe: My hope is that we can build an entire network of great new high schools. This is just the first one, but you have to start. We’re in a community where, yes, only 7 per cent of kids are graduating from high school ready for college. But we know that 100 per cent of all kids are capable of achieving their highest levels.

We need to build institutions like Vertex Partnership Academies that demand excellence, and that don’t lower expectations. There are no victims in our schools, only architects of their own lives. That’s what we are really trying to cultivate in our kids.

Mr. Jekielek: I found it really interesting as I was walking through, in the staircase you have a set of values that expand on these four cardinal virtues.

Mr. Rowe: Yes, sometimes the word indoctrination is used in a negative way. We’re trying to indoctrinate our kids into the four cardinal virtues, plus also something called the International Baccalaureate learner profile. These are the kinds of characteristics that we want our students to develop; resiliency, good communication, and community-mindedness. Because school is about academics; math, science, language and literature. And it’s about the habits of mind, the virtues, and the character-based strengths that we want our kids to develop.

Mr. Jekielek: You said a whole bunch of things I want to follow up on. I’m going to start with this, “Agency is an empowering alternative to the narrative of equity.” There is so much to unpack here.

Mr. Rowe: We’re living in a time where there are these dominant narratives, that particularly for young people, are pushing this idea that you’re simply a victim. There are these forces in our country that are so overwhelming, so powerful, and so discriminatory that you, as an individual, are immobilized because of your race, your gender, and also as a result of listening to this narrative. As someone that runs schools in the heart of the Bronx, where kids are hearing these messages all the time about everything that they can’t do in their life, I’ve really come around to believe this idea of agency can be a much more empowering alternative. It’s a tool that you have to walk a path of prosperity in our country.

Mr. Jekielek: Agency, it’s almost like a different worldview. Because on one hand, you have this idea that you can act and change your reality, whatever your situation may be. And the other view is that you’re given what you have and you’re stuck with it.

Mr. Rowe: I like to describe the two narratives that I see out there, what I describe as blame the system, or blame the victim. With the blame the system ideology, that’s a view of our country. It’s a view of America as a place that’s inherently oppressive. Based on your race, your class, and your gender, there are these systems that are just rigged against you. Maybe if you’re black, there’s a white supremacist lurking on every corner. Capitalism is evil. These systems are so discriminatory and so oppressive that you have no agency, and you have no independent ability to lead your own life.

But on the other side, there’s this other narrative that I call blame the victim. In that narrative, America is great. America is not the problem, you’re the problem. There’s some pathology that you have. You haven’t pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps. You haven’t taken advantage of all the opportunities that exist in this great country. And so, between blame the system and blame the victim, either you are powerless against these systems, or it’s your fault that you have not been able to take advantage of these opportunities that exist in America.

I find both of these narratives dangerous for our country, because it robs young people of this idea that they can lead a self-determined life. I define agency as the force of your free will guided by moral discernment—the force of your free will guided by moral discernment. If you think of agency like a vector or velocity, velocity is not just speed, it’s speed and direction. If you, as a young person, are starting to think about your life and you know that you’ve got free will, but how are you going to wield that will towards the right direction?

Agency is what I like to believe in. If we can cultivate a new age of agency in our country, we would have a much more optimistic, future-oriented generation that is rising. But the key point is that agency doesn’t just come from nowhere. We all have free will, but there are lots of people that exercise free will that aren’t good people. So, how do you learn how to become a morally discerning person?

That’s why I’ve created this framework that I call F.R.E.E., which is really focused on the key institutions that help young people develop agency; family, religion, education, and entrepreneurship. We can go into each of those, but those are the four pillars that if we were to invest in them as a society, we would start to see a whole generation of young people move away from this ideology of victimhood and dependency and grievance to hope, empowerment, and agency.

Mr. Jekielek: The blame the victim narrative that you describe is talking about people needing to exercise agency, make decisions for themselves, and overcome their victimhood. Please explain to me the problem with this view.

Mr. Rowe: Blame the victim, in some ways, is infantilizing the very people that you’re talking about. Let’s talk about race and crime. Unfortunately, there are disproportionate numbers of black men that are incarcerated relative to their percentage in the population. There are those that say, “That’s just a result of systemic racism.” It’s almost as if they have no power. They’re just in a system that’s driving them towards achieving those outcomes.

And if you have any other answer to the problem other than structural discrimination, then you’re blaming the victim. You’re blaming them for the very circumstances that they’re in. The thing is, at some point, there has to be some kind of personal responsibility. There has to be some recognition that an individual is making a decision towards a certain type of behavior.

For example, I study the implosion of the family in certain segments of our society. The nonmarital birth rate in our country for women 24 and under has been in the 70 per cent range for well over a decade. It’s 61 per cent of white women and 91 per cent of black women, 24 and under. These numbers are staggering.

When you point these types of data out, some people say, “That’s just the result of the conditions that they are in.” I say, “That might be true and we need to work on structural factors.” And again, I can talk about some things that I would certainly work on. But we can’t ignore the fact that if people are making decisions to have children they are a player, they are an architect in their own outcomes. Some people say, “Well, you’re blaming the victim.”

I say, “No, we just have to acknowledge that when we’re looking at social conditions, we have to analyze the role of structural barriers, while also recognizing the importance of individual decision-making and personal responsibility.” This is why I run schools. I run schools to let kids know that they can do hard things, that they aren’t just, as Martin Luther King says, “Flotsam and jetsam on the river of life,” and that they just go with the flow. They have the ability to turn the tide, even if their circumstances may suggest otherwise.

Mr. Jekielek: What you’re saying is there are structural things and we need to be honest about them, and look at the actual data from studies, like the ones you’ve described. Irrespective of those realities, there are also tools for people to use to transcend some of those realities.

Mr. Rowe: 100 per cent.

Mr. Jekielek: Right?

Mr. Rowe: 100 per cent.

Mr. Jekielek: And it’s not a black and white situation.

Mr. Rowe: No. What we’ve lost in our country is the ability to deal with this nuance. In New York City, there is a legislative cap right now on starting a public charter school. If you had a great idea to open a great school to serve all these kids that need more high quality educational options, you couldn’t do it. That’s an example of a real structural barrier. That is a policy barrier, and that’s why we should be fighting for school choice, fighting for more educational freedom. A seven-year-old can’t solve that problem on their own.

That’s an example of a structural barrier that I acknowledge. But that doesn’t take the seven-year-old off the hook for being able to go to school, apply themselves, and be supported by a family and community that will help them thrive. I run schools to create environments to help kids build that capacity which overcomes that mindset.

That’s what I say, we can acknowledge structural barriers, which today, by the way, are often not on the dimension of race as much as it’s often purported to be. But as an example, as relates to education, that’s a real example of a barrier. But we have to fight that battle simultaneously along with cultivating this idea of agency within young people who need to succeed regardless of their circumstances.

Mr. Jekielek: We’re going to talk about the school battle, because this is something that you faced directly.

Mr. Rowe: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: In your understanding, what is the reason for these astounding numbers of children being born out of wedlock in our society at large?

Mr. Rowe: That’s a profound question. It has not always been this way. It was in the 1960s in the black community that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the Department of Labor at the time, did an analysis. It was focused on the black family. And in particular, he was focused on those segments of the black community that seemed to be entrenched in poverty and dysfunctional behavior, generation after generation.

He found a deep correlation between poverty and these dysfunctional behaviors, a cycle of disadvantage. He found a deep correlation between those behaviors and this growing nonmarital birth rate that existed within the black community. At that time in the mid-60s, the nonmarital birth rate in the black community was 23.6 per cent. He said, “Crisis, crisis, crisis.” He tried to bring out a loudspeaker. “We have to address this issue, because we aren’t addressing this issue. This is at the core.”

What’s interesting is that the terminology of blaming the victim emanated right after he put this data out. Because all these critics came forward and said, “All you’re doing is blaming these black people for being victims of situations that they didn’t create. It’s because of a legacy of discrimination, and it’s because of contemporary racism.”

Literally, the term blame the victim emerged out of the criticism of that report. The nonmarital birth rate within the black community today in 2023 is more than 70 per cent. In the white community, it’s close to 30 per cent, even far higher than the rates that existed in the 1960s that Moynihan was talking about.

Why has that happened? Cultural mores have certainly shifted. There’s a very interesting study that Janet Yellen and her Nobel Prize-winning husband, George Akerlof, did in the 1990s trying to understand this question. They saw skyrocketing nonmarital birth rates, as well as deep correlations with poverty and dysfunctional behavior and crime. They came to the conclusion in their analysis that it was reproductive technology shock. It would be very interesting if the same study were done today.

But they claimed that it was the advent of the pill and abortion that fundamentally changed the relationship between men and women. Heretofore, in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, if a man and woman were to come together and have a baby, there was almost this implicit agreement beforehand that if this happens, we’re getting married, therefore the whole idea of the shotgun wedding.

As more options started to be created when an unplanned pregnancy occurred, it shifted where we often talk about a woman’s right to choose. And men started to have the right to choose by saying, “If you now have the option of an abortion and you’re not choosing one, then I am stepping away from my responsibility.”

You can see in the data what has shifted over these last 30, 40, 50 years in terms of what occurs when an unplanned or an unwanted pregnancy comes about. It used to be that marriage was a top option, or adoption was an option. That has now been flipped, in that abortion and single parenthood are almost always a significant percent of cases. This is now across race the choices being made by young women and men.

That’s why you see such declining rates of marriage, particularly in low-income communities. This is something that we as educators and leaders have to restore and re-emphasize—the role of family and the timing of family formation for the rising generation. This all ties back to this idea of agency. Because if you’re a young person growing up in an unstable family without high quality choices in education and not rooted in a faith community, it’s really hard to lead a life of your own choosing, because you don’t have the building blocks to help you build that sense of agency.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s hard to even imagine what that would really look like.

Mr. Rowe: In 2016, I had been running a network of public charter schools for about six years and we were doing quite well. In terms of academics, we had maybe a couple of hundred open seats each year, but we had nearly 5,000 people on our wait list each year. People were desperate to send their kids to a great school. We decided to move our headquarters from Tribeca in Manhattan to the South Bronx, because that’s where there was such a huge demand for our schools.

I’ll always remember on July 11th, 2016, we had this epiphany moment where we decided to take the team out on a walking tour to get to know our new neighborhood. Where’s the local deli? Where’s the local bank? We were now going to be in this neighborhood and our team was a little apprehensive, because there was a needle exchange right on the corner where our new office was. But this is where our school was going to be, so this is where our headquarters should be.

As we were on this walking tour, we saw in the distance this baby blue, 27-foot Winnebago truck with all these people around it that were excited to see it. What is that? It’s almost like the ice cream truck, but these were adults. As we got closer, we saw graffiti lettering on the side of the truck that said, “Who’s Your Daddy?” What is that?

It turned out, Who’s Your Daddy, is a mobile DNA testing center where low-income folks were spending somewhere between $350 to $500 to ask questions like, “Could you be my sister? Are you my father?” Literally, these were like DNA tests being given so that people could answer fundamental questions about who is their family. And so, when you ask, “Are kids even seeing models?” Absolutely.

These kids are growing up in different environments; the Bronx, Appalachia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and all over the country. The nonmarital birth rate in this section of the Bronx was 84.5 per cent. If kids aren’t seeing enough models about what the building blocks are for family, not to mention all the other pathologies that they may be exposed to, how is it that we can expect them to develop the kinds of attitudes and behaviors that lead to a life of flourishing?

This is why we have to recognize there are structural barriers, while also still holding kids accountable for their own behavior. But don’t put kids in such a situation that you’re not acknowledging some of these factors, and when they don’t have the models to reinforce what their behavior should be.

Mr. Jekielek: As you’re saying all this, I keep coming back to this idea that the structural barriers that we’re told about, these narratives are actually just simply untrue. They’re almost like a distraction from the really difficult barriers that actually do exist.

Mr. Rowe: Yes. Let’s take Nikole Hannah-Jones. Nikole Hannah-Jones is a recognized reporter for the New York Times. She was the lead writer for a project that the New York Times did, called “The 1619 Project.” She’s a big proponent of reparations, which is a multi-trillion dollar program where black people should just be paid money by the government as restitution for slavery and past discrimination. She wrote a piece in the New York Times Magazine called, “What We Are Owed.” It’s all about the rationale for reparations.

She says that it doesn’t matter what a black person does. A black person basically is powerless to close the racial wealth gap. It doesn’t matter if you get married, it doesn’t matter if you save, it doesn’t matter if you buy a home, and it doesn’t matter if you get educated. None of those things will matter or none of those things can help “close or address 400 years of racialized plundering.” Like, whoa.

And of course, mind you, Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her own personal life, has done all of those things to lead a life of flourishing. And good for her, because she’s recognized that whatever barriers there are, there certainly seems to be a pathway that creates a much greater likelihood of success, even for the kid who’s in the poorest of conditions, not born into the “most stable family structure.”

And yet, the narrative that’s often given is that these people are not succeeding because of structural this or structural that. I often like to say, “Okay, if you say that there is structural racism, institutional racism, and systemic racism, then I have to insist on one other kind of racism, and that is surmountable racism. Unfortunately, racism or other forms of discrimination are a part of the human condition, and it’s practiced by people of all races.

And yet, there are also tens of millions of people that seem to be flourishing in their lives despite these challenges. Why? What is it that we can learn from people who seem to succeed? That is the central question that I often find the opponents of some of my ideas not willing to explore.

Mr. Jekielek: As you say this, I’m thinking about the central tenets of the Woodson Center, and I know you’re a part of the Woodson Center too, and I was very happy to learn that. This methodology of finding the people who flourish in really difficult circumstances, figuring out what they’re doing, and empowering them to do more of it just seems like something we should be doing a lot more of.

Mr. Rowe: If you really want to be intellectually honest, if you really are really focused on finding solutions to any range of social pathologies or social issues, you have to start with the premise that not everyone is in prison, not everyone is poor, and not everyone is being raised in a broken marriage.

Or if there’s a substantial group of people, even if they’re in the minority overall, but if there’s still a substantial number that seem to be leading a life of flourishing under conditions that seem to have others succumb, or you’re saying that’s the reason that others are succumbing, then there must be something to learn.

For example, we often talk about poverty within the black community. It turns out that for nearly 30 years, the poverty rate for married black couples has been in the single digits. What might we learn from that? And yet, 70 per cent of kids in the black community are born into nonmarital households. Maybe we should think about the role of family formation as something we should be strongly advocating for, and then go even further.

There’s something called the success sequence which some of your viewers might be familiar with. Many of your viewers may not know the term, but they certainly know the series of behaviors, because they may have practiced it in their own lives. But basically, if you finish just your high school degree, then get a full-time job of any kind, you learn the dignity and discipline of work. And then, if you have children with marriage first, the data shows that 97 per cent of millennials that follow that series of decisions avoid poverty. And the vast majority enter the middle-class or beyond.

That certainly seems like valuable information young people should learn not as a prescriptive, like you must do this, but as a descriptive, saying, “Look, you are going to face a whole series of decisions in your life. We want to make sure you’re equipped with that body of evidence that shows people with the same conditions as you have made these kinds of decisions and flourished.

For some reason, the people who are the gatekeepers of information say, “No, no, no, you can’t teach that to these kids. You’ll somehow be embarrassing them.” Like, no. I fight against these kinds of ideas. Let’s not do what Nikole Hannah-Jones did. I say to her, “You are not preaching what you’ve practiced in your own life. In fact, you’re preaching something else and that’s harmful to kids.”

Mr. Jekielek: Every self-help book has this idea of exercising agency as a central tenet, however, it’s constructed. There’s no self-help book that says you don’t have to take control of your life to do something.

Mr. Rowe: Or that you have to wait for somebody else before you can be free.

Mr. Jekielek: The people that are teaching the victimhood mentality, they’re not practicing what they preach. They’re actually doing this opposite thing.

Mr. Rowe: Correct. It’s astounding to me. I may have to do a few papers on this. It’s astounding to me. The people who are often advocating for the powerlessness of certain communities in their own personal lives have exhibited the behaviors of power. And what I mean by that, typically, you have finished your education, you’ve had full-time work, and you typically have some kind of personal faith commitment. If you’ve had children, you have almost always gotten married first. But it’s not 100 per cent.

There are always exceptions. We’ve all heard the stories of the individual that was raised in a single-parent household and they beat the odds. We’ve also heard stories about kids raised in married two-parent households where the marriage was dysfunctional. So, you have to acknowledge that there’s always exceptions. There are no guarantees in life.

But what we owe to young people is to tell them the truth about those behaviors that are far more correlated to success; education, work, faith, family formation, and usually marriage before children. The people who are often out there, the big social justice activists that are claiming systemic racism, or systemic this or systemic that being the reason for all the disparities that may exist in our society, never seem to acknowledge what they have done in their own life to avoid those same challenges. And that is dripping with hypocrisy. We have to just call it out.

Mr. Jekielek: So very briefly, Pathways to Power. We’ve been talking about Pathways to Power essentially. What is this course?

Mr. Rowe: We have a class called Pathways to Power. We teach it almost like a probabilities class. With this series of decisions, here’s your likelihood of entering poverty. With this series of decisions, here’s your likelihood of entering the middle class or beyond. With this set of decisions, here’s your likelihood of really leading a life of flourishing. Our job is to make sure you are equipped with the best information. That’s what Pathways to Power is all about.

Mr. Rowe: They’re finishing up an assignment related to “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens.” This has been our primary reading for the last semester. They’re learning about goal setting, overcoming challenges, and the strategies that they can deploy to be effective in their own lives. That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to face challenges like every human being, but you have within your capacity the tools to make decisions where you can be successful.

Instructor: This is where we start to apply all of the work that we did with the seven habits. You’re going to look at that student’s academic profile, because that’s all you know. You just know the grades that they have as of last week. You are going to take this chart paper, and put it in the center of your table. You need to apply the seven habits to this specific student based on what you know about them, which right now is their grade. Can you stand up, Devin, please?

Student: For science, student A got one. For art, student A got one. For language and literature, that’s two. For global, two. Math, four. World language, three. And physical education, three. So, the habits we discussed.

Instructor: Tell us what does that mean to you? Like when you’re looking at that, what does that make you think before going into the habits?

Student: It makes me think that the student may have the potential to be better, but the student may need to set goals for themselves. So, the habits to discuss, be proactive. And besides to be proactive, stay off the score, get tutoring, or you can ask the teacher. For put first things first, you can prioritize their failing grade. For begin with the end in mind, you can set specific goals for tasks, be able to improve grades for different classes, or you can stay after school. And to seek to understand than to be understood, you can advocate with the teacher that you are lost so people know where or why you are confused. Complete your work and get notes from classmates.

Instructor: Good. Really good work. And what I’ll say is I didn’t see a lot of people use the habit; seek to understand, rather than to be understood.

Mr. Jekielek: This would’ve been a wonderful course for me to take.

Mr. Rowe: Oh, yes.

Mr. Jekielek: You were going to say?

Mr. Rowe: No, the truth of the matter is we are in a society today where a lot of kids across race see this narrative of America as this inherently oppressive nation, or that capitalism is evil. There’s actually something happening to our rising generation that they’re becoming much more risk-averse. They’re not starting families and they’re not starting businesses.