Dr. Steve Perry is a father and educator who’s been working to instill pride and purpose into minority youth for years. Already an author and expert known by many.
Dr. Perry serves as the no-nonsense, tough-love dispensing host of the show in which he infiltrates a family in the hopes of healing emotional—and sometimes physical— wounds to prevent one young brother from becoming a statistic.
He doesn’t do it alone. It takes the family, friends and interest from influential celebrities who interrupt their busy schedules to show the at-risk teens that they really do matter.
For those who haven’t seen the show, explain the premise of “Save My Son.”
Dr. Perry: “Save My Son” is more than a television show. What the show is doing is showing us so many positive Black men who when called upon to do something, will do it. A lot of times they’ve just never been asked or they didn’t know how to answer and “Save My Son” has created that opportunity for them to be seen.
Treach from Naughty by Nature… who knew that he was a mentor? Charles Barkley, a man who’s famously said that he’s not a role model. Steve Harvey, of course, we know. Derek Anderson… on and on and on. You watch these brothers and you hear their stories, and you hear their struggles. [Actor] Michael Jai White talks about how he’s been shot twice, and you think, “Really? You? Who would have thought?” To me, it’s the experience of “Save My Son” that’s got people talking. It’s not just that it’s a show.
What’s the objective of “Save My Son” and what are the mentees supposed to get out of it?
Dr. Perry: “Save My Son” is about focusing on saving our kids by engaging them and giving the best that they have to offer, showing them they are loved and supported.
What kind of feedback have you received from viewers?
Dr. Perry: The feedback has been phenomenal. We’ve gotten feedback from parents and people who watch all the way down to celebrities and educators who say they feel like they’ve either learned something from the show or it’s validated what they’ve already been doing.
I had a woman send me an email who said that Wednesday night is date night for her and her husband. I have other families saying that they sit down as a family every Wednesday night to watch “Save My Son,” as a family…even families that don’t necessarily have these issues.
Why did you decide to recruit celebrities for the show?
Dr. Perry: It’s TV. So, we gotta have a reason why people are going to watch beyond just the appeal of the show. What we have to do, is we have to have some catch. That’s how we start. What I found out was that these cats are vital.
They’re well-known individuals to whom much has been given. So, much is expected. In this case, it’s a very low bar. They have to come and when they do, we see amazing things.
TPM: You have athletes and rap artists on the show. Are you concerned that may reinforce stereotypes that to be successful Black boys have to succeed in one of those areas?
Dr. Perry: I think what I’m doing is both challenging them to be more than a rapper and challenging us to see them as more than a rapper.
You mentioned you were surprised by Michael Jai White’s story. Were there any other stories that surprised you?
Dr. Perry: Pooch Hall was locked up for five months for—I don’t know if it was an assault or whatever—but he was in jail as a teen. Derrick Anderson, a basketball player, I didn’t know he was homeless from 14 on with no parents, sleeping in his middle school gymnasium. I didn’t know that Steve Harvey used to sleep in his car. We see them now, but… and the stories go on. There are so many of these cats who are part of the show.
One celebrity tells his story about how he used to steal. His stealing got so bad that his father, who was in the military, lost a rank because of it. The point in all this is that where you see somebody isn’t always where they were and where you see somebody isn’t always where they have to be. When we look at these kids we have to think the same way.
How do you decide which families to help?
Dr. Perry: They write in or call us, and we select them from there. There are literally thousands of families. We look for diversity of the stories. We want to look at different issues. If you watch the shows in any progression, you’ll notice that they get harder. The cases are harder and harder every single time.
Does that put pressure on you to find the most sensational story to put out there?
Dr. Perry: There’s enough to look for in what we have. You can spit in any direction and hit an issue. That’s one of the biggest eye-openers for a lot of people who are watching “Save My son.” A lot of these kids are just regular run-of-the-mill kids. They’re not thugged out, gang member kids. Some of them are, but not all of them are.
What advice do you have for parents of young men who aren’t interested in being saved?
Dr. Perry: There are very few of those, to be honest with you. Most kids do want to be saved. They want someone to love them and to show them that what they do is valuable. They want someone to tell them that they’re smart, funny and make them feel that they belong to somebody.
Have you come across youth who aren’t receptive?
Dr. Perry: I’ve met few kids who don’t want to listen to anybody. Some kids get tired of some people, but the overwhelming majority wants to listen to somebody. They really do.
Have you met a case or young boy that made you think he’s too far gone?
Dr. Perry: Honestly, almost all of them start that way in my head. I feel like “McGuyver.” They leave me in there with a paper clip and some tape and say, “Now get out of this burning building.”
Do you follow-up with the families?
Dr. Perry: To some degree. It’s not a treatment program. The objective is to set them up to take care of themselves, to leave behind support for them or to set in place a plan for them.
Is there an underlying condition or theme that you’re seeing with the families?
Dr. Perry: Absent or weak fathers. Mothers who baby the hell out of their kids and refuse to say no to the son to anything he asks for. Everybody in the house knows that this kid is spoiled, yet it’s okay with them. That’s really what it is.
There’s no structure for these boys. They don’t have bedtimes when they’re little. They don’t have chores when they’re little. They don’t have any responsibility. They can do whatever the hell they want to do, and they do.
The cliche is that all issues can be traced back to a person’s mom. Is it that simple? Is it the mom’s fault?
Dr. Perry: A lot of it in terms of the developmental is the parent, but in many cases it’s a combination of things. A lot of these kids go to horrible schools, so the schools don’t meet the academic needs. The kids start to fall apart because they feel like they don’t belong to anybody.
TPM: How can educators get parents more involved in their own child’s education?
Dr. Perry: That is the holy grail of questions. Here is something to consider. The ACT is the most taken college entrance examination in the nation as of last year (according to ACT). Seventy-five percent of all students who took it tested as not college ready. Those aren’t all minority students.
It’s one thing to make the argument that the reason why schools and children are failing is that parents are not involved when those schools are in the hood and they are Black and Latino. Somebody has to explain to me what happens in those suburban schools where PTA nights are so well attended that if you don’t get there on time you cannot park, schools where soccer and volleyball games are filled with parents no matter the size of the school.
We have this conversation about parental involvement but we act as if parental involvement provides some sort of [magic solution] for the failures of the school system, and it doesn’t.
Conversely, we also presume sans parental involvement we can’t have success. Two years ago, I met our Valedictorian’s parents on graduation. I’d never seen them and if they came back today, I wouldn’t know who they were. Very low parental involvement, yet our school was named by US News as one of America’s top performing high schools.
So it’s not what happens between parents and the schools. It’s about what happens between the children and the schools that make the children successful.
Most people when they talk about parental involvement don’t have a definition for it. So what is parental involvement? Is it doing homework with kids? Does it mean going to games, going to parent/teacher night, washing them up, or feeding them? Most people don’t share the same definition of parental involvement.
What is your definition of parental involvement?
Dr. Perry. I don’t know I don’t talk much about it. I don’t count on it. My success or failure isn’t based on whether or not the parents come to the events. We have a cross country team with a nationally ranked runner finishing top 15 in the nation. We have an indoor track team that also finished in the top two and most of these meets are not attended by any parents.
The parents may be off saving lives, I don’t know. My job is to make sure the children are where they need to be, doing what they need to do and have the best teachers on Earth in front of them.
Youth murders reached a crisis level in Chicago last year. What’s your perspective on that?
Dr. Perry: It sounds like a place where there are lots of children who don’t feel like they belong to anybody.
Kids don’t kill other kids because they hate the other kids; they kill them because they hate themselves.
One of the biggest problems Chicago faces is that it has a failed public school system. Though there are some success stories, the biggest issue is not poverty because there are poor schools and people who are being successful.
They have a school system that is designed to support the needs of the adults and as a result the only people who are benefiting from the school system are its employees.
In addition to that, I don’t believe that Chicago has parents who are less effective than other parents. There has become a culture of lawlessness that is supported by institutions that further the notion of failure as a standard. People get to a point where they just start to accept that failure is the way it is. There is a macabre pride that comes from that.
This is not distinct to Chicago; it’s not even distinct to big cities. It’s a mindset that’s seen throughout this country and different parts of the world.
What motivated you to start Capital Prep Magnet School?
Dr. Perry: I was tired of seeing Black and Latino kids in suburban schools being led to believe they were somehow less intelligent or less capable. I believe that, if nothing else, I could open up a school that was at least as bad as these sorry schools my kids were being forced to attend.
Our children don’t have an achievement gap. They have an access gap.
There is a profound difference between the two. An achievement gap means you are smarter than me. An access gap means you have better access to a better school and more information than I did. I believed that if I could put together some of the best educators I’ve seen then what I could do is offset the access.
What was your biggest challenge?
Dr. Perry: Adults and their egos. I was a fool. I came in here thinking if I was a Black man and sit down with a Puerto Rican and another Black man we can get something done. I felt like if I came to them open-hearted wanting to help kids, there would be this outpouring of support. That wasn’t the case. I misread the race card. I realized the only color that matters when I’m working with kids is the color of commitment.
What’s the next phase of the “Save My Son” movement?
Dr. Perry: Next phase is people having conversations about what they can do. That’s the next step and then the conversations shifting to what will be done. That’s unfolding organically. Some people have said that they want to have a Save My Son chapter in their community which would essentially be a clearinghouse for information, a place where people could go when they want to know how to save their son.
How does the eMentoring program work and how can people get involved with that?
Dr. Perry: eMentoring is very exciting. It started as a little idea in which we connect those who are interested in communicating with children and building relationships with those who need it. I think what is most powerful about it is that we are in the information age and much of what children need is as we begin the conversation is that somebody cares about them in an appropriate way.
It’s my first time doing something like this so we’ll see what happens. I’m working very hard to prepare for it. Contact us at eMentorus@gmail.com. We have a lot confidence in it. My wife has been working very hard to get this information in. We are getting a lot of request. It’s something that started out as a tweet turned into quite a big project. So next time I’ll be careful about that.
How optimistic are you about the future of our children?
Dr. Perry: I’m very optimistic about the children’s future. We are losing right now, but we’re going to win!
Follow Dr. Perry on Twitter: @DrStevePerry