How One Woman's Transforming Education in Detroit
The Agitator: Roquesha O'Neal, 39
Education advocate, Detroit
Roquesha O'Neal says Detroit's Osburn neighborhood, her home for nine years, is so violent that "some people call it the red zone." In 2011, her son DeQuan, then 15, was jumped by a group of gang members with guns. Furious, O'Neal knocked on the doors of two of their parents and said, "I'm not moving. You're not moving. We have got to find a solution."
That same year a boy on O'Neal's block was shot in a scuffle over sunglasses, and the following year her cousin's son died of a gunshot wound. "I'd reached my breaking point," O'Neal says. She had dropped out of high school, and she didn't want DeQuan and his two younger siblings, or any other kid, to do the same. So she began spending four days a week volunteering in the Parent Resource Center at DeQuan's high school. When she saw security guards disrespecting students or felt that the principal discouraged parent involvement, she wrote to district officials and politicians. And when she saw kids out in her neighborhood during the day, she shooed them back to school. Guard protocol improved, and last year a new principal was hired. Still, when the nonprofit Excellent Schools Detroit asked O'Neal to serve on its board, she hesitated: "I worried I might not make the right decisions. But I love my children, and I want change."
Today, as education chair for her neighborhood alliance, O'Neal is also working to improve early childhood, elementary school and middle school programs. DeQuan, the first in the family to go to college, now speaks out against gun violence. "Fear can stop you from doing a lot of things," O'Neal says, "but a little anger can get you started."