I was the best marketing director the Boys & Girls Clubs ever had. I had bill boards all over town. We had positive stories about the accomplishments of our kids and I’d gotten great media coverage when we opened a new branch. I’d received multiple awards from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for my work.
In 1991, I got a call from one of the major networks. Aha! I thought. That’s how good I am. Now they’re calling me. They told me that they were working on a documentary on education in America and wanted to talk to some teens about their experiences. They specified that they didn’t want any of the honor roll type kids. No youth of the year. Just average kids. They further specified that they wanted to do brief phone interviews with them without me in the room.
That should have been a red flag but I was so delirious with my own power that I agreed. And no one at the Clubs questioned me. They trusted me.
So, I lined up about six kids but the producers of the show told me that none of them were going to work out. I told them that the only kid I had left who would be willing to talk with them was Eric, our youth of the year. He was also president of his senior class at North Division High School.
Eric was a gregarious kid and a great spokesperson for the Clubs. He loved the media attention and always showed up for an interview well dressed with a fresh fade hair cut. I could rely on him to testify to the importance of the role the Boys & Girls Clubs played in his central city neighborhood. He became kind of our own local celebrity.
I didn’t hear anything more about it until Eric called to confide in me that he had been asked to carry a hidden camera in his back pack at North Division High School. Now I was worried. This felt like trouble. Trying to keep my panic at bay, I tried to caution him but he was excited to do it. Eric insisted that he needed to do this because otherwise it would always just be his or any student’s word against a teacher’s word. He wanted to make a difference. He didn’t need anyone’s permission. He was 18 years old.
I called the producers. Left a message. Then called again every hour of the day. They clearly stopped talking to me.
A few months later, the footage Eric collected was featured on Expose’. It showed things like a teacher sitting at the front of the class while kids played dice in the back. Not the kind of documentary I thought it would be. And it wasn’t just Expose’. The story was national news.
The shit hit the fan. The school superintendent was calling the head of the boys & girls club. My colleagues at the branch where Eric was a member made sure that I knew about the pain and suffering this was causing his family.
I almost lost my job. To this day, I don’t understand why I didn’t. I was responsible and I didn’t tell anyone what was happening. My own arrogance at the time astounds me now.
The producers said that they wanted to see what kids see. I get that. It’s valid. We need to let the people who are impacted speak. Tell their truth. Powerful stories can lead to change. But all that this story did was cost some teachers their jobs and make Eric and his family the target of the backlash in their own community. His younger sister had to change schools. She wasn’t safe at North Division High School. Eric moved out of state to go to college. The staff at the Club branch where Eric had been a member no longer welcomed me.
The media didn’t care what happened to Eric after Expose. He struggled for several years with mental health issues. On a visit home he sought me out. He wanted to make sure that I knew he was okay. It meant the world to me to know that in spite of the trauma, he had finished college and was successfully climbing the career ladder in the insurance industry. He said that what happened wasn’t my fault and that he would do it again. He wanted to make a difference. And that he was still grateful to the Boys & Girls Clubs.
A few years later, he was dead. I was told that he was shot while protecting a woman from a man somewhere in Georgia. There was no news coverage of the event in Milwaukee. I learned about it from a colleague at the Clubs who had remained close to the family.
When I tried to google him to create this story, wanting to make sure I had my facts right, the only thing I could find was the news reports about Expose, his life reduced to this one story.
This is the hardest story I’ve ever told. It’s a story about the harm caused in the wake of doing good. I used Eric to proclaim the virtues of the Boys & Girls Clubs. The media used him to tell the story they wanted to tell. I question whether I honor him by telling his story or am I further exploiting him for my own benefit.
I went on to have a long career in nonprofit organizations and storytelling. I believe in giving a voice to the voiceless and that our stories of courage and resilience can inspire change and empathy. But I’ve learned that my first loyalty must always be to the human being. Not the story. Not the organization. Not the media. Not me.