Tom Skinner and Inner City Tech

May/June 1990
Good News

God has raised up Tom Skinner (1942-1994), former gang leaders of the Harlem Lords, into a dramatic ministry that has reached into the poverty-stricken inner city. His learning center in Newark, New Jersey, is raising up a generation of leaders who are morally and technically excellent.

Good News: Have the mainline churches abandoned the inner city?

Skinner: Yes. The problem is the Church has never viewed the inner city as a mission field. Whenever we’ve said missions it was automatically understood we were saying foreign missons – Africa, Asia, South America, Central America. The assumption has been that we have completed the job here, now we’ve got to get out. But there are whole areas in our own nation where we have not done the job – not even partly. That is crucial now, because our cities are at stake.

Good News: Explain why you say our cities are at stake.

Skinner: Washington D.C. is 72 percent African-American alone. New York City is 25 percent African-American, eight percent Hispanic, five percent Asian. Dallas and Houston are 40 percent Hispanic. San Antonio is 53 percent Hispanic. Minorities dominate the population in Los Angeles, Chicago and in the other 34 major American cities. So what’s happened by not having developed Christian leadership in those cities? We’re stuck with the witness of Christ being of no effect there. By the time we get to the year 2010 whole cities will be 80 percent African-American, Hispanic, and Asian. And the only way to ensure a sound Christian witness is to start developing the leadership now.

Good News: Tell us about your work in the inner city.

Skinner: We started a pilot program four years ago in Newark, New Jersey, by building a high-tech learning center. The object of that project is to help raise up a new generation of Christ-centered leaders that are both technically excellent and spiritually mature.

Our learning center is committed to five types of skills. The first are what we call spiritual and moral skills. We teach the Gospel of John, so our students know who Christ is; and we teach the book of Proverbs, so they learn to think from God’s point of view.

The second skills are basic skills – reading, writing, and functional math. The relationship between poverty and functional illiteracy is overwhelming.

Third are coping skills. That’s the ability to learn how the system functions and who makes the decisions. We take our kids to city council meetings and state legislature meetings. They learn how the banking system functions.

The fourth skills are what we call bread-on-the-table skills. We teach that you will be ultimately responsible for the economic welfare of your own life and your family’s life. We provide our kids with the skills necessary to become income producers, and to take charge of their own economic lives.

The fifth skills are leadership skills. We teach the godly character of leaders and general leadership skills – planning, setting goals, managing time, managing yourself, managing work, etc. We use basic characters in the Bible such as Abraham, Moses, and others.

Good News: Why do you call it a high-tech learning center?

Skinner: The center is high-tech, meaning that we use computer systems, video systems, and audio systems to accelerate the learning process. Seventy percent of all the practice work is done by computers, so that every young person learns at his or her own pace.

Good News: Are you seeing results?

Skinner: For every 20 hours of work in reading and every 25 hours in math we’re seeing a one and a half grade increase. One day the principal and two assistant principals from the 2000-student high school across the street from our learning center came over with a list of names and said, “Do you recognize any of these names?”

We said, “Yes. These kids are part of the learning center. Why?”

The school officials had done a study of the most improved students in their school, and our kids had gone off the graph. They all had one common experience; they had been coming to the learning center. Now the school sends us five classes a day to do the same thing with those kids.

Good News: What age groups do you work with?

Skinner: We deal with three groups of people. The first is students between grades three and 12, eight to 18 years old. They come between three and nine in the evening.

The second group is dropouts from 16 to 25. The third group is adults who are illiterate. We teach them reading, writing, and functional math.

We had a first SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) in the fall, and our students scored 1070, which is 150 points higher than the national average. These kids live in the ghetto, and 95 percent of them live below the poverty level.

Good News: What are the requirements for going to your learning center?

Skinner: First, we want the majority of our kids to come from homes below the poverty level. Second, they have to bring a parent or guardian with them the first time, because we want that parent or guardian to know what we will do, and we make no bones about the fact that we are going to instruct the kids in the Word of God.

Third, they have to bring library cards because we’re going to teach them how to use information. We’ll also teach them how to access information through the library system and card catalog, as well as through computer and electric databases. They learn that part of the way they will overcome poverty is by learning how to use information.

Also, we have made arrangements with three banks in the community to allow our kids to open a bank account with five dollars. We teach them that 10 percent of everything they earn they’ve got to give to helping somebody less fortunate than they.

They learn that they are not recipients only, but givers, and part of whatever they receive, they owe it to God to share it with somebody who’s less fortunate.

If they’re over 18 they also have to come with voter registration cards, because we want them to learn to participate in the leadership of the community.

Good News: How big is your high-tech center?

Skinner: We have 375 kids, and they have to give us a minimum of 12 hours a week. They don’t fight to do the minimum, though, they fight to do the maximum. Sometimes we have to tell the kids that we can’t give them more than 20 hours this week, they’ll have to come back next week. We’re also open all day on Saturday.

Good News: How many staff?

Skinner: We have seven full-time staff people and approximately 20 volunteers that give us four hours a week.

Good News: What about funding?

Skinner: Funding comes from churches and individuals. We do not accept government funds.

Good News: This idea sounds marketable. Is anybody looking at it?

Skinner: Every week, at least one group from some city comes to look at what we’re doing because they want to reproduce it. We are going to put this project in 20 cities. We believe if we do that we’ll multiply it much faster, because more people will see it in their own environments and copy it.

Good News: Have you had the learning center long enough to begin to see results in the lives of the kids?

Skinner: These kids are bringing kids. I’ve been involved in evangelism for 30 years, and I am convinced the most effective evangelists are kids. If you get kids turned on to Christ and train them, they make the most effective evangelists. They are uninhibited. At evangelism seminars the most frequent question adults ask is, “How do you make the approach?” The kids never ask about the approach. They only ask, “What should I say?”

Good News: You have them a pretty good chunk of time. Are they able to establish their own counter-culture?

Skinner: The majority of the adults who are now a part of the program have been brought by their children. The children have been the greatest propagators of our work in their school system. Numbers of employers in Newark, New Jersey, recruit employees at our center, because not only are they the brightest kids the companies can get, but they are also morally responsible. These are employers like Prudential Life, AT&T, and McDonalds.

Good News: Do most of the kids have any kind of a church relationship or does this community become that for them?

Skinner: At the beginning of their development this community is that but we bring them into relationship with local churches.

Good News: Are any of the kids coming back and becoming a second generation of leaders?

Skinner: Eighty percent of our summer interns are people who have graduated from this program. Because we’ve only been at it for five years, we don’t have much of an adult population. But we’ve gotten these kids into the best colleges in the country, and some schools have told us they will give our best students full scholarships.

Good News: How can the UM Church be of help to the Tom Skinner Association?

Skinner: We’re always looking for additional teachers, people who have unique skills in teaching reading, math, and cultural things.

Because we use high-tech, United Methodists may want to buy computers or video systems for us.

We may be able to have a partnership that will allow us to train people from within the church who could go back and establish a similar program in local communities we’d also be willing to partner with some of the Christian colleges, where students could meet some of their credit needs by working at our center. We’re very open to that.

Tom Skinner’s legacy is carried on by his widow, Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, at the Skinner Leadership Institute.


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