Reflections on Jarvis Williams by Justin Cook

28 Feb

Communities In Schools of North Carolina continues its year-long video series called “Overcoming Obstacles: CIS Success Stories” with a piece highlighting a remarkable young man from CIS of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.

Seventeen-year-old Jarvis Williams is an example of an uncommonly “advantaged student” in spirit, though disadvantaged in the eyes of the world. He grew up on the west side of Charlotte, NC, in a low-income neighborhood, where he told me you can see “graffiti, gang-bangers and corner stores.” His family now consists of just him and his mom, a stern woman who works at a local school cafeteria to make ends meet.  His family moved around a lot during his formative years. He knows how to drive but isn’t sure how he will ever afford a car, let alone excessive city bus fares to navigate Charlotte. He dreams of college but can’t afford to pay for it.

Much of the deck is stacked against Jarvis, but he clenches his secret weapon tight in his chest as he runs down a poorly lit street, hopping fences on his way to the school bus that he is already late for at 6 a.m. The sun will rise in another 30 minutes but his determination is already burning hot. It is his advantage, his afterburner that will propel him past his peers.

Jarvis wasn’t born privileged, a genius, a scholar. But he was born humble and hungry. It is that hunger which makes him seek success.

Scout masters, clergy, African-American leaders, JROTC drill instructors, Bible heroes and Jesus—their words of wisdom swell in his mind and litter the walls of his tiny bedroom.  “Choose to dare to be different,” he tells me in his shockingly articulate delivery. He is different, and Communities In Schools Site Coordinator Tavia Tubbs at Phillip O. Berry Academy in Charlotte where Jarvis is a junior can attest to his self-motivation. She recommended that he serve on the CIS leadership team at the magnet school when he was a sophomore; she typically recommends juniors and seniors for the position.  Since Jarvis was a freshman, Tavia has tracked his academics, attendance and helped Jarvis navigate the gauntlet that is high school. “Jarvis has matured,” she tells me. Through CIS, Tavia has helped expose Jarvis to job shadowing opportunities, college visits that got him out of Charlotte for the first time and other opportunities for him to see what is out there for him.

From Boy Scouts, to JROTC, to SkillsUSA, to teaching computer classes at his church—to say Jarvis is involved is an understatement. Mentors in these programs have helped forge his uncommon leadership skills and resolve, and have contributed to his success financially.  “I am thankful to God and to others who have helped me where I didn’t have the money, but someone else took the initiative to help,” he says.  There is an old saying that “it takes a village to raise a child” and that couldn’t be more accurate in today’s economic and social climate.  CISNC figures illustrate this point:

“The graduation rate in North Carolina for economically disadvantaged students is 66.2%, which is 8% less than the state graduation rate of 74.2%. The graduation rate for minorities is also lower than the state average. The latest graduation figures for African-Americans are 66.9%, for Latinos 61.4% and for American Indians 67.9%. CISNC is working to improve these numbers across North Carolina.”

Jarvis is both African-American and economically disadvantaged, but highly advantaged in spirit. But the difficult realities that so many young people like Jarvis face illustrate that determination needs to be met with good influences from others.  CIS aims to be a good influence to children and youth in need. “People can help CIS by volunteering, making donations, giving their time and simply taking time out to spend with children,” affirms Renee Anthony Leak, CIS Director of High Schools & ThinkCOLLEGE.  Partnerships with the community and businesses are paramount as well. “A nonprofit is only as good as its connections. [Duke Energy] has poured out their hearts, time and resources to us. It’s a relationship that should be a model for other companies and corporations in our area,” she says.  Duke Energy has provided financial support for CIS site coordinator positions as well as many job shadowing opportunities for students.

Jarvis tells me that one day he wants to attend N.C. State University in Raleigh and hopes that he can have a car next summer after graduation. “Well, I guess I only want a car, but I don’t really need one,” he shrugs, recognizing the privilege it is to have a reliable car, something that I myself often take for granted.  I am hoping that with a little help from the village, his dreams can become a reality.

Justin Cook is an independent documentary photographer who lives in Durham, NC.  He is the multimedia producer behind Communities In Schools of North Carolina’s “Overcoming Obstacles: CIS Success Stories.” His work has been honored by College Photographer of the Year, Pictures of the Year International, Virginia Press Association, Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations. Although Cook’s photojournalism is award-winning, he gauges his success not in trophies but in the relationships he establishes with his subjects. View his work online at

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