Tony Hopson Sr. founded Self Enhancement, Inc. (SEI) in 1981 as an outgrowth of a week-long summer basketball camp aimed at inspiring youth and offering them life skills, mentorship and guidance. Mr. Hopson told the story of how his experiences growing up in Oregon, playing basketball for Jefferson High School, and then working as a teacher, coach and counselor for Portland Public Schools all served to help develop what SEI is today—a continuous, comprehensive program that impacts the lives of over 8,000 children, families and adults annually.
Mr. Hopson explained that SEI coordinators develop deep and meaningful relationships with students from a young age (usually around eight or ten years of age), and continue that relationship through the early- to mid- twenties, guiding them through the major transitions of early life, including the often difficult moves from middle to high school, and from high school to college or work.
SEI’s remarkable facility, the Center for Self Enhancement (built in 1997), is a physical representation of Mr. Hopson’s passion (and that of SEI’s senior staff) for making a difference in the lives of the kids, and also in the neighborhood. The attractive and uplifting 62,000-square-foot space includes a gymnasium (Mr. Hopson’s favorite part!), performing arts auditorium, dance studio, library, computer lab and science lab. The building is located in a neighborhood with a history of gang violence, drug dealing, crime and neglect. Before construction began, Tony Hopson Sr. and the other SEI senior staff sat down with the Kerby Blocc Crips, the gang in control of the neighborhood at the time, and discussed SEI’s mission, enlisting their support of the project. The City of Portland also fully supported SEI’s mission—so much so that they leased the land the Center for Self Enhancement stands on for fifty years for a price of only $100!
Some of the SEI success stories Tony Hopson Sr. shared are dramatic: one former SEI student was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, and another was drafted to play professional basketball for the Houston Rockets. Other SEI success stories are more subtle, but no less noteworthy: the student who is the first in their family to attend college, the child who has overcome abuse, the program participant who comes from a drug-affected or gang-affected background, and goes on to become what Mr. Hopson calls a positive, contributing citizen.
When asked how these achievements are possible, Mr. Hopson attributes them to SEI’s continuous, comprehensive approach, the SEI Standards, and the fact that, at SEI, they “put their own last name on each kid.”
How and when was the Self Enhancement, Inc. program developed?
We started SEI originally in 1981, based on some of my experiences as a student athlete. I played a lot of basketball, and I actually had the opportunity to be in the Portland Trailblazers’ rookie camp in 1977 after they won the championship! After that, I was involved in a lot of basketball camps, and I was seeing a lot of individuals who were pursuing athletics but who were not successful in life. We wanted to develop an effort that could show young people how to translate the skills they learn through sports back into the classroom, or into their career. So in 1981 we started the first Self Enhancement Camp, which certainly had basketball involved, but also talked a lot about education, social skills, etc. Nike got on board and provided t-shirts and tennis shoes, we got some initial grants from a few local foundations, and we were off and running.
SEI’s building is very beautiful! What is your favorite part of this facility?
For me, it would be the gymnasium because I have spent so much time playing basketball! From a kid’s perspective, I would say the computer lab or the library. We tend to think that all kids have access to computers, but a lot of kids don’t. So when I walk into the library and see kids diligently reading, or when I walk into the computer lab and see kids at computers working, I get real excited about that.
There are a lot of amazing stories about the building of this center. This facility was built in the 1990s in a park that was being run by the Kerby Blocc Crips, a local gang. In those days, you came to this part of the neighborhood to buy drugs or to sell drugs. To think that we could persuade the Crips to move their activities out of the park and allow us to build a 62,000-square-foot facility there is over-the-top amazing! In its entire history, this building has never been tagged by any gang members. To me, that says a lot about the love of community that these individuals have, and the misperceptions about gang members that exist. There was a conversation that we had with them: “Wouldn’t you want something better for your younger brothers and sisters?” And the Crips bought into that to the extent that they protected the facility while it was being built.
Were there experiences in your early life that set you on this path?
Well, when I was growing up I watched what was happening in the Civil Rights Movement on TV. I mean, you are watching African Americans in Mississippi and Alabama being sprayed with water hoses and chased by dogs. You are seeing elderly African Americans getting beaten down. You can’t help but think, “This is not right. Something has to be done about this.” Kennedy was shot, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Malcolm X was assassinated. All of these things played heavily into shaping my thoughts. “Are you going to be a part of the problem, or a part of the solution?” I mean, you don’t want these people who are trying to do the right thing to die in vain.
There was another experience I would like to talk about that made me feel like I had a special reason to be here. When I was a sophomore in high school, I came home for lunch one day. My father, who was a custodian, worked three jobs and one of his jobs was late at night so he always carried a pistol with him. He had come home from work and had to run out again to do something, so he laid the pistol on top of this pullout bed we had in the dining room. I was eating lunch at the dining table and I put my hand up and felt the gun. I didn’t think it was a real gun because the handle was cracked and because there was no reason for a loaded gun to be lying around the house, so I was leaning with the gun against my temple, eating cereal. Then the gun went off. Fortunately, it was not against my head when it did, but it had been a moment before. It would have been one of those stories where everybody would have said I committed suicide and would have asked, “Why did he do that?” I felt that in many ways, I was supposed to die that day. But, from that point forward, I felt like, “God has some serious plans for you.” That kind of added to directing my work and directing my heart towards knowing that I am here for a very special reason, and that I needed to play that out and to do good.
You taught, counseled and coached for Portland Public Schools from 1977 to 1995. How has that played a role in the creation of SEI?
Oftentimes, working in the school district, you feel like everybody is blaming you for the conditions of the children. Teachers get a bad rap sometimes—administrators do too. We didn’t want SEI to be an entity that was coming from the outside in, telling the school district, “We know better than you how to educate and support kids.” Having worked in Portland Public Schools as a teacher and a counselor gave me more credibility as founder of SEI. I wasn’t coming from the outside in; I was working from the inside out.
An average of 98% of SEI participants graduate from high school, and 85% of those go on to pursue higher education, occupational training or a family wage job. How does SEI make this achievement possible?
First, I would start by talking about the continuum of services. Historically, we start with kids around eight or ten and stay with them to around age 25.
Secondly, there’s the comprehensiveness of the program. We are in school, after school, and summer, which means there’s no time that we’re not available for our kids.
Thirdly, each student has an Individual Success Plan (ISP). An ISP is a set of goals each student sets each year—academic, personal and social. They then evaluate the goals quarterly, and they might re-strategize at that point. The ISP is an important tool to get kids from point A to point B.
Lastly, we have a saying at SEI: “We put our own last names on every kid.” Our coordinators get calls at 2:00 in the morning, and we expect them to see what that kid happens to need at that time. Often it’s our coordinators who are showing up at the basketball game or the recital, or picking kids up and taking them to whatever extra-curricular activities they have, because they don’t have adults in their lives who can fill that role. All these kids need are some caring adults that are willing to be there for them all the time. The kids who normally make it, that’s what they have. They have parents who are there for them every day. When they fall down, their parents pick them up and tell them, “I love you, it’s going to be ok,” and then they show them how to take the next step. So when you are willing to do all these things, you can get that kind of outcome.
According to SEI’s website, 90% of the students enrolled at SEI scored as either “high risk” or “severe risk.” What are some examples of the challenges that SEI program participants may be facing in their lives?
I’ve never met a kid who’s not “at-risk.”
10% of kids that come into the program we consider “at-risk.” These kids are leadership kids. They may be doing fairly well at school, but based on the environment that they live in, and maybe some other circumstances around them, they are still “at-risk.”
60% of the participants are “high risk.” These are kids that tend to be in the middle, the kids that are walking the fence. They may have some attendance issues, or may not be where they need to be academically. Their family situation may not be perfect, but it’s not really, really bad or dysfunctional. But at any given time, something might happen that could cause them to fall to the side of the fence that’s really negative.
The last 30% are the kids who are “severe risk.” These are the kids who are from severely dysfunctional home situations. They may be gang-affected, drug-affected, they already have severe academic issues—this group of kids isn’t going to make it without an intervention.
So, you take all three of those categories, and you don’t tell them who’s who. They are all kids in the SEI program, but we have identified them in that way and we try to align our services based on which of those categories they are in.
What are some things that SEI does to address the issues facing the highest risk kids?
We do basically the same services for all of our kids, but it all depends on how many touches those kids are going to get. If they are “severe risk” their coordinator is going to check in with them a lot more often, and the kinds of services that each kid needs may be different. They may need a counseling session, or their family might need help with electricity, food or even shelter. We may have to work with the adult in the family to help them out of a drug or alcohol situation. It may be a domestic violence situation.
When these kids go home, they go home to a complete mess. So, you have to begin to provide all these additional support services for that kid and that family, just so they can survive. Because at that point, it isn’t about education, it’s just about survival. And you are trying to provide any kind of services you can to get that kid stable enough to go to school every day.
An important part of the SEI program is the SEI Standards. Can you please describe how the standards play a role in the program, and in the lives of SEI participants and staff?
The standards are the values that guide our staff and students’ behavior on a daily basis. There is a preamble and a list of standards we refer to in order to provide a framework for discussing student behavior.
The preamble is, “The SEI Standards are founded upon the principles of integrity and respect. Integrity because integrity exemplifies truthfulness, modesty and trustworthiness. Respect because respect exemplifies courtesy, honor and reverence.”
The SEI Standards are as follows:
• In SEI we greet each other everyday with a smile and a handshake to strengthen the relationship between us.
• In SEI we honor and respect each other and so we address one another with proper language and speech.
• In SEI we value the space of ourselves and others and are careful not to intrude or injure each other.
• In SEI we are mindful of what is true and strive to be honest in word and deed.
• In SEI we treasure our rich culture and hold the cultures of all people in high regard.
• In SEI we strive to reflect our beauty both inwardly, in our understanding, and outwardly in our appearance.
What do you hope for each individual participant in the SEI program? What would you want to see in each student’s life in order to say that their journey through the program has been a success?
It is our hope at SEI that every student ultimately becomes a PCC—positive, contributing citizen. Certainly we would like every child to go to college and graduate and move on to a good job, but we know that path is not for everyone. So, a PCC has either gone to college for two years, has had some vocational training for two years and learned a skill, or has been in a family wage job for two years. It is also important that they understand what has been given to them, and they can then pay it forward.