By Greg Adler
On a Saturday evening I find myself in downtown San Jose, listening to a teenage tour guide recount the infamous St. James Park lynching. Matt Peyton describes the kidnapping of Brooke Hart, heir to a family fortune, hinting at the gory details of a murder that enraged a mob and led to a double lynching. I watch the audience react with disbelief to his lyrical account. However, I am smiling as I think back a few months, when this same youth privately admitted to me that he was afraid of public speaking. Matt is one of a handful of students who are benefiting in numerous ways from joining me in the adventure of starting San Jose Walks & Talks.
It was a comment from the back of my economics class, “Mr. Adler, why don’t you start a business?” that put this student entrepreneurship project in motion. Already aware that students were having difficulty finding jobs in a fragile economy, this comment stuck with me. But realistically, how were a handful of students and a teacher, without any capital, going to fund a start-up? The answer emerged when we discovered that San Jose was the only major city in the country without a daily walking tour. This was just the low-investment business model that a group of students, long on enthusiasm but short on funds, were looking for.
The first students I recruited for this project were excited about taking our first business trip, until I revealed the destination: the local library. The librarian treated them like historians arriving to do archival research, and the students quickly began to sift through the stories of San Jose’s beginnings. While every history teacher hears “Why do I have to learn this?” to my relief I soon heard kids saying “You’ve got to read this!” or some variation, over and over again. Students becoming interested in history was just the first of many unexpected benefits of this student-run business.
The next step to get San Jose Walks & Talks off the ground was organizing into marketing and finance teams. A group of students was soon dispatched to the Small Business Administration for tips on accounting and grant writing. Other students approached the downtown business and neighborhood associations to introduce the concept of San Jose Walks & Talks. The wide range of resources available in our community was becoming apparent to these student entrepreneurs. My school lunch break was now frequently interrupted by some team member bursting in to announce whom they had met or what idea they had dreamed up.
After several months of tour research and community outreach, our student webmaster employed Google Earth and Google Maps to determine the final routes for tours, which now included art, music and even a ghost story. We were ready for our debut. I passed out the T-shirts bearing our signature cartoon bubble logo, which was naturally a student-created design. The first few tour efforts fortunately were in front of an audience of forgiving family and friends, as we untied some tongues and mastered the art of walking (backward) and talking.
Regardless, in my mind San Jose Walks & Talks was already a success. At some point, one student turned to me and said, “This isn’t work, Mr. Adler. I look forward to coming out here.” These kids, with a little guidance, had really created something they could be proud of.
Now at the end of a tour, I listen in to Michaela Allen, another student guide, as she is wrapping up. Her last words about how this job has opened her eyes to the city she lives in are drowned out by a loud round of applause. It is a typical ending to a tour that usually includes sincere compliments and occasionally some nice tips. At this point, I think even the teenagers have grasped that more valuable than the money is the empowering experience of having an audience of adults hanging on your every word. It has given them a confidence that will lead to continued engagement with their community as they look to volunteer, build their networks, and emerge as a source of leadership in our city.
Greg Adler is a high school history teacher and founder of San Jose Walks & Talks.
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