Fuck You, There is No “New Civil Rights” Movement, You Haven’t Finished the Last One

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I hear a lot of rhetoric about how education is my generation’s Civil Rights issue. It’s a nice thing to say and hear and it makes elite graduates feel good about their two year commitments. And the thing is, I won’t use the rhetoric because of what it says about affiliations, but I do agree that it is a huge Civil Rights issue, one that deserves a good deal of attention from my generation. Here is the problem though: Brown v. Board was passed in 1954, schools are now just as or more (in some areas) racially and socio-economically segregated as they were in the 1950s. Laws requiring equitable funding and busing were enforced in the 1960s, and are no longer enforced today because white people don’t like them. Schools that have legal restrictions because of the rights gained during the Civil Rights movement are now losing funding to schools that have no such restrictions and expel, abuse, and ignore the most disadvantaged children among them. The issue is that this isn’t a new Civil Rights movement. You can’t call it a new Civil Rights movement when we still haven’t finished the one that got started 6 decades ago. This isn’t a new Civil Rights movement so much as this is a fight against newly sophisticated methods of keeping the same social order. We aren’t post racial, we are just racist.

It is really awkward for me to teach Civil Rights to the kids, because even in the liberal bastion that is California, it doesn’t take them very long to look around and figure out that several provisions of that movement have failed because they aren’t enforced. It is even more awkward when I have to explain that the schools aren’t integrated because white parents said it was unfair. But the most awkward thing of all is being in the Silicon Valley where so many of my peers benefited from a system that gave them every advantage at the expense of the lives of kids who never had a shot. If you think the poor kids in Silicon Valley can’t see what is happening here, you are either really naïve or don’t know anything about kids. In some ways it was better for me, given these circumstances that I grew up in an isolated poor neighborhood, because by the time I got to Stanford I had a strong working class identity that they couldn’t pry from my cold dead hands.

For my friend’s with parents who were around in the 60s, it must be really uncomfortable to look around and see their own parent’s failures. And it is those parent’s failures. It is the peers they went to college with, the kids who didn’t want to deal with the trouble, the kids who wanted to remain comfortable and watch the dogs and hoses take down children from their middle class existence. The kids who through the 70s and 80s decided that their own comfort and advantage were more important than the things that were fought for a decade earlier. I know this is angry and cynical, but it is nowhere near as angry and cynical as our continued system of racial and class-based oppression. You don’t know what anger and hate is until you are dehumanized by a system. You should be sad. You should be angry about this. I am not a cynic. I don’t write to release my anger. I write because I believe my generation can be the one to do the right thing. But we have to be willing to be uncomfortable. We have to give up our advantages. We have to love freedom so much that we feel chained while others are chained. And I want to make something clear, chaining black boys to desks is not really different from the chaining of the past. There is nothing new about this. This is as old as our Constitution. This is as old as slavery. This is older than America itself.

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Income Inequality and the Poverty that Results in the Poor Finding that Millenial Entitlement Bizarre

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The first thing that shocked me about Stanford was the amount and variety of food. I’d go into the dining hall and struggle to make a reasonable dinner because I had never had so many choices before and then listen to my classmates complain that the salad bar and copious amounts of fruit was not healthy enough. I grew up poor enough, a fifth generation American, that I was impressed by food. I was also impressed by health care, I had whooping cough when I was a kid and when the doctors at Vaden found that out, they said: “wow, you might as well be from a third world country.” I grew up 3 hours away from Stanford.

There is an enormous gap in wealth in this country, it is so enormous that we have an enormous group of people we don’t feed and then another group of people that thinks they are entitled to Whole Foods. There is a group that thinks they are entitled to dermatology and cosmetic procedures and a group that dies early because of substandard care. We have places with no internet and places where 14 year olds feel entitled to iPhones. Our system is insane and it’s bred an unusual problem with entitlement. In fact, isn’t that pretty much the biggest issue in our government right now? The debate about entitlement? So, since we seem so confused I’d like to clear this up.

Our Declaration of Independence, the thing we told the world we were defining ourselves under, says that man has the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. All you need to know is that part and I can extrapolate all sorts of information about entitlements.

Life
You have a right to live. You have the right, as a member of the social contract, to the protection of your life. This includes, medical care, food, shelter, safe neighborhoods and a just legal system. The only time you lose your right to this is when you violate the social contract. You are not entitled to the right to steal from others so you can more than them of any of these things. You are not entitled to a higher level of any of these things. In a capitalist nation you have to work for that, but you do not have the right to refuse the basic necessities to others because you want luxuries.

Liberty

You have the right to freedom. This includes the right to practice a faith of your choosing, so long as it impedes on no one else’s right to practice their faith. You have the right to say want you want, so long as it doesn’t violate the rights of others, you do not have the right to avoid social consequences for your speech (in other words, yes, Ann Coulter you do get to say what you want, but you don’t get to act like your rights were violated by people in a capitalist market who refuse to support you with their money). You have the right to freedom of movement and to the freedom to work. You have the right to a just legal system. You have the right to a fair and equitable education, you have the right to live your life how you please so long as it infringes on no one else’s rights. This means that you do not have the right to have your particular world-view represented in society and to ban particular world views. There is a market-place of ideas that should stand on the principals of freedom. You don’t have the right to be heard or for your views to be adopted, you only have the right to speak. Other people have the right to choose to listen to you.

Pursuit of Happiness

You have the right to work. You have the right to an education. You have the right to work under conditions that are humane and reflect the responsibility of the privileged to fulfill their end of the bargain of the social contract. You do not have the right to be famous. You do not have the right to be rich. You have the right to equality of opportunity. Which in this day and age should also include all the infrastructure that makes that possible, including access to the internet, education, public transportation, shelter, health care, and food. No one can be truly free if they have to slave away to provide the basic necessities of life. You should also be free from violence. This includes between domestic partners, between neighborhoods, between authorities and their people, between the oppressed and the privileged.

As the elites of society, if we want to maintain that position, we have acknowledge that we are responsible for creating those conditions. We are responsible because we enjoy more privilege than the other members of our community, and we enjoy those privileges because they trust us to maintain and protect the social contract. If we can’t do our jobs it is time for someone to replace us with people who can.

The Charter World’s Dirty Little Secret: “Counseling” Kids Out aka Getting Rid of the Kids We Don’t Like

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I am very protective of my students. I feel like a Mama Grizzly Bear and I feel like that about all of them. I call them “my kids” and I don’t even want to have my own kids. I love teenagers, I really do. I find something to love, something that is beautiful about each and every one of them. They get under my skin sometimes, and I may not always like what they do, but I try to look for the good in them. I am not unusual in this as a teacher. I also feel a great deal of responsibility for my students. If my friends at Facebook make a mistake, they might cost Facebook money, they might feel bad, it might not look good for a while, but it can be fixed. If I make a mistake, if I have one bad day, if I give a child the indication that I don’t love them, that I don’t believe in them, the consequences are dire. Every friend of mine has vivid memories of how they got the message that they couldn’t succeed, we remember those words. Sure the kid might not perform in my class, but that is not the more important concern. For some of my kids, one bad day, one use of the term lazy, or bad, or even the slightest messaging that implies that I don’t think they can succeed and I am putting the nail in a coffin. That is not a metaphor.

The charters I have been at have been on the progressive end of the spectrum, but even then I saw some of my kids “exited” meaning they were encouraged to leave and go somewhere else. They were told that they couldn’t be successful at that school. The charters are under no obligation to educate every child. The two I have been at were mostly good about this, but the reality is that both Summit and EPAHS are special places. The vast majority of charters follow the KIPP model. Some of them are doing some good work for some kids, but in the long run, even if they educate the few they do have well, some of their policies have lasting and incredibly damaging impacts on not only the students but also the community that far outweigh the fact that a small number of kids scored high on some tests.

A lot of people don’t realize what is going on. In the charter world, they call it exiting the kids. They tell SPED kids and ELL kids, and behavior kids, that they can’t be successful there, and they do this before the kids even walk into the door. If the students can make it past that gate then they have to deal with a set of rules, and if they don’t score high enough the charters will encourage or find a way to make them leave. It is an open secret that charters recruit kids before funding kicks in and then drop the kids off back into the public schools that make their lives difficult before tests happen. Comprehensive schools then have to pick up the slack with less funding. Charters serve a self-selecting and small population. A population of students that are told that if they follow the rules (including walking in lines, chanting when they are supposed to, doing work under unreasonable conditions) that they are good and that the other kids from their home community are bad. Charters already start with a self-selecting population because few parents have the cultural capital to apply to the charter. Then once the kids get there they leave in mass. There is a charter in New York that was praised in the media. They started with 55 middle schoolers. 16 entered their freshman year. That is a horrific attrition rate. KIPP, which is probably the best in the bunch, loses 40% of their kids. Charters get a lot of outside funding the publics do not get. Then they educate a much smaller percentage of kids, an already self-selecting group, and then they get rid of anyone who makes trouble.

I am not going to mince words here. If you have 55 kids and only 16 make it to 9th grade, and you also have more money than the public schools, I don’t care what the scores are. Any teacher can get 100% proficiency with 16 top performers, and on top of that, they also run their staff into the ground and have massive turn-over. If you have to run a slave operation on your teachers to get 16 well-behaved, higher performing, better resourced kids, to get proficiency, your model is not working. It is failing. That they have so many kids dropping out, have so many more resources, have teachers working under horrific conditions, and can only get a small percentage through, and that the percentage that does finish goes to but can’t finish college, then you are doing something horribly wrong.

This is all statistics and data to me, and it matters, but I want to talk about the emotional ramifications. These charters pull kids out of their home communities, isolate them, use awful tactics to train them to act appropriately privileged (a lot of them us SLANT which means Sit UP, Look at the Speaker, Ask Questions, Nod, Track the Speaker- follow them around the room- all things I don’t see many privileged kids doing anyway), tell the kids that they are somehow better than their friends from the neighborhood and that their neighborhood is the problem and that they are personally responsible. Then they have crazy discipline policies, some of which violate the Geneva Convention clause on group punishment (yes, seriously, I’ve seen the archives of charters applying to districts), and they lose their kids. Disproportionately, they lose their beautiful, brilliant, fun and charming young black boys. So let’s look at this from the kid’s perspective. You’ve just been told that your culture and community is bad, that if you fail it is your fault and that the charter is your only hope for getting out. Then you behave like a child, and your principal and teachers, your community, your only contact with mainstream society, tells you that you can’t be successful in the place that was supposed to save you. Just so we are clear, kids are getting kicked out for things that I did fairly regularly, things that privileged kids do all the time, things that are perfectly normal for kids to do. If you look at the behavioral contracts at some of the charters kids can get kicked out for defiance, for not going along with specific programming, for not doing homework and for not performing. So basically, if I had gone to a charter I wouldn’t be writing this right now.

What do you think the consequences are for the children who get exited? Well, they’ve just discovered that school is not a pathway they can be successful on. Since school is the only legitimate way to get out, where do they go? Prison. Drug dealing and using. Prostitution. The streets. I am not being melodramatic, this is the reality of the situation. They are done. They will give up on school entirely. The small percentage that stays and gets a “good” education (high test scores, and access to resources the public schools don’t have because they get outside funding) would probably have been fine at a fully integrated and well-resourced comprehensive public school. The kids that leave should not be sacrificed on the alter for our unwillingness to honor our Constitution and our unwillingness to fund public schools. This is ultimately the thing that made me decide to not go charter this year. There are some good charters out there, EPAHS and Summit are both offering things the public schools in that area don’t have and filling a need that needs to be filled, and for the moment at least doing a good job of it. But wouldn’t it be easier to have comprehensive public schools that are dedicated and designed for equity? And Summit is an outlier, most fit into the No Excuses mold of that school I mentioned in New York and of KIPP. I love my kids too much to continue to watch this happen. The public schools are far from perfect. I went to one and it was awful, but it was also not integrated and didn’t have resources. We can’t get around the resource question. We can’t get around Brown v. Board of Ed. The consequences are too serious. If we want to fix education, we have agree that we have a responsibility as citizens of this democracy to provide a true meritocracy with equitable access to education. Rich parents have to stop trying to get around the rules to give their kids advantages. Frankly, since most of them believe that their children are geniuses who earned everything they have, maybe we should see what happens when they have to deal with real competition, because the system right now is rigged to make it as easy as possible for them to maintain their position. That is racism. That is classism. We have to stop dancing around the issue. Integrate the schools. Fund them equitably. Because right now, as far as I can tell, some of these corporate guys are funding the charters so they can continue to get around our constitution.

Not Sure How You Guys Plan to Have a Functioning Society with the Way You Treat Teachers

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Teaching is hard. It is so much more difficult than anything I have ever done. I fail at it constantly. We ask our teachers to be brain surgeons. We give them a group of kids that is completely random, a set of standards that rarely make sense, ask them to teach kids important life skills like writing and then hold them accountable to tests that don’t measure their ability to do those life skills, we give them no resources and ask them to act as counselor, teacher, friend, mentor, and sometimes parent, as well as all of the other bureaucratic responsibilities they have. We change, at will and seemingly randomly, policies and ask teachers to adopt fads created by people who have never taught, and then we blame them when they can’t overcome poverty, which is an issue we never address systematically. To be a good teacher, is incredibly difficult. You have to not only have a deep of knowledge in your subject, but you also have to understand how kids develop and work, be able to respond to those kids as individuals, and still meet all of your requirements. I am not complaining. I love this job, if I wanted to do something else I would have done it. Notice I didn’t even bother mentioning pay. And, yes, we do work during our “vacations.”

Teaching is just as hard as being a lawyer, as being an entrepreneur, as being a doctor. I work way more and do far more challenging work than most of my friends in tech. My job isn’t any less cognitively challenging than the job of the engineers I know who actually make things. And we have none of the benefits of that work. We aren’t paid well, we don’t have flexible hours, we have to respond to a million different people’s demands. But the biggest difference is that we get none of the respect. No one trusts us to do our jobs. I would never ever walk into my engineering friend’s work and tell them how to do their jobs. Despite this, I have to have an argument with someone at least once a week about what they think is best for kids they have never taught, have no interest in teaching and that they have developed an opinion on from reading New York Times articles by people who showed up and spent one day at a school and bought the sells pitch.

This happened recently, and I was told that my degrees and experience (and it is minimal for a teacher, but my more experienced teacher friends get the same treatment) was irrelevant. This person was in business, I wonder how they would feel if I told them their experience in their industry was irrelevant. I wonder how they would like it if I showed to their office and started nit-picking because I read some business research on my lunch break, and by research I mean I read someone’s agenda on teaching which pretended that there was research to support it. Everything I do in the classroom is backed up by research, I am not just making this up. There is instinct and talent sure, but I also have a master’s degree from Stanford and if I didn’t I wouldn’t be as good a teacher. I’d be fine, I’d figure it out, but it would take me a really long time.

Everyone thinks they are an expert in the schools because they have been to school and because we have de-professionalized the teaching profession. This is what happens when you tell recent college grads with a cursory and missionary interest in teaching who have no intention of sticking around that they are better than the trained professionals, which is backed up by no evidence anywhere. The good friends that I have in TFA who are good teachers would be even better if they had gone through ed school and they wouldn’t have been in hell for their first year. But the vast majority of the people doing this do it exactly as I described. One of them is an ex of mine, we broke up for many reasons but our fight over this issue is illustrative of why we didn’t need to be together. He called me shortly after breaking up and told me he was doing TFA, I was in STEP at the time. I explained to him why I thought that was a bad idea and he said “teaching is fine for you, but I don’t want to be a teacher forever and I want to move up in the ranks of liberal politics, and it doesn’t make sense for me to take out loans for grad school when I have no intention of staying.” I assume he said this in his interviews too, since TFA encourages this kind of behavior. In fact, one of their stated goals is to train future leaders. In fact, this ex had told me that teaching was beneath him. He ended up trying to do the same job I did as a para, he was terrible at it. When he tried to teach a small summer school class, he failed and that was with advanced kids and my attempts to coach him. The fact that he thinks he is more entitled to his voice in the education field makes my blood boil. He is one example but I have seen this over and over again.

Or we could, you know, make it possible for trained professionals to have opportunities to actually use their experience to contribute to the dialogue. No, not going to do that? Would rather have finance dudes running the medical system than doctors (to be fair, we probably do, but we also have massive problems in health care and people would be outraged if they were aware, this happens in education out in the open and is praised). This is incredibly insulting to teachers. It is also classist, and it is reflected in how we pay teachers. Teachers are not longer considered intellectuals in society, they might as well be blue collar for how we pay and treat them. You want better teachers in the classroom? If you are serious about this goal, then you need to be serious about ending these attitudes and problems.

There is also some latent sexism in this. I hear this from men more often and men are disproportionately represented in the highest seats of power in education. We have fewer men to begin with but the few we have who do teach, teach for a few years and then move up or out. I have had a lot of men say “teaching is fine for you.” As far as I can tell the only difference between us is that I am a woman. In our society the careers that get the most glory and pay are dominated by men. It has nothing to do with the difficulty of teaching, teaching is hard, most people can’t hack it. For the most part, men don’t go into teaching because we don’t value teaching, but if they go into education, or if they are business people who decide that education is their pet project, they assume they know more than the women on the ground doing the actual work. I can’t help but feel like some of this issue is just more mansplaining. But either way, I wanted to lay this out, if you haven’t taught, you have no business thinking you know more than the teachers you meet. They’ve read all the research you have, plus. They live it every day. Shut up and listen. In fact, in most things in life, it is best to shut up and listen before you open your mouth. You have the right to say whatever you want and I would defend to the death your right to say it, but you are never going to learn anything if you don’t hear what other people are saying to you. Trust me, I know, there is research and I also teach.

Don’t Tell Lies, Kids are Smarter than You Think

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I am notorious for many things, one of them is keepin’ it real. I am a pretty big fan of keepin’ it real. Keepin’ it real means being really honest about the world as it exists. I strive for honest and kind, sometimes, because I am human, I fail. Most people who have been through the kind of trauma I have lie about it. People pretend to not be poor. People pretend they aren’t struggling. People suggest to me that I should lie to the children, as if children are blind and can’t figure it out. I want to tell you as a trained professional that they can and have already figured it out. Children are beautiful, and brilliant, and amazing and have no filter and that is why I work with kids and not adults. Kids are still raw, they are still honest and because of that they have the power to grow and change, and ultimately to change the world. You cannot grow if you can’t take risks and you can’t take risks if you lie to yourself.

I’m honest because when we aren’t honest we end up in a world where white children grow up being lied to about their privilege. We grow up in a world where black children learn to blame themselves or become angry without knowing the cause of their suffering. We grow up in a world where bills can be named ridiculous things that have no basis in reality, like No Child Left Behind. We grow up in a world where we have a feminist movement defined by blaming women for not working hard enough. This is a world in which nothing structural and systematic gets fixed. I get it; people think that if we are honest, people will lose hope and give up. I have to respectfully disagree. There are people who survived the Holocaust, Slavery and Genocide. There are people that resisted those things. People are so much more resilient than we can possibly give them credit for. This is especially true about children, who have the amazing ability to adapt to anything and to strive and learn even when they are told not to.
The other argument is that people will find out and stop having personal responsibility. This is a rather shallow and foolish view of humanity. People have accomplished things under conditions that are absurd. Malcolm X knew he was going to be shot, he spoke anyway. My mom told me how messed up the world was, and then she told me that was no excuse for failure, and despite being a severely abused poor kid I made it to Stanford. I know how hard it is to overcome things, I also know how incredibly strong and beautiful humanity is in the face of adversity. This is why I trust my kids to handle the truth.

The kids are never uncomfortable with the truth. It is the adults who are. This is why when I said I wanted to teach about the Black Panthers I had Stanford kids tell me they weren’t comfortable with having high schoolers learn about that. My response was that they already knew; I grew up in the shadow of the Militancy of Civil Rights and so do all of my students. We aren’t supposed to talk about violence and I have seen more stabbings than I can count, I have had students who have watched people be murdered; they were twelve. They used the experience to connect with other human beings. They were incredible, conscious, sensitive, chatty, and adorable 12 year old boys. I hope that whoever has the fine pleasure and honor of teaching them now sees how beautiful they are and helps them develop their voice. Do you have any idea how powerful it is to watch 12 year poor children find their voices and enter debates about Civil Rights when they know what is going on? It does not weaken them. Kids are better than that. You cannot stamp out their drive, humans have an innate desire to contribute, to provide, to be part of this grand and mysterious world. I sincerely have never met a lazy child. I have met kids who didn’t do what they were being asked, but I have never met a kid who when given a task that is both accessible and rigorous and of interest to them, who didn’t do the task. Not one. Ever. In any context.

My friends from high school are really good examples of this. None of us were great students (we have who was worst contests, the jury is still out). One of them, a boy with a keen mathematical mind and test scores that are ridiculous, failed most of his classes but asked to take community college classes he was interested in. He’s been working since we were 13. He can run his own business. His pool game is absurd. Another is a profoundly talented artist, she almost failed school because they put in her the lower classes because she lived in the projects, so she stopped showing up. She is now a professional artist, she graduated from Berkeley, with honors. Another one only excelled in the classes he was engaged in, he had what rich people call business skills and what we hustling that would have rivaled anyone I know in business currently. He teaches kids to read. He lived in a shed in college so he could get out. And me? Well I was defiant, I rarely did the assignments I was supposed to, sometimes just for fun I would do other assignments in protest, I was known for getting the whole class to turn on a teacher. I ditched most of 8th grade science. I went home during lunch and made pasta only to never return. I got into fights. I only behaved when I was differentiated to. Now I am a teacher with two degrees from Stanford. All of us had profound struggles. Poverty, racism, sexism, familial challenges, a neighborhood that was unsafe, abuse, neglect, everything you imagine about urban kids is represented in just three examples. We were set up to fail. But we got out. We got out because we wanted to contribute. Those are the most brilliant among us, but to this day I don’t have any friends or family members that I know that aren’t trying to contribute, aren’t trying to love the people they love in their lives, aren’t trying to care. They don’t always do it successfully, but they try. I have seen sociopaths, and the faces of evil, they are rare and not reflective of humanity but of deficiencies in their ability to be human and they aren’t lazy.

My mom is a radical lady. I was raised in a house where race, class and gender were discussed openly. But this was the norm. There isn’t a black kid in America that hasn’t gotten a lecture on race, that hasn’t woken up and realized that they are oppressed. There isn’t a poor kid I know for whom that isn’t true either. How could you not know? We all knew. We just had different understandings of the root causes, and those understandings were ultimately what defined us. I was empowered by how clear the system was to me and was made to me by my mom and the number of good teachers I had. I wish my friends could have had that too, maybe more of them would have gotten out. That is why I teach history. Be honest because the kids already see what is happening, but if you don’t explain why how will they ever know the right way to get around it. How will they know the rules well enough to break them? Because that is ultimately what is required. And while you are at it, if you are serious about making it so that they don’t have to break rules just to survive and provide for their families, do some work on addressing the structural inequalities. If you want to be super helpful, the next time you are at dinner with someone who doesn’t know how the world works, especially if they have power, keep it real.

Activism: Git ‘Er Done

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I am going to do what I always do in these conversations and state my credentials from the get-go. I am going to do this because I am white. And because I am white, and grew up extremely poor in an urban area where I attended some of the worst urban schools in the state of California in a community that is one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation and am living with a Mexican American man I grew up with who told his dad that he had no interest in learning Spanish because “he didn’t want to be one of those Mexican kids who can’t read English” and who is half white but knows he gets stopped by cops all the time because he is Mexican, I am intensely aware of how this whole speech and my mere presence in the activist community comes off, and came off while I while an undergrad, to the very communities that I work with. So demographically, when you ask me to be extra specific, I identify as working class, first. That’s the closest I can get to being honest. I do this because, when I entered Stanford I spoke a non-standard version of American English, and maintained the kind of wit that can only be learned on the playground and lot of people thought I was being a crazy asshole. And I also do this, because I have the white privilege of not having to identify as my racial background. And because as a straight white woman I don’t have to identify as my sexual orientation either. But the fact of the matter is that the reality of my childhood more closely resembles that of poor folks who grow up in urban areas than it does the white peers I most closely resemble physically. On paper, people often assume I am black. This is because they are racist.

I am also an activist in urban education. I went to STEP for graduate school after being one of the founding members of FLIP and being heavily involved in activism for the low-income community while I was an undergrad. I was not well liked. Mostly because I am obnoxious, but also because I didn’t look like what we think activists should like, and I didn’t talk like one either.

As I said, I spoke a non-standard form of English. In fact, unless I am in a professional setting I still speak a non-standard form of English. This is important because when I came to Stanford my words were not typically well-received and I heard a lot of arguments by education reformers about how we need to train kids to “speak properly.” Now, I will tell you, that we do in fact need to train kids to speak in a way that allows them to be taken seriously by the elites who determine whether or not they get to escape the ghetto. I do this because I am an incredibly practical individual and I want kids to have the same opportunities my privileged friends do. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. I think the dialect of English that I happen to speak is beautiful. All of my friends who went to college back home (a tiny number, that as evidenced by my relationship with my significant other, cling to each other) are incredibly adept with the English language. That’s because the dialect I happen to speak, is all about quick thinking, metaphor and poetry. As a history teacher, I want my kids to have those skills, I just also want them to have the other skills too, because unfortunately I don’t currently have the power to decide which skills we value in society and I want my kids to be valued. I train kids to code-switch because I think their language is beautiful and because I think it is necessary for them to have choices in the world. Choice is the ultimate privilege. And I want them to have it. What I am saying is that it is fine to want to impart the skills that give people power onto others, but its not ok to pretend like those skills are inherently better or more beautiful than what they already have. You will never know until you can have love for both. I am glad I can sit in the classroom and debate the merits of Rousseau but I am also glad that I can handle myself on the playground. You have to love people and see the beauty in who they are, not who you want them to be. You can love people for what they are or hate them for what they are not, those are your options when you live/work in a community. And trust me when I say to you that you aren’t going to get anything done without love.

Even as I know my neighborhood well, I don’t presume to know everything about growing up poor in America. What happened in my neighborhood in North Highlands has commonalities with East Palo Alto, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, but it isn’t East Palo Alto. So when I went to work in East Palo Alto, I didn’t pretend to know everything about East Palo Alto. At first I just shut up and listened. I also did as much research as I could about the community and asked a lot of questions. This is the most important advice I can give as an activist, you have to listen and be willing to learn. Look, Stanford kids are really smart. We are smart and hardworking and these are admirable and good traits, but they don’t make us omnipotent. They don’t even make us better people. We aren’t Gods, we are just human beings with a slightly faster processor and a whole lot of training. You don’t know everything about the community you are walking into, you can’t assume anything about people unless you can read minds, and even then that doesn’t mean you can fully understand everything about an individual’s thoughts. Listen, and be grateful that someone is giving you the opportunity to do so.

As I stated above, I am aware that I receive a number of white privileges, and now I am also extremely well educated. I knew when I was a kid that I had white privilege. You’d have to be blind to not figure that out when every time a cop is around one of your non-white friends gets hassled. Also, I studied history. And if studying history taught me anything it was that white people have privilege. I wish this weren’t true. I wish I could give back all the ways I benefit from my privilege and share them such that everyone benefited. I spend my days trying to find ways to do this for my students. But I have it, and wishing it would go away isn’t going to make it go away, the only thing that will make it go away is if white people start accepting and finding ways to tear down the structures that make it so. Am I pissed off that we have to wait for people who have the power to wake up and realize this and be ashamed of it and fight to distribute it more equitably? Yes. But, I am a practical woman and this is the reality of the situation. And there is also this, at Stanford people from my class background are in the minority. Most of my classmates are better off than my wildest imaginations could possibly create as a child. And we live on campus together and they are my peers and my friends. We have to live in this society together, I want them to be part of the solution. So I want them to acknowledge their white privilege at the same time that they choose to do something about it, and I want to help them by acknowledging my privilege and being incredibly patient while they figure it out, so long as they are trying to figure it out.

As I have said, I am a practical woman. In the words of Deng Xiaoping “I don’t care if it’s a black cat or a white cat, I just care if it’s a cat that catches mice.” He was referring specifically to whether or someone was Communist enough to serve the country because during the Cultural Revolution the conversation became a bunch of college kids shouting “I am more radical than you” instead of sitting around and saying “hey, we have all this power and privilege and there are people suffering, what can we do about that?” His leadership in China was marred with blood, but I am using this quote because he is right. I don’t care who gets things done, I just care that they are taken care of. I don’t much care who progresses human rights, I just want them to progress. My family, friends, and students don’t have time to wait around for the perfect “savior” to come along. Studying history has taught me that they rarely do. MLK had many affairs, he has a record that suggests that he was less than progressive towards the woman in his life. For me, that doesn’t change the power or importance of his message. The same goes for my personal favorite, Malcolm X, because even though I don’t agree with all the things he said or all of his methods, he was often right about very important issues. I have my own tremendous blind spots. In the 1950s Stanford sent one of the largest contingents of participants in Freedom Summer. This is a legacy we should all be proud of, but we should also remember the reasons for Freedom Summer. Black Civil Rights workers had been fighting and dying for a long time in Mississippi by the time that Stanford students traveled down there. The plan was to bring privileged white children to work down in Mississippi so that when one of them was murdered or beaten people would actually care. That this is what needed to happen for the American populace to care about the plight of black people in America is horribly racist, and profoundly disturbing. But do you know what else was horribly racist and profoundly disturbing? Mississippi in the 1950s. We live in a society that is still racist, classist, sexist and heteronormative. It’s hard enough struggling against those things without the infighting that occurs when we start making sure the ranks of activists has the right composition and purity. I will say this again, the people I love most in the world don’t have time for that. We need to stop asking ourselves if people who want to help are good enough to do so and start asking the only question that matters: what is the most efficient way to make things better? Because we have a job to do, and where I come from that’s the only thing that matters.

This was originally posted by the lovely people over at Stanford’s progressive blog Static. The link can be found here: http://stnfrdstatic.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/on-responsible-activism/#more-2906

Don’t Be A Dick to Kids

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Because underneath my adorably dressed Stanford veneer is still the 14 year old who thought it was highly amusing to torture stupid teachers and who has seen every episode of South Park, I spent most of STEP getting myself into trouble and thinking it was fun to summarize every single class with a smart alleck remark. In my defense, one of my great strengths is synthesizing. That is my story and I am sticking to it. Anyway, after just about every class a comic was made or I whispered to someone that what we were learning could easily be summed up with the statement: Don’t be a Dick to Kids. I still firmly believe that, and it sounds really simple in theory but is apparently the great challenge of our time.

I went to poor schools where I got the message that I either didn’t belong or would amount to nothing and I am white and female, so you can imagine how terrible things are for the boys of color. For a lot of my friends, school was another site where they were alienated and cast out of the mainstream and unless you are insane and relentless like I am, if someone tell s you that you are unwanted enough times you are going to stop trying to win their affection. This is the fundamental underlying principal for why most poor kids don’t want to participate in school. They don’t have resources, are told that it is their fault, or given the impression that even if they work hard they will be undervalued and then are told, sometimes directly, that there is no reason to expect them to succeed in school. Given that this is the situation it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that perhaps they will stop performing in school. The thing we forget about our schools is that they are not isolated institutions; they are in fact reflective of the society which built them (which is of course true about all institutions). Context matters, social structure matters, and nothing exists in a vacuum. We talk often in America about students as if they exist in a vacuum with completely free choice. They do not. We talk about schools as if they exist in a vacuum with completely free choice. They do not. And we talk about communities as if they exist in a vacuum. They do not.

The weird thing about all of this is that when privileged people have children they seem to understand this and use it to advocate for their own kids. If they truly didn’t believe resources matter then how come they spend so much money on giving their kids an edge? If they truly believe that culture and context doesn’t matter, then how come they work so hard to make sure schools are not integrated? If they truly believe in personal responsibility how come when it is one of their kids it is literally everyone’s responsibility but the child’s? Now obviously, not all well-educated and well-resourced people believe this, but enough of them believe that our school system is designed to reflect that reality, in that the schools of privilege get additional funding from parents who didn’t want to even out funding with taxes, and schools are zoned in such a way to keep other kids from benefitting from those resources. In the poor schools we have zero tolerance policies because apparently when a poor child makes a mistake it is because they are adults with perfect decision making abilities, but when a rich child makes a mistake it should be a learning opportunity wherein they are praised for learning and growing. Zero tolerance policies and their disproportionate existence in the poor schools is just one example of how this all plays out. You can also look at the discipline policies at some of these charters they keep acting like are the answer to the situation, and when you look closely at the data what you see is extremely high attrition and discipline policies that are only fit for preparing kids for prison, not for being full members of society. I am optimistic that it is not the intention of charter operators to do this, but that is the end result, and I am not so naïve as to say that these practices don’t reflect a fundamental belief about how poor children should be treated.

My philosophy on education is really simple. What was good for my privileged friends at Stanford would have been good for me. None of those parents question what is good. They know what is good. You can walk into any well-resourced school in America and you will see a community that provides students with a rich education that involves art, music, critical thinking, lots of practice with writing and reading, access to lots of extracurricular activities, support services (including mental health services) and on and on. Teachers speak to students with respect and love and students receive the message that they are full human beings who have rights. No one worries about test scores and kids receive individualized educations wherein their strengths are validated and supported. If we were really serious about equity the only discussion we would be having is the discussion of how to make our poorest schools look like our richest schools. And how to train a teaching force that is not only as well-qualified as the teachers at the best public schools but also has a firm commitment to treating students like they are in fact part of American society.
This is really simple, but the game becomes complicated when people try to hide the underlying assumptions that build our system. Then we get on the road to distraction, and instead of correcting the fundamental inequities we play around with little details. When poor kids don’t perform we change the tests, or prep the tests, or punish the kids or punish the teachers, or punish the community, instead of doing what we need to heal the community. In the best case scenario this distraction stems either form a misunderstanding of the problem or an attempt to tweak what little details we feel like are in our control. We’ve abandoned the dreams of Brown v. Board of Ed. The ruling to enforce integration based on race was destroyed by the ruling that says schools didn’t have to equalize funding based on class. I can’t tell if that is because we don’t realize that or because people have lost faith in our ability to actually correct these problems and enforce that dream. But separate and equal is still inherently unequal. In the worst case scenario this is happening because the people with power are racist and are trying to hide it. Reading and my own sense tells me that the vast majority fall into the “idealistic but misinformed”, the next largest group is the folks who understand what is going on but have given up on grand change, and the smaller percentage is the racists. I refuse to give up on that dream. Brown v. Board of Ed was paid for, literally, in blood. Is our generation scared of getting dirty, of sacrificing? I don’t think so. I think our generation just doesn’t have clarity of mission. We can do this. There are even more of us who believe in these ideals than there were in the 50s and 60s.

But there is no app for that. That is blood, sweat and tears. That is hard labor and dedication. That is an overwhelming sense of love and justice. We can have that, we just need to turn off some of the noise of the people older than us who are having arguments about things that don’t really matter and insist that we have the only discussion that does matter. That discussion is: “How do we ensure our education system reflects a fundamental belief in the rights of people to pursue happiness and to embody their full humanity?” Anyone who tells you the fight is about something else is either wrong or lying to you. We know this, in our hearts, but we have to trust this fundamental belief, and believe in it so fiercely that there is nothing that will distract us. We can do it. But more importantly, we have to do this, because there is no other way forward.

I often refer to myself as a foot soldier for a cause without naming the cause. This is because I usually hang out with other foot soldiers and we know at some implicit level what we are doing. But I never see this cause named in the reform movement or anywhere else. This fight isn’t about test scores. This fight isn’t about who controls our schools. This fight is not about pedagogy. I hate it when people talk about poor kids like they are a problem we have to solve, if we just tweak a few variables perhaps they will learn to love being at an institution that has been a site of society’s hate for decades. Those kids don’t want that. What they want to is to be given their full humanity. The want the same things the privileged kids have, the choice to live their life and be fulfilled, happy, functioning members of society. They want to be human beings in the most liberal, highest order sense of the word. Is that not what the entire Civil Right’s battle is always about? Expanding our definitions to be more inclusive, to recognize every human beings rights’ to humanity? The battles aren’t happening in the courtroom anymore. They are in our streets, our homes, our schools. That is the cause I am fighting for, the rights of my people and people everywhere to realize their full humanity in a nation that promised them that. In a nation that uses their bodies so that someone else can have that. That is what this is about, and I will settle for nothing less. I will settle for nothing less than my students being treated like full human beings. The whole of human history is the story of that fight. Everything else is details and distraction, and I pay attention to those in so far as they get the job done, but fundamentally, at the end of the day all of my energy goes into fighting the bigger fight. That is what, after all these years, gets me up in the morning. It is, by my estimation, the only fight worth having and it is something I will spend the rest of my life striving for, because we aren’t even close to that goal, but everyday people make the choice to get a little bit closer. It is a choice. I made mine long time ago and I will live and die by that choice. And that is ultimately what will be my realization of humanity, so if I can do just that, I will do what I what I was supposed to do. I will be fully human too. If you want to liberate yourself, liberate others. So long as one of us is in chains we will all be in chains.