So there's this school. A public school. Let's call it Murroughs Elementary for the sake of anonymity. It has some of the nicest facilities in the city, including a state-of-the-art media center, a double-sized gymnasium, and a beautiful performance space. They recently raised over $90,000 in a book sale. Student's test scores at this school tend to exceed both district and national averages in reading and math. 72% of the students in this school are white despite the fact that white students make up only 30% of the district in general. A mere 6% of their students are African American even though African American students make up about 40% of the district. Native American students make up 1% of the school's population, Latino students make up 18%, and 4% of the children are Asian. The neighborhoods that this school serves are some of the wealthiest in the city. You know, the "good" neighborhoods.
Recently our district has been considering some major changes. They are thinking about adjusting the boundary lines that assign kids to particular schools in order to save money and also to integrate schools that have become incredibly racially and economically homogeneous. In a recent article about school segregation in the United States Matthew Bigg wrote: "the average black and Latino student is now in a school that has nearly 60 percent of students from families who are near or below the poverty line"(source) The article also mentioned that "39 percent of black students and 40 percent of students from the fast-growing Latino minority are increasingly isolated in schools in which there is little racial mixing". To be honest, that seems like a modest statistic for me. Most of the kids who participate in Dinomights go to a school that is only 1% white and where 96% of the kids are economically challenged enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch. At Murroughs Elementary only 20% qualify.
Now when Murroughs Elementary heard that their borders might be modified, the school community had a panic attack. All of a sudden, they were faced with the threat of having to open their doors to "those kids". You know, those kids who live in 'bad' neighborhoods. Those Kids who speak languages like Hmong or Somali. Those kids who are poor. Those kids who are Muslim. Those kids who are black. Those kids who are 'ghetto'.
Of course, these politically correct parents didn't use the same language I did. They are much too liberal, open-minded, and progressive for that. They simply stated that their school would prefer to focus on the demographics they already have. They don't need to diversify any further because they have a program for Spanish speaking students, right? They have stepped far enough outside of their privileged white bubble, how could the city suggest mixing things up even more?!
Someone on the school board allegedly accused the school principal's position on the new policy of being racist. Uh-oh, he used "that" word. He "pulled the race card". Can you imagine the Murroughs Elementary parents NOW?? I mean, they have Latino students so they are clearly not discriminatory people. Heck, most of them probably even voted for Obama! The first thought that came to my mind when I heard about this situation was that it was a modern day Little Rock Nine scenario. No, there is not an angry mob picketing outside the school, yelling racial slurs, and spitting on African American students (although there is certainly an angry mob of parents). But the message is the same. Keep those kids separate. Put them in their own school. Separate but equal! Sure, give them same amount of resources as you give us (we will be able to raise above and beyond whatever the gov't gives us anyway). Those kids will take away from the quality of my child's education. They are too different.
There are many things I love about the United States but our individualist attitude is killing us. Why can't it be our kids instead of those kids? Why can't some of the parents in this country who advocate for their kids to the point of excess share some of that advocacy with the underrepresented students in our schools? Life does not just revolve about you and your family. There is not an unlimited supply of resources on this planet. Your abundance directly affects another person's deprivation whether you choose to view the connection or not. If you need a selfish incentive, just remember that Those kids are going to be a part of the same adult community as your children. Isn't that enough of a reason to have a vested interest in the education of ALL of the kids in this city?
Those kids have names. Those kids are smart. Those kids have something to teach your children. Those kids have gifts and talents that will enrich your school community. Those kids need advocates. Those kids need people to walk along-side them. Those kids need to know that they are in a good school. Those kids need to be expected to succeed and given the resources to do so.
Your kids need to be exposed to wider demographics. Your kids have something to learn from children whose background is different from their own. Your kids need to learn not to fear. Your kids need to work alongside those kids as leaders in breaking down the racial and economic inequalities that are plaguing their world. Your kids need to know that despite what society subconsciously tells them, they are not better. Your kids need to share. Your kids need to know the poor--not by volunteering at a homeless shelter on Christmas when class lines are so visibly defined, but through genuine and personal relationships.
Let's combine these categories and embrace all children as ours and recognize the value and potential of each and every kid in this community. Let's get to know people and hear their stories. Let's acknowledge the invisible bat of privilege that white people are carrying around (it's especially dangerous when you don't know you are holding it). Let's get excited about educating our kids and share the *joy* of learning with all students! Let's realize how deeply injustices in education, housing, employment, and the environment are connected. Let's be realistic and face the complicities of race and class head on. Let's be vulnerable and honest in our effort to move forward. Let's SEE the overlooked children and empower them to take charge of their education. Let's do justice.
Tekle, Aaron, Zenebesh and I were walking back to my house from the park today and a man walking by casually mentioned "Wow, you've got your hands full! You're baby-sitting on a SATURDAY?" I laughed and said that I wasn't technically baby-sitting because they were my brothers and sisters. The man replied: "Oh cool, you volunteer for Big Brothers/Big Sisters?" "Mmmm nope, they're really my brothers and sisters!" I wasn't offended because I am well aware that we don't exactly look like siblings and I don't expect people to automatically figure out that we are an adoptive family. We talked a little bit more and then the man continued walking. A few minutes later though he turned around and said "You know, I wanted to come back and apologize for what I said about you baby-sitting. I have an albino daughter and people ask me all the time whose kid I'm watching [he's African American]. It drives me crazy!"
I was caught off guard by his apology but I thought it was really cool. We sympathized with each other about how frustrating it can be at times to not be immediately acknowledged as a family. I know people's comments don't stem from bad intentions or anything, but it was nice to vent a little bit about the constant need to explain how we are related.
I think it was cool for both of us to talk to someone who "gets it" and I was reminded of the wide range of families out there--We are certainly not the only ones who stand out!
On a similar note, last week I was helping Leah do childcare for an Ethiopian kids playgroup and I brought Zeni along. When we got there one of the little boys asked me in a really surprised voice: "That's your sister?! But why are you so much bigger than her??" I laughed because the fact that she's Ethiopian and I'm not didn't phase him a bit, he just couldn't grasp the age difference between us :)
So the other day after I asked Lacy about the demographics of her friends (after I interviewed Isaac for his post) and she answered: Do you want me to NAME all the countries my friends are from?! Somalia, Mexico, Laos, Korea, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Algeria, Chicago.... haha. I guess I can't say too much about Lacy's geography skills because up until about eighth grade I believed Hawaii and Alaska were islands right next to each other just below the United States--that's what it looked like on the map!! I guess I never wondered how two drastically different climates could be located so close to each other... Apparantly ALL of the girls in our family have geography issues--Janaya just realized this week that New Mexico is part of the United States. Earlier this week Zeni and I were going on a walk and suddenly she stopped in her tracks, grabbed my shirt, and yelled in a very distressed voice "Kelsey LOOK!"...I looked where she was pointing and saw a shiny light blue convertible..."Cool car huh Zeni??" And she replied "Nooooo! Sad!!! It's broken!!". And all of a sudden I was overwhelmed with sympathy for that poor family with the missing roof on their car... And to prove that I can embarass myself on my blog too: It has been established in my family that I have plenty of talents, but cooking doesn't happen to be one of them. It's not that I try cooking but then the food turns out gross, it's just that I never do it--so my cooking/food preparation knowledge is pretty remedial. The other day my dad asked me to cut up some ham. I had remembered seeing him cut meat before with some type of machine, and since there was something that I thought looked like a machine sitting on the counter, I innocently asked "Do you want me to cut it with this meat-cutting thing?"...First he just looked at me blankly, then burst out laughing. Turns out the "meat cutting machine" was actually the alternator for my brother's car. In my defense, why would there be an alternator in the kitchen anyways??
So I've been trying for years to get a good family picture. I mean, I'm not asking for us to all put on matching shirts and head to Proex or anything, but is a smile (or at least not goofy faces), and eyes directed at the camera REALLY so much to ask?? I've seen families bigger than ours accomplish it...
Here are our most recent attempts from Easter and Grandma's house (and YES I did use the fact that we were at my grandma's house to my advantage...my Grandma sweetly asked Jesse "Well if you won't do it for Kelsey, will you at least take a nice picture for me?" hehehe):
This one is actually pretty good! I mean aside from the fact that Zeni looks like her head hurts, Aaron looks like he's intimidating someone, Isaac's eyes are closed, Tekle's not looking, and Jesse's smile isn't exactly genuine...
Jesse thinks he's a superhero.
Zenebesh is distracting everyone with her funny face--it looks like everyone just thinks it's cute...shows how seriously they take my dreams geeeeeeeeeeeeesh.
Something was happening slightly to the left...
If we were the kind of family that sent out Christmas cards, this would probably be it. At least everyone's looking (or almost looking).
Isaac was probably about 5 in this picture--I LOVE his pose!
haha, who knew getting your hair cut was such a terrifying thing?
When I asked Isaac(17) what he thought were some advantages to living in the city he immediately responded: "Diverse interaction". He talked for about five minutes straight about how much he valued being surrounded by differences and how much he has learned from that. I then asked him what he thought life would be like if he wasn't surrounded by so much diversity. He said: "It would change me. I would think I had to act like the black people I saw on t.v."
He mentioned that he probably wouldn't think as hard about things like civil rights. Probably his most passionate point though, was that if he didn't live in the city he would not be exposed to "real" hip-hop. He said "In the city your ears are opened" and that he would hate to think that hip-hop was limited to the commercial stuff you hear on the radio.
I then asked if he ever got comments from his non-white friends about having white parents. His answer was an emphatic YES. He said he hears things like You must be rich! I bet you get whatever you want! (which is a really funny assumption if you know our family since that is definitely not the case) Ohh so that's why you act white sometimes... Why do you talk like that?
He went on to say "It bothered me when I was little, but not anymore." He then said that while he CAN act "straight up ghetto" he chooses not to.
I asked him to tell me about the demographics of his friends. He said about about 25% of his friends were white, the rest were from a variety of backgrounds. He emphasized that he can get along with everyone, saying "I'm hilarious" but also commented that he thinks some white people are intimidated by him.
At one point during the conversation Isaac said that once in awhile he forgets the extra responsibilities that are an inevitable part of being black in this city. He told me about how the other day he wasn't thinking and wore a red scarf when he went out one night with his friends. Red is the color of one of the major gangs around here (not just around here, they are all over the country) and most young black men avoid wearing red or the rival gang's royal blue if they don't want people to think they are affiliated with either side. That night Isaac ran into a group of guys who started throwing up signs and making all sorts of comments about the gang they assumed he was representing. On one hand Isaac was surprised, because he was definitely not dressed like your typical gang member. On the other had he said that people really don't care what your style is--they see your skin color first and make assumptions from there. He said simply "I have to think about the colors I wear". His non-black friends do not.
When I asked Isaac if he had any advice for white parents adopting African American children he said that if their kids don't know how to "act black" they won't be prepared. He also said it's important to be genuine. He used the example of going to a diverse church just because your kids are black, and said it should be about more than that. Your heart should really be in it and you should genuinely want to be a part of the community there. His last point was that parents should not just focus on exposing their children to black and white, but rather they should make a point to celebrate ALL cultures. "If not, there's no way they are going to make it"
First Christmas in our new house. Left to Right: Kayavin, Jesse, Janaya, Isaac, Lacy, Peter, Kelsey
Before I continue this series, I have to clarify that my parents and siblings continue to live in the city, but no longer the inner-city. (I do live in the inner-city though, and am actually living with some roommates on the block directly behind our family's old house).
After about 10 years living in the inner-city my parents decided to move. To be honest they were a bit burnt out. They had been pouring out their time, energy, and hearts to the people in our neighborhood as well as raising 6 kids, (plus a sibling set of two that lived with us for years) and at one point my mom was even doing day care as well. Our house was a constant stream of people (which was a beautiful but also exhausting thing). She yearned for more space for us to run around and dreamed of having a big back yard for all of us. My parents needed a change in environment and some time to focus on taking care of themselves. I think it is easy for anyone who is passionate about what they are doing to spend so much time nurturing others that they forget to nurture themselves. I think a stronger support system would have been helpful, maybe an older couple who had "been-there-done-that" to mentor them through the complicity of urban living and remind them to set boundaries and not feel bad to spend more time taking care of themselves.
Nine years ago, I had no idea what my parents were going through and made no attempt to understand their reasons for moving. To be honest, I was ANGRY. We were all angry. We could not believe that our parents were even considering tearing us away from our beloved block, friends, favorite corner-stores, and lifestyle. Though the new house was still in the city, the name of the street was the same as that of a nearby suburb, and we were mortified to think that someone might hear our address and mistakenly think we were suburban kids. If you haven't gathered, city kids tend to demonize the suburbs a little bit. For us, instead of "The Devil Wears Prada" it was "The Devil Wears Abercrombie & Fitch". It is a very human tendency to turn something unfamiliar to you into a bad thing, so if you are from the suburbs please don't be offended! Kayavin (friend of Peter who lived with us for years) was absolutely terrified of the new neighborhood. He said the quietness was CREEPY and we all struggled at first to fall asleep without the lull of traffic, sirens, and voices that fill the nights in the inner-city.
Though at the time we were all convinced that our lives were ending, looking back I know my parents did what they could to preserve the lifestyle we were used to. We didn't switch schools. We didn't switch churches. We continued to participate in all of the same inner-city sports teams and summer programs we had always been involved in. We just had to commute a bit longer each day, and many of the things we loved were no longer in walking distance.
Those of us that were older at the time of the move, still insist that our old house was the best-house-ever and that there is not a neighborhood in this world cooler than the one we lived in growing up, but we are also far enough past the previous resentment to enjoy the neighborhood my parents live in now. We appreciate our big back yard. We appreciate that we are nearby a lake that draws people from all over the city, adding some much needed diversity to the neighborhood. Like I said, it's not a completely white neighborhood (Janaya just has to walk down the block to get her hair braided) but it certainly not what we were used to. We appreciate the pizza place that we can walk to. We have also realized that living near the airport comes in handy when we are traveling and the little kids love watching the airplanes land and take-off. There are definitely good things about being here. That being said, in my opinion nothing can compare to the *life* that bursts from neighborhoods in the inner-city.
In some ways we get the best of both worlds. Our "foundation" is the inner-city. It's where we started, it's where much of our time is spent, it's where our network is and most importantly its where out closest relationships exist. It is where my heart is, it is where I feel the most loved and it the place that truly feels like home for me.
My parents were recently checking out a few houses back in our old neighborhood, so who knows, maybe someday we will all be back! (I write about it as if it is so far away, when in reality it is less than 10 mins. from my parents house. Sometimes the two neighborhoods do feel like separate worlds though!) Whether or not our whole family moves back, the inner-city (specifically our old neighborhood) will continue to be a significant and invaluable part of our lives.
I'm sorry that I've completely neglected this blog for the last month...I promise I'll get back to real blogging soon! The last month has been filled with midterms and traveling, and now I have things like my official BSW program application, finalizing summer plans, and a major research project about the "Mau-Mau" revolution in Kenya on my plate. So for now I just have time to post some pics :)
Aaron and Zenebesh certainly have their moments but they really do love each other. The other day they were taking a nap in my mom's room and she went in to check on them and they were both sleeping soundly and holding hands :)