Good News

 

Good News

 

No, it’s not my good news. It’s just that I was reminded this past weekend of how important it is to hear good news — progress and success stories that fuel our resolve to work through seemingly intractable problems. My blast of ‘good news’ came this past weekend at a conference, Where Integration Meets Innovation, put together by the relatively new organization One Nation Indivisible (ONI).

ONI believes in the power of positive examples to provide inspiration and models for those striving to create integrated schools, the kind that do more than put diverse people in a building together. ONI believes in using integration to create spectacular educational models that empower children to develop from the inside out, navigate complex relationships and social issues, and develop a worldview fit for the 21st century. In ONI's view, excellent education cannot happen in racially segregated classrooms.

School Seg Banned

“But wait!” you’re thinking. “Racially segregated classrooms no longer exist. Segregated education is unconstitutional, and has been since Brown v. Board of Education’s 1954 ruling! Why are you bringing it up now? Isn't this kind of old news?”

Thief in Night

So, on the one hand you’re right. Racially segregated education has been unconstitutional for 60 years. But here’s the deal: Like a thief stealing through back alleys in the middle of the night, systemic racism’s sneaky and shifty ways have found byways and backdoors through which to keep people segregated by race. 

The amount of intention and struggle involved in outwitting racism is both a horrible thing and beautiful thing. When white people ignore it, it continues. In the words of Howard Zinn, "You can't be neutral on a moving train."  On the other hand, when white people join with people of color and intentionally leverage their combined skills, resources, and social capital to affect change, it can be a beautiful thing. And what ONI showed me in Hartford is a beautiful thing indeed.

Batman & Robin

After a morning of hopping on and off buses to tour a few of Hartford's schools, I felt giddy with hope. “Holy Bill of Rights Batman!” I thought to myself, this is what public education can look like?”

Globe

I visited an International Baccalaureate Middle and High School with an expedition-infused curriculum designed to develop in students an international, cross-cultural, cross-discipline perspective. All in the name of preparing the next generation to take on 21st century challenges. Graduation rate? 100%. 

I saw state-of-the-art buildings, including an Environmental Sciences school that has in its lobby a fish-filled, waterfall-fed pond flanked by an aquatic laboratory and butterfly vivarium. Science made real and in your face.

I visited a Montessori school that has made family engagement a priority. Instead of encouraging families to skedaddle once the kid is dropped off, they’ve created a family resource room, full of child-friendly supplies for younger siblings and a computer for parents. Community building made real.

Lady Justice

The schools I toured are part of Hartford’s ongoing school integration project, known as the Sheff Movement, born of a 1980s and 1990s lawsuit that held Connecticut’s feet to the fire for violating anti-segregation laws. How were they segregating children? The exact same way cities and towns all across  America do. Hartford's suburban schools were populated by suburban kids — mostly white. Hartford's city schools were populated by city kids — mostly black and brown. The white schools were highly resourced; the black and brown schools not so much. Separate and unequal. And it showed up in the kids. In 1989, when Hartford's city schools reported that the majority of 8th grade students required remedial reading, the parents had had enough. It wasn't their kids they argued, it was a system focused more on warehousing kids than preparing them for life and citizenship.

Because Hartford-style racial segregation still exists all over America, lawsuits like Sheff v. O'Neill could likely be fought and won, leading to other region-wide school integration movements. After all, it's a constitutional right to receive an integrated, equitably resourced education. My question is: What would it take for other states to voluntarily take on the task of integrating and upgrading their schools?

Scared White Man

For families not already on the integration bandwagon, integrated schools must seem scary. There is no shortage of media images that encourage white people to imagine black and brown people as violent, criminal, or lacking intelligence. (And there's no shortage of history and experience to encourage black and brown people to imagine white people as domineering, self-serving, and dangerous.) Sending your white suburban child into an urban school where they’ll likely be in the racial minority must feel threatening. 

But what if our news and school curriculums educated us about the policies and practices that create exclusively or predominantly white communities? That white communities aren't a matter of happenstance, but social engineering — and a recipe for mistrust and narrow worldviews for people on all sides of the racial equation.

White Kids

 

What if our news and curriculums provided us with plentiful reporting about success stories like those in Hartford? And media images that reminded us that this is what America's freedom for all 'melting pot' can look like? 

 

Three Kids

 

Might Americans start scrambling to deconstruct the past in order to reconstruct the future? 

Think about this. Where do you live? Does your town and neighborhood pretty much reflect our country’s population? If the answer is 'yes,' that means no more than 78% of your neighbors are white. If more than 78% of your neighbors are white, there’s a pretty good chance (okay a near 100% chance) that you’ve been either a pawn or a willing participant in America’s racialized housing and lending policies and practices. You think you’re just buying a house in a ‘nice’ neighborhood so your kids can have a ‘good’ education and the equity in your home will be a 'safe' investment, but whammo, you’ve essentially just contributed to the racial divide. To better your lot in life, you've left black and brown people in towns, neighborhoods, and schools with inferior resources — often without even realizing it. This is how racism works.

Hartford is off to a solid start, but the work is not done. Less than 40% of Hartford students attend these integrated schools, in part because of capacity constraints. In the last lottery cycle, 15,000 kids did not ‘win.’ Picture the face of a child you love. Now imagine telling that child they can’t have the education they want – not gummy bears or PlayStations – but education. Lastly, multiply the pang in your heart by15,000. Racism is an emergency guys.

Green Thief Caught

Please join me in moving from a state of fear and avoidance to one of love and justice. Learn about racism and how you might unwittingly be participating in it. Find out what your town and school system is or is not doing to create integrated schools. And don’t forget to seek out and spread news of positive examples when you hear about it. There’s nothing like a dose of hope to motivate the already comfortable to roll up sleeves and join the struggle to catch racism in the act and outwit it with purpose and resolve.

Love in Public

 

To learn more about One Nation Indivisible or what's happening in Hartford, visit the following sites.

One Nation

Sheff Movement

Hartford Public Schools – Home

CREC Schools | Greater Hartford CT Magnet Schools

Regional School Choice Office for the Greater Hartford Region

5 Comments

  1. Excellent! I’m an old high school friend of Bruce’s (yes, from Darien….that bastion of whiteness) and made my way to your web site via Bruce’s Facebook page. I am a sociologist and teach about racial-ethnic inequality, one of my passions. Am going to read your book and possibly use it in my classes. Thanks for all this –

  2. Hi Debby,

    Enjoying your posts. I grew up in a really white bread town, went to Catholic white bread schools and then Kenyon. And I now live in a really white bread town. Not really choice, more happenstance. Anyway, I’m really intrigued by your message. And bravo for good news!!

  3. You said,”Does your town and neighborhood pretty much reflect our country’s population? If the answer is ‘yes,’ that means no more than 78% of your neighbors are white. If more than 78% of your neighbors are white, there’s a pretty good chance (okay a near 100% chance) that you’ve been either a pawn or a willing participant in America’s racialized housing and lending policies and practices.” Am trying to think how this applies in rural Vermont/New Hampshire , where we only have 60,000 people in a 60 mile radius-mostly caucasian.

    1. Alan, you pose an excellent question. Did you know that your state of Vermont, with 95.4% white population, is the second whitest of our 50 states? Bottom line, the more white a community is, the more that the people of color who try to integrate are stereotyped, targeted, tokenized, all that nasty dehumanizing stuff. When white people have moslty skewed media images to inform their understanding of people of color, connecting can get awkward and complicated. As for how individuals and communities in Vermont and Maine are trying to overcome this crtical-mass-hurdle, check out these two sources.

      Here's a 45 minute Vermont Public Radio Piece called, "It's Not Black and White" from 7/25/13. You'll hear from a University of Vermont professor and a police chief among others.

      Here's a blog, Black Girl in Maine, about a black woman eager to connect with other people of color living the experience of being black in such a white state.

      Hope this helps!

      1. Debby,
        I’ll be returning to my home state of Maine, probably for good. Thanks for the info on the blog “Black Girl in Maine.” I do intend to keep up the work I’ve started in Massachusetts when I get there.

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