Growing Roses in Concrete: thoughts about the Nov 29th Social Justice meeting

The title is borrowed from Jeff Duncan-Andrade (13 minute TED talk – a VERY worthwhile listen), who was inspired by Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” (wiki entry for book). This topic served as the basis for much of our discussion. And I would say that the conversations, both around the tables and at large, were excellent opportunities to learn from each other, explore the environment we live in and how that affects others.


So right up front let me say that I am torn about the Social Justice Committee. As I reflect upon this, I realized I could use the working analogy of concrete and roses with damaged petals to shape my thoughts.


The concrete

For lack of a more creative way to say this, Unit 4 does things a certain way. It’s the “way it has always been done” kind of thing. Unit 4 committees are typically heavily populated by Unit 4 staff and typically held at the Mellon Center. For the most part, these committees and board meetings struggle to gain any sort of publicity outside themselves; they are not visible on the website, you don’t see anyone blogging about them, nothing on twitter or even around the coffee pot. They are a part of the invisible machinations of the “machine” of Unit 4 district administration. I also get the sense that their goals (purpose, mission statement, etc) are too often looking inward; how to form policy, how to shape administration.

To make a more specific example of last night’s social justice meeting, I found it extremely hard to engage in the conversation at first because the first task made no sense to me. We were given two vignettes of fictional students whose performance started off greatly but had taken a nosedive. Based on an incomplete picture of the situation, we were told to discuss ways in which pieces of the existing system “engaged” certain areas. Like what does “Instruction” do, currently, to address these two downward sliding students? What about “Facilities”? “Curriculum”? It was too abstract for me. I have no clue how the buildings affect the fictional students. Granted, others at the table came up with ideas, but they all felt very “Unit 4ish” to me. Like, very vague and barely relevant ideas, nothing to me that could be made specifically applicable to these students in mind.


The Roses

Given the hard adversity of these tradition-bound forms, good things still happen. There are really fascinating facts buried in the EEE and PMPK meeting reports. More recently, the Social Justice and Parent Advocacy committees are having these little examples of excellent conversations, awesome intent and lots of potential. There are some really hard-working, liberal-thinking and risk-taking individuals in the meetings. I love that!

I would also say an emerging ‘rose’ is that of the new administration’s attempt to grow trust, to be transparent and to engage the community.

Going back to last night again as a specific example, one lady at a table reported out on her table’s brainstorming on ways to improve the current system, and WOW, they had some awesome ideas! I very much hope to see that list put up on the website. And since I saw two of you readers sitting at that table, I hope you can say more as well. 🙂


The damaged petals

As a result of the concrete, it is my observation that most community folks are disengaged. My perspective is that it seems most people view the whole of Unit 4 as an antiquated system, most likely due to practices from the past decades that have eroded trust. There is a general sense that these committees are not doing much. And here is where I am torn. For all these great conversations that we are having, what actually gets done? How are students helped? How is the community helped? This is very hard to measure. I think there is a lot of personal satisfaction by those who attend (and also dissatisfaction in many cases), but how does that translate outwards?


For me, I was reminded that there is beauty all around us. I am extremely grateful that Ellen Dahlke and Jaime Roundtree led us through the examples of Tupac’s vivid and gripping universe.


13 Responses to “Growing Roses in Concrete: thoughts about the Nov 29th Social Justice meeting”

  1. G. David Frye Says:

    Spend a day each week in an elementary or middle school.

    You could read to kids, have them read to you, help them with repetitive math skills, bring in materials to build something, demonstrate a talent or skill or device you know a lot about, help the teacher grade papers, just be a warm body to fetch pencils and paper, or reconfigure shared classroom space for different activities.

    In the process you will learn a lot about the day-to-day environment the teachers and support staff deal with. And you will, I hope, begin to understand why any movement to improve that working environment has to start with, and be endorsed by, those “boots on the ground.”

    I can’t say this enough. I’ve done it. It’s a huge insight into what really goes on in the schools. It’s more useful than any chat fest or neighborhood poll or academic study or consulting firm. (Those things are helpful, too, but a level or two removed from the front lines.)

    I have been in classrooms where two children came to school without sleep, because they spent the night in the police station while CPD figured out what to do with them – because they were removed from a crack house when their parent(s) and other adults were arrested.

    I have seen a 5th-grade boy hauled away in handcuffs because he became physically violent when the teacher asked him to stop doing something he shouldn’t have been doing. I happened to know just enough of his history to believe that a lot of what he was carrying around as emotional baggage came from his family situation, but background or no, there are lines no child should be allowed to cross.

    A boy I know suddenly stopped showing up at his 2nd grade class. After some investigation it was found that he was walking all the way to school, then turning around when the bell rang because he just couldn’t bear to walk through the door. The back story was that his mom had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and the family was under a tremendous amount of stress; it somehow came out in him when he had to be in the classroom.

    I could go on. I think the point is that there are a ton of things that impact on the ability of kids to stay up to speed, over which the schools have no control. So it’s good to try to identify the areas where we DO have some control, or at least input, and do whatever it takes to make those work well.

    In your paragraph about scenarios you mentioned instruction, curriculum, and facilities. To that I would add community support (such as PTA/PTSA, volunteers, and mentors) and co-op programs with higher ed, government, and business. Fine Arts is also huge as a way of not just exposing kids to culture, but giving them the means to develop their own talents.

  2. pattsi Says:

    Both posters have given some very interesting and useful pieces of information on which to act.
    First to Charles–please describe how many people attended the meeting along with a demographic description, as best as you can. Was the food a significant draw?
    Second to David–your suggest has tremendous merit. Have you written up a white paper expressing these thoughts and presented thus to the school board? In addition, I am wondering how many parents are engaged as you are–what percentage would you guess?
    Third to both of you–I see a N-G guest editorial written by both of you including these comments and any others that you have not yet posted. There is so little dialogue in the N-G from individuals who spend time within Unit 4 and working hard to better understand how the district functions. Don’t just post on this blog–not that many people read it–stretch to a broader audience.

  3. charlesdschultz Says:

    GDavid: One of the common ‘solutions’ we came up with at our table was the need to focus on relationships. This is something I wholeheartedly agree with. As you point out in your many examples, how can one possible know how to focus and direct one’s resources and energies if one does not know the big picture? Your examples fit right in with the two caricatures used at the meeting.

    Pattsi: I am going to guess about 45 people (10 tables averaging about 4 each plus those who were roaming as facilitators). Most of those present were employed by Unit 4, some of the others I knew to be parents/community folks, and a small handful I did not know at all. Demographically….. white majority, maybe 25-35% African american, 3-4 Latinos and at least one from the Indian subcontinent and another perhaps a little farther north. Food was not a draw at all – some candy was set out, but that was it.

    And yes, I very much have the idea to write not one, but multiple letters to the editor.

  4. Chuck Jackson Says:

    I totally support the “boots on the ground” perspective but also regularly see that there isn’t enough time (and other resources) to do the job many of these wonderful professionals want to do. I am in the schools for days at a time. I am in the schools, not just from time to time but all the time – throughout the school year.

    I regularly see the compromises teachers and other staff are forced to make because of the beauracracy, rules and hassles. And I see that the day to day responsibilities of discipline and grading and planning do not allow for the “front line troops” to consider the overall battle plan. This makes total sense if we are going to use that battlefield analogy. It is impossible for the troops to see how the battlefield looks, they lack perspective. That certainly doesn’t mean that what they see is wrong or irrelevant. It is GREAT as far as it goes and no general can tell us more about the fight itself.

    But what’s the strategy? This is where unit 4 (and 116, and most others) lose the public. The common treatment is black box-ish. “Trust us,” they say. We have trusted them (and continue to) but the results for low SES and minority kids are lacking. To continue to take a hands off approach doesn’t make sense,

  5. Karen Says:

    I could write some broken-child scenarios, but, they wouldn’t ‘fit’ Ms. Dahlke’s ‘our kids…’ mold. Perhaps there should be a Social Justice Calculator. It almost seems like a contest at times with respect to who has it the hardest. Most everyone has ch*t to deal with in their lives, but, If we really want to be fair? Look at people on an individual basis. Case by case. It’s not a deficit-based model IMO (which opposed Ms. Dahlke’s) that leads to ‘things like racism.’ IMO it’s making assumptions about individuals through the lens of group stereotypes that lends itself very well to that. Unfortunately, this seems to be an integral part of Social Justice.

  6. Karen Says:

    Chuck, what do you do in the schools?

  7. Karen Says:

    Also, IMO, a school district should not have any involvement in immigration reform activities. ‘How can we make immigration reform more just?’

  8. Karen Says:

    Are these kids, who have all been dealt a ‘ricketty ladder’ in life, being taught to ‘resist’ the truth of the adult world they are heading into (the way it is now, like it or not), or, are they being prepared to be successful in it? Teaching minors to ‘resist’ and buck the system leaves them where when they find themselves outside of the walls that support such behavior? Wouldn’t you be in a better position to effect change in the system, in this world, when you are not incarcerated for picking and choosing which ‘rules’ (laws) are ‘relevant’ to you, no? At the meeting there was a comment about a street-wise ‘attitude’ being seen as a rose/positive because ‘she will need that in life.’ I agree that it can be seen as a positive, but, not so much in the sense that she will need that in her life. Is that not the sort of low-expectation issue (or is it a truth that needs to be recognized??? confusing) that social justice advocates (and many others) attempt to champion? Isn’t that setting up the status quo expectation that a life where she doesn’t need that is not possible? Maybe it will serve her well in certain times, places in her life. But, the truth of the current world is that it won’t serve her well across the board (employment, in general, as an example). It is not clear to me at all that social justice teaches time/place distinctions.

  9. charlesdschultz Says:

    Karen, you have raised some good points and I thank you for that. I am curious, have you asked these questions of Dr. Taylor or Ellen Dahlke directly?

    Allow me to toss something out there – it is not my intent to go off on a tangent or distract from this discussion.
    Does every single person innately have worth?

    Personally, I firmly believe that every person does indeed inherently have worth simply for being a human. I believe life itself is imbued with value and beauty. We could have a philosophical debate about where that value or worth comes from, or what happens when a person does something really horrible, but I am not going to go there. I just want to paint a basic background.

    So now coming back to this discussion of “social justice”, or “who has it the hardest” or some conceptual grasp of what “fair” really means and do we really want it? The idea of a Social Justice Calculator sounds way too cold, too impersonal and even too inhumane to me. It seems to me that we can throw away the baggage-laden phrases and focus on two simple axioms:
    1. We all make mistakes (thanks Alexander Pope)
    2. We need each other because we need to work together; no one of us excels at everything (see #1)

    It seems to me that we have arrived at a place where the system we have built over the years is highly efficient “for the most part” (ie, using those laden words like “dominant majority”), but doesn’t work so well for everyone. If this is the case, would it not be important to recognize this as a fact and work to fill the gaps of the system? Not that I would condone forcing everyone to do that – rather, by showing how mutually beneficial it is.

    That is all theory talk. For me, the “boots on the ground” is to do what you guys are talking about, getting to know the fuller picture of the kids and in turn, ourselves. Maybe we can help. Or maybe we are the ones that need help. Probably both.

  10. Karen Says:

    Agree that every person does have innate value.

    Your response to my comment about a Social Justice Calculator highlights the very things about Social Justice that just don’t mesh with me when I think about the terms ‘just’ and ‘fair.’ It is ‘cold’ to determine who is *most* ‘worthy,’ ‘deserving’ of help. But, given limited resources (like the schools and technology stuff, I am sure if it didn’t cost some of us money out of our own pockets we would almost all be for the latest and greatest!) and the idea of providing help based upon (stereotyped) group needs vs. inidividual needs, Social Justice seems to pit groups against each other. Divisive. I do like the idea of keeping as many ‘non-dominant’ groups on the Social Justice radar as possible, in the interest of *fairness* as opposed to Social Justice being almost synonymous with race/SES. I am not so certain a lot of Social Justice advocates (in general–not a local reference) are so keen on that.

    Another issue I wonder about is the whole ‘dominant’ culture terminology as time marches on. I have seen it reported that the alleged effects of being a minority will persist for ~10 years beyond the point at which a person is no longer in a minority group. When minorities ‘dominate,’ can we stop the blaming and get back to helping people just because they need it? Nurturing internal locus of control vs. external–you are opporessed, no matter what–locus of control?

    I have looked over the years to try and find some lines of Mary J. Blige from a documentary I watched many years ago. The gist of it was (not a direct quote): ‘I was taught to be angry. I didn’t even know why I was angry.’ She was saying how this didn’t serve her well in a variety of ways and and how she was freed from that (oppression?) to move on to a better ‘place’ (don’t recall which time-frame in her life this was) by determining the own truths in her life.

    • G. David Frye Says:

      To some extent I wonder if this is partly about the terminology. “Justice” is a word with a variety of meanings, but may have become culturally charged to suggest “payback” or “retribution” – and thus “social justice” implies correcting societal imbalance through some kind of action that labels us as either victims or perpetrators. So I can see why some people would be unhappy with (or at least nervous about) the process.

      Still. We have some history in this school district. Karen said, “… can we stop the blaming and get back to helping people just because they need it?” But the reality is that we were never really at a point where we helped the people who needed it and there were well-documented instances where schools with predominantly minority students, specifically AA, were being provided fewer resources to do the same job of education. We weren’t there then, and the concern is that we’re not there now. And the demographics are changing and we need to be careful not to create a new under-served population.

      The Mary J. Blige quote is great. But that process is something that has to come from deep within. It doesn’t do us any good to be saying, “get over it,” when we’re in the nominal “perpetrator” group.

  11. syndicated: Apr. 1: Public Meeting with ILPP-Needs Assessment Consultant on Jail Issue | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] mean? It means finding and building up the strengths and beauty in each child. It is the “rose that grew from concrete“. It goes a lot deeper, but I have this nagging sense that some of your are already tuning […]

  12. this might pinch a little | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] high-poverty and/or high-crime areas is extremely challenged to rise above. I am thankful that some roses do grow from concrete, but why do we persist in laying down so much proverbial concrete in the first place? Why not […]

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