E2 Episode Two
Living or Surviving: Whose Humanity is Valued?
As we meet more students at Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRFHS), we start to see where the students of color are able to live as their authentic selves, and where they’re just surviving. Extracurricular activities like Spoken Word Club offer safe, validating spaces for students like Charles and Chanti to explore their racial identities. Yet students like Ke’Shawn and Terrence are left searching.
Where at OPRFHS do we see students of color just surviving and where do we see them living? Why are extracurricular activities like chorus, cheerleading, and spoken word so appealing to the school’s students of color?
Just surviving: For the most part, it seems like the students featured in this documentary are just barely scraping by in their classes; Charles says he really does not like Science and needs to get his grades up, Ke’Shawn “hates school”, Terrence is struggling in the college prep track.
Living: As mentioned above, the clubs offer a chance for most of these featured students to really shine. And in a later episode we see Terrence really hit a home run in an Art class. Tiara is so smiley and full of joy it seems like she just brings life with her wherever she goes, and Chanti is that quiet servant-leader with a big voice unleashed at Spoken Word.
In the previous guide, I noticed that there are about 78 clubs at OPRF. We only get to view a small slice of that list. And we can’t really make assumptions about students of color in general. But for these students in the clubs in “America to me”, it would seem that they “feel safe” in these environments. Later we learn about painful conflict with Chanti at one club, but for the most part, these are uplifting, encouraging places where students can bring themselves. So I have to wonder, why can’t these students really be themselves in the classroom? I think Jess Stovall does a wonderful job trying to make her classroom a safe space, and it eventually means a lot to students like Ke’Shawn.
Consider how Deanna (the cheerleading coach) and Jessica (the literature teacher) interact with their students of color. What’s similar and different about their approaches?
Wow, my first thought is that there are so many differences… What is similar? For starters, they seem to both recognize that the black culture is different than the white culture, and thus the approach should be different. I think they both want their students to excel and have high expectations for achievement.
While I find some drastic differences, I will point out that Tiara says she loves her cheerleading coach (which totally shocked me) – the important part is that I am in no place to judge, and my opinions will be totally different than others.
The two women differ in their approaches in that one seems to be more gentle, more understanding, more comforting, while the other more like a “drill sergeant” (quote from Tiara). As such, the former comes across as building up her students, while the latter seems to me more to cut and tear down.
Teacher Jessica Stovall talks about her work being “life or death.” Administrator Chala Holland talks about “surviving” versus “living.” What distinctions are being made and why do you think Jessica and Chala use this language?
I get the impression that Ms. Stovall is a little more literal, given that she talks about a previous student who reminds her of Ke’Shawn, one whom she found out was killed. It broke her heart, and she doesn’t want the same thing to ever happen again. Ms. Holland is obviously very passionate about her job and the students, and she is exceptionally concerned that “we” (she meant OPRF, but I think most of us share the blame) are failing black and brown students. Instead of students sucking the life out of marrow of the school bones, some students are the ones getting sucked dry. That is just wrong.
What’s the racial makeup of your school, institution, and/or community? How does that shape your experience in that space?
This is a very similar question to the ones posed in the Episode 1 guide. According to wikipedia and the 2010 census:
“67.8% White, 15.62% African-American, 0.3% Native American, 10.6% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 2.7% from other races, and 3% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino individuals of any race made up 6.3% of the population.”
“[The] median income for a household in the city was $41,403, and the median income for a family was $72,819. The per capita income for the city was $24,855. About 11.9% of families and 26.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 24.0% of those under age 18 and 7.6% of those age 65 or over.”
As with most communities, there is a disproportionate racial representation in various economic strata.
It is not exactly clear to me how this shapes my experience, but most of my social circles are majority white (work, church, dining, etc). As stated previously, most parts of of our town are racially identifiable. When I volunteer in schools on the north side of town, there is a higher percentage of students who are black and brown. It seems that there are more reports in the public news outlets of crime in the north parts of town, and more occurrences of poverty.
I lived on the north side for a few years after college. It was a fascinating mix of older white folks who lived there for 30+ years, and much more transient minorities. It was not uncommon to witness several police squad cars surround a neighboring house, or even to be woken up by gunshots or drunk drivers crashing nearby. There were occasional community meetings at a nearby school where a police officer would address concerns of the community (or rather, explain that they were doing “all they could” to fix problems). My wife and I moved out before we had children. We did not feel safe there.
I did have one experience that opened my eyes a little to white privilege, although at the time I had no idea what it was. I took a late-night walk in this north end neighborhood and upon passing a loud party with several young african-american men standing around outside, I overhead them speculating that I was a cop walking a beat.
On another occasion, while my wife and I were roller blading near our house a very young black kid (couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8) yelled obscenities at us and told us to get out of his hood. To this day I wonder what he was thinking.
We did have positive experiences as well. Two doors down from us was this wonderful older black grandma and grandpa. It was a delight to share stories with them. My wife and I were married out of town, and my dad drove our gifts back to our house; as he was unloading, our elderly grandpa friend confronted my dad and asked him what he was doing with our house. When the grandpa passed away, we spent some time with the grandma and learned more about them.
In our new neighborhood, even though the racial diversity is pretty amazing, just about everyone is middle- or upper-middle-class. I have neighbors of all shades and ethnic backgrounds, but everyone has a stable income. It is a totally different environment. The sense of trust is much more prevalent.
Where at your school, institution, or community do you see your racial identity represented and valued? Where do you not feel valued?
My racial identity is white, or “caucasian” (which never really meant much to me). Where is my racial identity represented? All around me (as stated earlier). Where is my racial identity valued? I do not know how to answer that. I have learned that one of the privileges of being white is not having to think about race. For the most part, my race (and more subtly, my ethnicity) is taken for granted (even by me). Further, as a white male, I am confused why it is that white males typically have “more” than everyone else. How did that come to be? Why is there so much inequity? And more importantly, how do I change the system? I feel, as a white male, I have the biggest responsibility and moral obligation to “fix” systemic racism (and let’s be honest, sexism as well). In that I feel I have potential value, but it is not yet fully realized.
At OPRFHS, it seems the teachers seeking change are women of color. How does your school, institution, or community value the voices of women of color?
I am much more familiar with our local school district, although I have glimpsed at the larger scope of our community a little through the lens of the public schools. To that end, I believe the most vocal women of color in our community are part of a group called the Ministerial Alliance. And since they interact with the school district, I have on occasion witnessed their voice and the various reactions. My opinion is that the collective voices of these strong women are not often received well, at least not by the school administration. Another voice in the community belonged to Imani Bazzell, who worked for many years to introduce programs targeted to bolster African-American and low-SES children. My impression is that those who heard her strong voice merely gave lip-service (if that much). There have been several other women of color who have gone before the school administration and it is hard to see if they affected change. Most recently, the women of Parent CommUniversity seemed to make a successful presentation to the administration, one that is gaining traction. I believe that, had it not been for all the others before them, the PCU idea might not been as well received as it was. But maybe I am wrong. There is a lot I do not know.
The ME in Media
Reflect on your first memories in which you saw your racial identity and culture represented in books, television and film. How often do you see your racial and cultural identity represented in those forms of media? Take some time to share your experiences with a partner.
Actually, in contrast, I remember watching episodes of Bill Cosby in my early years, and thinking about how a racially different family was portrayed in a relatively white setting. And later on it was the Prince of Bel Aire. These television representations were vastly different than my own childhood experiences, or even my exposure to different cultures in books. Seasame street was an interesting one, and even today I look back and think it might have been a good example of people (and “monsters”) of different backgrounds getting along together as a community.
But more to the point, as a member of the dominant majority, I saw my racial identity all over the place; in movies, in school, in church, in advertisements, in TV, in books, magazines, newspapers.
Spaces of Value (1 day)
Investigate who at your school is responsible for ensuring that students of all races and cultures are affirmed and valued. If no one is currently responsible, who should be responsible, and who should be held accountable? Come up with examples of what this looks like when it’s done well and when it’s not done well.
One thing I really value about Unit 4 is that we have a number of champions who value all races and cultures. Specifically, I shout out to folks like Laura Taylor (Assistant Superintendent) and Lindsay Aikman (High School English), who have a done a tremendous amount of work in regards to having safe spaces for discussions about race, equity and cultural relevance (there are many others involved in this work as well); I recognize folks like Sheldon Turner (Leaders 4 Life), Sally Carter (Tap In Academy) and those involved with Operation Hope (and Operation Hope Junior), who have done amazing work to show students of color their value in society and help provide them with self-efficacy; kudos to programs like Positive Behavior Facilitation (PBF), Restorative Justice, ACTIONS and many other efforts that seek to help kids with discipline issues (who are disproportionately of color). There are more examples, so many things and opportunities where students of all races and cultures are affirmed and valued.
Could we do more? Why, with all this, do we still have a sizable achievement gap and disparities in discipline? I cannot answer that. Maybe this the face of institutionalized racism?