Thursday, April 30, 2015

What are "these" people so mad about? The answers aren't so complicated.

I want to tell you a personal story.
I went to a private K-8 school. Each year, I had a summer reading list, curated by my teacher. We built ships around our desks in fifth grade to study colonial times, and ended the year with a trip to Jamestown and Williamsburg. We put on musical plays, created dossiers in French class, and learned African drumming in "Movement." And then, my parents--who have always been committed to their community-- happily sent my siblings and me to public high school. They believed in all forms of education, and they knew I would be a more well-rounded person if I had a breath of experience. 

Unfortunately, like many high-need, low-income, predominantly black high schools in our country, a very different level of education was provided. I will never forget my junior year English class because I read George Orwell's 1984, the same book I read in 8th grade. It was as if 3 years had evaporated: I was the opportunity gap. Ceiling tiles fell on students during class, and teachers often told us: "read the textbook chapter and then you can talk with friends for the rest of the hour." We were the forgotten ones. And yet, what bothers me most--more than my friends being arrested and charged as adults, the horrendous graduation rate, and number of pregnant teens-- is that we knew it was educational inequity. Other schools in our district were better: they were richer, whiter and their sports teams won. The grass really was greener, we just had no voice to describe it, and no one to listen.

This story is why I believe that the black community in America is justified in their anger against officer-involved shootings. The community knows that social justice is yet to be achieved just like I knew the schools that served black and brown kids in my community were deeply lacking. To me, it feels perfectly just to cry (or act) out against the American dream in crisis. 

White majority America cannot expect that years of oppression does not warrant fiery reactions. Realistically, frustration, anger, protests and violence in this light are rational, or as As Ta-Nahesi Coates notes in his article, "nonviolence is compliance" to a hypocrisy: the American regime burns other countries and tolerates violence on our streets. I also want to remind you of the articulate lines from Bob Marley's song Burnin and Lootin,' which deepen the conversation about rioting, and the current crisis in Baltimore. How many rivers would you cross?

This morning I woke up in a curfew; O God, I was a prisoner, too - yeah!
Could not recognize the faces standing over me; 
They were all dressed in uniforms of brutality. Eh!
How many rivers do we have to cross, Before we can talk to the boss? Eh!
All that we got, it seems we have lost; We must have really paid the cost.
(That's why we gonna be) Burnin' and a-lootin' tonight.

-Bob Marley

Many people in our country are left without a voice, and yet, they persevere. Without influence and rights, many are "shut off and shut in" from positions of power, access to health, education, and opportunities to build human capital. Centuries of oppression, inequitable education systems, and targeted policies like red lining, mass incarceration and Jim Crow have put black, brown, Indigenous, and poor people on a different path than their white, middle- and upper- class counterparts. Things aren't changing in America for disenfranchised groups either. What's more, as demographics rapidly change in our communities, our states, and in our society at large, the dominant white majority remains unprepared to welcome and address issues of difference. Thus, inequality and injustice remain prevalent.

The consequences of too many schools, policies, networks, and services existing without a critical consciousness of their raced, classed and gendered embodiments are dire. Gross economic stratification stretches our social safety net, is unethical and it will cost more in the long run. Poverty and institutionalized racism has serious implications for the stability of our country and the unrest will affect all of us. The inequitable education system, outdated policies, and lacking resources in specific communities will continue to denigrate disenfranchised groups and America at large. These issues matter to all of us because they effect all of us.

So... does the "arc of justice" actually bend towards greater levels of equality? Who is responsible for doing the bending? The answer is good, smart, effective leaders.

Leaders can rigorously address inequality by developing a strong identity themselves. Cultural competence, critical reflection skills and a critical consciousness around these issues and American history will make a difference. Leaders can also create supportive workplaces that encourage and empower diverse thinkers, put people of historically marginalized groups into positions of power, and advocate for policy and change on the macro level. They can also work on a host of smaller issues that successfully deliver a change agenda. These include lessons from our class this semester:
  • planning strategically and planning with stakeholder groups, with the environment in mind and on a level that provides a proactive framework for action
  • investing in solid, supportive communication methods that build trust and connect members of the organization to their influencers (other staff, community, board, international groups, etc.
  • utilize a vision for continuous improvement that prioritizes evaluation and ongoing feedback so all people have a voice.
Lastly, an ability to listen--and really listen-- to others can markedly effect a leaders' ability to advance change.