Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Killing The Vibe, Forgetting The Meaning

Kendrick Lamar and Misconceptions of Black Men

"I be off the slave ship...building pyramids, writing my own hieroglyphs"
Kendrick Lamar - HiiPower

The other day, I told my fiance that Biggie's most underrated line ever was:

"Considered a fool because I dropped out of high school/Stereotypes of a Black man misunderstood, and it's still all good..." 

It's probably one of the most perceptive lyrics ever from B.I.G.  But Juicy is so melodic, you can just fly right past it.

It also makes me reflect upon our society's general lack of belief in Black men's ability to be introspective.  Or that they can practice healthy forms of ethos. There are really strong efforts currently underway to change those generalized views of Black male inability. But there is also a history and tradition that can be referenced and pointed to, which provides examples of how it can be done: from Wright, to Baldwin, to Biggie and Pac, to Saul Williams, to even Obama.  An intellectual, experiential, expressive one.

I think about Kendrick Lamar's young body of work, and on the politics of carrying on the tradition within the new realities and narratives. Kendrick has moments when he puts this new paradigm for introspection, ethos, and social commentary, together in the mold of  the great Black social commentators - in the tradition of story-telling. And those moments are so dope.

A few months ago, Ta-Neshi Coates wrote in the NY Times about how important K-Dot's album "good Kid, m.A.A.D. city" is for understanding what Black males and residents in urban cities face; that elites don't get it; and thus Black males seek to treat this misunderstanding and alienation through other means.  Coates decides to emphasize the means of music and criminality: 1) rappers are masters of violence, 2) they are authors commenting on the new social structures, and 3) music is where they make fantasy parallel to reality, as a way of explaining the rules and strategies for mastering the new structures. In this logic, mastery equals survival.
"Hip-hop originates in communities where such hazards are taken as given. Rappers generally depict themselves as masters, not victims, of the attending violence. Their music is not so much interested in exalting to our preferred values as constructing a fantasy wherein the author has total control and is utterly invulnerable."

He attempts to contextualize and nuance Black male rappers - the presumption embedded in the piece - "mastery of violence" through music and strategy, in order to not demonize it. But that approach seems..."stereotypical."  Just a very stereotypical way for analyzing the lived reality of misunderstood Black men. 

Instead, I really wished that he would of emphasized how Kendrick represents the Black male as social commentator.  The Black male that uses the local, as his text.  The Black male that uses words, to convey ethos.  The Black male, who is capable of not just commentary, but also analysis and introspection.  Rather than continue to be implicit that he, Coates, is unique because he is all those things, why not be explicit about how Kendrick is all those things too? Kendrick's social thought is just as important as his words. This point needs to be exalted more, and it goes beyond Coates' piece.

There is something troubling I've observed as K-Dot's music begins to find a broader audience and pop culture acceptance: his music is being reduced to choruses that put together finely chosen words and turn them into catchy phrases. The skits, track order, and coherent narrative which was thoughtfully and intelligently put together, is now signified through liquor in swimming pools and bitches that kill one's vibe.

Kendrick, isn't just the next great West Coast rapper, and not just a hip-hop artist who's music has a penchant for fitting the Top 40 format.  He also is in the lauded tradition of Wright, Baldwin, and Obama, and less recognized aspects of Tupac, Biggie Smalls, and many others.

And that he's been doing this way before "good Kid, m.A.A.D. city."

“Hiiipower: the three i’s represent heart, honor and respect. That’s how we carry ourselves in the streets, and just in the world, period. Hiiipower, it basically is the simplest form of representing just being above all the madness..."

Kendrick gives us an example of why we must listen closer.  Not just for words, but for intellectual thought.  Black men are capable of such.  But they themselves, and us as a listening community, must begin the process of thinking and speaking like we believe it.  And also behaving and acting in ways that develop what we have to say.

Study.  Learn.  Think.  Respect.  Remain Thoughtful.  And Share.  Let's call that HiiiPower

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Letter to a Community In Need Of Healing

"During the search for Christopher Dorner, and subsequent confrontation and murder, I thought often about Larry Davis.  I concentrated on the fact that in mist of the media and journalistic efforts to characterize him as a scourge, and contextualize him as practically an enemy of the state, one key point had been dropped from the mainstream's narrative: the allegation of corruption and police misconduct in the LAPD.  
This erasure coupled with the odd mixed messaging around the cabin fire believed to have taken Dorner's life.  The sum of this situation, has pushed me to reflect on my views and understandings of  criminality; justice; power; violence; and healing.  It has led me into critical intellectual engagement with the ideas, practices, and compositions of family, community, and law enforcement--the things that are supposed to mediate.  It also has become a point in time that is strained  onto my consciousness, where racial history and experience confronts the impact of systems and present day socio-economic conditions.
I sent the trailer of a soon to be released documentary on Davis' life to a friend.  I then wrote a follow up email to to reflect on all this; to try to make sense of it.  I share it here, with a few edits, as a letter to our community in name of historical memory, healing, and strengthening." 

I grew up hearing that story. Crazy.  When people do not understand my trepidation with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, I have to explain that it is not because I am an apologist for those who commit crimes.  

My angst is around this history of practicing corruption and the usage militaristic strategies and tactics to unjustly destroy communities and ruin lives. In combination with the lives destroyed by the drugs themselves (both street dealers and the White operatives that facilitated and profited from distribution), we cumulatively have:

1. fractured families 
2. missing parents
3. psychological trauma
4. stigmatized communities

This has become multi-generational. Me and you see it now, almost two generations later, when we are trying to figure out why so many young people are directionless, why so many adults make such poor decisions and set such a poor example, and why the character and will does not exist within our people en mass.  And that those who have not become overwhelmed by the above are the outliers, and not the median. 

Broken homes; traumatized people; disrupted relationships between parents, children, families, adults, and communities.  
How to understand this?  How to think about beginning to strengthen the positives that exists, scaling them up, while also filling gaps and addressing persistent problems?
It makes me think about the Panthers, because their analysis was systemic, and they engaged in "wrap-around" services before social policy popularized it. From free breakfast, to community education, to health care.
It makes me think about Malcolm because he had a comprehensive analysis, and multifaceted rebuilding and strengthening program.
It makes me think about Tupac, because he too had a comprehensive analysis; and around the time of his passing, was expressing what a multifaceted empowerment program would look like with him at the lead.

It makes me remember anti-colonialist thinkers and activists. 

It is not because they were radical or oppositional, that their work and thought endures.  It is not just romanticism and being arrested by the past.  Rather, it is that they cohesively explained and understood how all the parts matter--it was not just economic, or just cultural.  The entire social prism; the entire life experience; they strove to learn about each component, and then developed strategies and actionable steps to address it.   The approach is a model for us.  It is the right frame.  We just are looking at different picture; one altered by the events of the last three decades of the post-Black Freedom Movement.

So we look for models of people in this current moment, who are working on framing and changing the current picture. People like ____ are trying to rebuild and heal. Me and you are spending what must be the equivalent of weeks on g-chat talking through our ideas about what might be the causes and problems and solutions.  And we read and think about what to do about this mess; like where to start.  And then we volunteer, and listen, and reflect, as we try to grapple with what to do with our thoughts and our lessons-learned.

But we have a macro system that isn't invested in improvement, healing, and empowerment. We have a structure not designed to do those things either.  It is premised on social inequality, and its strongest feature is its ability to reproduce itself.  Which makes this observation saddening: our folks haven't had the clarity and balance to stop making it worst; to stop adding self-inflicted wounds to these problems. It makes what you and I want to achieve challenging. But thinking about this as a whole, it does not overwhelm me.  Instead, it just reminds me how deep it is, and that it will take time.  The project is big.  We just gotta keep getting tools, keep working, and remembering that it takes time.

Let's keep shining.


Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Historical King, the Present West, and the Future Obama

It is generally acknowledged that our society suffers from a certain historical amnesia in general, but especially on national holidays.  In the instance of Martin Luther King Day, many implore the public to look beyond his calls for “racial harmony” and non-violence, and to not characterize the Black Freedom struggle that he participated in as a single person endeavor instead of a group-centered imperative.  It is after this call that we then find very well written pieces which either incorporate the everyday people and local agents that heroically and bravely helped the nation confront its undemocratic legacy of exclusion and racial violence, or remind us of King’s important pivot towards economic justice and inclusiveness.  Altogether, the project of contextualizing Dr. King as not just anti-racism and pro-colorblindness, but also as someone “who advocated for poor people, spoke up for workers' rights, defended unions, and condemned war has been given much voice and has entered public discourse.

With the same spirit that pushes us to test what we have been collectively taught and what we individually understand, there is also the need to challenge our popular voices and public figures.  It is well documented how Cornel West and Tavis Smiley have been appropriating this call to challenge, by critiquing and criticizing President Barack Obama. But it is a specific recent incident involving Dr. West, where the professor rebukes the President for using Dr. King’s bible to take the oath for his second term, that is concerning and requires evaluation and analysis.

What I find most interesting about Mr. West’s tirade is the relative amnesia it perpetrates regarding Dr. King's legacy as a leader.  King was brilliant; a tireless worker; and a man of great dignity and fortitude.  But during the entire period of the Civil Rights Movement, and the more expansive Black Freedom Movement, Dr. King was routinely criticized by those inside the movement for being:
Noted figures like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, James Foreman, Ella Baker, Diane Nash, along with lesser-known members of SNCC, CORE, and other progressive organizations and grassroots efforts were routinely disappointed and upset at King for either some or all of the reasons listed above.  To the present moment, what are Dr. West’s problems with President Obama’s political actions and economic philosophy?
When you look at a society you look at it through the lens of the least of these, the weak and the vulnerable; you are committed to loving them first, not exclusively, but first, and therefore giving them priority.”
“I figured, OK, given the structure of constraints of the capitalist democratic procedure that’s probably the best he could do. But at least he would have some voices concerned about working people, dealing with issues of jobs and downsizing and banks, some semblance of democratic accountability for Wall Street oligarchs and corporate plutocrats who are just running a muck. I was completely wrong.”
“He’s a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.”
West in a 2011 interview

Sounds pretty familiar right?

The point is not to equalize Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama, nor to be an apologist for both.  Too often we make our analyses as if they are part of a zero-sum game; or we explain complexities as mutually exclusive phenomenon which cannot intersect or interact. 

Going back to the earlier point about contextualization, an important reason for holistically understanding Dr. King’s activism and intellectual thought, and particularly his move towards eradicating poverty and promoting economic democracy, is that he was pushed to these actions by his dissenters and by critiques from the Left.  The young people in Watts who rejected his prescriptions after the 1965 rebellion; the more radical elements of student organizers that wanted him to challenge the exclusion and inequality produced by the U.S. racial system in direct and confrontational language, not conciliatorily and passively; and the labor leaders and intellectuals that pressed upon him the urgency and profoundness of employment discrimination and economic exploitation—these are the central factors that led King to widen his scope and broaden his goals.  In large part, that is how he ends up in Chicago protesting housing discrimination in 1966, at Riverside Church speaking out against the war in 1967, and organizing workers in Memphis in 1968.  The public nudges and private pushes King received from supporters and others, caused him to make a political move to his left.

Perhaps that is Dr. West’s intention with the cajoling and agitation he has presented President Obama.  That in fact he wants Obama to be much more like the King of 1965-1968.  It certainly seems that this is his intention, given the comments he made regarding Dr. King’s bible.
But to hear West tell it, Martin Luther King Jr. was always the King of 65-68, and thus always articulated those political objectives. Careful historical examination, and a strong call to our historical memory, reminds us that in fact this is not true. King was just as flawed and problematic then, as West believes Obama is now.  And to that point, dissenting and challenging the President is necessary—especially on the economic issues and militarism.  But the lesson regarding King that Brother West needed to emphasize was how our leaders in the establishment can be compelled to become more populist and more progressive.  Especially with President Obama arguably holding the more pronounced public profile that any Black figure has held since Dr. King, and during a period of social unrest and political economic transformation that threatens to markedly impact this country’s trajectory during the rest of the twenty-first century, we desperately need to understand how organizing, advocacy, and activism can influence the establishment and direct political will. 

I do not think thirty minutes tirades at inaugural balls and incomplete narratives of the civil rights movement will achieve this understanding.
But still, outside of our “leaders,” each of us are able to think and talk about what we want of this society; and all of us are able to make actionable what must be done to create a more equitable, just, and inclusive society.  In his own MLK Day piece that attempts to properly frame Dr. King’s work, Public Allies CEO Paul Schimtz provides a quote from civil rights historian Charles McKinney that can guide and inspire us to make that equitable, just, and inclusive society real:
"When we elevate leaders of particular movements to the mythic status of great man or woman, we do a disservice to everyone. By placing people on a historical pedestal, we forget that they grew, learned, made mistakes, and struggled throughout the tenure of their leadership, and we forget that these leaders were mentored, collaborated with other leaders, and had to get their followers to believe in their own capacity to step up and lead. Hero-worship relegates the work, thought, and effort of 'ordinary people' to something akin to pleasant background music. Local agents for change and progress lose their voice, and are mercilessly converted into mindless, thoughtless followers of the great man or woman who 'leads' them.”
“In order for us to understand and build on this history, we must honor the true leadership paradigm where leaders at all levels - those few who get recognized and the countless others who contribute silently - are necessary for change."

It will take the many hands that will struggle in the future, and the ones that have already worked in the past, to create the broad based leadership and mass movement we need in order to actualize “the change we can believe in.”  Not solely the hands that have touched one leader’s bible. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Captains of the New Economy, Leaders of the New United States

Captains of the New Economy, Leaders of the “New” United States: How Will Young People Shape the Post-Great Recession Economy

Michael Partis
Young Movement, Chief Research and Policy Officer
November 11, 2011

In a recent article for New York Magazine, writer Frank Rich notes how the outpouring of praise for the business acumen and success of Steve Jobs, and the populist dissent against Wall Street exhibited by both the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements, are actually paradoxical to the direction of economic sensibilities seen throughout the country writ-large in recent history.  “Finance long ago supplanted visionary entrepreneurial careers like Jobs’s as the most desired calling among America’s top-tier university students.“  The cord Rich struck with his incisive analysis is one that stands at the dividing line between the United States’ pre-Fall 2007, and since: what is the economic vision of the country post-“the Great Recession”?  Indeed, what becomes more compelling about the tension is considering several of the global events that have taken place over the past year and a half.

Economically, there has been contestation and dissent over austerity measures and bailout proposals in the countries of Greece and Italy; and as the “too big to fail” philosophy that was used in defense of bailing out the U.S. financial and banking institutions has been mapped onto these southern European countries, nations like Germany have shown great hesitation towards adopting such an approach.  Politically, the now infamous “Arab Spring” of late 2010-early 2011 raised hope that the power of social movement and protest politics still have efficacy, even in the face of the most rigid and time-tested socio-political orders.  Students from Puerto Rico to London have protested the terms, conditions, and direction of colleges and universities in their homes, providing hope to those on the Left’s for a substantive student movement.  However, the lines between political expression and state repression remain tenuous.  This summer, several days of riots throughout the United Kingdom left commentators there searching for explanations for the social unrest and rebellion expressed by the country’s young people.

  (source: The Atlantic August 9, 2011)

All these events coincided with a long-term phenomenon confronting our current social realities: the United States is coming to terms with the impact economic hardship, limited employment options, and vast income and wealth disparities among fellow citizens have had on young people dubbed the “Lost Generation.”   While the losses in human capital cannot be fully measured until long from now, the costs we’re are paying in human suffering are deep.  Perhaps the most pressing question is what impact will this have on the socio-economic fabric of the country today; and moreover, how might these ramifications influence the course of electoral politics and policy-making moving forward.

(Source EPI)

This larger framework is where the important questions arise.  The ascent of the Tea Party and the surging energy of the “occupying” movements across the country, have already (and will continue too) elevate the political consciousness of this land and its people.  The scale of the potential political reorganization is vast: we can have a Federalist approach to government which provides a socio-economic safety-net for those with the least economically, uses legality to protect citizens, and legitimizes legislation to incorporate fair decision-making; or we could move to a system where public officials are loosely tied together, exercise extremely limited decision making authority, and form a country with little uniformity in political practice or framework—essentially having 50 states that are uniform only under name, not by any organizational framework.   In a country that is custom to its political reality being no more unpredictable than the swing of the pendulum, the poles of these extremes stretch the vision of what many can see for our country moving forward.

Perhaps the most interesting place to see the division over the vision of this country, how we differ greatly in what we see the future as, is in the economic realm. Like the political poles, our economic ones have great distance between models: from neoliberal privatization and free-markets, to classical economic conservatism which emphasizes nationalistic interests.  What is stark though is who are the people that we see as the leaders of whichever, whatever, of our economic direction will be.  If not Bernie Sanders, Robert Reich, Christina Romer, Paul Krugman and the economists of the left; if not Summers, Geithner, Orszag and the “elite” policy makers; if not Jamie Diamond and the leaders of the banking and finance industry that the country’s populists on both sides of the political spectrum have trouble with; if not any of these groups, then who?

(source Forbes Jan 17, 2011 )

It is in this context where Rich’s observation about the tendency of our young people with college degrees rings loudest.  What is the likelihood that the next Steve Jobs will lead our economic vision?  How likely is it that a great entrepreneur will stand at the leadership of where growth, job-creation, and income equity arises?  Would the person capability of creating this possibility chose it, over the immediate wealth and opportunity presented at the doors of major banks and financial firms?  Does anyone believe in the captain of industry anymore?

The political and economic matters of today require: attentive observation to what is happening currently; continuous reflection of what has happened over the course of an immediate period of time and recent events; and a deep awareness of the long history of both domestic and world events.  We cannot over-simplify the present; we should not over-look history; and we are in no position to cast aside the events that carry us from point to point.  Leadership and vision-setting requires not being limited by the magnetism of poles, and not settling for centrality or moderation.    In order to set a collective action-plan, vision, and course that will move the country past this post-recession malaise, there must be a collaborative effort to listen, exchange, and plan.  Partnership must be formed; experiences must be paid attention to; learning and teaching have to support each other.
There are a vast number of young people waiting to be tapped; and an equal number already actively engaged in creating the Post-Great Recession society and economy.  Their political will is being expressed in platforms across images, words, and actions.  The process of best utilizing that, gathering it, and empowering it to reach heights, is work to be done now.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Towards an Economic Vision of Empowerment and Collective Action

Towards an Economic Vision of Empowerment and Collective Action
Chief Research and Policy Officer, Young Movement
The following remarks are from Young Movement Research and Policy Director Michael Partis, made at the organization’s “End of Welfare” Panel June 2011. The statement reflects Young Movement’s guiding premise: that young people must empower themselves and those around them by understanding the world past and present, in order to thoughtfully craft a vision for the world we need moving forward.  Comments and thoughts can be sent to michael@youngmovement.org.

The intention of our panel tonight is two-fold. First, we are striving to provide a platform for innovative thinking and fresh ideas.  Second, we are attempting to create a space where sharing and exchange occurs—a space where strategic approaches and best-practices come together in the spirit of communal, collective success.  The goal of tonight’s panel, and a fundamental component of Young Movement’s organizational vision, is building a new framework for how young people in this country view our economic and financial landscape.  Indeed, what we are striving for is a paradigm shift; a shift away from the determinism of maximum utility, from the limits of profit margins, or the narrow generalization of terms such as “too big to fail,” “corporate greed,” or “disaster capitalism.”  Tonight’s discussion will focus on exploring alternatives to traditional employment paths, and creating a movement towards entrepreneurship.  Our goal is to begin a long-term commitment to developing: new business models, new approaches to financial planning, and new economic thinking.  Cumulatively, we believe this approach will allow young people to utilize their ingenuity, creativity, and skill-set to create a sustainable socio-economic future not only for themselves, but for the country at large. This is a future where economics and finance are tools which build the capacity and material well-being of not only individuals, but also of communities, neighborhoods, and families.

Hence, when we talk about “welfare” tonight, we are not specifically referring to those government entitlement programs which are typically intended for those who face financial hardship: programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), or AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children).  Nor are we in agreement with the view of welfare which: stigmatizes the poor as pathological; that advocates for “deficit-model” approach to understanding poverty; or that characterizes low-income populations as an “underclass” whose hardship is based on cultural and individualistic failures.  Rather than these historic, yet still presently important, debates, the purpose of tonight’s event is to question a) the efficacy and pragmatism of relying on government services given our current economic context; and b) the validity of a “trickle-down” economic model which makes a large number of people financially dependent on a small number of people.  In plain English—does it make sense to depend on our government, or large corporations, to maintain our personal economic and financial well-being?

From 1980 to 2005, the top one percent of income earners received eighty percent of the country’s increased income.  Today this rich one percent accounts for 24 percent of our overall income (Noah 2010).  And if we consider wealth instead of income, the same top one percent controls 40 percent of that as well (Stiglitz 2011).  University of California-Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez is noted for his extensive research on U.S. income inequality.  He writes that “we need to decide as a society whether this increase in income inequality is efficient and acceptable and, if not, what mix of institutional reforms should be developed to counter it” (Saez 2010).

The solution to this socio-economic inequality is often coupled into one response with two points: more education, and better job-training.  However, this year marks the first time ever that college debt has surpassed credit card debt.  College is often the first place most people receive their first legitimate job-training: through internships.  Increasingly though, these internships have become problematic.  According to the April 25 edition of The Economist, American organizations save $2 billion a year by not paying interns minimum wage, and researcher Ross Perlin explains that this free supplemental workforce effectively subsidizes labor for Fortune 500 companies.   This point becomes even more critical as today’s New York Times (June 2, 2011) cover story on the country’s unemployment rate cite economic forecasters who predict only modest job growth until November 2012, and anticipate an increase in unemployment in tomorrow’s monthly employment report.
In a recent Vanity Fair essay, Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz argues “that a modern economy requires ‘collective action’,” and that the United States must return to working towards the common welfare of its people (2011).   Indeed this is a sentiment Young Movement shares, and it is in that spirit that we hope to have an exciting, challenging, and progressive panel discussion here tonight.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Legacy of March 9th

The Legacy of March 9th: How Hip-Hop Can Build a "Brave Community"
Michael Partis

Hip-Hop has two axioms:

1. "the greatest rapper of all-time died on March 9th"

2. "Where Brooklyn At?"

Ok...maybe they're not quite axioms.

What's indisputable though is the special place March 9th and Brooklyn holds in the consciousness and ethos of Hip-Hop. And in turn, why so many Rap junkies, Hip-Hop heads, and admirers of the culture feel such a deep connection to the person that intrinsically links art, event, and place: The Notorious B.I.G.

March 9th has become one of those days that shows you how dope Hip-Hop really is. The date commemorates the passing of our icon; but we spend the day going so hard celebrating and enjoying his life, accomplishments, and overall genius.

And accordingly, March 9th becomes a day where we get all types of goodies. Some are perpetual, like Mister Cee goes in on Hot 97. New traditions arise, like #biggieday becomes a trending topic. New jewels are dropped, like where the inspiration for the "Detroit players" line in Hypnotize comes from (Side note: dream hampton puts us ON this year...and did it from a very intimate part of herself...we all should be grateful).

It truly has become a beautiful thing. March 9th exemplifies the prophetic power within the phrase Life After Death.

But the most moving (and celebrated) aspect of the day's commemorations is the music. The endless recitation of Biggie lines forces every listener to reflect on the power of his words. Actor Will Smith once said that Big's 1st album, Ready To Die, was comparable to Richard Wright's Native Son in that both "should be studied in psychology classes to understand the plight of the black male in the inner city." Indeed the only voice that could merge rap and Bigger Thomas together was named by NPR as one of the 50 greatest of all time. In fact the totality of Big's artistry still inspires current MCs: Jay Electronica recently said that the Ghost of Christopher Wallace is "more than just the rhyme and the skill," but that it allows you to tap into the "spirit of the person."

Who's more the spirit of Brooklyn than B.I.G.? The Notorious B.I.G. is so Brooklyn. But how does today's Brooklyn compare to his?

Of course when it comes to Hip-Hop, BK still goes hard. Jay Decoded much of the complexity and confusion held by the public about Brooklyn and the low-income urban Black neighborhoods there and throughout the U.S. Musically, artists like Fabolous, Maino, Joell Ortiz and many others still let us know where Brooklyn at.

But in so many ways Brooklyn has become a very different place. Different from Mike Tyson's Brooklyn. Different than Sal's Pizza or the Huxtable's Brooklyn.

Borough President Marty Markowitz calls it the New Brooklyn:

"Brooklyn is changing and it's for the better! Change has come in the form of new stores, revamped neighborhoods and the fastest job growth in New York City. Today's Brooklyn is not your parents Brooklyn."

This "New Brooklyn" is one where the distinction between "DUMBO" and Fort Greene slowly erodes. Where Park Slope and Williamsburg are ever expanding. Where "Black Brooklyn" and Medgar Evers College are in deep struggle and contestation over how (and why) public higher education should serve a place and its residents. And where Atlantic Yards and Coney Island see a sports arena and a hotel as economically beneficial for the community.

Indeed you could call much of this revamped; or you could call it gentrified. But honestly, I'm the last person who should depict the details and essence between the "old" and "new" Brooklyn. However, they unequivocally speak to a more salient event: the making of a "new" New York City. But more troubling, is what is happening to the people of the "old" New York City. How do they fit? Where do they go? What is the color, the quality, the conditions, of their lives? What is the texture of the social fabric that makes the image and lived experience of New York City so unique?

It is a tension felt throughout the boroughs, communities, and neighborhoods. We see its passion and courage when residents pressure the City Council to seriously examine legislating a living wage, or to protect and to stand up for the purpose and function of ethnic studies at CUNY schools. Its vision is illuminated when people fight for a community-based model of planning and development. And its astute acumen is exhibited when it opposes large-chain retailers like Wal-Mart, arguing that these businesses are detrimental to their neighborhoods.

We also see the gloom of the "new" New York City. Where the richest man in the city can tyrannically decide to stay in power.

The changing New York City is emblematic of a changing urban America, and a changing country. But who's telling this story?

The sentiment; the essence; the spirit; the struggle; the emotion; the brilliance; the joy; the depth---how can we capture this? How does today's young Black male process Bigger Thomas' historical narrative, now living in the "Age of Obama"? Does the reality of a Black President impact their plight? What are the emerging communities and who are the people in it?

Who's willing to say I Got A Story To Tell?

The legacy of March 9th is that it demonstrates the power of storytelling. The Notorious B.I.G. compels a generation past and present to dive into his nuance and his specter. And every year on March 9th, we commemorate his life through the tradition of story-telling: pictures, remixes, drawings, mixtapes, tribute songs, and so much more---some essay form, some auditory, some in 140 characters or less.

March 9th reminds us of Hip-Hop's third axiom: the tradition of storytelling.

There are many lessons to learn from this tradition, and Biggie. We've certainly recognized the danger that weapons, violence, and "gangsterism" have both in ideas and in bodily action---and no doubt the sadness and lost we suffer when they all come together and manifest themselves in senseless murder and tragedy. The sexism; the violence against women (and any person); the most persistent challenge to mainstream Hip-Hop is breaking its objectifying and hierarchical expressions of gender relations. And the materialism (and frankly, borderline idolatry) we have of high end designer fashion certainly complicates the pursuit of a robust spirituality that emphasizes the principles of sacrifice, selflessness, and justice. Most definitely, the Hip-Hop tradition of storytelling includes the sharp critique of our missteps and misgivings; our faults and failures; our demons and indulgences; and a unrelenting call to become better.

But the lesson we can draw from what happens every March 9th, is another power the third axiom holds: it calls us to action. Our hyper-activity on this day should be seen as a ringing reminder that we must be actively engaged in creating the next stories that will be told, just as much as we are engaged in telling our history. Brave New Voices, writers, artists, scholars, academics, and others must move past the beloved community. We must form a brave community, one equipped with enough skill, and that is daring enough, to fearlessly confront this "new" New York City and all the other stories being made--from unions to education; from AmeriCorps to public housing. In the words of our Poet Laureate:

"Stay far from timid/only makes moves if your hearts in it/and live the phrase Sky's the Limit."

Rest in Peace, The Notorious B.I.G.

Michael Partis

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Can Education Help The Rat Get Away From Poverty?

"Can Education Help The Rat Get Away From Poverty?" Returning to Allen Jones and Mark Naison's The Rat That Got Away
I was recently asked to revisit my 2009 review of The Rat That Got Away, and create a longer essay on how it speaks to current issues in U.S. politics and public policy. I took on Jones' story again, but this time reading it against today's fierce debates over public education and community development; the fissure in policy over how to address poverty; and the academic battle royalty over the validity, utility, and relevance of the "culture of poverty" concept. Below is the new piece. Please feel free to share thoughts and feedback in the comments section, and also to look at the earlier review as well.

When President Barack spoke those words during his 2010 State of the Union address, it marked a profound shift in how education and poverty is handled in the United States. It highlighted what has become a catch-phrase for researchers and practitioners over recent years--“best practices.” The President made clear (here and in several other remarks and speeches) that poverty reduction was best sought through academic attainment and achievement.
Yet, Obama’s statement followed in the footsteps of a prior political, ideological, and policy approach to poverty. It parallels President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society and “War on Poverty” platforms for economic improvement; and as Johnson did, puts education at the center of its social project. When campaigning for the enactment of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Johnson said before Congress, "Poverty has many roots, but the taproot is ignorance."
Since Obama’s State of the Union, education and poverty have been two of the most hotly contested, often-discussed topics in 2010. To understand the ways in which it has been talked about would require a lengthy “who, what, where, why, how” explanation. The nascent, and most pervasive, themes though have been: who receives the highest quality education in this country, and how does poverty stay entrenched in certain places and certain people for so long.
Bluntly though, the conversation truly focuses on: why do so many schools in poor Black and Brown communities perform so poorly by most testing and assessment measures? Why do so many urban Black and Brown neighborhoods experience overwhelming economic poverty seemingly across generations?
Two heroes have emerged as the answer to these vexing issues: charter schools and the Harlem Children Zone.
Charter schools have been at the center of a long, protracted battle over the nature of schools---both their educational purpose and organizational structure. Its history is intrinsically linked to the desegregation of public schools; battles over community control of school boards and operations; arguments against and for vocational education; and the politics of mayoral control. Charters enter the educational debates of today through what have been two polarizing, divisive topics: teachers and their unions; and the privatization of public education.
And so for the first time since 1983 and the publication of A Nation At Risk, education reform has been a central issue in public life. It shook up media mainstream network media: NBC hosted a Fall Education Summit, devoting a week of on-air programming, webcasts, and town halls to focusing on education reform. Education has become such a rallying cry Oprah dedicated two shows in one week to the topic. Casted as protagonists this time have been “crusaders”; advocates that are characterized as tough and taking no prisoners like school superintendents Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, and proactive elected officials such as Newark Mayor Corey Booker. There are the wealthy entrepreneurs (i.e. Facebook founder and C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg) and business moguls (i.e. Bill Gates) who’s money and clout raise the profile of affiliated schools and educators; and entertainers such as R&B artist John Legend who attempt to engage the debate through social commentary and urgency, while also providing clout, publicity, and finance similar to Zuckerberg and Gates. Legend has stated widely that “education reform is the civil rights issue of our time.”
Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) and its CEO Geoffrey Canada have become among the most recognizable faces in this “poverty-fighting” work, with its most important affirmation coming from President Obama, who during his 2008 Presidential campaign said Harlem Children’s Zone is “an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck antipoverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children.” So convinced is Obama, he included it in his 2010 Fiscal Year Budget Proposal, with $10 million dollars set aside for twenty cities to replicate HCZ’s “Promise Neighborhoods” model. Within the HCZ model, charter schools named Promise Academies push the organization’s academic agenda and are at the center of an important question provocatively put forth in a recent Brookings Foundation report: do social programs make a difference in educational outcomes? Simply, should we spend federal money on them?
Thus the academic performance of Promise Academies and other charters are linked to arguments over what should be the social investment a country, a government, makes in addressing inequality and inequity. Does a “rising tide lift all boats”? Do we need an activist government to engage and interject in these issues, or is there a need to recalibrate our politics?
Academics take on these questions in a number of ways. Theoretical concepts are abound to think through these issues, and also serve as analytical tools for looking at how societies and specific institutions and actors handle them. Civil society, participatory democracy, and neo-liberalism are a few of many that come to mind.
But among the world of pundits, experts, public figures, practitioners, and theoreticians, within the sphere of activists and advocates, there is continuous need to temper what we think, what we can abstract, and what we can extrapolate, from what literally is happening. Of course journalists are charged with this role and we depend on their periodicals to inform us. An ethnographer provides a similar service, and perhaps pushes our understanding further through analysis and intellectual rigor (provided their account incorporates those things in the first place). And to not limit our resources, the same can be provided by artists, performers, photographers and an array of others.
What has happened? In many regards this questions becomes paramount when looking at the context of a particular social issue. While poverty, “anti-poverty,” and education have been weaved together as a framework for lifting up those at the "bottom," the weaving still resonates with less comfortable connotations: namely, deficiency and pathology.
Indeed a work that can inform our understanding of this matrix of social, political, and economic issues is imperative. Especially a work that shines light on the contours of populations much discussed about, but not heard from in their proper context. James Baldwin has wrote that, "History is not a procession of illustrious people. It's about what happens to a people. Millions of anonymous people is what history is about." To not keep them anonymous, and to recognize that they are not voiceless, the elimination of “silence” has been an important project of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
The attention we pay to their lives, how we appropriate their stories, and the way we incorporate they themselves into discussions and thinking on poverty, education, and other social issues is what must be considered.

(For a detailed review of The Rat That Got Away, please read my Summer 2009 review here.)

What does Jones’ memoir tell us about education, poverty, and poor urban neighborhoods? What can we take away from his story that can inform how we see and act in our world today?
What’s striking about The Rat That Got Away is the tangential way formal schools and institutions touch Jones’ life. He was dismissed or transferred from several South Bronx public schools throughout his secondary education. Interestingly though, two things stand out from Jones’ writing. One, he does not blame his teachers, or any of the school’s staff, for his short comings. There weren’t “inadequate” or “inefficient;” he does not suffer from “blame the school” syndrome. Second, and most interesting, is how a series of enrichment programs and out-of-tine educational activities supported him. Indeed it was the people who ran these programs and facilitated those activities that are the greatest influences in his life.
Jones and a majority of those in his neighborhood were not “Waiting for Superman.” Their life-chances were not determined by “The Lottery.” But a comprehensive, concerted set of programs and activities staffed mostly by people from the local neighborhood provided skills and exposure Jones uses later in life to negotiate structural inequalities and social stratification. Disorganization was not a hallmark of his community, and formal education was not the sole reason he avoided poverty in adulthood.
How we analyze life outcomes; how we understand life trajectories; the ways we formulate indicators, best practices, and solutions; these are three areas that must be given careful consideration. There will not be any one solution to poverty. Indeed any approach will need to be comprehensive and concerted. Schools are vital and education is invaluable; knowledge and learning are critical to understanding, improving, preserving, and accepting a complex set of issues within our society. This is something that often cannot be seen in a two year demonstration. It cannot be quantified and assessed by analyzing inputs and outputs; and a cost-benefit analysis cannot evaluate all benefits that can and will be gleaned. Allen Jones’ life implies this to us. Not a few years at a time, but over the course of time--the course of a lifetime. How we problem-solve current issues while keeping sight of incremental improvement needs to be interjected in our present discussions on educational reform.
“Place” situates the geographic dimensions of our experiences. Urban neighborhoods with larger Black and Brown populations are colored with particular dimensions, which temper the Black urban experience. Indeed it is different, and how we handle difference requires careful consideration. Jones describes South Bronx neighborhoods and a Patterson Houses’ community that in the 1950s and 1960s were multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural; with two-parent families; and residents that were poor, working-poor, and working-class. This mosaic composition is counter to popular generalization about urban poverty and urban communities. Further, it should provide an important intervention for more diachronic analysis of urban neighborhoods: again, what’s happened over time? While discussions over evolution, diffusion, and the like may seem either cliché or too bounded, the importance of theoretical framework must be emphasized. Memoirs such as Mr. Jones’ are important for historical accounts; ethnography, journalism, and all types of “recording” and “capturing” become the archive. The research though, must not betray a commitment to systemic analysis. Place is an important lens because it gives specificity and location, which allows us to measure internal and external dynamics; it is an important variable in social reproduction, and an important site for the study of social relationships. This addresses one of the most pressing questions for policy-makers and others concerned about poverty--causation. What causes poverty? Why are people poor? The considerations mentioned above must be incorporated into this topic, and also into how we research, think, and analyze these questions.
Finally, we need to examine cultural explanations, and how the culture concept is discussed and conceptualized. Accepting that our society is pluralistic does not relegate us to accepting relativism. Nor does seeking to understand behavior and thought imply or require being reductional, normative, or heterogenizing. Egalitarian notions of multi-cultural harmony must be tempered and critiqued, but need not be dismissed. Difference and power have the ability to bound and separate. But a polemical stance of unity and togetherness should not be characterized as immature. Does not the work on identity politics, social movements, and human rights provide insight on how to carefully analyze these issues, while still providing some sense how the actors involved see and negotiate the complexities?
As culture of poverty begins to reappear as an explanation of poverty, it is paramount that these issues of handling difference, boundedness, pluralism, and relativism be thoughtfully and rigorously interrogated. Pathology may be ill-equipped for explaining human behavior. But we must not be afraid to seek answers to the question why; to look for causes; to provide explanations; to strive to solve the problems of contemporary society, and in this case urban neighborhoods with high poverty and poorly performing schools. We also must not fetish “difference” to the point where it prevents us from looking at a politics of togetherness. And we cannot be so vulgar in solutions that apathy, paternalism, and deficiency mar our way forward.

December 15th, 2010