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

Thursday, December 2, 2010

REALLY Understanding Black and Brown Boys Educational Achievement

"A Call For Change"-My Response to the Council on Great City Schools Report on Black Males Educational "Failures"

There have been a series of commentaries and articles discussing the Council on Great City Schools recent report on young Black Males educational achievement. Below is my response to the report, and two excellent pieces: a great article by Mike Green in the Huffington Post, and a sharp commentary from Dr. Ivory A. Toldson on the Soros Foundation's Open Society blog.

I resoundingly agree with Mr. Green on the type of education we need--one that develops an agile, analytical mind. Here I feel he builds on something that I think Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) have correctly identified--the correlation between early childhood education and skill attainment. This connection must continue to be emphasized and worked on, and it also reinforces the greater need: to view educational outcomes as a "P-16" continuum--from preschool to college graduation. Further, it is important to create social programs that view child development as beginning at zero--translating to cultivating parenting skills during pregnancy.

In order to link social programs, educational achievement, and youth development into employment, careers, and better overall life outcomes for young Black and Brown men, we must begin to approach the situation strategically. However, it is certainly an urgent matter, and this is what makes Green's "from march to race" analogy apropos. In order to prepare these young men for our current job market we must be clear: it functions in a "the survival of the fittest" manner. While in the long-term we may want to create an economy and employment structure which does not reproduce inequity and uneven outcomes, we must prepare them for our current social reality. A radical change to curriculum and educational purpose could prepare students for the current job market, while simultaneously giving them the tools to conceive a different social structure (whether that be reform, revolution, or reviving older ideas). Regardless, both Green and the report point out that we are tragically under-preparing Black and Brown young men...from birth.

To that extent, we must look at how social reproduction occurs within Black and Brown communities. In that light we also must have sharp assessments of what our measures, statistics, and data means--what does it tell us exactly about groups, populations, communities, people. It is important to carefully explain and account for difference, without resorting to deficiency models and frameworks. Dr. Toldson correctly provides prospective on the meaning of the Black boys' "failures" by juxtaposing it with the "failures" of all U.S. students in the aggregate. Considering these educational outcomes, the Council's report is important for challenging political apathy and silence, calling for strategizing at the communal level, and impelling self-determination.

Yet not only does the report contain the methodology flaws and biases Toldson's points out, I think it also fails to account for the strong influence politics, legislation, and policy has had on creating this situation. The Council identifies how government officials at every level have failed to adequately address the plight of Black male students, but do not put forth an incisive analysis of how these stakeholders have either created or exacerbated the situation.

At minimum there are strong correlations between poverty and educational attainment; how this intersects with race, class, and ethnicity is an important socio-economic point, and directly tied to political decision-making. This is not deductive; one can point to the work of NYU's Pedro Noguera (and many others) to trace this trajectory. The ways poverty is perpetuated and inequality is accepted speaks to how entrenched racism and prejudice is structurally and ideologically. This recent analysis on U.S. dropout rates saliently illuminates these factors


In short, these complex social realities will need focused political attention, social action, and nuanced planning. This piece, along with the report, hopefully is a start.

Michael Partis
Research Associate
Howard Samuels Center-CUNY Graduate Center
New York, NY 10016

Cultural Anthropology Doctoral Student
CUNY Graduate Center

Thursday, July 29, 2010

It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop

Recently I was asked to participate in the inaugural installment of the new City Limits web feature, City Conversations. I, along with several community activists, academics, and young people, wrote about the different effects hip-hop music has on New York City's youth today, more than 30 years after the art form first burst onto the scene.

We were asked to response to an article by Mustafa Sullivan about the negative effects of mainstream Hip-Hop music. Ms. Sullivan's article, and the abbreviated version of my response can be read here.

Below is the full length version of my response. The essay is entitled "One Card in a Full Deck." Thank you in advance for reading. Please feel free to post comments & responses! And do not hesitate to email thoughts and feedback. Peace.

One Card in a Full Deck: Understand Hip Hop and Political Change

By Michael Partis

“America got a thing for this gangster shit/They love it…”
50 Cent-Hustler’s Ambition

“Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me/so that ain’t the blame for all the shit that’s happened to me”
Jay-Z-Ignorant Shit

To Mustafa and the brothers and sisters at Sistas and Brothas United,

I am a South Bronx resident: born there, raised there, and still living there. I am a young adult who’s coming of age was embedded in the post-Biggie/post-Tupac/hip-hop-becomes-corporate historical moment. And now I am an academic researcher who is deeply concerned with how the political context of neighborhoods and communities interact with the world-view of the young people who live in those places. It is for those reasons that I admire, respect, and appreciate your piece on Hip-Hop music. Your position, your voice, and your vision are desperately needed if we are going to seriously embark on incorporating Hip-Hop into a progressive, political movement.

I love your commitment to social justice. I love the mission which Sistas and Brothas United undertakes, and how it continues the organizing and advocacy tradition of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. In an approach which is intrinsic to the social justice tradition, I want to critically reflect on a few of the points you bring up in your article. In the spirit of love and respect, and in the spirit of being committed to creating a just society, I will also challenge you.

You have eloquently laid out the critical contexts and questions at hand:

Hip Hop music and Hip Hop culture has not only penetrated the daily workings of the global world, but has also profoundly impacted the public’s understandings of poverty, artistic expression, and the worldview of Black and Brown youth across the globe. The questions we face looking forward, are how can young people channel the culture’s transformative power; and how do progressive activists & community organizers address the negative aspects of the music—plainly, how can this complicated social phenomenon effect positive political change?

You talk exclusively about Hip-Hop music—specifically mainstream Hip-Hop music. I want to expand the conversation to also consider Hip-Hop culture, and for us to seriously meditate on where Hip-Hop music comes from. What are its origins?

Mainstream Hip-Hop has never been overly interested in “consciousness.” Mainstream Hip-Hop has never been overwhelmingly interested in political issues. It is important that we are clear about the history of Hip-Hop music, and not romanticize it. A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and De La Soul were not a part of mainstream Hip-Hop. They did not sell as many records and were not as commercially successful as say 50 Cent, Ja Rule, DMX or the other rappers that came to fame in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Those artists represent Hip-Hop music’s corporate turn: marketable, sellable, and most importantly, profitable. They were incredibly popular to the general music consumer, broke records for album sales, and brought Hip-Hop music to Top 40 radio. “In the Club,” “Holla, Holla,” and “Where My Dogs At” is mainstream Hip-Hop. Not “Bonita Applebum,” “Fight the Power,” or “Me, Myself, and I.”

The most commercially successful and profitable Hip-Hop artists were not firebrands for activism and political action. Mainstream Hip-Hop is Run DMC; LL Cool J; Beastie Boys; Tupac; Biggie; Eminem; P Diddy; Jay-Z; Kanye West—artists and groups never associated with being political organizers, and who’s music and lives are deeply complicated and nuanced. Rather, they are artists and groups that have always been associated with: sex, drugs, and money; having fun, partying, and enjoying the best that life has to offer; rising from humble beginnings to enjoying luxurious and lavish lifestyles; and exhibiting a gangster bravado and social-defiance that often feeds our interest/obsession with “the bad guy.”

We may want mainstream Hip-Hop to be Dead Prez, Talib and Mos, Immortal Technique, and Common…but, it isn’t. Mainstream Hip-Hop music is commercially successful, profitability, and marketable—not revolutionary or political in the way we often think.

Thus, we have to consider what the roots of Hip-Hop music are. Hip-Hop music’s origins start with the party. It is dancing, DJs, and partying. The music is the fusion of dancehall, funk, and salsa. It is the innovation of blending two records together; of playing only the “break beats;” of extending certain parts of a song so people could dance longer. Hip-Hop music is the central component to break-dancing. The sound, the music, is made for you to dance; or nod your head. This is what Kool Herc and the early Hip-Hop DJs of the 70’s where trying to accomplish; this was Hip-Hop’s foundation. It was the party that Sugar Hill Gang gave us in “Rapper’s Delight” (1979). It was the party that the Beastie Boys fought for the right to have.

And maybe, that’s not a bad thing.

The roots of Hip-Hop culture come from the pinnacle of governmental disregard for the urban Black and Latino poor. Hip-Hop culture rises from the shadows of “benign neglect” and “planned shrinkage.” It is the outcome of President Ford telling New York City to “drop dead.” It is the result of fiscal crisis, tickle down economics, and neoliberalism. It is at the epicenter of the post-Civil Rights, post-Black Power, post-Vietnam War historical moment; a moment of disillusion, social reorganization, and political re-prioritization. Socio-economically, Hip-Hop’s origins come from the worst of times. Was it “Great Depression” or Jim Crow south bad…probably not. Was it a time of incredible hardship, struggle, and pain…absolutely.

How do we balance struggle and joy? How do we remain committed to a progressive political agenda, yet reconcile the problematic aspects of Hip-Hop music?

First we must always remember the poignant words of Dead Prez: “It’s bigger than Hip-Hop.”

It is not mandatory that we use Hip-Hop music to address the poverty, racism, and economic dislocation that Sistas and Brothas United want to address. The issues that confront the youth of the South Bronx, and ghettoes and hoods across the country, are not caused by a 50 Cent song; even the most vulgar, most despicable, most immoral Hip-Hop song, does not induce unemployment or budget cuts. These issues have a much larger context, and it is important that we always remember that. The decision-making process in the United States has many players, stakeholders, and operatives; people that effect policy, legislation, and political decisions, and that create the context of our neighborhoods, our communities, and our people. That reality…is bigger than Hip-Hop.

It is critically important that our young people understand that context. It is even more important for us organizers to teach young people about these systems; about this context; to help them and ourselves disentangle this complicated system of interactions, perceptions, and realities. Mentors and organizers have to teach young people that we can effect these systems; that we are actors; that we can affect the context, and make it our own.

And most importantly, we have to realize that the problems of the urban poor are multi-dimensional. Again, it’s bigger than Hip-Hop.

I am not arguing that we ignore Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop culture can play a critical role in our organizing. This is especially true because as you pointed out, it is a part of the daily life of many youth in our communities; it is fundamental in shaping their world-view. And for these very reasons I agree with you—we can’t allow the sexist, homophobic, misogynistic, gratuitously vulgar, unnecessarily violent thread of Hip-Hop music to continue unopposed. It has tremendous impact on the psycho-social health of our young people, and on how others perceive urban communities and the people who live there—it affects what they understand to be the social reality of these communities. The reality is more than pimps and drug dealers; or gangster rap. The reality includes Sistas and Brothas United, or Fordham University’s Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). Or the Bronx Brotherhood Project (BBP), a college readiness and mentorship program for Black and Latino high school males which I co-created and co-direct. The reality is rooted in what is called “the beautiful struggle:” a confluence of pain, joy, hardship, resistance, strength, community, organizing, and support.

And that is bigger than Hip-Hop music. That is the root of Hip-Hop culture. While that may not be the mainstream understanding of Hip-Hop, it is a profound ethos that can realized if we deeply study the culture; if we have a clear understanding of the context behind the culture, and the origins of the music.

It’s Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message.” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Tupac’s “Brenda Had a Baby.” Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” Biggie’s “Juicy” or “Everyday Struggle.” Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation. Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life.”

It is also the New York State Senate; City Hall; the Comptroller; the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation; the Right to the City; “The Race to the Top;” “Promise Neighborhoods;” charter schools; diminishing tax-bases; fiscal issues; job creation; finance capital; Community Voices Heard; and a long list that goes on.

The point is: social change does not happen in a vacuum, it takes a remarkable amount of actors and interactions. We cannot have singular explanation for our communities’ problems; we can’t have singular solutions either.

I admire you all for taking the first steps towards creating solutions. I look forward to learning more about your organization’s planning, process, implementation, and desired outcomes. I will continue to do my part to create impact, and work towards social change. And let us continue to think through how to reach our youth, and what role Hip-Hop can play.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Turning Drum Majors into a Band

Below is the text to a talk I gave last night at Fordham University. Please feel free to leave comments and thoughts. M.P.

April 28, 2010

Turning Drum Majors into a Band: Engaged Scholarship, Community Focus, and Praxis
Michael Partis

Presented at the Fordham University (Rose Hill) 2010 African American Studies Department/Urban Studies Thesis Dinner

I first want to thank Dr. Naison for inviting me to speak here tonight. It is an honor and privilege to share the podium with the outstanding student/scholars that will speak after me. This is also a special occasion for me personally, as I have the opportunity to speak at this dinner as a Fordham graduate; only a few years removed from me being here as an undergraduate student, presenting my own research.

In one of his most noted public statements against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, Dr. King once said, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscious leaves me no other choice.” This quote spoke to me when I heard it again a few weeks ago; I felt it was speaking to what I should talk to you all about tonight. I want to talk a bit about consciousness; about having a “moral compass;” about how important it is.

My time at Fordham was formational for the development of my social consciousness. I’m sure my readings of Kant and my lessons on utilitarianism had something to do with it. But unequivocally, a major factor was my academic and intellectual engagement. There are certain moments that keenly stand out. I remember once Dr. James Marsh, who recently retired from the Philosophy department, telling my class: “If you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.” I vividly remember the October 2007 morning when I sat in Dr. Judith Green’s classroom and listen to her read aloud James Baldwin’s "A Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation," a text that changed my life, and my view of family, race, and history.

But I can sincerely say the deepest academic impact I felt was from my coursework as an African American Studies major. One of the first lessons I learned was from Dr. Mangum, when he had us read the first two chapters of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. That small snippet of what is no doubt an immensely popular book, changed my historical lens. To me it wasn’t “revisionist history.” It was literally the story of the untold; something slightly akin to what anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls Silencing the Past. But the whole discussion in that class planted those first seeds of intellectual curiosity in my mind: recognition that there are many stories, many histories untold. The importance not being that there are many stories, and not to be overwhelmed with the task of uncovering them, but to think of history in the way Baldwin once said: "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."

For those of us in Black Studies and Urban Studies, we know all too well how many of the “anonymous” are Black folks and how they are often in urban areas. While the Census may find them difficult to count, those of us doing the work, those who are engaged and entrenched in those communities, are very familiar. This is something I learned through my senior thesis on public housing residents in the South Bronx; through interviewing and interacting with people; through recognizing one of the most important “methods” you need is the ability to listen. It is also something I learned about through my relationship with the Bronx African American History Project. The Project taught me that not only does your work matter; but the people you interact with…they matter even more so. How to allow them to speak for themselves, and to authentically capture the context of their lives; the environment, conditions, and ethos of where they’re at and where they come from--this is the task. As Sly and the Family Stone tell us, it’s about the “Everyday People.” I developed a consciousness about these folks, and wanted my academic background to tell me more about them.

Of course the irony is that there is no shortage of academic literature on Blacks in the U.S. or U.S. urban cities. My coursework with the Urban Studies and the African-American Studies department faculty taught me that the hard way. It also taught me that to truly understand American democracy, American history, the conventional stories that are told, and the people (all the people) who make it up, you have to dig deep; you have to read vociferously; your intellectual appetite has to be ferocious. I have to thank scholars like Dr. Naison and Dr. Purnell who not only showed me these requirements but forced me to practice these traits. To be a urban U.S. scholar or to study Blacks in the U.S. you have to understand that it is a deeply complicated, nuanced history. That there are complex historical processes with profound contemporary meaning-- and to study them in graduate school, or to become a policy maker, or to do local level community work, you have to have deep knowledge about these places and about their people. You must be steeped in social reality.

I want to end my talk tonight with a bit about social reality, and why this is so important to consciousness. Because social reality is what we live in right?

The reading, the writing, the scholarship we seek to produce (and that you tremendous seniors have produced for tonight) has to be grounded in social reality. It is important that we engage in praxis, even in its simplest form: combining theory with practice; trying to understand how the world works processually and historically, and attempting to make a world build on justice, equity, and dignity. Our study of people and places teach us that this is not some esoteric, abstract idea, something that we are removed from. But rather it is something that is intrinsic, engrained in the U.S. experience. It’s as real as the race riots in Tulsa and East St. Louis in 1917 and 1918. It’s as real as the great flood that hit New Orleans in 1927. It’s as real as the community organizing and political engagement in places like Harlem by Garvey, Clayton Powell Jr., and Arturo Schomburg in the 1920’s and 30’s. It’s as real as the multi-racial organizing done by groups like CORE during the Civil Rights Movement. It’s as real as the urban rebellions of the 1960’s. We’ve studied and continued to promote just how real this history is; to make the struggles of people and peoples not anonymous, not silent; but to continually raise their voices collectively with ours--to keep this history in the consciousness of the public.

What are today’s social realities? A few events can illuminate some things. The deaths of Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and Officer Omar Edwards tell us something about police interaction with Blacks today. Earlier this month, Newark, NJ celebrated its first homicide free month in over 40 years. This year, Chicago's only public all-male, all-African-American high school has 100 percent of its first senior class (107 students) accepted to four-year colleges. On Easter Sunday this year at New York’s Times Square, 33 were arrested and 4 people shot--the arrestees being mostly Black and Latino, with the alleged impetus being some gang ritual that has become commonplace every Easter Sunday. In Chicago there was the tragic death of Derrion Albert in 2009, and earlier this April a rash of violence in Black neighborhoods in the city’s South Side that resulted in 41 people being shot in 50 hours. On April 15 and April 16, during one 12 hour period, seven people were killed and 15 others were wounded in a wave of shootings across Chicago. Incidents such as these, and the rising rates of murder in the city, have lead some city politicians to call for the National Guard to come help control the violence.

I think the recent events in Chicago give us an important moment to pause, and to think about a urban city with tremendous historical significance for understanding the journey of Blacks in the U.S.; and about the issues people dealing in the urban context should consider. I want to share a small bit of a reflection from a young man who is currently volunteering with City Year, and is a lifelong resident of Chicago’s South Side:

“Chicago has become a war zone, and it will not change anytime soon. The past 3-4 years have gotten progressively worse because each year, the people doing the most crime are getting younger. Its not even gangs recruiting younger people or all that, but these kids have nothing to fear, no one to influence them enough not to do these things, and have no value for life. And when these issues and feelings are felt, these kids in Chicago are not going to hesitate to shoot yo ass. They know the camera lights in their neighborhood don't work, and they will not get caught, and if they do, are too young to go to jail anyway.

I was listening to a kid on the train and it was SOOOOO sad to hear his lack of value for life (his or anyone elses). For 20 minutes he said he's happy to have made it to 21, but since nobody loved him growing up he just doesn't care; he's gonna sell drugs forever; so all he has is drugs, robbing, shooting, jail, and rap. He said he would kill anybody for any reason they gave him. And he wasn't one of those mad teenagers venting, the boy was talking normal to somebody he was on the train with. Boy said he doesn't care whether he goes to heaven or hell. A bunch of things, and it was so sad because he's one of many that feel the same way. To hear the boy talk was so sad I wanted to reach out to him...but I didn't.”

What struck me most about what my friend said was not what he wasn’t doing, or what others were doing…but what was I doing. My Senior Thesis; my academic research; my background; the vast amount of knowledge I’ve built; and the ridiculous amount of work I’ve done in graduate school so far. Those are a part of praxis. How am I enacting the other part?

And so I thought back over the work I’ve done the past few years: going to Selma, Alabama and symbolically crossing the Edmund Petitus Bridge; doing relief-work and community organizing in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans; creating and directing a mentorship program for young Black and Latino high school males in New York; working on college prep and college awareness workshops for poor and low income students; sitting in on BAAHP interviews and traveling across the Bronx with Dr. Naison to hear the stories and see the work of incredible “everyday people.” I realized this was my consciousness: my personal experiences, and how they interact and share with others; the stories; the actual, physical people; and how they connect with what I’ve read and what I’ve debated in the Black Student Union or in classrooms. That’s the consciousness that propels us to really think critically about the world, and to act on what we know, and build on what others have done. Like Barack said in his famous “Joshua Generation” speech in Selma a few years ago: “I’m here because somebody marched.”

I close with one last word from Dr. King. Shortly before he passed he gave his “Drum Major” sermon, talking about the inclination to lead out of desire for recognition and glory. He said we should take that inclination, that desire to lead, to be “drum majors,” and orientate it towards a higher moral commitment. Rev. King said, “if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.”

As a fellow thesis presenter, I say let your scholarship, your hard study, let that help build your consciousness and don’t forget to share it. Let your interaction with folks, your engagement with community, let that guide your moral compasses. Allow your work to enable you to be “drum majors” for the important issues faced by people of African descent and in urban areas. I hope we can become a band that marches towards scholarship, service, and work that is in the name of justice.

Thank you.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The True Measure of Education

Below I've written a response to The Case of Myron Rolle, an article on the Liberator Magazine's blog. It is my rejection of narrow solutions and simple explanations; my attempt to debunk anecdotal evidence as the answer to large social problems. The answer to racial and economic inequality will not happen with one key, or through one door.

The Myron Rolle article attempts to link the need for greater Black achievement, with engaging in a variety of cultural and social activities: sports, reading, chess, etc. The argument being: engaging in varied social behaviors and environments shouldn't be associated with "acting White," but rather as the model for socio-economic success. Educational achievement is the way for Blacks to achieve social equality.

Here is my response to this argument and the article overall. It is time for us to be real about the purpose and value of education.


We need to debunk the "education as the silver bullet to all social inequality" solution. I say that not to imply that educational success needs to be devalued or de-emphasized, but to cease education being isolated as the most important tool for a just society. Bottom line: how many college educated people you know who don't have a job? Scarier: how many of them are the kids who worked hard; did the right thing; studied crazy; all to achieve that other sacred goal: a college degree.

My point is that educational success is deeply embedded in the whole of society---in a racial, political, economic, gendered context. These social factors profoundly shape "achievement." They are the difference between charter schools and "regular" public schools; between those schools and private schools; and between a "regular" public school in the South Bronx or East New York, and one in Scarsdale or Rockland County.

So when the author of this post exhorts their educational success, the fact that they went to a private school matters...a lot. Yes, they had a high level of self-determination. Yes, they had a committed support system. And yes, those are most often the same traits we see in successful athletes and sports at all levels. Certainly I can agree that we need to replicate those best outcomes to better the situation of our folk. But there are other factors that significantly effect "success:" our families; our parents' jobs; incomes; family histories; public policy, etc. Many people overcome these things, and God bless them. But overcoming hindrances is the exception, not the rule.

You eat three meals a day? Certainly helps you study longer. Drinking organic apple juice ($5.99 and up) instead of Top Pop sodas (50 cents to a $1 in a hood near you), is definitely better for your health and your attention span. You have money to call the plumber to fix your drainage problem; instead of being mad at the landlord because they refuse to address your roach infestation problem? Absolutely a physical and mental health difference right?

THOSE THINGS AFFECT EDUCATIONAL OUTCOMES. Just as much as "good" teachers; and "focused" students.

The author neglects this, as do too many educators. As a group, we got to start looking at problems this way; instead of in compartmental ways.

Most importantly we certain need to shift to a group achievement paradigm. But I think this has to happen not in an "every one is smart" type of way, because promoting equality like this isn't always healthy. Fact is: everyone can't run as fast as Usain Bolt; play ball like Lebron; write as lucidly as Baldwin or Morrison; or community organize like Ella Baker. This is not to quell the audacity to aspire for greatness. But it's to recognize what you do have; what you can do; what you do well. Of course the line between settling and striving, or practicality and dreaming, is very thin. Bottom line though, is our people need a group achievement model, and this model must include...EVERYTHING: poets, musicians, mathematicians, environmentalist, medical doctors, dramatist, etc.

Instead of making "intelligent" relative, why not make the dignity of every person fundamental; and respect their humanity. Sanitation workers are as valuable and respected as the Fortune 500 exec. The social worker is just as dignified as the heart surgeon. Respecting the dignity of every person's humanity, and exhibiting that respect in how we view abilities and talents, that should be our avenue to thinking as a group.

Michael Partis