Recovering from “the anesthesia of power:” Conflict and healing in dialogue

For as we begin to recognize our deepest feelings, we begin to give up, of necessity, being satisfied with suffering and self-negation, and with the numbness which so often seems like their only alternative in our society.  Our acts against oppression become integral with self, motivated and empowered from within.

  • Audre Lorde

“You don’t buy it, do you?” I said to my co-teacher. “Nope.” I was smiling anxiously.  He was not smiling. “And I do. I’m trying to train myself not to, but I still do.” We had just showed a video that highlighted a racial conflict, and a student had blamed it on “white entitlement.”  My co-teacher asked our class, “where do you think entitlement comes from?”  The first response to his question came from Leann, a 23 year-old white woman: “Ignorance.” In the video, we saw that a white woman’s words were causing pain to First Nations people.  I believed, and Leann believed, that the white woman didn’t know she was causing pain.  My co-teacher did not believe this.

This difference created an opening for me to explore how racist complicity can form and spread within and between white people.  I am a white female teacher, and my co-teacher is a Black male.  By analyzing my own response to a moment in my teaching through the lens of what Mab Segrest calls an “anesthetic aesthetic,” I want to learn about emotions and historical consciousness in anti-racist pedagogy.  I center this inquiry around a graduate education classroom discussion of a moment of conflict, where strong emotions, rooted in histories of trauma, re-shape a context that is raced white.  We were considering the video of an interchange in a context that may register as neutral to a white audience, but that evokes a history of oppression to First Nations people in the space.

“Stop talking!”

On June 30, during Canada Day festivities, First Nations women leaders held a press conference, to demand that the government prioritize its investigation into the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.  Indigenous leaders emphasize that extreme violence targeting Indigenous women meets with public indifference, continuing the legacy of settler colonialism and ongoing systemic racism.  In the news clip that we showed in class, a white female reporter asks, “How can he be blamed? You don’t think anything he’s doing is helping the situation? Is he [Justin Trudeau] an improvement over Stephen Harper?”

The Elders leading the press conference quiet the reporter: “you don’t know how to communicate;” and demand that she change her tone.  One of the leaders, Ms. Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail, reminds the assembled reporters that they are guests in this space and they must speak with respect.  She observes that racist behaviors in the room are continuous with a history of racism in the Americas: “You haven’t changed, because you haven’t started your own healing journeys!”  A white male reporter speaks up, promising to speak respectfully.  His question: Are things better now than under Stephen Harper?

Ms. Wabano-Iahtail observes that the reporters are playing out the customary patterns of white fragility: the white man defends the white woman’s right to her question. “Who,” she asks, “defends our rights? 524 years of genocide; who has stood up for us?”

The reporters continue to push for a narrative of progress.  They don’t acknowledge the wracking pain of the people in the space with them, who have seen their daughters killed and their mothers and grandmothers for generation after generation erased, belittled, colonized.  The trauma of oppression is present in this room, active in this moment.  The Elders cut off the reporters: “No! Stop talking! This press conference is over!”

Ignorance as oppression

After watching the video of this anguishing interchange, our class processed what we had seen and heard, taking note of the importance of tone and place and historic relations between white people and Indigenous people in North America.  Students had just read Paulo Freire’s book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and they were paying close attention to humanization and dehumanization, both within the press conference and within themselves as they watched.

We sought to discuss the people, words, and history in the video with respect, conscious that we were watching the video out of context.  We were trying to counter the conventional emotional distance of the classroom with our personal responses of outrage and love.  Expressing strong emotion in a setting like a university classroom, where the unspoken norm is coldly intellectual can feel awkward, unnatural.  But Ms. Wabano-Iahtail’s rebuke to the reporters made us realize that a response that avoided touching the historic and present trauma of the First Nations community would be racist.  She traced out a boundary that had been invisible to the white reporters, and that forced us as listeners to pause and reflect.

When students broke into small discussion groups, I checked in with my co-teacher about Leann’s comment that entitlement comes from ignorance. The video had been upsetting; it had reminded him of other press conferences he had watched on TV over the years, where Black people on either side of the microphone had been publically disrespected.  These memories had been painful.  Then, when hurtful behavior was ascribed to ignorance, no one had spoken up to challenge what this really meant.

Though we start our class with readings that help us talk about the difference between intent and impact, I, like many of my white students, am still ready to see racist attitudes as emerging from ignorance.  “I’m not sure how to get through this block,” I said to my co-teacher. “My default response is still to assume ignorance.” I have acted, spoken, and thought out of ignorance countless times.  I have made a habit of dismissing the impact of other white people’s behavior by calling it unaware.

From thinking to thinking-and-feeling

I am learning to resist the gravitational pull of my assumptions.  This means fighting my natural response; it means believing others’ experience more than my own judgment.  Since my mind doesn’t want to do this, I have to tell it that it doesn’t really know.  An emotional lurch quickens the process. Conflict, grief, anger – the feelings that are hardest to face fling me past my limits.

It’s only when I force myself to listen to the pain of a person like Ms. Wabano-Iahtail, when I force myself to remember the historical, generational, lifelong, constant trauma that Latina/o, African American, Native American, Asian American, and Middle Eastern people carry, that I’m able to shift my perspective and realize that attributing racist acts to ignorance has the impact of minimizing their suffering.  The Indigenous Elders’ repeated command, “Stop!” helped me to stop.

When I stop and push myself through a slower thinking-and-feeling process, I realize that people who come from historically targeted backgrounds have inherited a pain that flares acutely when it meets racism.  When the racism is denied, questioned, or ignored, the pain spreads.  In the press conference my class watched, the focus was on the excruciating issue of violence against Indigenous women, and the government’s inadequate response. The reporter’s question about whether matters had improved under Justin Trudeau’s government passed over the trauma the Native leaders were feeling, voicing, and acting on, regarding this issue and related matters of residential schools, the Indian Act, and so many other ways in which the genocidal history of white supremacy has continued to impact First Nations people in Canada.  As I think this through, I begin to hear the disrespect in the reporter’s question, the dehumanization it allows and perpetuates.  This takes me a long time.

The colonialist mentality, a Black student in our class pointed out, still dominates, prescribing not only policy but interchanges like the one we were watching.  “I don’t know if it sounded this way to you,” he said, “but to my ears it sounded like the reporters were saying, ‘haven’t we done enough for you?’”

I recognized it once he said it, but I hadn’t articulated it. I had watched the news clip many times by the time I showed it in class, and I felt troubled and confused.  Moments like this make me question my own responses.  How did my student hear a colonialist message that I didn’t? Why is my co-teacher pained by watching scenes like this in a way that I am not?  Why do I accept ignorance as justification for racist behavior?  Why am I ok with my own confusion? What’s wrong with me?

Amnesia, anesthesia, contradiction

In her essay “Of Soul and White Folk,” Mab Segrest talks about the “anesthetic aesthetic” that blocks dominant culture people from pain, awareness of their own responsibility in systemic violence, and their own consciousness.  She studies the emotional atrophy of slave-owning white people, as an example of white numbness in the face of violence against people of color.  “Necessary to the slave system was the masters’ blocked sensation of its pain, an aesthetic that left him insensible not only to the fellow human beings he enslaves, but to the testimony of his senses that might have contradicted ideologies of slavery.”

Inner contradiction, denial, and systemic violence blunt our feeling capacities and our health: “the affective void from which feelings and perceptions have been blocked in oneself and cast onto Others is the space where addictions arise.”  The damage of disconnection and distance, Segrest says, isn’t just direct, physical, or historical. It is hardwired in white people like me and there is much in white supremacy culture that maintains it.

Recovering our human connectedness through focused inner work and outer action helps us to heal ourselves and our world. “Action expands perceptions because it shifts and enlarges our point of view and our capacity and motivation to process bigger chunks of reality.”  Though we have inherited a destructive disease, white people can reverse the racism that “encodes itself in our consciousness, closing the doors of our perception.”  We become more whole as we sit with the pain that we have for so long pushed away.  We can reclaim our souls, planting our mental and social processes within the affective life of feeling, respect, and mutual responsibility.

 

 

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#Nobannowall vs. #Buildthewall: Rethinking conflict in school

What does it mean to teach civil dialogue today, when the leaders of democratic society aren’t modeling it? When many children of immigrants are living in terror of deportation ripping their families apart? When students in cafeterias and on athletic fields across the country have adopted “build a wall!” as a handy taunt, and often teachers and parents don’t know how to respond? When we lack the language of social responsibility and trust in human community?

In many schools, administrators have attempted to protect students and teachers from confusion and conflict by prohibiting political discussion, declaring schools safe zones from controversy. So, the place where students are educated for thinking through hard things, for exchange across differences, comparing, interpreting, re-evaluating, questioning, is not the place where they are processing the complex ideas and events that the world around them presents.

When I was in high school in the 80’s, those of my classmates who knew about the wars in Central America said the U.S. was right to support death squads to prevent the rise of Communism.  I knew refugees from Central America who had fled the death squads, and I didn’t know how to disagree with my classmates without disliking them.  I needed to dig into questions of U.S. policy, ethics, and human rights with my teachers and peers, not to change anyone’s position or solidify my own, but to recognize that these questions mattered.  Instead, we continued learning equations and reading Shakespeare; my teachers’ silence on political issues told me that these issues didn’t matter to the school.  I looked outside of school for the hard conversations I needed to have to feel I was engaging with real life.  I wish my school had encouraged us to question authority, to challenge our assumptions, to engage complexity.

When we simply avoid controversial discussions, we drive complexity underground temporarily, ensuring that it will burst out in moments and contexts of stress.  Abandoning students to handle these hard moments without adult support and guidance is unethical.

Yet, controversy also has the potential to generate better thinking and learning.  Controversy creates a powerful filter: everything shifts when it surfaces in a room, whether in the form of a direct lesson on immigration policy or because a hallway snub has spilled over into the classroom. When people sense the possibility of a controversy, they become more alert, more focused.  The air becomes a little electric.  There is potential in these moments for deep, true learning:

Despite its sometimes uncomfortable presence, conflict is both unavoidable and potentially beneficial. Controversial discussion adds energy and motivation to the classroom; heightens awareness and increases student engagement, and gives us as instructors opportunities to encourage the development of critical thinking skills and potentially new solutions to societal issues (Landis, ed., 2008, p. 32: this and other helpful resources can be found at this link: Conflict/Civil discourse/Controversial issues: Teaching Resources).

In the classroom, conflict is often ignored or pushed down: it threatens to push things out of control.  Teachers worry, “What if I don’t have a good answer, a helpful response?  What if I fall in this pit that has suddenly appeared? What if I can’t climb out, let alone help my students out of it?!”

There’s an opportunity here for adults to recognize we don’t have the answers, to embrace the process of growing. We can model something very authentic for students – not just how do we make sense of things, but how do we deal with the things we can’t make sense of?

Sometimes it’s ok that we don’t know. Students often have the answers we are seeking, if we listen.

The other day I was at a gathering of Midwestern educators, discussing social justice education in today’s fraught political context.  Olivia, a high school Junior, described a project she leads, raising awareness about Syria and supporting refugees.  Together with student leaders of the Latino Students’ Club and the Muslim Students’ Club, she organized a lunchtime discussion for any high school students who wanted to come.  The event was called “#NoBanNoWall.”  A teacher listening to her presentation asked Olivia, “what about students who support a wall? How did they feel about this discussion?” Olivia answered, “I kept my focus on my own reasons for being there, for having the discussion; I kept what I said ‘I-centered.’”

Olivia’s response may come across as self-absorbed.  But to me, and I think to the other teachers in the room, her words illuminated a sturdy path through difficult territory.  By keeping focused on her own goals for the dialogue, Olivia overcame a common pitfall in controversial discussions: the attempt to convince, correct, change another person.  For Olivia, the goal of the dialogue was the dialogue itself.  Her intention was that people would have a chance to explore and express what they feel and hear what others feel.  It wasn’t to convert anyone.

This, I think, is civil dialogue: in Olivia’s telling of it, the discussion of a charged subject was an opportunity to be more conscious, to notice her own responses to others, and reflect.  I want to stress the humility inherent in this frame.  Olivia was not trying to change others, but to see how she might evolve herself as she listened to others.  The more difference in the room, the greater the opportunity for her own growth.  She came out of the dialogue with new perspectives and deeper commitments.

I am continually humbled by the complex range of feelings and stories that unfold when people lean in and explore their differences.  I believe that democratic life is never so real and powerful as when people are engaged in conversations across differences.  Tension, conflict, and discomfort are vital opportunities: they have the capacity to separate people, but when understood in a context of relational learning, they can heighten consciousness.  Engaging difference jars complacency and provokes hard questions.

The frame for dialogue matters.  If communication is seen only as a way to make a point or effect a desired result, the possibilities for relationship and change are limited.  If the dialogue is understood as the goal in itself; if people can welcome difference as a source of community power and as an opportunity for personal learning, limits fall away.  People who feel encouraged to explore what is important to them and who they are have access to richer thinking and stronger human connections.

Engaging difficult discussions, we are challenged to be more intentional and focused than in routine communication.  We slow down and learn to be more attuned to non-verbal dimensions of the conversation: we learn from our own bodies’ responses and we remember to breathe.  This deep engagement can make the most difficult conversations restorative.

 

“Invisible Borders:” Walking Tour of Istanbul

And before long, the music, the views rushing past the window, my father’s voice and the narrow cobblestone streets all merged into one, and it seemed to me that while we would never find answers to these fundamental questions, it was good for us to ask them anyway.
–Orhan Pamuk

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Istanbul is known to be the crossroads of the world.  In visiting the city, I am curious about how different groups have lived together there in different eras and conditions.  How do people compose their community life in day-to-day relationships, regardless of how news headlines and history texts portray them?  How do they create the “in-between” space that Maxine Greene describes as the key to public life, “where people speak in terms of ‘who,’ not ‘what’ they are”?

These questions take shape around borders: How do borders sustain respect? How do they abuse human dignity? I know a little bit about the waves of conflicts and oppression, the written laws and unwritten customs used by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities – and many languages, cultures, and other subgroups within and across these communities – to co-exist over the course of Istanbul’s history.  And the news shows people all over the world engaging in a range of collective behaviors, from nationalist xenophobia to democratic inclusion to indifference.

The scale of these views is too large for me.  I am looking for small, local processes of relationship building across differences.  Neighborhoods are where people are listening and learning and growing side-by-side, day-by-day, in many contexts over time and across countries.  But media and politics tend to ignore these local spaces and the knowledge and struggles of their residents.

My daughter is studying in Istanbul; she arranged for us to take a walking tour of a few intersecting neighborhoods of Istanbul: Fener, Balat, Dramond, and Edernekape.  The tour focused on demographic and architectural changes, but the subtext is, “how do people live with another across class, ethnic, religious, and cultural differences?” We spent about an hour in each neighborhood, covering a few blocks and several “invisible borders.”

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Our guide, Gaye, lives in the neighborhood we are walking through.  She describes her view of neighborhoods: spaces where people want to be in relationships with other people, where they experience otherness as a rich resource, not as a threat.   She, along with a team of students and professors at the university, is developing what they call “active anthropology,” engaging people from different communities in asking questions about identity, social change, and culture.  In contrast to widespread media attention to ethnic conflict, the anthropologists are interested in “how we’re nourished by intersocial relations between different groups in a place.”  They wonder if the increasing societal emphasis on private life is “a deliberate plan to create distance between people.” These neighborhood researchers demonstrate “intersocial” commitments in the way they approach us.  Gaye urges us to ask questions, “not because I’ll have answers, but so we can all learn from what you are asking about.”

The framing question she has for our group of western visitors, mostly university exchange students, have to do with patterns of gentrification: Would you choose to respect the historical quality of the neighborhood or to respect people’s daily lives and choices – including their self-interested changes to the historical buildings of the neighborhood? Pointing out historical markers like “jumba windows” of the Ottoman period, she emphasizes that homeowners may or may not preserve such features when they remodel.

Gaye is studying gentrification in this particular community because in Istanbul, “Usually gentrification happens too quickly to track.  Here it’s happening slowly enough that we can watch it as it unfolds.”  She classifies two types of gentrifiers: Type A gentrifiers, who are investors, and isolate themselves from the neighborhood with fences, bars on the windows, and general absence. Type B gentrifiers are the hipsters, who seek out relationships with neighbors, sensitive to problems in the neighborhood.

Gaye puts herself in the Type B camp.  She originally comes from a neighborhood across the river on the Asian side.  She tells a little story about learning the language of neighborhood life: “Women express themselves with cleaning.  There’s a discourse of laundry in this neighborhood. Ropes strung between buildings are used to express connection and conflict. I wanted to hang laundry and arrived at my window at the same time as a woman on other side of the street.  She glared. I smiled a little, she smiled a little, gradually, smiling more and more.  We silently came to an understanding and shared the rope.” Gaye shows us how she “reads” the streetscape, including doors and windows, empty space, sounds, and, of course, people.

She describes what happened when scores of Syrian refugee families came into the neighborhood recently.  She took part in a community response: people in the neighborhood rented flats for the refugee families, taught them Turkish, provided food and other supplies. But the refugee families sold the food, left the flats.  The activists researched – what went wrong?

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I feel ambivalent.  I appreciate Gaye’s team’s deep interest in neighborhood relationships and their creative intellectual work.  At the same time, I think their research stance carries dangers: they are experimenting and intellectualizing, a response that seems irresponsible in relation to the vulnerability of the people in their neighborhood living through humanitarian crises.  On the other hand, is it less irresponsible to do nothing?

As a place-based educator, I am fascinated by these university researchers’ “active anthropology.” I’m also disturbed by it.  I won’t assume that gentrification in Istanbul works the same way that it does in Chicago and other U.S. cities, where the influx of wealthy, trendy folk assaults the integrity of lower income neighborhoods.  But, like American gentrifiers, the Turkish gentrifiers don’t seem to demonstrate the self-reflectiveness that is necessary when people of privilege enter into more vulnerable communities.

Gaye is exploring her own conditions, the neighborhood she is over time making herself part of. She is studying gentrification from within.  Her focus is still, though, on the other, on other people, on buildings, on streetscapes, not on herself: her reactions, people’s reactions to her.  Without such reflection, her study is incomplete and likely to unintentionally perpetuate an “othering” approach.

Even though they’re on the lookout for othering, the team’s faith in their anthropological method may block them from doing the kind of self-examination necessary to interrupt objectification.  Without examining their own prejudices at every turn, they are perpetuating stereotypes.  Gaye’s research questions can sound like veiled accusations: “Why did you sell the rice we gave you?” “Why did you leave the apartment we put you in?” “Why aren’t the Syrian men working?” “What could change this problem?”  She doesn’t hear the power she wields in her voice, her stance, her freedom of movement, and without being alert to this, she is likely to alienate the neighbors who are most different from her, the ones she is most interested in connecting with.

If the enterprise of peaceful co-existence subordinates local knowledge to common understanding, it will always be the more powerful who set the terms and maintain order.  So, local knowledge is always threatened, never fully respected.  As an outsider to a community, who wants to learn how to be in relationship with people in it, I am wondering if there is a way I can hold awareness of the danger I as an outsider pose within my respect for the community.  Does attention to the ways local knowledge is threatened, including my own gaze and narrative as an outsider, make my relationship in another community more possible – or less so?

Borderlands Consciousness- part 2

Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures.  By creating a new mythos – that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves and the way we behave – la mestiza creates a new consciousness.

–Gloria Anzaldúa

The photographer stepped out from behind the camera standing at the doorway of the classroom.  He leaned toward the class of 11th graders and said, “Actually I want to say something to you.”  They looked at him.  Young and thin, he could have easily passed for a student in this school in the Texas border town of Hidalgo.  It was the first time I had heard him speak; for two days I had seen him only behind the camera.  He said something like this:

Where you’re from is important.  I grew up in Corpus Christi, not far from here.  I thought I had to leave my community to be successful: people would always badmouth it.  I have gotten the chance to travel a lot once I got to college, and see amazing places.  I meet new people when I travel, and I tell them about the culture of my community, about my roots.  When you’re traveling, you meet people who have never been to this area, who don’t know anything about it. You realize that what people will know of where you come from is what you tell them.  You tell the story of where you came from – you don’t need to keep telling the same old tired story.  The negative story about this area is only one story.  What is the story you want to tell?

Misael got me thinking about how much I accept others’ versions of reality rather than doing the creative work of describing reality for myself.  Misael’s words to his younger colleagues reminded me that going away and coming back helps us get the perspective we need to be able to recognize the stories of hope and determination and courage that make us who we really are.  When we’re at home, wrapped up in the familiar routines and worries, we forget that the reality we inhabit is a story.  When we go away, and look back home, the deeper resonances that lie within the voices of our families and communities can emerge.  Listening to them helps us to challenge the faceless authorities that dehumanize us.

After coming back from the 2016 North Dakota Study Group meeting in Texas, (“Movimiento Sin Fronteras/Movement Without Borders”), I have been thinking about why Misael, and other university students I talked to in South Texas, are so adamant about young people coming back to their communities.  I heard people talking about coming back as a kind of a border-crossing: an act that was not only geographic but also spiritual.  By seeking out the stories of their parents and grandparents, they are growing stronger understandings of love, commitment, education – as well as of racism and exploitation.  By speaking and hearing Spanish in educational spaces, they are standing up to a history of English-only school policies that demeaned their families. By learning Nahuatl language and literature, they are reclaiming wisdom that preceded the conquest and colonization of the Americas, and that expresses spiritual resistance to oppression.

I wondered what coming back might mean to the high school students in Hidalgo who were listening to Misael.

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When I returned from South Texas, I shared with my teacher education class the video of the NDSG meeting there, created by Misael Ramirez and his colleagues Jesús Sierra and Arnulfo Segovia.  My students, who have been focusing on systems of racism in education, were inspired to learn about teachers and students deepening their understanding of community, place, and story.  They talked about how education based in humanizing relationships could counter testing oppression, corporate control of education, and other ways that schooling systems disrespect students’ lives.

Alongside the NDSG video, my co-teacher Marcus Campbell and I shared Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade’s “Roses in Concrete” Ted Talk, which emphasizes the importance of students in urban communities coming back to their communities, and “creating rose gardens.”  This was an important image for my students from marginalized communities, and also for students from privileged backgrounds, who are struggling to find their place as teachers in urban schools with students who don’t look like them.  Many of them are realizing that they are part of an education system that is structurally designed to benefit White people at the expense of communities of color, and they are asking how to challenge racism from within the education system.

One student, a young white woman from a wealthy community, realized that she unintentionally supports students’ marginalization when she assumes that they need to leave their communities to succeed:

This idea made me think of the volunteer work I have done with children from the inner city of Baltimore. My mindset working with them was always to help them get out, and essentially get into the world in which I exist. I think I have been conditioned by society to imagine my world, the mostly White world, as the ultimate goal. I sincerely wanted to help these children, but in my mind helping them was getting them into my world and leaving their world behind.

Though these realizations are painful, they are also liberating.  For my student coming to terms with the assumptions she had made, “coming back” means value and dignity.  She is coming to question her “helping” narrative, which distorts who her students are and who she can be with them.  The more she learns to respect where her students come from, the more she can know of their reality – and of her own.  Her stories are changing; her range of meaning is expanding and deepening. To quote South Texas native Gloria Anzaldúa, “Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”

Intergenerational organizing for freedom: notes on Mississippi Summer conference

Young people have a feeling of the future in a soulful way”

— Timuel Black

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I hadn’t heard much about SNCC* before moving to Chicago, but when several people who I respected a lot were introduced to me as leaders of SNCC, I hurried to learn more about it.  It is important to my development as an activist and an educator to dig under the Hallmark version of the Civil Rights movement, to know about what people learned, and not only how they engaged in the struggle with injustice in the world around them, but also how they struggled between themselves and within themselves.  I am particularly interested in knowing how outsiders, both Black and White Northerners, entered into the fight for Civil Rights: how did they come into Southern communities as activist strangers, without disrespecting local knowledge and leadership?

In her book on Ella Baker, Barbara Ransby pays close attention to this question, showing how Baker challenged Civil Rights leaders who imposed their norms and goals on local communities and insisted that movement leaders must take their lead from local people.  Ransby’s book also illuminated for me powerful differences, as well as synergies, between the SCLC**, where Martin Luther King Jr. and other middle-class, mostly male Black clergy led, and SNCC, which was younger, more interracial, and more grassroots-focused.  Ransby emphasized Ella Baker’s work to support the leadership of the younger group, which involved not only working with the more politically powerful SCLC but also challenging its methods and its biases.

Then, as now, people working for social change wrestled with the limits and possibilities of radical action.  Though people often think this means hostile and divisive behavior, radical tactics respond very directly to a context of extreme hostility – where hierarchies and profits push out basic human rights like education, health, and life.  Ella Baker explained:

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.

For SNCC, this meant fighting for voting rights, through education, organizing, and political action.  The Mississippi Summer Project was a SNCC campaign launched in 1964 to register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi.  Young people came from all over the country to stand up to the intimidation and violence of the racist white establishment that kept Black people from the polls.  They were welcomed by Black Mississipians, who, above and beyond allowing young White and Black northerners to organize in their communities, accepted loss of job, safety, and life for taking part in the campaign for voting rights.

Last week in Chicago, as part of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, SNCC leaders gathered with youth leaders from Fearless Leading by the Youth and other groups organizing against police violence, and students from local schools and universities.  The conference, “Come, Let Us Build a New World Together,” was “designed to connect the past with the current wave of youth activism and the socio-economic crises of ‘endangered communities.’”  The intergenerational discussions at the conference highlighted how SNCC confronted systemic racism 50 years ago and how this fight continues today.  Tracing the evolution of the struggle allows for cross-generational exchange of perspective, strategies, and stories.

The conference was a model of intergenerational respect, expressing not so much the expectation that young people pick up where the older generation left off but the commitment of older and younger organizers to fight together.  One SNCC leader commented, “We get free when we get engaged – it’s a very spiritual thing…we’re looking at you young people, seeing the effects of what we did then – you can go into restaurants, to integrated schools, you can vote.”  In a country where political power is tied to money, grassroots power has to have a spiritual base, expressed in song and art and love.  SNCC leader John Hardy said, “There’s a personal commitment at base here – we have to have faith that change is going to come. If you don’t believe it, you can’t achieve it. Politics begin when two people get together.”  For SNCC folk, inner commitment took the outward form of carefully planned tactics: “With SNCC, there was always a plan and a procedure to move forward.”

SNCC leaders talked about strategies that guided their work:

*put young people on the ground, at the source of the problem.

*non-violence as a tactic (it frustrated those in power, who expected and hoped for violence)

*direct confrontation

*let the local people speak (vs. SCLC, where the clergy was out in front.  When King came to Chicago – SCLC leadership squelched local leadership; they never regained power after that)

*equip the youth with knowledge of how to attack these problems (know your opponent; study leaders of the past)

*educate each other

As leaders of a group that used racial difference, privilege, and tension as both political tactics and educational processes, SNCC leaders had a lot to say about cross-racial organizing.  One pointed out that “[SNCC leader] Stokely Carmichael told people to go back and fight racism in your communities.  White people could go to Mississippi to fight racism but couldn’t fight it in their own communities.  They started the women’s movement, the peace movement, the environmental movement – but they couldn’t face racism.”  Watching the Democratic presidential candidates deal with the challenges young Black Lives Matter activists put before them, it is clear that progressive politics have been handicapped by a refusal to engage in the truth-telling and restorative processes of addressing racism in America.

Angel, a young Public Allies leader who, along with SNCC leader John Hardy, facilitated our intergenerational discussion group, closed our circle with powerful words: “what are the lessons learned?  My generation hasn’t learned the lessons, because we haven’t sat down and reflected on the history.  But when we do, when we understand what the older generation is saying, we can break it down for the younger ones, so they can relate. Earlier, Dr. Al Bennett talked about the bricks that everybody here needed to be laying to build the path to the future.  But when you place the brick you don’t just put it there.  You stand on it and say this is my brick. Go forth with fire and burn!”

 

*SNCC (“snick”): Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization of young people founded in 1960 by African American college students engaged in direct action for Civil Rights

**SCLC: Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a national, intergenerational Civil Rights organization; following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the founders in 1957 and the organization’s first president.  Ella Baker worked for SCLC and helped to found SNCC as an organization allied with but separate from SCLC.

Learning from Grace Lee Boggs

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In honor of Grace Lee Boggs, who passed last week at a tremendous 100 years old, I am posting an excerpt from my book, which was influenced by meeting Grace and studying her work in Detroit.  This section of the book focuses on the North Dakota Study Group meeting in Detroit in 2014, which was hosted by Grace and other Detroit activists and educators.

When educators and students cross borders between schools and between schools and real life and between hierarchically divided groupings of age, race, and culture, they are taking part in the democratic work of coalition building.  I offer here a brief sketch of a group that has practiced democratic coalition building continuously over the course of generations, and between generations.  A strong collective history of community organizing in social justice movements enables North Dakota Study Group (NDSG) participants to recognize and nurture organic connections between the different constituencies in and around schools – from parents to policy makers to community organizations.  By choosing to fight for the dignity of every child in every community, following the lead of the families in these communities while remaining aware of their own identities, these democratic educators step outside of prescribed roles and foster a new kind of freedom.

Learning in Community Partnerships

Instead of trying to bully young people to remain in classrooms isolated from the community and structured to prepare them to become cogs in the existing economic system, we need to recognize that the reason why so many young people drop out of inner-city schools is because they are voting with their feet against an educational system that sorts, tracks, tests, and certifies them like products of a factory because it was created for the age of industrialization.  They are crying out for the kind of education that gives them opportunities to exercise their creative energies because it values them as whole human beings.

–Grace Lee Boggs

I will touch on a moment from my own experience at a NDSG meeting to provide an example of how school-community exchange leads to greater understanding of student learning.  Every time I attend one of these NDSG meetings, I hear stories of young people taking leadership and exchanging wisdom with elders in their home contexts, whether in Texas or New Orleans or Hawa’ii.  The young people describing artfully designed partnerships with older generations have deeply influenced my thinking about education.

The 2014 meeting was in Detroit, at the invitation of Grace Lee Boggs, a powerful social justice leader almost 100 years old, who along with other Detroit community organizers and educators introduced NDSG to the work Detroiters were doing “re-imagining and re-storying” the city.  In the weeks leading up to the conference, participants read articles like James Boggs’ “Community Building: An Idea Whose Time has Come,” which argues,

our first priority must be the rebuilding or the regeneration of our communities because it is in community that human beings have always found their personhood or their human identity as persons.  You can’t find your human identity out there by yourself.  It is in the community that our human identity is created because it is in the community that love, respect, and responsibility for one another are nurtured.  (2011, p. 334).

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Grace Lee Boggs describes the growth of local community power in her speaking and writing as an “organically evolving cultural revolution.”  Detroit, like thousands of other local communities fighting for social justice, is “growing the soul” of interdependence and resistance to dehumanization.  “In ’this exquisitely connected world,’” Boggs writes, quoting Margaret Wheatley, “the real engine of change is never ‘critical mass;’ dramatic and systemic change begins with ‘critical connections’” (Boggs & Kurashige, 2011, p. 50).

At the 2014 meeting of the North Dakota Study Group, participants continued a many-year inquiry into the relationship between education and sustainability.  One of the community sites that participants had an opportunity to visit was EMEAC — Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council.  At EMEAC’s beautiful site, a gilded age era mansion called the Cass Corridor Commons, which houses several social justice organizations, leaders talked to a small group of educators not about plants and pollution but about learning, relationships, and personal growth as environmental issues.

At Cass Corridor Commons, young adult leaders from the community engage teenagers only a few years younger than them in “hip hop literacy.”  This community organization is not the kind of external partner that impose top-down change from outside of students’ experience, but the kind that supports critical analysis people in the schools may not have access to, such as structural analysis of race and power and interpersonal relationship building.

The young EMEAC leaders explained the educational premises of this literacy pedagogy to the assembled educators, who are mostly teachers a generation or two older and uneducated in the meaning of hip hop.

Hip hop literacy, we learn, presents the conditions and issues that are most real in young people’s lives within a critical framework that enables young people to construct meaning and connect with values that affirm them culturally and linguistically.  In hip hop art, “Maturity and power can be triggered through vocabulary,” Todd Ziegler, one of the young EMEAC leaders, explains.  Hip hop is a deeply democratic art, an expression of healing and hope: “Hip hop,” Todd narrated, referring to histories of violence in urban communities that drove people into isolated and fearful private spaces, “came out of people bringing people back on the street…bringing music outdoors…the message was, ‘stop staying indoors, come together!’” The hip hop modality of sampling is also democratic education: by setting iconic musical “texts” in new relations to each other and connecting them with contemporary rhythms and beats, hip hop music traces the knowledge and the histories that span the generations.  In this way, young people can connect to the cultural legacy of musical traditions of past generations like jazz and blues; hip hop puts them in dialogic relationship to past knowledge and power that they can build on.

Because they were so recently teenagers themselves, and were themselves mentored in empowering ways, these young community educators have powerful insights about liberatory educational relationships.  Through dialogue, conversation invoking values and recognizing capacities, drawing on what both adults and students know and don’t know, a learning exchange unfolds between educators and students.  In this reciprocal exchange, it isn’t “students’ learning” or “teachers learning,” but learning as the field that connects them.

As I listened, it seemed to me that this approach was more natural – and thus more possible – with young African-American leaders in educational relationships with African-American youth.  When I asked how this exchange might translate for white teachers of students of color, EMEAC leader Will Copeland responded with the story of a young white teacher who came to teach in the neighborhood school.  The first thing she did, he said, was learn where the young people spent their time out of school, and go there.  Even though she didn’t live in the community, she spent her free time in the community spaces where her students were.  She knew that she didn’t walk in the door with the kind of relational capital that a colleague who is a person of color might, and that she faced a steep learning curve.  By respecting students in their neighborhood environment, trust developed that could nurture strong reciprocal learning relationships.  This white teacher was doing her part in the “re-storying” of Detroit, by basing her teaching in the close company she kept with her African American students, in their neighborhood.

I highlight the educational work of EMEAC not as an exceptional program with exceptional people (though they are exceptional!), but as an example of the kind of local knowledge and democratic practices that thousands of ordinary people all over the country (and the world) are engaged in.  The social knowledge that blooms in grassroots organizations is a transformative resource for our schools, as the scores of schools in Detroit who partner with such organizations understand.

A speaker at the NDSG meeting later that day underscored what was so important in the approach the white teacher took in the Cass Corridor neighborhood.  Former Black Panther Ron Scott emphasized that unacknowledged racial tensions poison education in America.  Of education reformers who make claims about transforming kids and communities, he said, “we never put ourselves in uncomfortable situations to transform ourselves.”  “The charity model,” he continued, “created a dynamic we can’t handle.  It’s crippling.  You want to come into an area and you don’t want to respect the indigenous knowledge that’s already there – a wall goes up.”  Unlike the white teacher Will had talked about earlier, many educators as well as education policy makers assume that they are doing good without taking the time to learn how to enter a space respectfully.  In this way, a white supremacist master narrative remains unchallenged.

As Boggs and other NDSG leaders showed us, adult society needs to learn to take young people seriously, not only respecting their agency in their own lives, but also recognizing them as leaders who have an important role to play in democratic progress.  Instead of pinning them to individual measures on standardized scale, schools should be nurturing youths’ understanding of themselves as part of a vibrant collective leadership.  They should be helping students learn the language and methods of collective power.  We have the ability to change the rules that make up the structures of our individual and collective lives – and thereby change the structures themselves.

References

Boggs, G. L. & Kurashige, S. The next American revolution: Sustainable activism for the twenty-first century (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2011).

Boggs, J. (2011).  Pages from a Black radical’s notebook: A James Boggs reader. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University.

— excerpted from Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education in Action

For other writers’ posts on Grace Lee Boggs, click here.