School Integration and Community


Dear reader, 

The summary version of the below: go listen to theThis American Life episodes on school segregation. If you don't have time to read my thoughts on them and listen to them, I recommend you prioritize listening to them (Part 1 | Part 2).

As I mentioned last time, I've started this newsletter in part to build a virtual community. I love the thought of this little bit of digital content landing in inboxes across the country and creating connections between me and you, between you and the content, and maybe even between you and others you share this content with.

For me, creating community is about shared experiences and a sense of belonging. The best communities make you feel safe and connected and stretch you at the same time. 

When I think about what it is going to take to create more opportunity for more people in this country, or what I want to see for Oregon's schools, or my hopes for my child, I think a lot about community. I think about community when I'm questioning how we build strong, vibrant neighborhoods. I think about community when I'm wondering how we create schools that make every child feel safe and connected and stretched. Honestly, I think about it a ton. 

So, when I heard the This American Life episodes titled, "The Problem We All Live With," I had to question what I meant by community and how important it really is. The episodes are about school desegregation. 

In both episodes a strong case is made for integration. Integration is referred to at one point as the "one thing that really worked, that cut the achievement gap between back and white students by half." There aren't many programs or initiatives that claim to be able to cut the achievement gap in half. I was surprised that 1) I couldn't think of a time that integration had come up in a conversation I had been a part of regarding school improvement strategies and 2) I didn't have a positive image in my head of integration. I had assumptions about kids being bussed out of their neighborhoods as a negative experience. 

One of the reporters on the episode, Nikole Hannah, describes her own experience with desegregation:

"But also we were being taken out of our community into someone else's community, where not only was it a white community, but it was a wealthy community. And I was coming from a very black, working class community. And so socially, it was very difficult. You just never felt like you belonged or it was your school. I had friends, and I could go to their house, but they couldn't come to mine...

We somehow want this to have been easy. And we gave up really fast. I mean, there was really one generation of school desegregation.

There's a lot of data that shows that black students going through court-ordered integration, it changed their whole lives. They were less likely to be poor. They were less likely to have health problems. They live longer. And the opposite is true for black kids who remained in segregated schools."

How can a program be so hard on kids socially, taking them out of their communities, and be good for them (and good for all of us)?

What has continued to hit me about school integration is that it is about so much more than a school reform effort or addressing the achievement gap. It is about the opportunity gap. It is about undoing institutionalized racism. It is about making up for decades of the fallacy of "separate, but equal." 

The two primary reporters on these episodes, Nikole Hannah and Chana Joffee, call this fallacy out directly. They talk with Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and ask why integration hasn't been a top school improvement strategy. He talks about how the administration is focused on improving schools by focusing on teacher effectiveness and after-school programing and a number of other initiatives. Hannah interprets the conversation:

"What I think when Secretary Duncan is saying that the administration is going to focus on bringing those segregated schools up to par, then what that's saying is the administration is going to try to make separate schools equal. And separate but equal is the doctrine of the Supreme Court in the 1800s that Brown v. Board of Education struck down."

Damn. How much time do we spend trying to make separate schools equal? 

These episodes haven't given me answers as much as they have raised new questions for me. Can we prioritize strong community schools and integration? Is school integration a sustainable strategy or do you have to start with larger efforts to integrate neighborhoods? What would it look like to make integration a top school improvement strategy in Oregon, specifically in Portland? (There are school districts across the country dealing with these questions in very real ways right now.)

I'm a strong believer in the power and importance of community and I realize that there is some inherent privilege in that belief. If your community doesn't have access to the same opportunities as other communities, no amount of focusing on strengthening your community is going to make up for that. Sometimes strong, comfortable community can be a barrier to awareness, opportunity, and progress. 

In the second of the two episodes, Joffee talks to folks around Hartford, Connecticut. The Hartford School District is intentionally recruiting suburban white families to attend magnet schools in the urban core. The district has a full-time employee whose job it is to convince white families to send their children to a magnet school and who does not mention integration in doing so. Joffee explains:

"The long history of segregated schooling doesn't come up. The current reality of segregated housing is irrelevant. No one here is being moved by a sense of collective responsibility." 

I had the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial in Washington DC last week. I wasn't thinking of This American Life when I took a picture of the MLK Jr quote below, but it strikes me how relevant it is.

"If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective." 

King was right on. We have to develop a world perspective - a strong, conscious, worldly community. We have to seek and find belonging and at the same time commit to supporting others in that same journey. 

There is so much these This American Life episodes that is thought-provoking and challenging. I'd love to hear what you think. 

Dan Jamison, my friend and former Chalkboard Project colleague, shared a recent revelization about wisdom with me. With his permission I'm sharing it with all of you. 

"One revelization recently emerged from an ongoing conversation with several gents fully in their golden years. The conversation was predicated upon wisdom and the possibility  of successfully experienced older men making the commitment to mentor and support younger men. The breakthrough came in our reflection of wisdom. What is wisdom? What are its traits? And how do we know it when we see or experience it? Traditionally, we have viewed wisdom as a quality..a personal way of honorary trait bestowed on a Solomon-like sage. In sum, wisdom is traditionally seen as a noun.

Imagine the possibilities if we were to reframe wisdom as a verb. Wisdom without action is a useless adornment for the individual perceived to possess it. Conversely, wisdom in action is a social commitment, a willingness to serve and stretch others...a higher calling. 

The worldly temptation for my aging generation is to guard resources, feather the nest, move to a retirement community in Arizona, golf, and die. The larger possibility is that we may have even greater challenges in our senior years than we did in our working careers, challenges that invite us to be a significant part of a wider community where we can responsibly act with wisdom to strengthen the experiences of others. Imagine a future where revelizations are elevated, shared, and celebrated. 

Imagine revelizations as the highest form of collective wisdom translated into authentic sharing." 

I so appreciate Dan's thoughts on wisdom and his willingness to share them. If you've had a revelization you'd like to share, please send it my way or post a comment below!