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Sunday
Dec142014

A Day at the Library in Ferguson, Missouri

Not long ago, my good friend Rana asked if she could do anything to help the Ferguson Municipal Public Library and I had followed the buzz around the social media campaign to get them books and resources while they remained opened during protests. Their library is one of the first things I began to monitor closely as students were showing up and volunteers were helping the people seeking a safe haven. Rana offered to immediately send 25 copies of one of the titles that Little Pickle Press publishes titled What Does it Mean to Be Safe? that she wrote and that Sandra Salsbury illustrated. 

If I were completely honest I would have to mention that the fact that there's an adorable brown boy on the cover of the book makes me happy so I was thrilled that she was donating them.
  

 

Between Rana's offer and 2 days ago, I realized that taking the books there personally was going to be my preferred method. She could have mailed them but I like that they came to my home first. As I waited for the books to arrive I read in the LA Times that the library in Ferguson had received over $350,000 in donations

  

 

Since I'm an avid Reddit reader, I learned that the library director, Scott Bonner, would be doing an AMA (Ask Me Anything) and I followed it religiously. Everything I was reading started to thaw my blackened, frozen heart so by the time I read that author John Green would be donating books (and was, subsequently, embarrassed for not doing so privately) I shared a screenshot of that on my Facebook page.

 By this time, I reached out to Scott Bonner myself by calling the library and asking if I could help in any way. A lovely library worker answered my questions (apparently, Scott has been super busy and wasn't available) and said that the donations they've been receiving from all over the world were a bit overwhelming but also quite wonderful.  

 

Naturally, I asked her, "What would be most helpful to the library at this time?"

"VOLUNTEERS," she said enthusiastically. "We have a lot of boxes of books that need organizing."

"Great," I told her. "I live in Springfield and can be there all day this Saturday."

 

I took to social media again and asked if any friends would like to join me. Part of me figured that some of my local friends might want to hop in the car with me (and they did!) and that some friends in the St. Louis area would also drop by for the day (and they did!). Honestly, though, I didn't expect my friend Jasmine to drive up from Arkansas.

That's not even the thing that floored me the most.

 

It was seeing a packed library on a Saturday and getting to witness it come alive.

Or maybe it was opening boxes of books with accompanying letters of support, many of which used #BlackLivesMatter somewhere in their writing.

Or maybe it was getting the see the actual books people sent.

Or maybe it was the Congressman's office who sent a note encouraging the library workers.

Or maybe it was the plethora of authors who sent their own books with letters

Or maybe it was the multicultural titles and deliberate agency people took when choosing books to donate.

Or maybe it was reading the incredibly heartfelt letters people wrote. Sometimes they signed them and sometimes they chose to remain anonymous.

Or maybe it was opening a box from a famous author (whose name I found covered up elsewhere on the box from previous use).

Or maybe it was opening the actual box of John Green titles he sent and waving the card around frantically to my friend DeShanee and screaming, "THESE ARE THE BOOKS HE SAID HE WAS SENDING."

  

 Sure, there was excitement throughout the day but it was mostly a roller coaster of emotions. There were patrons in the library that each of us connected with or smiled at or people who asked who this crew was taking over the children's section with box after box. 

Scott told us that the most helpful thing we could do is organize several dozen boxes of donations so our crew split into teams to tackle this. Some worked in the children's section sorting books by children's, YA, and adult. After that, they alphabetized them so that when we boxed them back up we could label them thus making it easier for the library staff to get them into the hands of community members.

 

It was deeply inspiring to see so many social justice titles donated. Some of the letters denoted that, but one in particular stood out for me from a mixed race librarian who wrote that growing up in the 1970s she found herself seeking books with characters who looked like her.

Now, that I can totally relate to.

 

We learned that being library volunteers meant that we were all sweaty by the end of the day because there was some serious physical work involved.

  

Luckily, my own school librarian, Trisha, came with me and helped with titles if some of us didn't know if they were YA or adult.

 

Many of my friends were meeting one another for the first time and coming together for volunteer work will make lifelong friends of many of them. 

 

I take full credit for knowing some really incredible people and just connecting them.

 

This is my friend Elizabeth and her daughter. They helped with the children's books.

 

Most of the pictures of books we took were because so many of them are titles that are going on our own reading lists.

 

I didn't expect that connecting with some of the Ferguson residents visiting the library would be such a joyful thing, but it was. One of the things I mentioned to my friend Jasmine was that I had a sense that I wasn't always meeting their eyes.

 

Jasmine is a therapist by trade and she nailed it right away when I mentioned this to her. 

"It's connection, Kelly. It's looking people in the eye knowing they are healing and maybe it's some guilt or not wanting to connect because that can be painful."

Right in the gut. She got me.

 

Scott made sure we filled out volunteer forms so he could have some record and data of our being there and he insisted we take a photo together at the end. Everyone who saw this photo commented on Jaelithe's son on the far right who couldn't stop reading to take a picture.

He worked the entire time and was, like us, anxious to pick up a book to read and not simply organize. 

Dude. We all get that.

 

There's a lot of healing that is already happening in Ferguson and we got to witness just a little bit of that on Saturday. I'm not sure what it is I want to say about that because it's just the beginning and, being there made me realize how much physical and emotional effort it will take.

 

We did a small thing. I didn't give too much thought to making the trip to Ferguson because I've been watching so many people so much work around protests and education and this thing seemed like it fit. At least for the moment. This statue outside of the library seemed painfully apt of a child watching the world in a book, but I was also reminded of how much the world is watching.

If you're in the area and would like to volunteer, I'm sure Scott and the rest of the staff would appreciate it. We already told him we would return.

 

Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone's face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.
Henri Nouwen


Monday
Dec012014

Hatch & Project Sunlight #ShareAMeal

I tell some stories more than others because I know that they connect with people on a level that may not be expected from me. What I mean is that I don’t look like I’ve ever been hungry or living in poverty or have been homeless. Not now, anyway, and because life is very different for me some 20 years out I have to tell my stories of those difficult times. It’s the “I’ve been there” connection that makes me not only sympathetic to the plight of hunger but also empathetic. 

There’s a difference. 

The facts of hunger in the United States don’t shock me, either. 16 million children go hungry which means that 1 in 5 kids are food insecure and are unsure from where their next meal will come.

 

Source

Sometimes, this is what hunger looks like and it's right in front of our faces.

These facts aren’t surprising because I work in the American public school system so my contact with children is daily and my contact with their families, especially when they’re hungry, are often. 

Just last week I checked my mailbox in the main office as I was doing my daily rounds and got a message from a girl named Taylor Jones. I misunderstood the message as it was written and thought that she was a former student who was calling me to ask for help with a Thanksgiving basket. That’s not something I provide, but I use my local social services to access things for families. I couldn’t place the name because the message said she was a student at the school where I currently work. I ran through my database of girls named Taylor and still couldn’t place her. 

When I called her back and told her I got her message she said, “Oh, yeah! I remember you. You were my assistant principal at high school.” Since I’ve moved around to different buildings within my district I realized my error in trying to place her as a former middle school student. Once she said that everything clicked and I could picture the face of the girl, well now she’s a woman, who was calling to ask for help securing food. 

Even in the scope of things I found this to be a new request for food. Usually my current students let me know they’re food insecure. 

After we figured out who she was I asked her if she was needing to get food for the upcoming holidays, most notable Thanksgiving.

Oh, no. You misunderstand. I’m not looking for food for myself. I’m buying food for a family in need. Do you know of someone who could use a Thanksgiving meal?

This is where I tell you that I keep a box of tissues on my desk that are mostly used for students but, in this moment, I found myself reaching for them to use myself. I hadn’t expected to hear Taylor say that she wanted to help. I’m used to being on the receiving end of a phone call where families tentatively, and tenderly, ask for help. 

Taylor is 20 years old. I know this because I asked her since my database of students numbers somewhere after 10,000 after doing this for 20 years. I also know this because I wondered what convicted her and compelled her to reach out to offer help when she’s still so young herself. 

I’m just doing really well. I have a good job at Lowe’s and life is good to me. I know people don’t have as much and I just think it’s important. 

I half expected her to say STOP YOUR CRYING, LADY, I’M TRYING TO FIGURE THIS OUT but she bared with me as the facts of child hunger of which I am intimately aware collided with the reality of a person who reached out to help.

But, Taylor is 20. When I was 20 years old I was actually hungry and trying to feed my 4 year old. We were on the receiving end of food donations and SNAP benefits while I earned a college degree. When I was 20 I had no clue that my life would put me in a position a few short years later to help people, mostly single mothers, the way I had been helped. 

Taylor is 20. I just can't wrap my brain around what motivates someone so young to call her former middle school and ask who needs help with a meal. I tell my story about being hungry and fighting poverty because people who know me now didn't know me at 20. 

I will tell this story, of Taylor who, at 20, has a job and is fed and who wants to help others because we need more people like her to pay attention early and see community in this way even if she doesn't know the data like this. It's enough to know that someone is hungry, that she is able, and she wants to help.

Visit Project Sunlight here. The Hatch Workshop can be found here. (It's super cute. The kids are adorable.)

 

About SheKnows’ Hatch, the Hatch Hunger Project and Unilever Project Sunlight:

SheKnows’ Hatch teamed with Unilever Project Sunlight to help families build awareness and take action around child hunger in America. The facts are startling: 16 million kids living in the United States don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That equates to one in every five children – enough to fill 18,000 school buses and 223 football stadiums. On average, those who live in food-insecure households have only $36.50 to spend on groceries every week. That means that 80 percent of children may not understand the everyday struggle their peers – many of whom could be their own friends or neighbors – confront when there’s not enough food on the table. The Hatch Hunger and Project Sunlight video and workshop aims to create empathy by showing kids what it means to shop for healthy, filling meals for an entire week on a thrifty budget. It teaches important math and teamwork skills. Finally, it is about action, empowering kids to have a positive impact on their community to Share A Meal with a family in need and donating food and canned goods to local food banks.

Sunday
Nov302014

Discussing Race with School Staff Post-Ferguson

The first year I worked in an American public school I found myself at odds instantly. It was, to be honest, in my student teaching days when I visited a number of different educational settings in order to get a grasp on the options we give students. I had traveled, for one full month, to an alternative school in Champaign, IL to do clinicals. Mostly, that meant that I was to watch and learn and not yet write a lesson plan for instruction. What I was supposed to do was monitor guided lessons from the teachers as they instructed students who had, for one reason or another, ended up getting placed there because they couldn't function in a standard classroom setting. With my notebook in hand, I wrote notes about what I witnessed, asked questions about critical thinking required, and studied the relationships between staff and student. My professor encouraged me to ask questions and write down answers to share with the class once I returned to campus.

 

"Why are most of these students Black?" I asked the classroom teacher. She was a White teacher in her 30s who was assigned there, but it wasn't her first choice. She let me know that instantly upon my arrival.

"They're the ones who get in trouble the most," she replied without a hint of irony or privilege or self-awareness.

When I reported this in class my mostly-White classmates nodded as if this were status quo that they understood to be The Way it Works. My professor nodded his agreement that this was troublesome, but that's as far as the conversation went. We breezed past it knowing that questions were left unanswered. I didn't receive a satisfactory answer that class period and I was angry. I took it to my best friend, Tammy, who was also studying to become a teacher. We discussed, in depth, what those assumptions meant and how we were not going to become that instructional leader.

But, it ended there. For the remainder the next 2 decades I would find this to be how it works in public education. Real conversations about race are left to private, hushed discussions in small groups.

It's little wonder, then, that school districts across America report that teachers are to take caution in mentioning the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, a town some 90 miles south of where I live. The onus of broaching the subject is on the individual teacher but, structurally and systemically, these conversations are in silos and are as segregated as our nation has always been.

During the summer of 2006 I began doing consulting work and traveling to school districts in Boston and Pasadena to instruct school leaders on having those difficult conversations but it centered around gathering and using data to target student populations for growth. There was also a missing component, though, and, after speaking to a roomful of educators, I found myself cornered by the teachers of color who questioned these tools and their use in discussing the systemic racism found within the schools. 

More hushed, private silo conversations. More comments like, "Our mostly White leadership doesn't understand" and more disappointment in myself that I didn't know how to make this a larger conversation. Now that I work in administration, I see these pressing issues on a grander scale in which my frustrated talks occur with other admins of color. With that said, here are a few starting points for staff to understand before delving into the conversation about what's happening in Ferguson. (It goes without saying that teachers who have ignored or been willfully ignorant of the news should most definitely NOT discuss with students. Hence, the reason for this post.)

Race as a Construct vs Being "Colorblind"

Recently, author Toni Morrison joined Stephen Colbert and discussed the construct of race. She eloquently described how it's a fabrication used to further agendas. She says it's important to know something about racism. She's speaking scientifically and anthropologically, but she mentions the benefits that come from having constructed it. This is a higher level conversation about social functions that take into account our American history of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, de facto segregation, and de jure segregation, and a slew of other systemic practices that support White privilege.

Expand Your View of Civil Rights

I'm not dissing Dr. King here, but if that's the only person with which teachers are familiar in discussing the Civil Rights Movement then it's time to learn some more. Right now it seems as if a lot of people are throwing out all his non-violence rhetoric because it's easy and because there is a great misunderstanding of the protests causing civil unrest. (Also? Take the word "riots" out of your vocabulary if you're instructing students. That's not the only thing happening. It's just the most common thing media is reporting on at the moment. If you must discuss 'riots', do so fairly. A History of White Race Riots - "A reminder of what the term "race riot" usually meant throughout American history. This list is NOT comprehensive, and does not include events such as the Anti-Filipino Riots, Rosewood, the Zoot Suit Riots or the 26 anti-black race riots during the Summer of 1919. But they offer a glimpse.") I'm not leaving links here for that as it's a comprehensive American era and I would do it no justice. Luckily, teachers have access to the Internet for this. 

A Little Bit of Vocabulary for Civil Rights

White Privilege - societal privileges that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances

Racism - describes patterns of discrimination that are institutionalized as “normal” throughout an entire culture. It’s based on an ideological belief that one “race” is somehow better than another “race”. (source)

"Reverse Racism" - Not a thing. Stop using this made-up phrase.

Prejudice - A preconception or preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

Redlining - the practice of denying, or charging more for, services such as banking, insurance, access to health care or in denying jobs to residents in particular, often racially determined, areas. (This has been rampant across the country and Ferguson is acting as a microcosm for this and other societal ills.)

Intersectionality - A phrase coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw;the theory of how different types of discrimination interact.

Respectability Politics - A concept by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880-1920. These are attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous and compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for its failure to accept difference. 

Black Codes - Historical in nature, most notorious Black Codes were laws passed by Southern states in 1865 and 1866, after the Civil War. The intent and effect of restricting African Americans' freedom resulted in forcing Black Americans to work in a labor economy based on low wages or debt.  In the South, "slave codes" placed significant restrictions on Black Americans who were not themselves slaves. A major purpose of these laws was maintenance of the system of white supremacy that made slavery possible. (Source)

White Gaze - This is probably best left to this article to discuss.

The white gaze is also hegemonic, historically grounded in material relations of white power: it was deemed disrespectful for a black person to violate the white gaze by looking directly into the eyes of someone white. The white gaze is also ethically solipsistic: within it only whites have the capacity of making valid moral judgments.

With that said, it's important in race discussions not to center the conversation on anyone other than the person expressing their experience. When it moved from actual historical experience to being all about how the other person can't hear you because their feelings are hurt it's time to STOP THE DISCUSSION until they can hear. I practice this a lot.

THIS LIST IS NOT COMPREHENSIVE. (I'm not trying to write a thesis here.)

The Narrative Is The Thing

This is a great example (of many others I have seen online) about the demonization of Black people in the media. There are so many others, of course, but it's important to WATCH THE NARRATIVE and how things play out. There are definitely higher-order questions that come of this and students would probably rock a Socratic Seminar on such things. 

But, if we're going to create a generation of thinkers who won't be here a full 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement and a full 150 years after the Civil War, we want to understand what's happening in Ferguson right now. We might want to pay attention to history. Start with Kinloch

But also pay attention to how the media portrays Black Americans and also how it handles issues like when White Americans take up arms (Cliven Bundy, anyone?) for violent purposes. This article was posted Saturday with the following title: On Rooftops of Ferguson, Volunteers Patrol, With Guns. If the National Guard has been called in and all manner of police are banding together, why are these people allowed to do this? Again, these are critical questions students are capable of hashing out.

 

Illustration by Bob Staake for The New Yorker

Need some teaching resources?

The first place to start is the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus on Twitter. It was started by Dr. Marcia Chatelain

PBS has put together a comprehensive list of witness testimony. If you're teaching a Civics class or even discussing American history then it's worth it to check out this LA Times article on how much the witnesses cited fear in their testimony. 

CNN reported that over 170 cities took part in protesting. The mere fact that 170 cities are experiencing protests but schools are being asked not to discuss it represents some serious cognitive dissonance. It makes me wonder what was happening in the American public school classroom during Civil Rights and, if the response was to have our heads in the sand then it's little wonder we haven't moved very much in 50 years. 

The world is watching. I have found that particularly unsettling as teachers fear having important discussions with students all while Russia and China (and others) are monitoring this situation knowing that it's the highest level of hypocrisy to criticize human rights issues in other countries when we're not able to understand what is happening right here in 170 cities of our own.

Dale Hansen wrote a very straightforward piece called Blacks and Whites Aren't Having the Same Conversation on Race. Students will understand this and get it right away, but they will have questions that lead them to learn more. This is a very good thing.

Over the last few years an article pops up now and then that looks at data that spells out how Whites and Blacks interact (or not) when it comes to social circles. There is a lot of scoffing at such data and yet here we are presented with an actual example as to how that manifests in relationships. The Washington Post, in noting that 3/4 of White Americans don't have any non-White friends, spells out what this looks like in discussions. Students can and should use this for critical reading. 

WaPo cites an article in The Atlantic titled Why It's So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson in which the author states:

Clearly white Americans see the broader significance of Michael Brown’s death through radically different lenses than black Americans. There are myriad reasons for this divergence, from political ideologies—which, for example, place different emphases on law and order versus citizens’ rights—to fears based in racist stereotypes of young black men. But the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.

Speaking of the Atlantic, there's no better writer about race right now than Ta-Nehisi Coates. Students would be challeneged to read his high-level vocabulary and it would also encourage more research skills since he speaks from a place of historical relevance. Middle grade students can read him in bite-sized chunks and high schoolers should use this to improve reading skills to take them to the next level. 

Read everything Coates writes. Seriously. Teachers looking to be competent in race need to be intimately familiar with his work. 

Sarah Kendzior wrote this piece for Al Jazeera titled The Wages of Discrimination. It's helpful in understanding, again, historically where we are. In it, she says:

You may look at Ferguson, at fast food strikes, at racism, at poverty, and think these are not your battles. But these are, and have always been, this country's battles. What we see today is the detritus of civic responsibility abandoned. Choose your battles, lose the war.

If I were to lead a staff on having such discussions, I would probably begin with a basic KWL chart. It's a basic strategy, but for this is seems we must start with basics. Teachers know this tool as a chart asking students to tell what they KNOW about something, what they WANT to learn about it, and what they LEARN. It makes sense that we'd start there before taking this to the classroom. I wouldn't dare teach the Ukranian history with Russia unless I studied it myself. 

But, that's kind of the point, isn't it, dear educators? Teaching something that's unfamiliar isn't acceptable in the classroom so I understand the apprehension. There's a difference in being informed and opinionated on a subject. We're supposed to be educating critical thinkers and learners who will, hopefully, not create the circle jerk of inward conversations in the future. 

We can't teach out of increased fearmongering or the off chance that someone will demand an apology from us. We also can't teach social justice without using the example at hand. And, it's at hand

It's been over 2 decades since I started thinking seriously about becoming a teacher. I still keep a notebook in my hand and I still ask critical questions and I still study relationships. I can't believe we're no further than we were then.

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