Sunday, December 15, 2013

Working it out in the neighborhood school

Many people have asked me how things are going at my son’s school. I realized it's been a while since I have written an update about our initial adventure in the neighborhood school in SLPS. I have attempted several times to put into writing what our experience has been, and yet it’s has been hard to do considering we were in the middle of that experience.

In taking time to reflect, I first have to look at what my son and I have brought to this school experience. First of all, this is the first time I have ever enrolled a child into any school. I don't know quite how to behave as a parent. I am constantly surprised at my "mama bear" reactions. This is a new facet of my identity that I am figuring out.

Add to the mix my son, who is quite exceptional. Quirky, actually. We have gone through all kinds of testing to see if he qualifies for special education, both for disability and gifted services. While this is all part and parcel to the school experience, it certainly intensifies everything. On the other hand, I can’t forget that this is the first time that my son has gone to school. And he is only three years old. So of course we had tears for the first few weeks and even months. There are still days where he begs me not to go to school so he can stay home, watch TV, and play with his brother. Even though I know he and his brother would drive each other crazy at home, I still feel guilty.

The only other experience I have had with school is when I was a student myself. Regardless of the school that I attended, the world is admittedly a very different place from when I was in school. My son will experience technology that I did not. He will be required to take tests that I was not required to take. But on the other hand, I intentionally enrolled him in a predominately Black school, while I went to school in a predominately White, segregated community. His experience is already vastly different from mine in that respect. So it has been hard for me to parse out what is the experience of being a new parent and a new kid at school, and the experience of what is "urban" and the neighborhood school.

When I get really honest with myself, I also realize that I have been worried that people are secretly waiting for us to fail. I imagine that they will be relieved when we finally confess that actually the neighborhood school is full of "dangerous" Black children, that the quality of education is inferior to whatever school they have chosen for their children. This is compounded by my own secret fears that I am doing damage to my child. Perhaps it stems from the little comments from my family members about my choice. Comments from well-meaning friends about the psychological damage that can be done to a White child in an all-Black school.

And yet, I have research to back up what I am doing. Evidence to show that explicitly teaching my child about "race" and racism will result in “race”-consciousness, anti-racism, and a healthy White identity. That getting involved in the school and maintaining a relationship with the teacher can add to the overall resources of the school. I have to reassure myself that I really do know what I'm doing. I just haven’t ever done it before.

All of this reflection is similar to the work I do with my research. I have to constantly "separate out a sense of self" from my research activities. That is, as with everything, "me" gets mixed into anything that I'm doing. So even as I try to be objective about getting involved in the local school, "me" is bound to get tangled up in the issues that are already at hand. The activity of separating out what I contribute to the experience in the school is helpful, and only serves to show how much more complex the situation actually is. The value in this activity is that I do not resort to quick and easy answers. I have quoted Charles Payne before: If the problems are complex, then the answers cannot be simple.

I have wanted to be able to write some kind of definitive statement about our experience, but it has seemed so messy and I have not been able to settle on what I want the public to know about this neighborhood school. I feel the need to protect it from the public’s tendency to call anything urban "bad.” But I also want to loudly proclaim that what we really need is more funding. That the education my son receives in the neighborhood school is inferior if for the mere fact that the teachers are paid less and there is no budget for preschool supplies.

I think I have at least come to the conclusion that our school is a good school. And more to the point, it is not a "bad" school. In fact, it would seem that the teachers are all that much better if they can teach without all of the funding and resources that wealthy districts enjoy. So in the end it's a very complex picture. That is, I think, the very point I hope to encapsulate here.  

We are too accustomed to thinking about schools in absolute terms. 
We talk about which schools are "good" and which schools are "bad." We have no paradigm for anything in between. But the truth is, that's all we have. Apparently, there are problems that stem from opulent wealth (e.g. “affluenza”), as well as from abject poverty (e.g. hunger, homelessness).

We have violence in all schools. We have children who are struggling to test "proficient" in all schools. There is racism and discrimination in all schools. There are very bad teachers in all schools. And there are wonderful, magical teachers who, despite all the odds, still teach and care for students. And let's not forget the parents, who pack up their children every morning to drive them or send them on the bus to school, including those parents who people say "don't care about education," and yet there they are at the bus stop, waiting in the freezing cold.

The truth is we don't have any perfect schools. We don't have any perfect experiences because schools are made up of humans, who are fundamentally flawed. But we know that there are better experiences than others. And we know that when children have full bellies, they can learn better.  We know that more money in education-terms always improves the overall experience. We know that a good teacher can make all the difference in the world, and that children need engaging instruction and curriculum. And we know deep down that not all children learn in the same way nor on the same day.

That is not to say a "good" school does not have many good things about it, or that a "bad" school doesn’t have many problems that the "good" school never has to face. But this is another example of a "chicken or the egg" scenario. Is the school "good" because people believe it is good, and therefore send their children and their money there, which causes "good" teachers to seek employment there? Is the "bad" school really bad because people believe it is and then send the kids there that nobody else wants? And then situation is compounded when the teachers believe they are teaching the "worst" students, so the students figure, "To hell with it. They already think I'm bad. I might as well go all out.” I believe this is the case.  

Because we construct our own reality, we can help to deconstruct it. 

We have encountered various issues that might be specific to an "urban" school, but I think they are also issues that all schools face. This means that my son has as much chance as anyone else. In fact, he is already privileged. He is getting a free, public education at the age of three years old. That puts him on track to be reading by kindergarten, which puts him on track to enter Harvard University, provided that we are making less than $60,000 a year so he can go there for free.

So my messages is, the suburbs can keep their schools. We're doing just fine in the neighborhood school.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Keep calm and don't White flight

I love positive affirmation. Who doesn't? But I also get that the design of social media allows us to present ourselves only in a positive light. Even when we write about our weaknesses, we are afforded the exact words, phrasing, and humor to make ourselves seem just slightly less than perfect.

So in that spirit, I would like to invite all of you over to my house each weekend to see me cry, threaten to quit everything, and go back on all my principles.

Can't make it? Okay, here's the next best thing:

That time I freaked out and applied to a magnet school.

For those of you not from St. Louis, you should know that a magnet school, true to its name, is a school designed to attract White families to St. Louis Public School (SLPS) district and St. Louis City. Like a magnet. Get it?

It's sounds kind of far-fetched now that we are all "post-racial" (or not), but it wasn't at the time of it's creation. Magnet schools were part of the desegregation program, the Voluntary Interdistrict Transfer Program (VICC), begun in the 1970s. The program had a few goals: 1) increase White student population in the city, 2) increase Black student population in the county, and 3) increase the number of Black teachers. Unfortunately, the last objective has failed miserably. But a limited number of White students did come to the city. However, the Black students who left the city to go to school in the county were the predominant participants of this program, and they continue to be.

*Read "Stepping over the color line: African American Students in White suburban schools" by Wells and Crain for an in-depth look at this phenomenon in St. Louis.

At this point in time, very few White students come from the county into the city. Middle-class White people have been slowly moving back into the city, and magnet schools serve as their first choice for their children. Also, getting into a magnet school requires entering a complicated lottery system. The result is the resegregation of SLPS, as parents with high-status networks navigate the complicated system of magnet and charter schools.

For example, in the Lafayette Square area (i.e. gentrified, upper-class neighborhood) word on the street (i.e. my mother-in-law) has it that a bunch of upper middle-class families (i.e. mostly White) were going to leave the city if they couldn't start a charter school for their kids. In the end, they were able to start a charter school, so we can enjoy their tax dollars for years to come.

Do I sound cynical? Yes, that would be my principles talking.

Because when reality meets my principles, apparently I freak out. Only a few weeks into sending my son to the neighborhood school, I panicked. He was having a really hard time adjusting to school. I felt that the school might not have all the resources that he needed. And so I applied to a magnet school.

Now again, the lottery system is super complex, so to increase your odds of getting in there are a few tricks. Apply early. Select your top two choices carefully. Alter your racial identity if needed. No, seriously, that is the advice that White parents have suggested, only sort of jokingly. Because that last one is illegal.

After I had carefully weighed my options, entered my choices, and maximized the possibility of getting selected, I submitted my application. And then I did some actual research about the magnet schools.

And oh, my gosh, I just replicated the research on school choice.

As a middle-class, White parent, I relied primarily on the reputation of schools rather than concrete information. And what I found in terms of information was disheartening.

While it is true that Metro and Kennard are at the top of the state in terms of test scores, there are quite a few magnet schools that are "failing" according to MSIP, the state accreditation organization. Additionally, the schools that have been labeled as "failing" are also the schools which White middle-class parents have mostly abandoned. Curiouser and curiouser.

This realization shocked me back to my principles. It made me angry. Because while I know you can't tell the whole story from an MSIP score or MAP test results, you would be hard pressed to convince the general public of that. What they see in terms of statistics is what they believe. At the same time, it was a reminder that school quality is largely a social construction. And magnet schools have been perceived as yet another magic bullet, when in fact, they are not.

It made me realize that my son is just a well off in a neighborhood school that actually has a passing MSIP score. And it reminded me that my school is what I put into it. As much as we have already invested in the school in terms of time and money, we will have to stick around for the long haul to see the pay off. Because school reform is a long, slow burn. Solidarity is a commitment.

This leads me to my final point. I had a conversation with a friend recently who suggested that I am really advocating for gentrification. In other words, sustainable social justice requires some that people with resources to join arms with people who have fewer resources. At the time, I internally resisted but couldn't see the nuance for all rehabbers. Here is my delayed come-back.

Absolutely, there is a place for privileged folks like me. However, I see gentrification as a move to replace the local population with privileged people. Solidarity, on the other hand, focuses on low turn-over rates and sustainable growth. It's a subtle, but important different.

So to all my White and middle-class people working for social justice in marginalized spaces (and to myself):

Keep Calm Font Poster

and solidarity on.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The blog post that lost friends

I was going through my old blog posts and noticed a big shift starting last summer.  Not only did I dramatically change topics, from granola and chickens to the social construction of "race," but I picked up quite a few more readers along the way.  Not that granola and chickens aren't interesting.

I think the major change was my level of passion.  And by passion, I may mean that I got angry.  Really angry.  See, there was this blog post.  This "look-mom-I-went-to-the-library" blog post.  I was excited.  I was motivated.

And White people attacked me.  People I knew.  People I cared about.  They said that racism wasn't real.  They said, if racism did exist it was because people like me went to grad school and got brainwashed.  If I could just stop reading about it, it would all go away.  I actually lost friends over this first post.

But then there were other friends who were intrigued.  Specifically, one friend, a Black woman, asked me to write about what I was reading.  She wanted to know more.  So I kept writing, clunky at first, figuring things out as I went along.  It was dry.  But I was learning.

I have stopped being so shocked and hurt about that initial reaction.  I am better at seeing through the rhetoric.  I don't get confused when people go all "colorblind" on me.  I try to remember the positive dialogues that have happened, the encouragement along the way.  I'm still angry, but I have more compassion. 

So I've come a long way.  I have a long way to go. And we have new chickens.

My question for my readers: What would you like to see more of?  Do you have questions about my journey, urban education, anti-racism, or anything else? Let me know!

Monday, August 12, 2013

That time I forgot the title of my blog

The other day I mentioned my blog to someone. They said, “Oh, you mean 'Urban Restoration'?"  It took me a minute to register what they were saying. I had forgotten the name of my blog.

Okay, “forgotten” might not be the exact word I’m looking for, but neither is “remembered.” It was somewhere in the subconscious, so familiar that I didn't notice it anymore. In the moment the other person said it, though, all I could think was how presumptuous it sounded.

It was at least three years ago when I started blogging about our move back to the city. We were committed to the ideals of anti-racism, social justice, and some vague concept of solidarity. I had dreams of little projects with the neighborhood kids. “Urban Restoration” had a nice, self-congratulatory ring to it.

Three years later, we barely know any of our neighbors. The houses are being bought up one by one by young, wealthy entrepreneurs, and renovated to the point that the original occupants of the neighborhood can no longer afford to live there.

And I’ve been growing and learning about the topics of "race," racism, White privilege, and solidarity. I came into the neighborhood believing that I would be the one to restore it. The more I learn, the more I am convinced that my “renovations” had as much potential to bring harm as they did good.

More than that, I began to realize that it was me who needs restoration.

I don't say that flippantly or as a false attempt at humility. I absolutely believe that I am deficient. My experience of White privilege all my life, my middle-class, sheltered socioeconomic status, and my lack of diverse friendships have all left me culturally and spiritually bereft. My ability to view the world is suppressed and stilted. In other words, I don’t even have a good grasp on reality or my own identity. Further, I don't know what the neighborhood needs because I haven't done the long hard work of solidarity.

I looked up the word "restoration" in the dictionary and have included the first three definitions here.

a. bringing back to a former position or condition
b. restitution, a making good of or giving an equivalent for some injury
c. a restoring to an unimpaired or improved condition

The first definition feels consistent with the ideology of the developers, entrepreneurs and young, White hipsters who have moved into our neighborhood. They are trying to preserve the past, capturing something nostalgic about a time gone by on Cherokee Street. You might even tack on the third definition, and that would include my husband and me as we tackle renovation projects on our house.

However, the second definition, that of restitution, is the one that I think resonates with me the most at this point. It’s also an ideal that I hear from non-profit and social justice ministries around the city. The idea is that things are not right, there are blatant injustices, and "we" have to do something about it.

This last group is made up of well-meaning people, mostly middle-class White folks, including myself, who come in to the neighborhood on a mission. "We" adopt a mostly traditional missionary role and set out to help “these people.” At face value it seems like a good thing. I might be tempted to think, “What’s the harm in it?”

The answer is, “A lot.” The feedback I hear from Black brothers and sisters is that within these “missions,” White privilege is reproduced. Subtle, unconscious racism is enacted. Some people are helped. Some people are harmed. But in the end, the SYSTEM is not changed. Social inequality and the status quo are maintained.

For example, many organizations have tutoring ministries. These are much needed, but in the end there are not enough tutors to go around. Many children fall through the cracks. In the meantime, none of these “missionaries” will even put their own children in the public schools. They make comments about what they think is wrong with the schools, but in reality, they don't actually know. They just watched some documentary and decide they have the problem figured out.

These social justice ministries become spaces where White people contend to be the White person who "gets it." I myself am implicated in this foolishness, and not only in the past, if I am honest with myself.

The truth is, I don't "get it" and I never will. 

I will always need to rely on the voices of the marginalized to help me see clearly. I will never know what the neighborhood needs. I will always have to draw from the funds of knowledge of others who have lived "in the neighborhood."  They have the clear vantage point that I do not have. My capacity to listen and learn is the only thing that can grow in order to prevent me from reproducing injustice.

What I have to bring to the neighborhood is a pipeline. When resources come my way, I direct them and put them in the hands of the people in the neighborhood. I don't insist that I remain in charge of these resources, because remember, I don't have the knowledge to know where these resources should go. I don't know better than the people in the neighborhood. They know what they need.

My question is when will "we" really throw in our lot with our neighbors and their children? We must stop working outside the system, when the system is what perpetuates injustice. We must stop running the show and trying to save people, when we should be coming along side people, allowing that they are capable to know what they need. After all, “we” are implicated in this very system. We are the ones in need of restoration.

This is pretty hard-hitting, so I would love to hear from folks.  Please feel free to comment. 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Spending "social capital" at the neighborhood school

We did it. We enrolled our son in a neighborhood school. Our son, who actually may not have any melanin in his skin, will be in a school that is comprised of 90% children of different shades of brown and black. This is only of interest if you consider that in the same school district, the magnet schools, which are determined by lottery and are supposed to be the best schools, are populated by almost 50% White children. Many of these schools are labeled as “gifted” schools, which also means they have full kitchens and nicer buildings. You know, things that “gifted” children need.

What we have in St. Louis is re-segregation within a diverse city. This is evidenced by the fact that charter schools and private schools are popping up left and right every year (and incidentally, also closing every year). These schools are supposed to maintain a “racial balance,” which means that most White children and more generally, middle-upper class children in the city of St. Louis can avoid open-enrollment, neighborhood schools.

Now before you think that I am somehow bragging about my decision, I wish I could let you feel the nausea that has been a constant companion for the past few weeks. Essentially, I am going against all advice from my parents, professors, and church friends. On top of that,  I have never had a child in school before. And finally, my choices for preschool teachers at the school we got into are 1) a teacher who showed implicit bias against her students and parents in an earlier observation and 2) a recent TFA (Teach for America) grad that hasn’t finished her teaching degree yet. The second is the one I hope we will get, because all the parents like her so much they have requested to stay in her room for one more year. I take that as a good sign. 

I found an e-mail address for this teacher and wrote to her very openly:

“I can see bias in people and in the system. I can see that I, a White woman, was treated better than another parent, a Black woman, the day I came to visit. That is not right...

I know my son will be treated well no matter where he is. My big concern for my son is that he will slowly learn that some people are 'worth more' than others because he sees day in, day out, that some children get punished more for lesser infractions, while some children get treated better...

I worry about lowered expectations for the whole class that will impact how much my son can learn over the course of a year. I'm not claiming he is gifted--I just know that right now he loves learning. That is my bottom line—even if instruction is terrible, it has to be fun. He has to still like school when he is in 1st grade. I want to put him in an environment where he learns that all people are valuable, smart, and worth an excellent & challenging education.”

The teacher, who again, is the one that we prefer, commented that it was nice to finally be talking about inequality with a parent. I replied:

“Well, I am not the only parent to call it out. The parent who was there the day I visited was calling it out also, but she did it in a way that was 'unacceptable' to the teacher. In looking at research on social capital, it just happens that I have a middle-class way of activating my social capital. I know how to work the system to my advantage. The challenge will be for me to do so in a way that doesn't privilege myself over others, but enters into solidarity with other more marginalized parents and students.”

This is a situation where knowing “too much” about education is not working in favor of my nervous system. However, I am committed to making this work. My governing ethic is that because I have this “social capital,” all this knowledge about education, social networks, etc. I can add it to the schools resources for a greater net sum. So I marched myself over to the school to meet with the principal to get the ball rolling.

I can see the ways in which my level of education and socioeconomic status become “capital,” starting from the way I am treated before I have even opened my mouth. I often wonder, however, how I gained my sense of entitlement. Further, I wonder why it is that the way I advocate for myself is received so much differently than others around me. I have an expectation that I will communicate my needs and desires, negotiate outcomes with the “experts,” and achieve at least some of my demands within the confines of the institution.

Both Lareau (2002) and Lareau & Horvat (1999), who are educational sociologists, describe so well how this sense of entitlement is transmitted from middle-class parents to their children, and the rewarded by institutions.

“In a historical moment when the dominant society privileges active, informed, assertive clients of health and educational services, the strategies employed by children and parents are not equally effective across classes. In sum, difference in family life lie not only in the advantages parents obtain for their children, but also in the skills they transmit to children for negotiating their own life paths” (Lareau, 2002, p. 749).

This effect is further compounded by White privilege in the case of White parents and children. My strong sense of entitlement is something that is transmitted and then affirmed through institutional interactions.

It is not that one way of advocating is better; it is that institutions privilege only certain behaviors and perceived attitudes.

I do not deserve better treatment than anyone else. Everyone wants to be treated with respect. But I have to acknowledge that on a deep level, I expect to be treated well, and because of my privileged status in society, this expectation is often fulfilled.  This is yet another space in which I can choose to use privilege redemptively, by using it for the good of all children, and not just my own. 

I’ll let you know how it goes.

I would love to hear feedback from parents and teachers.  Is anyone else doing something unique in education that counters the trend of segregation and inequality?  What does that look like for your family?  



Lareau, A. (2002). Invisible inequality: Social class and childrearing in Black families and White families. American Sociological Review, 67(5), 747–776.

Lareau, A., & Horvat, E. M. (1999). Moments of social inclusion and exclusion race, class, and cultural capital in family-school relationships. Sociology of Education, 72(1), 37–53.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

What do I do with all this privilege?!

I'm so inspired by the few comments I have received in response to the blog post I wrote about the need for White Christians to learn from sociologists.  My encouragement went out specifically to White Christians because I feel that is it is really important for the people with privilege to engage these ideas.  As I've listened to a few Black Christians, I realized that the call needs to go out to more than just White folks.  We all need to learn about our society, the context in which we live. 

Another good critique is that privilege is not just about "race."  We all experience privilege in different ways. Rich people have privilege.  Men have privilege.  Christians have privilege.  Heterosexuals have privilege.  White people have privilege.  Etc.  If you are reading this blog on a computer with Internet access, you probably have some kind of privilege, or multiple kinds of privilege, which means you have blind spots. 

Another point of clarification is that I don't actually believe that White people (or other privileged people) can get rid of their privilege.  There are some scholars that advocate trying to distance yourself from privilege, but I feel that unless you were able to dismantle the entire system by which you have gained privilege, it would be an exercise in futility.  However, I believe that you can use your privilege on behalf of others.  Some sociologists talk about privilege as "social capital."  Capital is, of course, the currency by which you acquire things in a capitalist system.  So I feel that if you have it, you should spend it on behalf of those that don't. 

One particularly awesome comment from a White sister went something like this: "How do we tackle this issue? I mean, I've personally identified/recognized White privilege in general, but there are so many ways it shows up.  So now what? What I am I supposed to do?  Besides teach my children?"

I am really in the beginning stages of figuring out what to do with all this information, but here are a few initial thoughts.

1. Develop a healthy White racial identity.

One of  biggest defenses I hear/read from White folks involves some form of guilt or shame related to their racial identity, or attempt to deflect or resist either of those emotions.  As a Christian, I believe that God made people in all different shapes, sizes, colors, languages, and cultures.  God loves diversity and every human bears the image of God.  Every person should begin to develop a healthy identity based in reality.

A psychologist who works in the area of racial identity development theory (Helms, 1992) designed a really useful activity for this purpose.  The task is to try to list all the reasons you are glad to be White.  However, you can't use any reasons that compare yourself to any other racial/ethnic group.  So for example, you can't say, "I'm glad I'm White because I'm better/worse at [pick an activity] than [pick a racial/ethnic category]."  It has to be something that is not dependent on a hierarchical view of "race."

Not so easy to do, right?  We are so used to thinking about racial identity in terms of a racist view of society, that it's hard to think about why it's good to be a White person that doesn't involve disparaging another racial group.  But White people are also made in God's image, so it's important not to wallow in guilt and shame, but instead figure out what it means to have a healthy White racial identity. Why are you glad to be just the way God made you?

2. Talk to your kids about "race." 

The White sister was right on when she suggested that one of the ways White people can engage privilege is to talk to their kids.  If this is the only anti-racist activity you do in your lifetime, this would still be huge.  Children are learning about "race" from the time they are babies, whether you talk to them or not.  And children form theories based on the experiences, stereotypes, and other information that they take in.  Imagine how difficult it is to learn about "race" and racism as an adult, after years of socialization into a racist society. What I hope for my children is that they don't have to undo so much programming, but instead that we can start having honest, open conversations from an early age.

The key to these conversations, as with any kind of "talk," is that they should be age-appropriate.  Let the child lead the way.  Right now, my 3 year-old and I have conversations about different colors of skin, because that's the first thing that children usually talk about.  He says something like, "That man has brown skin."  Instead of saying, "Shhh, don't say that so loud!" (which sends the message that "race" is a taboo subject), I say, "Yes, isn't his skin beautiful? God made different colors of skin." 

I make lots of mistakes along the way, but I think it's better to try than to remain silent.  For example, I realized that in my attempt to celebrate diverse skin tones, I only made comments when I saw Black or Brown people.  This implicitly sent the message that "White is normal" and everything else is divergent.  Or in my zeal to give my son a variety of words to talk about skin tone (black, brown, olive, peach, tan, and only sometimes "white"), I was still privileging Whiteness.  I treated "black" and "brown" as if they were monolithic, but gave various shades to "white," while still avoiding the word "white."  Fortunately, children are both perceptive and honest, and my son recently informed me that "tan" is actually "White" (indicating that he has already internalized this racial category).  Because it's true.  So we're learning together.

3.  Keep listening and learning.  

The hardest part of being a privileged person is a lack of knowledge, an inability to empathize with other people, and a tendency to devalue the experience of others.  The remedy for this is relatively simple in theory, but an arduous activity in practice.  It involves listening to people who might be mad at "people like you."  It means learning things about your country, culture, or people group that might be less than flattering or even downright shameful.  It requires humility, empathy, and the ability to keep your mouth shut sometimes.

This is a really important step, although it doesn't feel like "doing something" all the time.  However, partial knowledge can be just as damaging as complete ignorance.  For example, middle-class White people learn a little bit about racial inequalities and segregation, so they decide to move into a "transitional neighborhood" (i.e. poor Black and Brown folks) in order to create a diverse community.  They come in with their rehab projects, art galleries, and community gardens, and before you know it, they have caused the housing prices to go up so much that the original inhabitants of the neighborhood can't afford to rent an apartment there anymore.  These well-intentioned White folks perpetuated one injustice while trying to eradicate another.

This is the hard part, because I don't believe we should remain stuck in inaction and silence.  But I also think that wisdom and humility are more important than feeling good about myself because I'm "doing something."  And I also know that "doing something" will look different for different people.  My personal goal is that I would be able to raise my children in a diverse community, where they learn to value and celebrate many different ways of being human.  Heck, I hope I can learn to do that.  We are a long way from that goal, but by God's grace and mercy we will keep learning, moving, and growing.

I would love to hear thoughts about this topic.  What steps are you taking, or have you thought about taking, in order to wrestle with the issue of privilege? 

Suggested Reading

Derman-Sparks, L., & Ramsey, P. G. (2011). What if all the kids are white?: Anti-bias multicultural education with young children and families (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press. 

Helms, J. E. (1992). A race is a nice thing to have: A guide to being a white person or understanding the white persons in your life. Topeka, Kan: Content Communications.

Tatum, B. D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

How I learned compassion

Matthew 9:13 (NASB)  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

I started learning compassion when my life started going in a direction I hadn't anticipated.  I hadn't anticipated it because I had tunnel vision.  Most of my closest friends could have called it 10 years out.  My family was not surprised. My professors were not shocked; in fact, they were pleased.  I may have been the only one who somehow still clung to a vision of my life as a stay-at-home mom with tons of kids.  Believing all the things I was taught as a child.  Never questioning.

For the love, I was in denial.  Because ever since I was able to talk I have been questioning, challenging, testing the limits.  Not because I was going to cross the limits.  Oh, no. I was a first-born and a people-pleaser.  The reason I tested the limits was because the limits, as I saw them, were not entirely logical or well thought out.  It seemed like the limits were somewhat arbitrary, actually, and I just wanted to know if anyone else was paying attention.  Yes, I was sent here by God just to keep you on your toes.  You're welcome, Mom.

But here's the thing. I started on a path that involved saying "yes" to a lot of seemingly little choices.  The choices were not so obviously correct at the time.  In fact, I have spent a lot of time feeling regret over certain choices.  In the end, I made choices that seemed like the right way to go.  It made sense in a sort of "die to yourself, crucify the flesh" kind of way.  In other words, they were often the choices that didn't make good financial sense, but somehow amounted to better character.  Or something.

Until here I am.  One husband, two kids.  Full-time doctoral student working on a Ph.D. and teacher certification.  I may be in school for the rest of my life.  Or the next 3 years, whichever comes first.  My husband is now officially a stay-at-home dad.  What's that?  Yeah, you heard me right.  He cooks, cleans, gardens, changes diapers, and generally manages the home. He also is the best arts-and-craft, fort-building, ukelele-playing, baby-snuggler I have ever met. 

One other thing you should know about me--my research focus involves the social construction of "race" and class in education, racial inequalities in education, and anti-bias curriculum.  What, you say?  Well, I couldn't find anything more controversial, so I settled on that topic. 

Actually, there's probably one more thing you should know.  When I stumbled upon my new research topic--because I don't know a better way to described how I landed there--people in my church told me I was making crap up.  Please stop talking about racism.  Thank you.  Except no "thank you."  Which inevitably sent me into a crisis of faith, because if you seriously are in that much denial about our society, I obviously can't believe anything that you say about God or life or anything.  

All of this taught me compassion.  Okay, so I wasn't so compassionate towards the naysayers initially.  I'm working on that.  But I take comfort in the fact that Jesus Christ experienced throughout his life what it was like to be on the "outs."  Like he kept saying that he was God, so the religious leaders called him a heretic.  Stuff like that.

In the Bible in the book of Hebrews it says that Jesus Christ "learned obedience through the things that he suffered."  That word for obedience actually means "attentive hearkening," which people take to mean just straight up submission.  But really I think more than anything, Jesus learned to listen.  He was the ultimate example of someone who learned to walk a mile in another person's shoes.  He learned, taught and acted compassion.

I know what it's like to have someone tell me I'm probably doing it wrong, and why don't you just stay home with your kids.  I know what it's like for people to think my husband is a "man-fail."  I know what it's like to have people tell me "I don't even know if you're a Christian anymore, what do you believe anyway."

And dear God, I have so much compassion now. 

For every person who has been labeled a heretic.  For every person who was told "don't ask too many questions, that's a slippery slope." For every mom or dad that has people whispering behind their back about their parenting or life choices. For every person who the church has shunned, overtly or covertly.  For every person who feels like no one "gets them" and everyone is judging them (because maybe they are). Single people. Single moms.  Couples without children. Gay people. Black people. Democrats.

And I'm so sorry. 

To every person I have ever judged with my words or my thoughts.  For every time I have argued instead of listening.  For every time I have participated in the behind-the-back whispering.  To every person I shunned because I was too scared of people's opinions.

My message to others, but mostly to myself is this--it's okay to be "different." It's okay to have different opinions about life, God, the Bible, parenting, etc.  It's okay to have disagreements, to make mistakes, and change your mind.  It's okay to say, "I don't know."  And above all, it's okay to really not know.  Because we really don't.  We just don't really know anything. 

And I'm not making excuses anymore for my lifestyle.  We are happy, as a family, as a couple.  This way of doing things works for us, at least for right now. I am not less of a woman or a mother, and my husband is not less of a man or a father.  If anything, we are free to be more ourselves.  I may have ended up here haphazardly, but I'm so glad I did.

Friday, June 14, 2013

White Privilege Is Not in the Bible...or...Why White Christians Need to Pay Attention to Sociology

A few weeks ago, blogger and fellow Southsider, Kenneth Pruitt asked me to answer the question: What form of privilege do you personally feel is most urgent for the church to wrestle with in order to be the community Christ calls it to be? 

This was a great moment for me to stop and synthesize what I have been thinking and writing about for about a year now. I wrote:

"White Christians need to develop a “sociological imagination. 

Sociologists are able to see the world in ways that are supremely helpful to understanding our experience.  Along with anthropologists, they are the ones who describe how “race” is not a biological or cultural reality, but is social constructed.  Going all the way back to W.E.B. Dubois, they are the people who talk about a system of “White privilege,” which is the other side of institutionalized racism.  

White Christians mostly don’t know about these concepts, because to be brutally honest, White churches were helping to maintain Jim Crow laws and racial segregation on Sunday morning and every other day of the week for much of this time.  We absolutely have to listen to what sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists are saying about "race," racial identity, privilege and oppression, because we as White Christians have not been developing a capacity to think about these topics.  If we can listen with discernment, we will begin to understand why it is so critical to be aware of the society in which we live." 

The rest of the post can be found on Kenneth's blog, which I recommend checking out at 

I am still hoping for some dialogue around this topic, so maybe I can give another go at engaging people.  

1)  What form of privilege do you think we most need to engage in the church?

2)  Are the sociological concepts of "privilege" and "oppression" useful for Christians?  If not, are there similar themes in the Bible that might help Christians theorize about "race" and racial inequality?   

3) Other thoughts, opinions, or critiques?  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Reasons not to be a Christian

I grew up in a White, non-denominational Christian tradition.  Yes, it is a tradition, even though the founders of this particular branch of the church were anti-establishment, ex-hippies.  "Ex" because after you became a Christian you were meant to stop smoking pot, drinking, put on some shoes and cut your hair, and you were convinced you needed to start voting Republican.  So that put a little bit of a damper on the "anti-establishment" bit, as well, only slightly more than if they had all been convinced to vote Democrat. Anyway, that's my version of how it all went down.  I wouldn't really know since I hadn't been born yet.

But these forefathers and fore-mothers were determined to at least not bring the establishment into church by establishing a recognizable liturgy.  I know that for a few reasons.  For example, I didn't know the word "liturgy" until I was in my 20s.  I grew up hearing that we weren't like those other stodgy churches.  The pastor would preach about how much better off we were than those other "dead" churches, because we had "the Spirit" and we sang worship songs for at least an hour, and also, we had electric guitars by the time the 90s hit.  It came as a shock when I realized that by the 90s, even the Methodists and Catholics had drum cages (because it's church, keep them in a cage, for God's sake) and electric guitars.  So we didn't have that going for us anymore.

Of course, I later realized that we did have a liturgy.  Just sometimes it was interrupted by the Holy Spirit, who is, according to this tradition, not at all interested in the order of worship, time, or the children's workers, who are stuck in the back rooms wishing, dear God, just someone come and get these kids, it's almost 1 p.m. And the more often we sang songs for almost two hours, the more we were convinced that God really like our type of Christianity best. 

Also, I realized that our liturgy was actually quite shallow and a little slip-shoddy when it came to theology since we had thrown out hundreds of years of church tradition in favor of an attempt at Christianized, Jewish dance songs.  If not for John Wimber and Delirious, we might still be hopping around, pretending to be Jewish. And somewhere in that time line, someone thought it was cool again to sing old hymns (with an electric guitar and drums, of course). 

If you are ready to string me up and burn me at stake so I won't receive a glorified body in the resurrection, please realize that this is a loving roast of my tradition (Ha! Pun!).  What I'm really trying to get at is the essence of why I believe what I believe.  Or why I don't believe all of the things I used to believe. 

I have read a few blogs recently that try to analyze why people do or do not want to be a Christian.  I don't know if I can relate to all of them, but I started to compile a mental list of all the "reasons you should be Christian" that I gained from over 30 years in the aforementioned tradition. I am getting to a place where I need to start parsing out the reasons I strongly reject many of these ideas, so this is an attempt at a list.  Also, I just read about negative theology, or defining what things are not in order to come to an understanding of what they truly are, so I think I'll give it a go. I'm just going to number the reasons and see where I get. 

*Note: I realize that the term "non-Christian" can be an exclusionary term, but it's the quickest way for me to proceed with the critique, so I hope you'll excuse it.  I don't think people who are not Christians are inferior to those who are.  

I am not a Christian because:

1.  "Christians are more moral than non-Christians."  

I have met too many people who are way kinder and more moral than many Christians I know, including myself.  Also, I personally know that Christians do all sorts of immoral things.  However, to this day I hear this type of logic, like "aren't you glad we are in this nice group of people instead of out there with those pagans who just don't know any better."  Anyway, the idea that "they don't know any better" or that non-Christians don't have any sense of morality isn't even consistent with Christian doctrine (if you know which book of the Bible this is in, then you don't need me to reference it here). And it's not fair to say that all those immoral Christians are not "really Christians," because who put you in the place of God, first of all.  And secondly, I could probably give you a few examples of people who you would say are "really Christians" and then also show you lots of immoral things they do.  Don't get me started.  If you become a Christian, you may or may not become a moral person. 

2.  "Once you get saved, all your problems will be resolved."

This one is especially attractive for middle-class Christians, and especially White middle-class Christians, because as it turns out, if you are middle-class, and you get involved in church, it's likely that you will experience an increase in your standard of living.  This happens for a lot of "nonspiritual" reasons.  For example, a concentration of a bunch of middle-class folks necessarily means that the wealth also concentrates, which means that people can help each other out in a pinch.  A church is the equivalent of a social club, which results in networking, and therefore, jobs.  And if you are White and middle-class a lot of other things just "magically" go well for you in life because of the color of your skin, not because of divine intervention. Bottom line--problems do not go away just because you become a Christian. Sometimes they go away because you are privileged. 

3.  "Christians are happier than non-Christians."  

I have been a Christian for a long time and I am not always happy.  In fact, I have lived through long periods where I was clinically depressed.  I know many Christians that are super miserable with their lives, and they're even more miserable because they believe that Christians are supposed to be happy all the time, so they feel like a failure.  So I say, it's either always true, or it's false. Christians are not generally happier than non-Christians.  But if you look at again "nonspiritual" psychological evidence, there might be a case to say that people who belong to a church (or another social club) are more likely to have a better outlook on life due to extended social ties and regular interaction with other people.  Additionally, I do believe to some extent in the power of positive thinking, so if your local church promotes this in any way, it's likely to improve your general outlook on life.  Unless you're also dwelling on what an evil sinner you are.  So it could go either way. 

4.  "Christians are going to heaven and non-Christians are going to hell."

This one is the big one.  Even though I have heard a handful of pastor-type people critique the "fire insurance" view of the Christian faith (as in, the ticket to escape the the fiery judgement), I still feel like this becomes the major argument for being "saved" and getting other people "saved."  We preach the gospel because "people are going to hell."  When life gets bad, "at least we aren't going to hell."  When someone dies, "at least we will see them in heaven... except if they're in hell, in which case you'll never see them again."  Okay, no one actually ever says that last line, because that would just be mean, but I think that it wouldn't be a stretch to say that's what many people are thinking.

At this point in my life, I don't know who is actually getting into heaven. I'm not sure I understand what we mean when we say "heaven," to begin with.   And there are some parables that Jesus told that indicate that we might not have a good grasp on who is ultimately "in" and who is eternally "out."  There are also parables that indicate that everyone might get in at the last minute (which is sometimes more disturbing to Christians than the idea that the whole world might be going to hell).  In any case, since I don't really know, this is not really a convincing motivation for me anymore.

At this point, many Christians will say that I am not a Christian, and so therefore, they shouldn't listen to me.  That is their prerogative.  But if you will hear me out, I think you will understand that I am saying that the "fire insurance" theory falls tremendously short of the mark.  To steal a line from all those sermons I've heard, "If we only got saved to escape hell, we might as well kill ourselves right now."  Seriously.  You either believe that or you don't.  Please don't kill yourself.

So what is my motivation to "be saved" and from what am I "being saved" if I just take hell out of the picture?  (And isn't that such a relief to be able to do?  Realizing the fact that my belief  about hell doesn't change whether or not it exists?) So moving forward, I have to engage in the exercise of deciding why I still call myself a Christian and why I would recommend it to someone else regardless of what I believe about eternal punishment.  

I am a Christian because... 

1.  The idea of heaven on earth is... there are no words to describe it, actually.  We need peace, love, and joy in our world so badly, and Jesus made some promises about heaven looking like that.  And then he said that the kingdom of heaven he was talking about, the one with love, joy and peace, was actually among us.  What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  Well, here it is.

2. Jesus Christ blessed the poor and condemned the rich.  Even if I am the rich person that he condemns, something about that makes me want to hear that rebuke and repent to enter into the blessing.  His good news had everything to do with a new kingdom and a new king, not about imagining a more compassionate version of upward mobility.  It is fundamentally a social gospel, but it's about the creation of a new kind of society that we may not have seen before. 

3. Forgiveness is nothing short of amazing.  I will admit that this might be the one area where Christianity could corner the market.  Jesus Christ demonstrated a type of love and sacrifice rivaled by few. Even Ghandi gave props to Christ.  It was the Christians that he didn't admire, most likely because they were not showing love and forgiveness.

4.  I can't shake the feeling that there is a God, he is good, and he likes all the people and the world he created.  I know I said all that stuff about becoming a Christian not being a guarantee of wealth, but I do think there is something to the idea that God provides for people.  I think I have examples in my life, and anyway, I know there are plenty of examples among the poor of the earth to indicate that this is not a middle-class person phenomenon.  In fact, I instinctively feel that the blessing to the poor is partially about miraculous provision.  This is something that the wealthy may not be able to experience, including myself many times. 

That's all I've got for now.

What are your thoughts about why you are or are not a Christian?  What do you think of my reasons?

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Urban Education: The messages, myths, and realities

“[Urban schools] tend to be places governed by an overarching sense of futility and pessimism; where colleagues may distrust their supervisors and perhaps one another; where there can be a certain harshness in the way children and parents are dealt with; where many children seem to be disengage much of the time, but not necessarily more so than the teachers; where the levels of human capital are at their lowest; where instruction is uncoordinated and uninspiring; where there are too few resources, and those few are often badly use; where the curriculum is narrow, boring, and frequently changing; where teachers have profound skepticism about “program”; where there is a general feeling of instability—personnel come and go, students come and go, programs come and go—all of it presided over by a dysfunctional bureaucracy” (Payne, 2008, p. 23).
This quote comes from Charles Payne's (2008) book So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools.  In no way is he blaming any one particular player in this scenario, least of all the students or their families, but his analysis is supremely useful in that it presents the complicated and complex situation that is "the urban school."  

This past semester, as I went through a course called "Foundations of Urban Education," I was  struggling to put my finger on the solution for urban education.  This is not only slightly na├»ve, given that I have never taught in a public school, but it also reveals that I have bought into the prevalent ideology that there is a panacea for our educational system.   

I held off posting anything from the course on my blog because I wanted to be able to offer the answer.  But I’m starting to see that’s precisely the point—there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  And typically, any attempt at the next big solution creates more issues than it resolved. As a society, we have a long way to go before we have sufficiently delved into understanding the problems before we start passing more legislation.  

If the problems are complex, then the answers cannot be simplistic. 

This kind of post is fraught with other potential pitfalls. This “problem” of urban education, or education in “at risk” schools, is weighty and controversial at the same time. Works like Payne's help to deconstruct some of the biased messages that are promoted by the media and politicians regarding students in urban schools.  As we examine the factors that maintain socioeconomic and racial inequalities, it should become more difficult to “blame the victim” or oversimplify the issues. 

However, Payne paints a fairly grim picture of urban education.  And as he does, I can’t help thinking about some of my friends who teach in various schools around the metropolitan area who talk about the very kinds of problems that he discusses.  In any case, it seems that I cannot completely discredit what he says.  And therein I see at least one very sticky problem—how can I write about some of the realities in some urban schools, without perpetuating stereotypes? 

For example, I hear people complain about St. Louis Public School District, asking, "Where does all that money go?" implying that "those people" are just wasting time and money, that "they" are incompetent or corrupt.  I now see, however, there could be layers of bureaucracy, accompanied by flagging morale among faculty and staff, which leads to institutional failure.  In this kind of environment, people with strong personalities can take over and contribute to a culture of fear and mistrust. In this downward spin, efficient management goes out the window and the people inside just focus on day-to-day survival. In addition (and this is not frequently cited by the media) schools that serve communities living in poverty need more money than schools in affluent areas to begin with. 

So, again, the situation is far more complicated that anyone knows.

I am convinced that there is some hope in the idea of creating authentic community in schools as a way of breaking the cycle of social reproduction and truly caring for the needs of others.  I also believe that the more we find out what the real problems are--not the problems we think exist or the problems that the media emphasizes--the more we will be able to come up with real, grass-roots solutions.


Payne, C. M. (2008). So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools. Harvard Education Press. 

What are some of the messages you have heard about urban schools?  Are these messages based in reality?  How do you know?