Sunday, August 27, 2017

How Learning and Unlearning Finally Got Me Marching

So already, I've been thinking about what's gotten me up off my seat and onto my feet in the months since Donald Trump became president. It's not like the problems I've marched against--women's persistent inequality, denial of climate change and its threat to our collective well-being, white supremacy--haven't been issues for a long time. 

For the many years that I was a public school educator, I tackled these issues in the classroom and staff room and told myself I was doing enough. There were only so many hours in a week, I reasoned periodically, and I spent a lot of them doing what I could so that my students were not only intellectually and psychologically prepared for a post-high school world that might push back as they stepped forward, but aware of and confident in their knowledge, learning abilities, and capacities for resilience.

My fear of being injured and my aversion to conflict partially explained my reluctance to march. But the real reason for it was that I lacked the sense of urgency that compelled others to show up and stand up

Maybe it was because I wasn't really worried about what would happen to me personally as a result of some of the situations that enraged me. Maybe it was because I'd grown used to doing nothing more than talking and writing when I was morally outraged. What I do know is that when push came to shove, I often gave myself a pass and let others be the ones who put themselves on the line. While in one minute l could explain eloquently why some situation was too wrong, too dangerous not to be pointed out, addressed, and remedied right now, in the next I could give myself permission to leave it up to other people to raise the awareness of and/or confront those who needed to change. I generally didn't imagine that I would need to change. A sense of urgency and a sense of "being beyond": the two just don't go together.

The CRLS Fifth Floor--from the Fogg Art Museum
This blog post is about how I finally developed that sense of urgency. It's a story of relationships, stories, and events that have unfolded and intersected over time. Many of them are importantly connected to my thirteen years as an English teacher at the Pilot School, the democratic alternative school that was part of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School from 1969 to 2000. Other influences are the result of the times in which we live.

My protracted journey to urgency began in 1988 when I arrived at the Pilot School. Donald Burroughs, who'd joined Pilot's English Language Arts Department faculty four years before me, was assigned to be my mentor, and I was in great hands when it came to learning the culture of Pilot, the culture of CRLS as a whole, and the best ways to manage, survive, and even enjoy the never-ending stream of events and meetings that defined the Pilot School year. We became friends fast: as people who'd gone to elementary school in Boston, we knew a lot of the same songs, and we had experiences of Boston's racism and anti-semitism respectively. We also couldn't help laughing at some of the same people. And we both loved choral music and roasted chicken.

While we were at the Pilot School, Donald participated in a  National SEED (Seeking Educational Equity) Project training and quickly became a member of SEED's national faculty. Soon thereafter, he began sharing his experiences and expertise with us at Pilot School. When I went through a formal SEED training with other CRLS faculty around 2000, I again was the beneficiary of Donald's values, sensibilities, and professional knowledge and skill

As SEED's web site explains, 
"SEED leaders design their seminars to include personal reflection and testimony, listening to others' voices, and learning experientially and collectively. Through this methodology, SEED equips us to connect our lives to one another and to society at large by acknowledging systems of oppression, power, and privilege."*
That SEED training marked my first formal encounter with the concept of "systems of oppression, power, and privilege"; before that, I had understood the problem of racism and other "isms" as constituted by people's attitudes and direct experiences with one another. For the first time, I began to understand "privilege" as a function of institutional dominoes laid out, sometimes unintentionally but usually intentionally, to fall a certain way. As a white woman, I benefited by privilege related to race but not by privilege related to gender.

Donald and I had both always understood the power of students' stories--not just for the students telling the stories but for the students listening to the stories. However, in SEED training, telling our own stories and listening to one another's were essential for "creating conversational communities that drive change."**  Change that challenged "systems of oppression, power, and privilege" required that we bring our most self-aware, other-responsive selves to the the table--which we couldn't do if we didn't recognize our assumptions about ourselves and others, as well as our personal experiences of perpetuating systems we increasingly understood as problematic. The group, supported by the tools and expertise provided by the SEED trainers, helped us do this

So I had this SEED background and a very good friend/colleague with whom to discuss school situations  and current events, etc. And there were always so many national events to process, kept front and center by endless television news coverage and then by social media. An African-American president whose American-ness was routinely questioned. The deaths of numerous unarmed black men at the hands of police officers. A massacre in Charleston perpetrated by a white shooter who'd been welcomed into a prayer group meeting in a black church. Few convictions of police officers who'd zealously arrested and/or shot unarmed black men. Efforts to take away the voting rights of citizens who lacked certain kinds of identification. As Huck Finn would have put it, "It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race." I began sending money to organizations fighting the pervasive racism to which these events testified. But I didn't march with these organizations when they marched. Sometimes I told myself that the best thing I could do was give money--and it was definitely helpful. But I also knew that giving money was easy and safe. Still not enough urgency.

At the same time, the use of social media was on the increase especially by younger people--so especially by Donald's and my former students. TThe Pilot School kids whom I know--who are now generally between 34 and 49--have been and continue to be particularly active and apt to debate social and political problems and best responses to them. A number of them are in the "social justice business": some run non-profits, some are diversity consultants; others are educators, lawyers, storytellers, past and present candidates for political office, and artists for whom eradicating systemic racism and cultivating full racial equality is a high priority. 

Whatever career choices these former students have made and are making, the majority of them are not at all averse to "getting into it" when it comes to questioning one another's ideas and understandings and explaining their own. They push one another. And they push me--sometimes when they don't know they are and sometimes when they absolutely mean to. In a blog post entitled "Will You Be There, Good White People?", which I published just after the Charleston massacre***, I talked about being called out on Facebook by one of these former Pilot students. It was an uncomfortable but acceptable experience. I learned I could handle uncomfortable. And I was going to have to handle it if my plan was to speak up when I felt white friends and acquaintances needed to recognize the ways in they were not only benefiting from white privilege, but actually perpetuating it. I wasn't marching yet, but I began speaking up more.

Charlston occurred less than two weeks after I'd had a profound learning/unlearning experience related to racism and American history. The teacher team who lead the school-based seminar in which the CRLS Kimbrough Scholars are required to participate had decided they wanted to improve and articulate the seminar curriculum before the next school year. So I decided to volunteer my Teaching for Understanding**** knowledge and my facilitation skills to support their efforts.

The Kimbrough Scholars Teacher Team and Others
The mixed--race teacher team consists of CRLS career educators and other professionals, including one medical doctor. Several members were Civil Rights Movement-era activists; two members have children who attended the Pilot School. In other words, there is much diverse experience and tremendous knowledge in this group of well-formed personalities. My challenge was going to be getting these strong, passionate individuals to arrive at consensus about what their students must come to understand, given the relatively short length of the seminar and its ambitious purpose: to provide the students with the historical and cultural contexts in which their onsite legal research and restorative justice efforts would resonate and be situated.

The teacher team was highly skilled at creating "understanding goal" questions to guide and motivate student inquiry. But in my capacity as their Teaching for Understanding "enforcer," I insisted that they develop some common and thorough----if still evolving--answers to those questions: if they didn't, they risked teaching at cross purposes and leaving their students more confused than enlightened.

My personal learning and unlearning about American history occurred as I listened in on the group, shared with them what I was hearing as points of divergence and convergence, read and thought along with them as they prepared to make and then ultimately made their decisions about what they really wanted their students to understand. Along the way I unlearned the American history I had learned in eighth and eleventh grades and from Gone with the Wind. Reconstruction was not best understood as chaos and carpetbaggers; the Civil War really was fought over slavery, not states' rights, after all. 

Looks Innocent Enough: Where I Went to Junior High
Since the Civil War monuments have started coming down in large numbers in the past few weeks, I've thought a lot about my eighth grade history teacher, whom I really liked. She was from the South, she wore a Confederate War uniform when she taught about the Civil War, and she frequently typed "Save your Confederate money, boys; the South will rise again" at the bottom of exams and assignment sheets. Back then I saw it as quirky, meaningless, and funny; I no longer view it that way--especially given that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered less than a year earlier. But it took me much too long to put these pieces together and to get to this place.

What can I say except that when you realize that you--and probably most people educated around the same time you were--have been handed a historical narrative that deliberately obscures the motivations and and purposes behind events and actions, you get angry and sad. You understand how easily you've been manipulated, and you have to wonder how complicit you've been in your own manipulation. In addition, you regret that your having been manipulated has had some extremely negative consequences for other people.

So when your president starts manipulating, obscuring, and manufacturing dangerous consequences for whole segments of the population, your sense of urgency stirs. And when your president speaks in outright defense of white supremacists, your sense of urgency ignites. That's why I've finally started marching: I feel I must stand up and be counted at this moment when what this country will and won't be in the future is at stake. Right now, it feels more dangerous to sit at home or in a restaurant lamenting what is and what could be than to go outside and make visible to the camera-holding world with whom and for what I stand.

A book I've been reading lately describes Judaism as "a system of tikkun olam, improving the world and all the souls in it, in the hope that they will carry their newfound knowledge into the family and marketplace" (ix).****** At the moment, I believe there are some souls out there that want no improvement, that simply want to get their own dangerous, dehumanizing way. Because I suspect there's presently no chance of dialogue with them, I march simply to make sure that they and whoever else is watching understand that their views and objectives are not acceptable to me and those marching with me. 

In some situations, talking is precisely what's needed: I'm going to keep bringing up white privilege when I feel that it's operating and therefore affecting the rights, freedom, and safety of non-white people. In other situations, the possibility of authentic conversation is probably nonexistent--and may well stay that way. So I'll march. More activism is needed. Hope to see you on the street.

* National SEED Project. (2013-2017). About SEED. Retrieved August 26, 2017, from 
** On the banner at the top of the National SEED Project web site: see above *.
*** The link to my blog post is Here's the credit for the photograph from Charlston: MacNamee, W. (n.d.). Photographs of the nine victims killed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina are held up during a prayer vigil at the the Metropolitan AME Church on June 19, 2015 [Photograph found in Getty Images, Charlston]. Retrieved August 27, 2017, from (Originally photographed 2015, June 19) 
**** I am having some difficulties as I write on this site. If there is not a link to a short piece about teaching for understanding, here's the address of that intended link: 
***** Technical problems again: I apologize that Gone With the Wind is not italicized. 
****** Olitzky, K. M., & Sabath, R. T. (1996). Preparing your heart for the High Holy Days: A guided journal. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.