Sunday, August 31, 2014

Most of Us Don't Get It

I am a white man, thus I have spent most of my life in a white world.  Every school I attended until I got to college was predominantly white.  When I think back to kindergarten through sixth grade, I can barely recall two black kids throughout the experience.  Middle school (7th and 8th grade) were no better.  By the time I got to High School, I'm pretty sure there were three (3) black kids in the entire school.

There were no black people in our neighborhood until I was around eleven years old.  That was the summer that a black family - the Robinsons - moved in right behind us.  This caused quite a stir.  My mother was the only woman on our block who went over and welcomed them to the neighborhood (she brought a bundt cake), and she brought me, my brother, and my sister with her.  I can still see Mrs. Robinson's smile when my mother handed her the cake.  After that, we became friends.  Our backyards butted up against each other and we would say "hi" and chat over the bushes.  I remember one summer, the Robinson's had a big family barbecue, and they invited us over.  We were the only white people there and for the first time in my life I felt aware of my skin color.  After about three years, the Robinson's moved because of a job relocation. The day they left, Mrs. Robinson came over and hugged my mother to thank her for being so nice.  That's when it hit me that no one else seemed to talk to them while they lived behind us.  It was like there was something wrong with them.

How many white people go through life having black friends?  If you are white and live in a predominantly white community ask yourself how many black people you hang out with.  Have you ever been in a black person's house?  These are relevant questions right now and too many of the answers speak to our current state of race relations.

In a great piece from today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes how the current black/white income gap is is 40 percent greater than it was in 1967.  In addition, the average life expectancy of a black boy is five year's shorter than that of a white boy.  The net worth of of the average black household here in America is $6,314 dollars.  The net worth of the average white household: $110,500 dollars.  The US now has a worse wealth gap specific to race than South Africa during apartheid.  There's something wrong here.

Kristof also mentions a study done by The Public Religion Research Institute that states within a network of 100 friends, a white person, on average, has one (1) black friend.  There is a disconnect between "us" and "them".  We can all sit around and pretend that it doesn't exist, but we still live in a very segregated society.  Yes, we elected a black President, but obviously we need to do more.

How are we supposed to know or understand what's wrong in our black communities when no white people are going to them?  How are we supposed to understand the differences between blacks and whites when we don't really know each other?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Would You?

I wouldn't want to be a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  I also wouldn't want to live in Ferguson, Missouri.  It (much like other predominantly black communities in the US) is mired in severe poverty, and all the subsequent nonsense that comes with it: bad schools, crime, poor health, and no sense of community.  According to the Brookings Institute, all of Ferguson's neighborhoods have over 20% living below the poverty line ($23,492.00/year for a family of four).  In addition, the unemployment rate amongst black men is 50%.  Ferguson is not alone.  Brookings also points out that in America's 100 largest metro areas, the number of suburban neighborhoods with more than 20% below the poverty line doubled between 2000 and 2008-2012.    That's appalling.

Most people looking at Ferguson, see a largely black community, and react by saying "It's their fault." The thing is, poverty is not an "us" or "them" issue - it's an "our" issue.  If you notice, there's a key word in the Brookings information about poverty: suburban.  It is now spilling out of our inner-cities and into the suburbs.  It's no longer just their problem.

When I taught in Newark, I would walk some of my students home into the housing project behind the school.  I can tell you from experience that once I walked into the project I could, literally, feel the tension in the air.  Mind you, this tension wasn't aimed at me or anyone else in particular.  It was just there.  People who have never set foot into an inner-city public housing project do not understand this.  Those who have do.  This tension spills out into the surrounding neighborhood and affects adults, children, business owners, and the police alike.  It is a tension that is a result of not only frustration, but lack of pride, and low sense of self.  I believe this tension is the direct result of poverty.

Poverty is not a discriminatory condition.  It does not lend itself exclusively to African-American and/or rural communities.  It does awful things to anyone it comes in contact with.  It messes with emotions, self esteem, confidence, mental health, education, physical health, and the community at large.  Ferguson is an example of a community rendered dysfunctional due to poverty.  The people who live there have no civic connection.  There is no community pride...and why would there be?  The goal is not to give back, but to get out.

Michael Brown had just graduated High School, and was getting ready to go off to college.  In one of the first interviews after her son's death, Brown's mother spoke not only of her pain over the shooting death of her son, but of how hard it was to keep her son in school and on track.  Again, unless you have spent time in a poor, urban, black community - you have no idea of where this woman is coming from.  You have no idea how difficult graduating High School is for a young black man like Michael Brown.  He was just a few years away from getting out.

Imagine waking up every morning, and wondering if you have enough money to eat.  Imagine when your kids walk to school they're almost guaranteed a beat down.  Imagine if you had no sense of who you are, what you could accomplish, or what the word potential means.  Imagine if you had experienced the shooting death of a close friend, family member...or both.  Imagine if your neighborhood looked, and felt like it had been forgotten.  Imagine if young people in your community were dying at the hands of the police, and each other.    I sure as hell wouldn't want to live there...would you?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...EXCEPT...

I'm getting a little sick by the treatment of not just our own children, but children around the world.  Here in the US, our inner cities are inundated with gun violence.  Death by gun has simply become a part of life for kids who live in places like Newark, East St. Louis, and Chicago.  In addition, guns in our schools have become common place.  Going into June, we were averaging over one school shooting a week (1.37 according to data from Everytown for Gun Safety).  Summer came just in time to see images of angry people at our southern border chasing traumatized children from Honduras and El Salvador away (my personal favorites were the woman who held a placard reading "Not My Kid, Not My Problem", and a man with one simply stating "Who Cares?").

When the Puritans set sail for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, John Winthrop gave one of the most famous sermons in American history: "A Model of Christian Charity".  Many believe this sermon is the crux of what would become American Exceptionalism - an ideal where many Americans believe we are the example for the world.  It's no coincidence that the Puritans themselves were trying to escape a corrupt Church of England, and sought religious and moral freedom in the New World.  Basically, they were looking for a place where they could be themselves.  An image from Winthrop's sermon has become iconic in our national rhetoric: "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill.  The eyes of all people are upon us."  That image of a shining city has been invoked by many politicians; most famously Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.  It presents us as a beacon of hope for the rest of the world to see.  Perhaps this is what served to inspire poet Emma Lazarus when she wrote:
Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door

That poem would be placed at the base of the Statue of Liberty.  When you see what's going on with the children of Central America, and you see how we have been treating them...those words hurt.  When did we go from a nation of "Send them to us!" to a nation of "They're not our problem!"  In addition, I'm appalled by the treatment of our own children.  I was with friends recently, and the subject of my former student, who was shot and killed in June, came up.  Someone asked about the city of Newark and why it's so bad.  I answered with one single word: Poverty.  Before I could say something else, a woman (who claims to be a devout Christian) snarled "Well there shouldn't be any poverty!  God knows I'm paying enough of my damn money to those kids!"

I look at Newark and Honduras and I see the same thing: two places ravaged by corruption, drugs, gang violence and poverty.  That's pretty sad.  I also see two governments who have turned their backs on their children.  No decisions or policies are put in place anymore with children in mind - and that's not just here in the US.  It's gone global.  The personhood of corporations has taken precedent over that of our own kids.  The welfare of corporations, and their shareholders, takes priority over the welfare of our children.  Think about that for a minute.

In September of 1924 the Geneva Convention produced what it called "The Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child".  This was issued in the wake of World War I when the world, collectively, demonstrated what horrific destruction we were capable of.  In lieu of what was called The Great War, we all stepped back and realized our youngest and most vulnerable were truly our most important.  So much so, they deserved their own rights - separate from those of nations themselves.  Take a second to read them and ask yourself if our children are being afforded these rights.  You may be afraid to answer.

1.) The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
2.) The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and secured.
3.) The child must be the first to receive relief in times of stress.
4.) The child must be put in position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
5.) The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of fellow men.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Its Time to Make it Stop

Yesterday we had yet another school shooting.  This one came at a High School in Oregon and claimed the life of a freshman boy.  The shooter then took his own life.

In addition to this, yesterday at 3:30 PM the first student I met on my first day teaching in Newark was shot and killed.  He was 15 years old.  He was a sweet kid who used to come in before school so I could give him piano lessons.  I used to tell my wife about how this kid's smile would light up the room.  One year he asked if I would help him find a job.  He was a good kid who got caught up in the nonsense of our inner cities.

I'm tired of this.  I'm tired of watching our children die for useless reasons.  I'm tired of guns on the street, and inside of our schools.  I'm tired of the fact that we, the greatest country in the world, have created a mindset that seemingly allows this to continuously happen.  I'm tired of the fact that our society seems to not want to stop it.

Where the hell is the anger?  How can we collectively sit back and watch this happen?  President Obama stated yesterday that we are the only developed nation on earth allowing this violence to continue.  Right now the US is averaging around one (1) school shooting a week.  That's insane.

When I met with my mentor group in Newark last Friday, I asked them to make a list of their best characteristics.  Of all the young men in the room five out of five included "I'm smart" as one of them.  They believe in themselves and want something better.

Let's get the guns off the streets and out of our culture.  Let's make our schools and neighborhoods safe for our kids.  Let's make this a priority so our smart, beautiful kids can grow up in an equally beautiful world.

RIP Couba

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Throwing Money at Everything But Poverty

There is an article in New Yorker magazine this week about Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million dollar pledge to Newark Public Schools.  The article states how the money is pretty much gone, and despite this fact, NPS still rank at the bottom in terms of performance.  It also mentions how the issue of poverty was never tackled with any of the appropriated funds that were pledged.  What most of the money ($20 million) went to was consulting firms, public relations (?), and data analysis (?).  Many of the consultants hired were paid a thousand dollars a day.  What is there to show for it?

I have written here about the effects of poverty on children.  This is the one issue that no one seems to want to discuss.  Being poor and/or jobless does terrible things to an adult's self esteem.  Imagine what it does to a child?  I can tell you (because I've seen it) that what it does is horrific.  Too many of the the children in Newark (and other American inner-cities) come to school hungry, dirty, stressed, and with an incredible sense of low self esteem, and this is all because of poverty.  You can take a billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg, have him throw millions of dollars at a problem school district like Newark, but if you don't address poverty and joblessness...what's the point?

Part of me is cynical when I read how people like Mr. Zuckerberg throw money at Newark.  I look at what's going on with poor people in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, and how housing prices are driving them - literally - onto the street.  Zuckerberg's Newark gesture was grand, but what about beyond that?  Was the gesture based in philanthropy or making sure his tax rate doesn't increase?  The young billionaires in that region of the country seem less concerned with the poor than they do about getting a Tesla, and they have our government in the palms of their hands.  What do they know or care about poor people in our inner-cities?

I go to my old school in Newark and meet with two groups of young men/boys just to talk with them and see what's going on in their lives.  Two weeks ago one of them had a bandanna around his neck with a picture of a young girl and the letters "RIP" printed on it.  When I asked him what it was, he told me it was his tribute to a friend who had been shot and killed.  This boy is 14 - the same age as my son.  That same week another boy told me how his weekends are spent inside his house.  He goes home on Friday and pretty much stays there for the next two days.  When I asked him why he said "I don't wanna get shot."

These boys live ten miles away from me and, yet, their lives are vastly different than my children.  Why?  Why can't we fix this problem?  Maybe it's time for people like Mark Zuckerberg to give money directly to people on the inside.  People like teachers, coaches, community leaders, and churches.  These are the people who are with these children every day and see the effects that poverty has.  We also see the faces of young people who could very well be the next Mark Zuckerberg...if they're given a chance.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Little Bit Goes A Long Way

I left my school in Newark back in 2012, but I never really "left".  I stayed in touch with my old teacher friends, and went to visit the school regularly.  Last summer the ruling in the George Zimmerman case was handed down regarding his shooting of Trayvon Martin.  As we all know, Zimmerman was found "not guilty" and this pissed me off.

In that time period I thought a lot about my old students.  Far too many of them are not aware of who they are or who they can be.  I saw too many of them in Trayvon Martin, and the thought of these bright young men going down the wrong road or being on the wrong end of a gun made me sick.  I decided to do something.  Last Friday I returned to my old school in the capacity of a mentor.  I will be going every Friday to just sit with some of the boys and talk to them.  My goal is to make them aware of their potential, and keep them on the right track.

Last week I saw two old students, and they made me so proud.  The last time I went to visit, these two were not doing so well (one was under house arrest and wearing an ankle bracelet).  But after sitting and eating lunch with them, I soon discovered they were back on track.  At the end of lunch they even expressed concern about another classmate, and asked me to speak to him.  This boy is in a bad way, but the fact that two others wanted me to help him says something.

I sat down with the other boy, and I could see the frustration in his eyes.  He looked tired and almost worn down.  This is a fourteen year-old child.  To my shock, he remembered my name - even though I had not seen him in two years.  I asked how he was doing and he shrugged.  Conversation did not come easy.  Finally at the end, I got a glimmer of hope, when I asked "Do you want to sit and talk next Friday?" he looked right at me and nodded yes.  Clearly he needs someone.

If I can help those three boys, that would be great.  That's my goal: Three.  If I can get more...?  It would be unreal, but I have to start slow.  Just saying a few kind words, and letting these young, black men know someone cares could change their lives.

We'll see...

Friday, February 28, 2014

Step One

Yesterday President Obama held a press conference to announce the launch of My Brother' Keeper, a Federal program aimed at giving young American men of color more opportunity.  In essence, this program is about building up young black and Latino men - something that has needed to happen for decades in our country.

President Obama spoke candidly and emotionally about his own experiences.  How he grew up without a father, and the subsequent anger and frustration he felt.  These emotions led to his making of "bad choices" and "...not taking school as seriously as I should have".  The biggest statement he made was "Sometimes I sold myself short."  These were powerful words from a man of color - the first to be elected President.  What made it even better was he stated these things with a group of young black and Latino men standing behind him.

This is a great first step.  When I was teaching in Newark I was an eyewitness to the anger and frustration the boys and young men in my school had.  I had countless conversations with them in my classroom about their lives.  Many told me about fathers in jail or who were just absent.  The ones who did have men in their lives didn't just differ emotionally and intellectually, but also physically.  It was unreal.

My Brother's Keeper is a first step.  President Obama himself said "It's going to take time.  We're dealing with complicated issues that run deep in our history, run deep in our society, and are entrenched in our minds."  In addition to complicated issues faced by our young men of color, there is also poverty as well as mass incarceration.  Trying to get a handle on improving self esteem as well as responsibility and potential, again, is a great first step.

We will see what happens.