Panel discussion on The Point: Drugs Wars, Chicago Teachers Strike, and Lying Politicians. It’s Jimmy Dore moderating Lynne Lyman, CA State Director, Drug Policy Alliance; Paul Chabot, Coalition for a Drug Free California, policy consultant on fighting drugs, cartels, gangs; and yours truly. Watch it here if you can stand it!
Archive for the ‘Inner City Education’ Category
The Movement to Keep Young People in School
The problem isn’t a secret: California schools suspend more students than they graduate, tracking them to jail instead of to success. But Ramiro Rubalcaba was surprised when he found himself being part of the solution.
Rubalcaba told his story at a forum on school discipline held in Los Angeles on September 10, sponsored by the California Endowment, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torkalson, and the Office of Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Two years ago, when Rubalcaba was assistant vice principal at Garfield High School, the school was suspending 600 students a year and was challenged to bring those numbers down. He didn’t see how it would be possible to do so and still maintain order on a campus unfortunately known for violence, gangs, and drugs. After all, the approach throughout the US has long been to get unruly kids out of the classroom so that teachers can teach.
“We were forced into these meetings,” Rubalcaba said, but “OK, we’ll comply.” This meant professional development for faculty and staff; meetings with students, parents, faculty, and law enforcement. One of those law enforcement sessions spun his head around as he watched a video interview and heard the words of a boy who’d killed his parents and then taken a gun for an attack on his school:I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.
Rubalcaba was convinced the school culture had to change. Disruptive students couldn’t be made to feel that everyone would be better off without them. All students and their parents had to feel welcome and wanted in an environment where every effort would be made to keep kids in school instead of pushing them out.
It should seem obvious: when kids miss days of school for suspensions and court dates, they fall behind. When they fall behind, they are bored and frustrated in class and more likely to get in more trouble and be punished with more suspensions or to drop out altogether.
“We took suspension off the table,” Rubalcaba said. He then led efforts to implement a program of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. Together, the entire school community worked on a document setting out expectations about behavior and the consequences of violations. The students themselves told the administration where on campus fights were most likely to break out and which sites most needed adult supervision. Instead of kicking a kid out of school for an offense, the violation is now seen as an opportunity for the young person to learn from his or her mistake–and for faculty and administration to learn more about the young person and the roots of the inappropriate behavior.
Garfield suspensions went down from 600/year to a single suspension from 2010-2011. (That one case was mandatory under the state education code because the student had carried a box cutter to school.) Keeping all those presumed troublemakers in class didn’t lead to disruption. Instead, achievement test scores went up.
Garfield’s success led to media attention and the doubters (“haters,” in Rubalcaba’s word) came to campus expecting to find fudged statistics and a troubled campus. “Those haters became believers.”
Overall, according to school board president Monica Garcia, the Los Angeles Unified School District has cut suspension rates in half, in part thanks to a new policy that was adopted after tireless advocacy by community groups: students are no longer cited for truancy when they are en route to school or arriving just after the bell.
That’s the good news.
Not good enough. “Thank you,” Garcia told the young people and community advocates in the audience, “for not being satisfied with our current status quo.”
The reality remains that 18,000 students are expelled from school each year in California and more than 700,000 suspensions are reported.
As LAUSD Superintendant John Deasy has acknowledged, “Multiple suspensions basically signal, Don’t come here anymore.”
The California Endowment, a health organization, cares about school discipline because suspended students are more likely to drop out and the Endowment sees high school graduation as a “protective health factor.” Going to jail usually leads to negative health. California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has frequently explained that being suspended triples a young person’s likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system within the year.
Brian Nelson, speaking at Monday’s event on behalf of Attorney General Harris explained education is “a powerful tool for reducing violence” as truancy is an “on-ramp to becoming a victim or perpetrator of crime.” Harris recognized the importance of keeping kids in school when she was San Francisco District Attorney and noted that “94% of San Francisco homicide victims under the age of 25 were high school dropouts.”
But in California today, young people are still being arrested and taken from classrooms in handcuffs for nonviolent offenses. Kids entering the juvenile justice system–for offenses as trivial as being tardy–get an inadequate education on the inside and are often denied re-enrollment in the public schools when they come out, leading to a lifetime of anger, frustration, lost opportunity, and an increased likelihood of criminal behavior.
Do we understand that when young people are repeatedly shamed and humiliated, we plant the seeds of aggression?
Forty percent of chronically truant children are in elementary school, losing the basic foundation in reading, arithmetic, and social skills. “We need to target their families,” said Nelson, “not to punish them but to find out what resources the parents need to get the kids to school.” At a time of budget cuts, where will those resources come from?
California still has one of the highest rates of push-out in the nation. Youth of color–especially African American males–receive harsh discipline at a much higher rate than their white peers even when the discipline history and offense are the same. In general, girls receive more lenient treatment than boys, except for African American girls.
“We ought to be outraged as a country,” said Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education. “Discipline sits within a larger context of inequity.” Where you see racial disparities in disciplinary patterns, she said, you also see other problems. The neighborhoods with high harsh discipline rates tend to be low-income with students of color and they also more often fail to offer the courses required for college admission. “Who gives students access early and gives them what they need to succeed?” she asked. “Who has access to gifted and talented programs?” She wasn’t just talking about Advanced Placement courses either. Many schools with a predominantly low-income African American student body fail to offer algebra in 7th and 8th grade. When the courses are offered, “African American students pass at the same rate as anyone else,” she said.
From the statistics collected by the Department, it’s become clear that minor offenses are punished more harshly when the student is black. Along with the numbers, Ali cited examples from around the US: A chronically tardy white student gets a conference at school; a black student tardy for the first time is suspended. Teachers and administrators often try to understand the white students and figure out why the kids are having the problem. With students of color, there’s an immediate jump to punishment. A black youth blurts out a bad word in gym class and is immediately suspended while at the same school, a group of white girls curses at the teacher and disrupts the class. Their parents get a phone call.
Is there an unconscious assumption that black parents wouldn’t care? Edward Madison, a South LA parent leader with the CADRE community organization, told the gathering “Parents–not just kids–are pushed out. Parents and caregivers have the right to participate in their children’s education.” But African American parents who do try to participate in school are told directly it’s their own fault if their kids “act out and don’t succeed.” Feeling unwelcome, they stop participating.
Rob McGowan, CADRE’s associate director of organizing, pointed out that most suspensions in California have nothing to do with drugs or violence. “Willful defiance is largest single reason for suspension”–a term that lends itself to subjective interpretation and bias.
“We want a moratorium on non-serious suspensions,” said Madison. “Replace a life sentence with life lessons.”
CADRE called for access to disciplinary data broken down by race, ethnicity, disability, language, and gender.
Statistics are valuable consciousness-raising tools. “Teachers don’t realize their split-second decisions are leading to discrimination,” said Ali, “until they see the aggregate.”
“You can’t apply a race-neutral solution to a race-based issue,” said Curtiss Sarikey of the Unified School District of Oakland, “a city that has a lot of pain, a lot of hurt, a lot of violence.” He explained that school superintendent Dr. Tony Smith considered specific needs in implementing the Thriving Students Model. For example, Manhood Development Classes designed for young African American men almost eliminated suspensions and absenteeism among those attending and also upped their GPAs.
Although students with disabilities presumably have extra procedural protections, other disturbing data shows they are actually suspended at a higher rate.
And there’s a category that gets overlooked entirely in the statistics.
“As LGBTQ youth are more openly out in the school, increased visibility has meant less safety” said Geoffrey Winder of the Gay Straight Alliance Network. As a result, students may get in trouble for carrying a weapon they believe they need for self-defense. There’s bias on the part of administrators and, too often, gay students who have not come out at home find their parents are notified of their orientation by the school administration, resulting in rejection, violence, kids forced to leave home.
Ali added that LGBTQ students are suspended when administrators see gender nonconformity as willful defiance or disruption.
Brandon Serpas, a youth leader, related his own experience as a bullied gay student. When he was harassed in class, the teacher ignored it. With the school supposedly committed to anti-bullying efforts, he went and talked to the assistant principal. The result: the offending boy was suspended, much to Brandon’s dismay. “Suspension doesn’t help harassment or bullying. It doesn’t address the attitudes.” The boy was back in school three days later, and Brandon had real reason to fear. What he had wanted was a program of restorative justice and a way to teach respect.
Restorative justice asks Who was harmed? What are the needs and responsibilities of all the parties? How do all the people affected work together to address needs and repair harm?
Programs based on this model are being used successfully in some California schools. According to MaryJane Skjellerup of the Youth Leadership Institute in the Central Valley, “Students want to be listened to, to tell us why they struggle with behavior problems. Each student has different needs,” she said, but “they all want to succeed.” The discipline model now in place in the Fresno Unified School District allows opportunities for student voices. They have the chance to learn from their mistakes and be held accountable. The focus is on improvement. Students are part of the solution, asked for their input on making a plan to make right what went wrong. The program addresses the needs of victims and also educates community leaders that harsh discipline leads to dropping out.
Administrators throughout California want to do better. On September 10, EdSource, an independent nonprofit research and policy organization, released a survey of school districts covering about 2/3 of all students in the state. The report documents that administrators overwhelmingly want to address discipline by hiring more counselors and support staff rather than by increasing security measures. They recognize and are concerned with the disproportionate effect of harsh discipline on students of color. One in five administrators want more discretion, having regretfully expelled a student because the state education code mandated it when they would have preferred a different approach.
In the 90′s, said Manuel Criollo of the Labor Community Strategy Center, “there was robust funding for police in schools.” Today, how do we fund counselors instead while support services outside of school in the community remain underfunded and inadequate?
Laura Faer, education rights director for Public Counsel Law Center, pointed out that schools receive funding based on the number of students in attendance. Keeping students in class means more resources for the school. In fact, she said, a bill that would have taken suspension off the table completely in California died in the Appropriations Committee on the grounds that more students in school would cost the state more money. (What are our priorities?!?!)
The audience, including at least 50 young people who attended after school, heard from a number of their peers, including Camerian Ponn. The American-born son of survivors of the genocide in Cambodia, Ponn told of growing up in Long Beach in a community affected by poverty and trauma. His cousin died in his arms, victim to a driveby shooting. His brothers and sisters were all dropouts and told him he would be the same–a prediction that seemed likely to come true when he was kicked out of high school for failing to bring a book to English class one day. Though Ponn was later able to earn the credits he lacked at a summer alternative school and is now in college, he looks back on high school as a place where he felt “unmotivated, unloved, and depressed.”
School is too often “a minefield of laws you can break,” said Criollo.
Schools need to rethink zero-tolerance policies and stop abdicating their responsibility for the young to the police. The criminalization of school-based offenses, usually nonviolent in nature, helps drive the juggernaut of mass incarceration that is crushing low-income communities of color. If we want young people to develop concern for others and values based in respect and fair play, school has to become a model of fairness, caring, and respect. When that happens and schools offer safety, welcome, respect, and nurture, more young people growing up in poverty and in violent environments will find refuge and sustenance inside those doors.
* * * * * *
As part of the movement to reform school discipline, the state legislature has passed seven common sense bills that now sit on Governor Brown’s desk awaiting signature. Brief descriptions follow:
SB 1235: Schools with high suspension rates are encouraged to adopt behavioral strategies and attend one of three annual forums to learn alternative methods.
AB 1729: Strengthens existing law that requires, in most circumstances, that suspension be used only after other means have failed.
AB 1909: When a youth in foster care is pending explusion or harsh discipline, bring to the table the adults responsible for that child’s welfare.
AB 2242: Students cannot be expelled from an entire school district for willful defiance or disruption of school activities.
AB 2537: Provides some discretion for a principal or superintendent not to expel if circumstances don’t warrant it; possession of imitation weapon or over-the-counter or prescription medication will no longer be automatic grounds for expulsion. (Discretion would have prevented a recent insane outcome. A student talked a classmate into handing over a knife, then took the knife to the principal’s office to turn it in and request help for the classmate. After being praised, the good citizen received a mandatory suspension for being in possession of the weapon.)
SB 1088: Prohibits schools from denying enrollment or readmission to a youth who has had contact with the juvenile justice system.
AB 2616: Calls for schools to address root causes of truancy and create an attendance plan rather than immediately referring the matter to law enforcement. It also provides administrators with discretion as to whether to involve the juvenile justice system. (Right now the Court takes automatic jurisdiction after the 4th offense.)
To express an opinion on these bills, call Jerry Brown’s legislative affairs office at 916/445-4341. Or download letters of support here.
my essay in LA Progressive today.
Lezioni dalla Bolivia: provare con un po’ di tenerezza….Try a Little Tenderness – Lessons from Bolivia – in Italian TranslationApril 15, 2012
ZNet in Italia had my article translated! If you read Italian, here goes:
Lezioni dalla Bolivia: provare con un po’ di tenerezza….
Di Diane Lefer
9 marzo 2012
Immaginate di lavorare in un ufficio dove ogni mattina le persone entrano e baciano tutti i colleghi. Si comincia la giornata con almeno una dozzina di abbracci e di baci, e, naturalmente altri ogni volta che si esce e si entra. Qui li potremmo chiamare molestie sessuali. Io invece amavo questi gesti di affetto e solidarietà quando collaboravo con Educar es fiesta (Educare è una festa) una organizzazione no profit, con sede a Cochabamba, in Bolivia, che è dedicata a giovani che vivono in situazioni difficili e a famiglie in crisi.
Edson Quezada, conosciuto da tutti come “Queso” formaggio (dal suo cognome, non perché sia un pezzo grosso (traduzione dell’inglese Big Cheese, n.d.T.), ha fondato l’organizzazione credendo che la formazione artistica è anche formazione di vita, che i bambini hanno un diritto naturale intrinseco alla gioia e l’apprendimento deve procedere di pari passo con la contentezza.
Educar es fiesta attira i bambini a partecipare al loro programma offrendo le arti del circo: trapezio, danza acrobatica area, giochi di destrezza, andare su un motociclo, ginnastica, perfino camminare sulla corda per sviluppare l’espressione di sé, la fiducia in se stessi e la perseveranza. I bambini imparano come sviluppare nuove abilità, possono non riuscire molte volte prima di arrivare al successo.
L’aula tradizionale è spesso un luogo di frustrazione, fallimento, e disprezzo per gli indigeni che parlano la lingua Quechua * emigrati dalle zone rurali e per i poveri, e quindi Educar es fiesta insegna in ambienti il più possibile diversi dalla solita aula scolastica – per esempio con i bambini sdraiati sul pavimento della tenda del circo. Il gruppo di insegnanti offre anche laboratori sulla salute, l’igiene sessuale, la nutrizione, la non violenza, i diritti e le responsabilità dei cittadini, e anche lezioni private e altro. E appena i bambini arrivano per i laboratori, ogni bambino riceve un abbraccio e un bacio sulla guancia.
Invece quando lavoravo con i bambini a Los Angeles, dovevo firmare un documento con il quale accettavo di non permettere alcun gioco – perfino “acchiaparella” – che richiedesse un minimo contatto fisico. Se un bambino chiedeva di essere abbracciato, dovevo acconsentire, piegarmi e permettere al bambino di restarmi a fianco.
Naturalmente conosco la realtà degli abusi sessuali. In Bolivia i bambini che vengono abbracciati, fanno pratica grazie alla campagna: “Il mio corpo è territorio mio: nessuno lo tocca senza il mio permesso.” Il toccare, però, è di importanza primaria per gli esseri umani. Il neonato apprende a toccare prima che possa interpretare i segnali visivi o comprendere le parole. Se i bambini non si abbracciano o non si tengono in braccio in modo sano da adulti responsabili, sicuramente questo li renderà obiettivo di predatori che profitteranno del loro bisogno di affetto. Gli abbracci possono curare i bambini maltrattati o abbandonati.
Quando torno a Los Angeles, guardo i giornali locali e vedo che la proibizione di toccare non avrebbe evitato l’abuso che di recente è venuto alla luce riguardo a una maestra di scuola elementare che si presume desse da mangiare ai bambini in classe i suoi liquidi organici.
Nelle nazioni andine, educatori come Queso parlano ora di quella che il peruviano Alejandro Cussiánovich ha chiamato La pedagogia de la ternura, cioè La Pedagogia della Tenerezza. In Perù e in Bolivia che hanno una storia recente di dittature e di repressioni violente, e in Colombia che ha un governo eletto di civili e un conflitto armato in corso, l’idea è che la scuola è necessario che sia un luogo di crescita, non di disciplina, per gente che è stata ridotta al silenzio e che è indurita e traumatizzata da anni di violenza. Tenerezza non vuol dire soltanto accogliere i bambini o essere ultra protettivi: lo scopo di questa educazione non è indottrinare, ma far crescere i bambini in modo che possano essere protagonisti delle loro vite.
Tenerezza. E’ quello che desidero per i bambini americani che crescono in alcuni dei nostri quartieri degradati dove, a causa dei crimini e della violenza delle bande, i bambini mostrano un tasso maggiore di disturbi post traumatici da stress (PTDS – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder rispetto ai loro omologhi di Baghdad durante i giorni peggiori della guerra in Iraq.
Il personale di Educar es fiesta offre anche laboratori per gli insegnanti per condividere le tecniche di “buen trato” – tecniche di gestione della classe basate sul rispetto reciproco invece che sul modello più militare di disciplina e castigo. Questo mi ha ricordato una mia amica californiana che era così disgustata dal suo lavoro di insegnante in una scuola elementare in un quartiere degradato,
che pensava di andarsene. Quando, però, ho visitato la sua scuola un paio di anni fa, i bambini sembravano contenti, bravi e ansiosi di imparare.
“Oh sì,” ha detto la mia amica. Abbiamo una nuova preside che ha cambiato tutto.
Che cosa ha fatto la taumaturga? “Ha convocato una riunione e ha detto agli insegnanti che non potevano più strillare contro i bambini o insultarli. Buen trato, non è vero?
I bambini di Educar es fiesta sanno che cosa vuol dire essere trattati senza rispetto. Nel primo anno, cioè un po’ più di dieci anni fa, Queso aiutava i bambini che al cimitero aspettavano i le persone che partecipavano ai funerali e che potevano dargli la mancia quando gli pulivano i vetri della macchina. I bambini erano spesso maltrattati dai custodi del cimitero. Era un grande divertimento per loro prendere un bambino piccolo e buttarlo in una tomba appena scavata da dove non sarebbe riuscito a uscire arrampicandosi. Quando però questi stessi bambini recitavano in una rappresentazione davanti al pubblico, erano salutati da applausi e acclamazioni. Il loro status cambiava, non solo ai loro occhi, ma anche a quelli della comunità più vasta.
In molti quartieri, però, la comunità è spezzata dalla povertà. Le famiglie si disgregano dato che i genitori emigrano in cerca di lavoro in Argentina, Cile, Spagna e – più di recente – in Giappone e non portano con loro i bambini.
Ecco Laura. Vive con sua nonna che può solo darle un tetto ma che ha poco da offrirle per quanto riguarda cibo o affetto. Laura la mattina va a scuola. Poi va la “lavoro”: si mette davanti a un ristorante modesto dove sorveglierà le macchine mentre clienti mangiano, in cambio di una mancia. Poca gente arriva in macchina. Se non prende mance, soffre la fame. Mentre noi negli Stati Uniti ci preoccupiamo dei “confini”, a Cochabamba, se Jimena Ari, insegnante formatrice di Educar es fiesta, va a casa per pranzo, si porta dietro Laura perché mangi con la sua famiglia e prenda lezioni di scacchi da sua nipote Ceci che va già pazza per quel gioco.
Nel pomeriggio Laura è nella tenda del circo, ansiosa di imparare.
Quando gli altri bambini se ne sono andati, Laura si trattiene nell’ufficio. Fino a quando non chiudono le porte, nessuno la manda via. Se c’è un progetto che ha bisogno di una mano volenterosa, Laura aiuta. Altrimenti fa pratica con il computer. Forse le daranno un bicchiere di latte e un po’ di pane. Certamente riceverà un abbraccio. E qualcuno le dirà come è intelligente, come è bella, e le dirà che le vogliono bene.
* l quechua, kichwa o runasimi (runa = “uomo” + simi = “lingua”, letteralmente “bocca”) è una ù vasta. di Lingue native americane del Sud America. Fu la lingua ufficiale dell’impero Inca, ed è attualmente parlata in vari dialetti da circa 9,6 milioni di persone nella zona occidentale del Sud America, inclusa la Colombia meridionale e l’Ecuador, tutto il Perù e la Bolivia, la parte nord-occidentale dell’Argentina e quella settentrionale del Cile. Oggi è la lingua nativa americana più estesa in tutto il mondo e la quarta lingua più estesa nel continente. È seguita dall’aymara e dal guarani. È lingua ufficiale in Perù e Bolivia assieme allo spagnolo e all’aymara.È una lingua agglutinante sintetica nel quale né l’accento né il tono della voce modificano il significato della parola. Da:http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lingua_quechua (n.d.T.)
Diane Lefer è autrice, commediografa, e attivista. Tra i suoi libri più recenti c’è The Blessing Next to the Wound, [Il sollievo e la ferita] una storia vera scritta insieme all’esule colombiano Hector Aristizabal, e il giallo Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, [Nessuno è bello appena sveglio] che il vincitore del premio Edgar descrive come “setacciare le ceneri della infinita guerra di classe americana”, che uscirà il maggio prossimo per la Rainstorm Press.
Da Z Net – Lo spirito della resistenza è vivo
Originale : New.Clear.Vision
Traduzione di Maria Chiara Starace
Traduzione © 2011 ZNET Italy – Licenza Creative Commons CC BY- NC-SA 3.0
published today in New Clear Vision
Imagine working in an office where as people enter they hug and kiss all their co-workers every morning. You start the day with about a dozen hugs and kisses and of course more each time you leave and return. Here we might call it sexual harassment. But I loved these gestures of affection and solidarity while I was collaborating with Educar es fiesta, a nonprofit organization in Cochabamba, Bolivia, serving young people living in difficult circumstances and families in crisis.
Edson Quezada, known to all as “Queso” — Cheese (from his last name, not because he’s the Big Cheese) founded the organization believing that training in the arts is also training for life, that children have an intrinsic natural right to joy, and learning must go hand-in-hand with happiness.
Educar es fiesta draws young people into the program by offering theatre and circus arts–trapeze, aerial dance, juggling, unicycle riding, gymnastics, even some tightrope-walking, to develop self-expression, self-confidence, and perseverance. The kids learn that to develop a new skill, they may fail many times till they achieve success. The traditional schoolroom is too often a site of frustration, failure, and disrespect for Quechua-speaking indigenous migrants from the rural zones and for the poor, so Educar es fiesta teaches in environments as different from the classroom as possible — for example, with kids sprawled out on the floor of the circus tent. The team also offers workshops on health, sexual health, nutrition, nonviolence, rights and responsibilities of citizenship, tutoring, and more. And as children arrive for their workshops, every child gets a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
By contrast, when I worked with kids in Los Angeles, I had to sign a document agreeing I wouldn’t allow any game — even tag, that required touch. If a child asked to be hugged, I was to acquiesce, squat down and allow the child to hold my side.
Of course I am cognizant of the realities of sexual abuse. In Bolivia, the children who are hugged also receive training in the campaign “My body is my territory: no one touches it without my permission.” But touch is primary to human beings. The baby knows touch before it can interpret visual signals or understand words. If children aren’t hugged and held in healthy ways by responsible adults, surely that makes them prime targets for predators who will exploit their need. For children who’ve been abused or abandoned, hugs can heal.
Back in Los Angeles, I watch the local news and see that a prohibition against touching would not have prevented the abuse that recently came to light of an elementary school teacher allegedly feeding his bodily fluids to children in his class.
In the Andean nations, educators like Queso now talk about what Peruvian Alejandro Cussiánovich has termed La pedagogía de la ternura – the Pedagogy of Tenderness. In Peru and Bolivia, with past histories of military dictatorship and violent repression, and Colombia with its elected civilian government and an ongoing armed conflict, the idea is that school needs to be a place of nurture, not discipline, for people who’ve been silenced, hardened and traumatized by years of violence. Tenderness does not mean sheltering kids or being overprotective: the point of this education is not to indoctrinate, but to nurture children so they can become the protagonists of their own lives.
Tenderness. It’s what I wish for American children who are growing up in some of our inner-city neighborhoods where due to crime and gang violence kids show a higher rate of PTSD than their counterparts in Baghdad during the worst days of war there.
The Educar es fiesta staff also offers workshops to public school teachers to share the techniques of “buen trato” — techniques of classroom management based on mutual respect rather than the more military model of discipline and punishment. This reminded me of a friend here in California who was so disgusted with her teaching job in an inner-city elementary school, she talked about quitting. But when I visited the school a couple of years ago, the children seemed happy, bright, and eager to learn.
“Oh yes,” said my friend. “We have a new principal and she’s turned everything around.” What did the miracle-worker do? “She called a meeting and told the teachers they could no longer yell at the children or insult them.” Buen trato, no?
The children of Educar es fiesta know what it is to be disrespected. In its first year, a little more than ten years ago, Queso reached out to the kids who waited at the cemetery for mourners who might give them a tip for cleaning windshields. The children were often abused by the cemetery guards. It was a great joke to take a little boy and throw him into a newly dug grave from which he would not be able to climb out. But when these same kids performed their plays in public, they were greeted with applause and cheers. Their status changed, not only in their own eyes, but in the eyes of the larger community.
But in many neighborhoods, community is broken by poverty. Families disintegrate as parents migrate in search of work to Argentina, Chile, Spain, and — most recently, Japan. The kids get left behind.
There’s Laura. She lives with her grandmother who can put a roof over the girl’s head but has little to offer in the way of food or affection.Laura goes to school in the morning. Then she goes to “work” — standing outside a modest restaurant where she’ll guard cars for people as they eat in exchange for tips. Few people arrive in cars. Without tips, she goes hungry. While we in the US worry about “boundaries,” in Cochabamba, if Jimena Ari, teacher and facilitator with Educar es fiesta, is going home for lunch, she takes Laura along for a meal with her family — and to take chess lessons from niece Ceci who’s already obsessed with the game.
In the afternoon, Laura’s at the circus tent, eager to learn.
When the other kids have left, Laura hangs around the office. Until it’s time to lock the doors, no one chases her away. If there’s a project that can use an extra pair of willing hands, she helps out. Otherwise, she experiments with the computer. Maybe she’ll get a glass of milk and some bread. She’ll definitely be hugged. And someone will tell her how intelligent she is, and how beautiful, and that she is loved.
Peripecias: On unforeseen ups and downs ( Notes on Chicago, Latin America, snowstorms, border closings, aflatoxins, cars accidents, and AT&T)January 30, 2012
Well, I did want to post more about Chicago, about the two-faced stop signs that had me totally confused. (Glad I wasn’t driving. Thank you again, Stephanie Friedman.)
About the pleasure of being in buildings that unlike my apartment are heated! Walking around naked in the hotel room, feeling the warm air–ah!–on my skin. About Hector Aristizábal’s performance of Nightwind. The grad student at the University of Chicago — I wish I knew her name — who talked about her work in Chile on theatre in Chile under Pinochet. We met at the brown bag lunch at the Center for Latin American Studies. One point she made struck me: she said during the repression, political statements were often made in theatre through very abstract devices and I wondered if that sort of experimental abstraction has carried over into the post-Pinochet era. Specifically, I’m thinking about Andrea Lagos and her solo show Un beso es un beso es un beso which I saw her perform at International Theatre Festival for Peace in Barrancabermeja, Colombia. Her performance was strange, startling and powerful, but I really didn’t understand what she meant in her commentary about it being a reflection of the continuing impact of the era of repression on her generation. Certainly, language in the piece is broken, partial, silenced. And her physicality at times grotesquely controlled. But maybe the abstract aspect is immediately understood as a political comment by people in Chile.
I want to write about the Friday snowstorm that made roads impassable so that I couldn’t make it to Or Chadash for my presentation there, and that left us all worried about whether Hector would get to O’Hare in time after his Awakening the Imagination for Social Justice workshop and whether his flight would get him to LAX for his connection for Guatemala. (I haven’t heard from him so I’m assuming he arrived OK. I think someone would have heard from him if he got stuck.) (And I guess snow disruptions in Chicago are not exactly unforeseen.)
I wanted to post about the writing for social justice workshop at the Graham School–such enthusiastic and willing participants (including Stephanie Friedman and Naty Vesga)
and the trip up to Barrington to work with the Barrington Writers Workshop thanks to Tamara Tabel whose work I was so happy to read and my friend, Natalie Pepa who recommended me. Someone take note and publish Natalie’s tango memoir! and her funny, sad, evocative short pieces about Buenos Aires.
Natalie’s pareja (we agreed English lacks a good word for in a couple regardless of marital status) is Dennis, a scientist who works with, among other things, toxin-binding clays that protect livestock from aflatoxins, fungal infections that grow on grains, especially corn. In the fields, the aflatoxins protect the plant from being eaten, but after harvest, especially if the corn is stored in a warm and humid area, the stuff grows and spreads and can make livestock sick. For animal feed, you add specific clay to the feed. It coats the toxins so the bad stuff passes right through the animal’s body and causes no harm. There are many kinds of toxins and a different kind of clay is best suited to deal with each. Even under a microscope, all clay crystals look alike, so you need more elaborate instrumentation to identify what you’ve got.
But right now, I’m not sure when any of this will be posted. It’s been crazy here. First, a minor car accident on Wednesday en route to Moorpark, dealing with insurance, etc.
Today, Saturday, turns out the border between Argentina and Bolivia is closed due to some controversy over the gas fields, so mi compa Silvana Gariboldi, with whom I was going to collaborate in Bolivia, can’t get there. Edson Quezada, of Educar es fiesta, the organization we–or now I–will work with warns me that as I’m arriving in Bolivia on Sunday, the buses may not keep to their schedule–which may affect my 8 or so hour ride from La Paz to Cochabamba. Arriving in Cochabamba, I’m to phone him. Apparently not a good safe idea to get into a taxi alone. And I’m bringing a sleeping bag and will sleep on the floor of the office. But maybe that will mean internet access which is more than what I’ve got now.
Phone line dead. Internet dead. Without phone or internet, I couldn’t call for service, but I saw the AT&T van in the street and spoke to the repairman. He was working in a neighbor’s apartment and agreed to see what my problem was when he finished with her. I kept going out to see how he was doing, and all of a sudden his ladder was gone and so was his van. Used neighbor Claudia’s cell phone to call AT&T and went through one of their ridiculous phone trees which required me to specify either landline or internet. Of course I’ve lost both. But I chose landline as the internet is accessed via the landline. But the phone tree switched me over to internet as a choice. Whatever. I had to leave Claudia’s as a contact # and the recorded message said a repair person would come by 6:00 on Monday.
What joy. The other party to the car accident thought I was lying about my phone number when she tried to call it and it didn’t ring in my pocketbook or car. It’s ringing at home, I said. She wanted the number for my cell phone and didn’t want to believe I don’t have one. Well, if she tries to call my phone now, she’s not going to get through. I didn’t plan it this way!!!! (The people at Safeco, my insurance company, have been calm, friendly, reassuring, and very nice.)
And I commented on our “peripecias”* in an email to Bolivia and Argentina–the unforeseen sudden accidents or complications to our plans — but now it seems that’s a Mexican word and I’m not sure I was understood. Ah, one more unforeseen complication.
PS My cat, being female, I refer to her as “gata” but Natalie Pepa told me in some countries–and I can’t remember which–the word means “prostitute.” To avoid any misunderstanding and potential peripecias, I will transgender my Desi–mi gato–while traveling.
* Peripecias – it sounded familiar. It’s not in my standard Spanish dictionary, only in the Mexican dictionary. Then I realized, I know it from Oedipus. peripeteia — Greek word — reversal of fortune. Though I understand that today in Greek it means adventure. Appropriate?
So one of the joys of getting to Chicago was being reconnected with two friends, Carol Anshaw (author and painter) and Natalie Vesga (my roommate from my first trip to Colombia).
Met Carol for lunch and heard her good news, all the exciting pre-pub buzz for her new novel, Carry the One. I mean, Carol’s earlier novels, three of them, got great reviews and enthusiastic readers, but without drawing real attention to her work or, how shall I say?, lifting her. This time around, her publisher has her traveling the country before the book comes out. Her book is the Indie Next List #1 pick for March, but this time around Simon & Schuster isn’t relying on bookstores alone. The publishing business model keeps changing. So besides the before-the-fact tour, they sent out hundreds of copies to bloggers and to people who post frequently on Goodreads and seem to have the right sensibility. It seems to be working and I am so happy for Carol!
(Carol, however, was somewhat disapproving of the fact I’d been invited to speak at Or Chadash, the LGBT synagogue. “Why did they invite a straight woman to speak? Couldn’t they find a lesbian?” I was supposed to be there to read the section of The Blessing Next to the Wound about Hector Aristizábal’s youngest brother, who was gay, and to give an update on the status of gay rights in Latin America. But Carol had her way: the Friday snowstorm blocked the route and I never made it to the shul!)
Back to Stephanie Friedman’s office at the University of Chicago where I stashed my luggage and made a general nuisance of myself. Check out Steph’s blog, The Winding Stitch. Writer, poet, teacher, wife, mother, associate director of the writers studio and summer session in continuing ed. She bakes pies and keeps kosher — the woman has enough to do without organizing several days’ worth of events for me and Hector , getting almost a dozen different organizations on the campus to cooperate when I suspect they usually don’t even recognize each other’s existence.
Naty and I finally reached each other by phone and she came to the office to pick me up and we were squealing in the street with excitement like the kind of teenage girl I never was. We went back to her place where we talked nonstop for hours and I got to meet the “babies” – the dogs that figured in her Lariam-induced delirium in Bogotá when she awoke in terror (and woke me in a rage) believing we were on a bus being attacked by paramilitaries and, as if that weren’t bad enough, that I had called her dogs “hillbillies.” She gradually calmed down that night when I assured her that I knew her dogs were wonderful. I also got to meet her husband, Giano Cromley, who gave up a career in politics to do something honorable and meaningful. He got his MFA and writes fiction (Check out a sample story on-line here and teaches at King-Kennedy alongside poet Martha Vertreace– small world — who I know from Vermont College.
Naty is getting her Masters in Social Work and she told me about the project she’s getting off the ground. I will share it because if you like it and steal it and implement it elsewhere, she’ll be thrilled. So much the better! Programs already exist where troubled youth work with animals to learn responsibility and caring for others. She wants to connect at-risk and gang-involved youth with organizations that do pit bull rehabilitation. She thinks the dogs and young people have a lot in common, both groups have been stigmatized as dangerous and face banning, lock-up, extermination; they’ve been molded to be aggressive and violent (whether by humans or by their environment). The youth already know pit bulls and know them as marvelously dangerous. They can identify with them, and as they work to socialize them and teach them gentleness, Naty believes dogs will transform youth at the same time that youth transform dogs. More effectively than when kids who’ve been traumatized by violence work with, say, golden retrievers, or other dogs who are mellow to begin with. Great idea, no? I love it. I want to connect her to Micaela Myers at Stubby Dog which works to improve the reputation and lives of pit bulls. Naty wants to meet Cesar Millan!
Monday, January 16, 2012 – the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at Valparaiso University, Indiana
Urban Prep Academies in Chicago has to provide students–all African American, all male, all from low-income communities–with “Swords and Shields” is what Tim King, the founder, president, and CEO told us during lunch, after his keynote address. The Swords? Their weapon is intellectual prowess. The students, coming out of the dysfunctional Chicago public school system, take double sessions of English and math to catch up. I love it that students are chosen through lottery and the schools don’t give up on anyone. Kids can get in trouble, but they don’t get thrown out. The school works with them to keep them moving forward. None of this zero-tolerance crap that I’ve written about before, kids criminalized for tardiness, a system that pushes kids out of school and into the school-to-prison pipeline. Maybe I shouldn’t even say “kids.” Tim King addresses students by Mr. and their last name. He wants 13-year-olds to experience being treated with respect, adult to adult male. Beautiful. They start each morning with a community ritual in which they reinforce their commitments to themselves, the school, and their education. The Shields? The sense of identity, confidence, self-esteem, and character they will need once they go out into the wider which, as he said, often means whiter world. They need that inner strength to withstand all the crap the world is gonna throw at them. I think of my friend Karen Taylor. The multitalented Karen D. Taylor, writer, vocalist, who also needs all her talent and vision in raising a black son in this society. She recently posted this link to a report about a Yale study which showed black boys receive harsher punishment and less attention (regardless of socioeconomic status) than white counterparts. Duh. When do we stop funding academics to research the obvious and start funding inner city schools? Instead we continue to fund our schools through property taxes so that the students who need the most attention consistently get the least.
Someone asked Tim King the secret of his success with Urban Prep. He said he didn’t know yet whether the schools were a success. Yes, 100% of the students have gone on to 4-year colleges, but till they graduate and till we see what they do with their lives, the question remains open.
I led a two-hour focus session in the afternoon–my workshop that uses the arts to improve literacy and writing ability. I had a great group–some Valpo freshman, some non-matriculated foreign students who are on campus to learn English, and Stuart Schussler of the Mexico Solidarity Network also attended. The Network recently initiated a unique study-abroad program–unique because participants never leave the US. College students live for a week or two with immigrant families in Chicago. It’s Spanish-language immersion and consciousness-raising rolled into one.
Interesting time at Valpo, staying with Prof. Nelly Blacker-Hanson, and distracting her from what promises to be an enlightening paper on Lucio Cabañas, schoolteacher, who went to the sierra as a guerrilla after his peaceful protestand strike in 1967, Guerrero (Mexico) led to violence and government attempt on his life. (Click here for a taste of her earlier work on the struggle in Guerrero.) Also fun to meet Nelly’s dog, Mischa, a huge Russian breed that looks like an Old English Sheepdog crossed with a bear. It’s a good thing a canine that size is so utterly mellow and gentle. And it’s no surprise children look at her with all that hair covering her face and ask “Does your dog have eyes?”