Asking Why Me?

One of the first questions Linda Nathan asked us in our course, Building a Democratic School, was a simple one. Why are you the person to do this work? And yet as simple as the question appeared, it resonated with me, and echoed through my thoughts for the entire semester and to this day.

It's embarrassing that in some ways this was the first time I really thought about this question on a meaningful level. What's even scarier is that many of us in education never take the time to examine this question at all.

In doing so, many of us engage - unwittingly or otherwise - in a sort of "white savior" complex, whereby we assume the skills, knowledge, passion, etc are what are needed to "fix" urban education. Even for those of us who avoid this Dangerous Minds/Freedom Writers mindset, a lack of self-reflection and criticism can create an arrogance whereby we believe lofty academic credentials entitle us to positions of authority.

As a graduate of Penn, and a member of a program like NYC Teaching Fellows that prides itself on its selectivity, this was already a dangerous trap for me. This past year at Harvard threatened to ensnare me further in this thinking, if not for Dr. Nathan's question.

Time and again in courses professors would remind us that next year we would be leaders at the city, state and federal level. On the surface, it seemed our professors were just trying to emphasize the importance of learning a certain concept or understanding the complexity of an issue. But at the same time, they were reinforcing the inevitability of our ascent to power.

Midway through the year, I was at a dinner with friends, discussing our plans for after HGSE. "I think I may want to start a school, but I don't really think I'm ready for that." One of my friends seemed almost taken aback. "You're going to have a degree from Harvard, why wouldn't you be ready?"

It's this thinking that a degree from a certain institution confers omnipotence and omniscience that can lead to disastrous consequences. I worry about what it has wrought already in the marginalization of poor communities of color. I worry that it will continue to happen if my peers and I don't embrace a little more humility and self-doubt.

Why am I the person to do this work? After a few months of reflection you might think I would have a perfected response. But truthfully, I don't think I should ever have an answer that gives me total satisfaction.

I know that I am completely committed to fighting educational inequity, because it is at the crux of injustice in our society. I know that I want deeply for the students I work with to have access to all the opportunities and privileges I was afforded growing up. But I also know that I cannot do this without the voices and hard work of many, many others working alongside me. Knowing that it's not just me who can or should do this work, might be the beginning of an answer to Dr. Nathan's question.

Comments

Sahila said…
you show your immaturity and white privileged lack of understanding with the statement that educational inequity is the crux of injustice in our society...

it's not - POVERTY is.... and disadvantaged kids more in school WILL NOT make up for their starting and living life way behind the 8-ball...

I'm not saying we shouldnt give more and we shouldnt try to do whatever we can in our schools

I'm saying that without dealing with the political and economic structure that allows poverty to exist in the first place, and NEEDS TO PERPETUATE IT, in the second, we're all just pissing into the wind...
Rich said…
"I am completely committed to fighting educational inequity, because it is at the crux of injustice in our society."

Actually the crux is disparity. Schools are merely a reflection of society.

Poverty is the problem. Not our schools.
Obi Okobi said…
Ruben-

Thanks for your incredible insight. Interestingly, much of my time in class at HGSE characterized with an emphasis on the need for balancing humility and hubris as we embark upon this work.

I love Nathan's comment. I think that an equally good comment to remember would be that one learns the work by doing it. Fumbling, erring and asking for clarification along the way of making breakthroughs.

It will be up to us to keep each other in check and to find friends, allies and mentors from different parts of our life to remind us of who we are and why it is the we choose to do this critically important work of educating young people and transform the public education.

I'll be that person for you if you'll be the person for me.
Obi Okobi said…
As an educator, school are where we have the lever for change. While poverty is at the crux of inequities in our society, education can provide a forum for addressing those in living in poverty by the coincidence of their birth instead of waiting on the adults around to get it together. I believe that education changes the trajectory of people's lives, no matter at what station they begin life.

I don't think that kids need more time in school, I believe that kids need more quality instruction and exploration during the time in which they are in school.
ruben_b said…
Thanks Obi, I know I can count on you to keep me focused and in check. Re: the poverty versus schools argument, I think we do ourselves and children a disservice when we boil this down to an either/or debate. Does our society need structural reform to address inequality? Absolutely. But isn't our educational system a part of that larger structure as well? Doesn't education provide people with pathways to empowerment and political enfranchisement? I don't buy this false dichotomy asking us to focus our energies on either schools or poverty.
Sahila said…
guess the young Jedi knight hasnt read any discourse on the history and politics of mass education...
ruben_b said…
I've been fortunate enough to do a lot of reading this past year, but always welcome suggestions. Young Jedi Knight, eh? May the force be with you.
Rich said…
That your heroes are a couple of entertainers is telling.

Also, we do a disservice to kids when we claim their poverty can be overcome with a little classroom time.
ruben_b said…
Rich, the About Me section of my blog is actually a quote taken from Zoolander, a movie popular among millenials like myself, satirizing people who are pretentious and take themselves too seriously. If you get a chance to see it I can't guarantee you'll find it funny, but you will at least understand the reference on this page.

I think there are two things that bother me about this discussion though. Firstly it misses 90% of the point of my post, and decides to focus on one part of my explanation as to why I see myself as worthy of the work of education. On a related note, this poverty v. schools debate is so tired, and is practically a crutch. Again I will say, YES, let's strive for a better, more equitable, less racist society! HOWEVER, are we really going to pretend that our schools are serving all students, especially our poorest students and students of color, to the level they deserve? To accept this premise one would have to be incredibly naive or blind.

A final point, what exactly are we talking about when we say that poverty is to blame? Poverty being a general term can be used to describe (or disguise) many other factors. Unless we are explicit in what we mean by poverty - lack of access to quality healthcare? parent's educational attainment? lack of employment opportunities? - I worry we may be missing the point. If we're talking about poverty as a catchall for racism in society I won't disagree. But I won't agree that "poverty" is equivalent to a cap on a child's potential or some sort of death sentence meted out at birth.
Sahila said…
Poverty is a necessary base for capitalism... IT IS A PRE-REQUISITE for the capitalist system to work and it must be preserved as part of the incentive/control mechanism that keeps people locked in...

there is no intention on the parts of the plutarchs to do anything real to do away with poverty... there is no room at the capstone of capitalism - the ultimate pyramid-ponzi economic/political scheme - for more than a relative handful of controllers, space for a larger but still relatively small number of people in the middle of the pyramid and the base MUST BE POPULATED BY BILLIONS OF PEOPLE who provide the raw human energy to feed/enrich the rest...
Teacher Rich said…
Poverty, when used in this context, refers to SES (socioeconomic status) which is a multiple-measure, as you know.

Feigning ignorance is not the best way to counter an argument.

We all know that poverty --low SES-- is the root problem with under-performing kids. We know it's not their teachers who did it--they enter kindergarten at a deficit.

You want to say that poverty is too big and too hard to overcome. Fine. I disagree.

Whatever. Whoever is right doesn't matter. We have the facts. Poverty stifles. Teachers and schools can't un-stifle to the degree necessary.

It then falls on all of us to help raise up the low SES families so they can reap the benefits of our public education system.

Lastly, if you want to discuss this on the air, let me know. I would be happy to have you as a guest on blog talk radio.

http://my.blogtalkradio.com/tfteacher
ruben_b said…
Rich,

Thanks for clarifying. I don't think that everyone automatically equates poverty with SES, and in fact in can often be used as a euphemism for assumptions about people, culture, etc.

That said, I also think we're misunderstanding each other regarding my thoughts on poverty. I think it is an incredibly powerful force when it intersects with someone's life, especially a child's. And yet I do think that individuals - mentors, parents, coaches, and yes teachers - can make a powerful and positive impact on the lives of young people, in the best case even changing the course of those lives altogether.

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