The Cost of Getting Proximate {for SheLoves}

Sharing this post at SheLoves today, for the theme “Amplify.”

Bryan Stevenson changed my life.

Last year, his book, Just Mercy, crushed the last of my illusions about justice in the United States. A few months after reading it—sleep deprived with a 12-day-old newborn—I drove to hear Stevenson speak in the auditorium of a nearby university. I nursed my infant with one arm and scribbled illegible notes with my other hand. But two words rattled me, transfixed me. They altered the course of our life, in fact.

“Get proximate.”

I stopped writing and looked up as he spoke. “Get close to the problems instead of trying to solve them from a distance. Get proximate to the poor and be willing to do uncomfortable things,” he said.

Was I willing not to just visit, talk about, or pray for those living in the margins, but actually move there?

For the past two years after moving from the city of Chicago, we rented a house in a nearly all-white area of Colorado snuggled up against the Rocky Mountains. The middle class neighborhood was made up of retirees with large campers parked in their driveways and a few young families. People didn’t bother locking their doors and I would have felt safe walking down our pitch black street late at night under a jubilee of stars. We were within walking distance of a huge new park with a splash pad, a giant wooden playground, a Frisbee golf course and tennis courts.

But as we began to search for a home to buy, I sensed God nudging us towards something other than safe, secure and comfortable. As we looked for houses in the nearby college town, I picked subdivisions where the neighborhood school had a high percentage of non-white students and free lunch recipients.

I drove around neighborhoods near trailer parks and run-down apartment complexes, ashamed that though I’d be willing to live near them, I wasn’t willing to actually live in a low income neighborhood just to be proximate to the poor.

Buying a home holds a mirror to our prejudices, privilege and values. It blasts holes in our claim to love our neighbor when we begin to realize we meant the neighbor just like us.

God never assures us safe or comfortable. He doesn’t urge us to pray for “smooth journeys” or perfect health. In fact, the gospel message juxtaposed against American culture is starkly counter-cultural.

Jesus wandered from house to house, keeping company with the misfits of society. He touched the untouchable and dined with the outcast. In the end, he gave up the right to protect himself and willingly died so these misfits could experience belonging. This is the gospel. So why do Sunday mornings at church always feel so polished and pristine?

We finally bought a home. Though the city is 82 percent white, the neighborhood school is 73 percent white. Fifty-two percent of the students have free or reduced lunch. It is not a drastic shift, but it is a small step toward a wider community of neighbors.

The city we moved to is double the size of the one we left. The hum of life murmurs at a low level. We now hear sirens, see bikers buzz past our picture window and hear Thai, Arabic and Hindi spoken at the grocery store. For the first time in my life, there is an African American family living across the street. My children are also beginning to recognize Spanish being spoken at the public library or MacDonald’s play place. I have plenty of opportunities to eavesdrop on unsuspecting Chinese people who don’t know I spent five years in China. From a diversity-standpoint, this feels like a good decision.

But what about the increase in homelessness and crime—does Jesus really want us to move closer to that?

Before moving (and in rebellion against the inner voice that warns us we’re googling too far) I searched online to see if there were any sex offenders in the neighborhood. There are. The site also offered all the registered felons. There were many—even on the route my kids will one day walk to school. I joined the local online forum for our neighborhood and learned that three cars were broken into last week and an unsolved murder a few streets away was solved. Fear began pawing at me, whispering that I am right to shelter and shield my children.

Proximity costs us …

Continue reading at SheLoves.

 

Day 22: Following Nikole Hannah-Jones Down the Integration Rabbit Hole (Part 2) {31 Days of #WOKE}

Nikole Hannah-Jones is my hero. Haven’t heard of her? Well, do any Google search including the words “school segregation” or “school integration” and you will likely find an article written by her.

The first time I heard of Nikole was on a This American Life Podcast called “The Problem We All Live With,” a two part-er about the benefits of school integration. (If you haven’t listened to it, please download it right now). Having grown up in an aggressive desegregation program in the public school system in Tampa, Florida, then teaching in the city of Chicago, I felt like someone finally outfitted my blurry eyes with the correct prescription glasses for my horrible vision.

I could see.

Since listening to that podcast and a few others, I have been on my own journey towards sight. But I recently heard her on another NPR podcast, Fresh Air, this time talking about intentionally sending her own daughter to a segregated school.

I surprised my family the day I heard that podcast. I listened while chopping apples for oatmeal while my husband got the children dressed.

“YES!” I yelled out. “YES!” ‘

“What?” my husband said, coming down the stairs with our two-year-old on his hip.

“This.” I said, pointing to the voice on my phone. “Her.” I pushed pause and hit rewind for the fourth time. You have to hear this,” I said. Nikole’s voice rang into the kitchen.

“And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say “This school is not good enough for my child” and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?”

My husband looked at me quizzically. “That last part,” I said. “Listen again.”

If it’s not good enough for my child, then WHY are we putting ANY children in those schools?

***

My first year teaching, in 2002, I taught in a school that was 100 percent African American. The students there had no memory of a white student ever attending. When I taught there, I drove from the diverse north side of the city to the west side of Chicago, a neighborhood called North Lawndale with very few white residents. You can read about my first year teaching back on day two, but I ended up substitute teaching in a different school in the north side every day for two months after teaching in Lawndale. I eventually taught for four years in another north side school in a mainly white area.

Though I’d hardly call the north side schools flashy, I could see a marked difference in the amount of resources available to the schools who had majority white populations. Parents were more involved, more demanding and had a say in the governance of the school. They knew how to pull strings.

As a teacher, you feel trapped in the system. You work hard, love the faces in front of you and fight for justice in your small square. But as a (white) parent, I feel I am holding more of the cards. Now I can choose. Where do I want to send my children? How involved do I want to be in the school? What “rights” do I want to fight for?

I have the power to stay or go.

But I am not only a (former) teacher and current parent, I am also a follower of Christ. So in that way, shouldn’t my demands be different? Shouldn’t my view of my neighbor shift? Shouldn’t my faith move mountains and my love destroy walls?

Deep down, do I believe my children deserve more than other children? And if I find that voice whispering deep in my subconscious, do I have the courage to confront it and ask where it is coming from?

Things get real when it comes to our kids.

Here are some questions I’ve been grappling with lately:

Would I be willing to send my children to a failing school, trusting that they would get enough of what’s lacking from the ways our family would supplement their education?

Would I be willing to send my children to a school where they would be the minority (which will remain hypothetical in my case right now, since the city where we live is majority white)?

Would I be willing to send my children to a school in an unsafe neighborhood?

And if I answer “no,” to any of these, would I be willing to back up my answer with the Bible? Would I have the courage to ask “why” I wouldn’t be willing–from a Jesus-loving/following point of view?

I’d love to hear someone else’s perspective on all of this, so join the conversation in the comments section. I may attempt to address these questions in the days and weeks to come.

***

Here are some other articles by Nikole Hannah-Jones:

Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City, for The New York Times Magazine (June 9, 2016)

Segregation Now, for ProPublica (fall down the ultimate rabbit hole and get lost in the comments on this one!)

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Day 21: What Ever Happened to Integration? (Part 1) {31 Days of #WOKE}

“I cannot see how the Negro will be totally liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

***

I completed most of my homework on the school bus in sixth and seventh grade, because I rode an hour to and from school. My county in Tampa, Florida, was still under a 1971 court order to integrate its schools when I attended middle school in the 90’s. Those of us in the (mainly white) suburbs were bused to schools in the lower income, predominantly black, areas of Tampa to ensure the schools would be integrated.

“Didn’t it bother you that I went to school in such a rough neighborhood so far from our home?” I asked my mom a few years ago after realizing more about why I attended school so far from our mostly white suburb.

“You were separate,” she said. “All your classes were in the honors hall, so you didn’t interact with many students who actually lived in that neighborhood.”

So even within a school designed to promote integration, white students were kept separate from non-white students by being placed on honors halls. Reflecting back, I realized she was right. Though I had a handful of black students in my class, the majority of my class was still white.

I recently came across a fascinating document from 1973, detailing the implementation of integration in my county along with ten other counties throughout the nation. In it, a school administrator said, “‘Without the benefit of student transportation,’ he concluded, ‘it would be impossible for the schools to overcome the effects of a history of residential and educational segregation.'” (School Segregation in Ten Communities, p. 35)

This is an extremely complex issue, but it seems like busing was the only solution to integrating the schools when the residential areas remained segregated. I wondered if the schools were still integrated today.

Hillsborough County was finally released from its court order to integrate the schools in 2001. The county achieved what is called “unitary status,” meaning they no longer need to be closely supervised by the federal government. According to the Cowen Institute, “To be declared “unitary” by a judge, a school district must demonstrate that it has eliminated all traces of intentional segregation in six areas, called the “Green factors”: 1) student assignment, 2) faculty assignment, 3) staff assignment, 4) transportation, 5) extracurricular activities, and 6) facilities.”

But it seems that what unitary status actually means is that now students can attend their neighborhood schools again since the schools are no longer rigidly supervised. The school I attended for sixth grade is now back to being 73 percent African American, 20 percent Hispanic, 6 percent white and 1 percent “other.” Have the schools, therefore, “re-segregated”?

As a child, I had no idea I was in the middle of a system designed to eliminate segregation. Later, as a teacher in a magnet school in a white area of the city of Chicago, I thought nothing of the fact that most of the students of color at the school rode buses for nearly an hour to attend school because their parents knew the value of integration.

Often we move along in life unaware of the systems that guide and constrain us, much as a fish is oblivious to the water that steers him. I did not see that I was being forcibly integrated, just as my parents accepted the reality of segregated living until they were in their teens. Perhaps it’s time we open our eyes, peer around and start asking questions.

The 1973 document spelling out the integration plan in my county concludes on a positive note:

“Desegregation in this racially and ethnically mixed community
has not been easy, but there is evidence of growing optimism and
satisfaction with what is happening in the schools and community
because of desegregation. Nearly 100 students who had left the school system have reportedly returned. The superintendent’s office reported that it had received fewer than half a dozen calls concerning problems
with busing during the first half of the 1972-73 school year. Some
of those originally opposed to the plan now seem prepared to agree
with the view expressed by the Ventura County Free Press as schools
opened in September 1971:

‘If there is a solution to the racial, social and ethnic differences that divide our society, this is where it seems to be–in kids rubbing elbows with other kids–kids who are different in many ways–and finding that nothing ugly rubs off. It’s a part of education that too many of us grown-ups missed, and if it takes some busing to achieve it for our youngsters then we must face the necessity for busing even without a court order.‘”

Reading this last paragraph is sobering. The writer hoped they were moving towards a solution to end the problem of segregation. But as schools slipped out from under the nose of the federal government and achieved “unitary status,” it seems our school system eased back into segregation.

According to Tanner Colby, author of Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, in an article for Slate, “The racial balance created by busing was a fiction, and in the absence of those programs we’re just seeing the country for what it has been all along, what it never stopped being: separate and unequal.”

***

What was your experience growing up? What was the racial make-up of your school? What about your children’s school today?

Check back tomorrow for more discussion on this topic.

This article is a fantastic overview of the history of integration in the U.S.: The Massive Liberal Failure on Race, by Tanner Colby for Slate

 

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Day 21: What Ever Happened to Integration? (Part 1) {31 Days of #WOKE}