I won an award at my Princeton graduation for dedication to community service (https://pace.princeton.edu/about/service-awards-and-prizes/glickman-prize). I share this not to brag—but to illustrate how important community engagement has been for me throughout my entire adult life. Starting with my first days on campus, I tutored prisoners, mentored students, renovated houses, served meals and helped out wherever I could. I spent a week at an orphanage near the Mexican border, and recruited others to join me. We did a little work and had a lot of fun. Plus, the female caretakers made me Mole Poblano on our last night for dinner. http://www.latinofoodie.com/featured-blog-posts/mole-poblano-recipe-heart-puebla-mexico/ During college, my service work took me to Trenton, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Diego and Tijuana.
I was so committed to community service in college, because I felt extremely lucky. My mom sent me to the best schools she could find and afford. I was an early reader. My teachers believed in me, and I excelled in the classroom. I got into Princeton (and Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Georgetown and Duke). I was one of the lucky ones. Others in my family struggled with alcohol, drugs, unplanned pregnancies. My life could have turned out quite differently if I had a different beginning or different opportunities along the way. From a place of gratitude for the privileges I enjoyed, I give my time, money, energy and professional life to expanding that pool of lucky ones.
Aside: I drove with a group of 10 students down to Atlanta for our winter Intersession break. We broke the trip up into two days: 8 hours from South Jersey to North Carolina and another 8-10 to Atlanta. My family is from North Carolina, and I had arranged for us to stay with my aunt and uncle. When I walked through the door, with 7 White students, my aunt was completely beside herself. It was the first time she had ever entertained anyone White. She lived in a Black world—Black students, Black colleagues, Black church, Black community. For the last 25 years, every time I see her, she asks about those White students. She assumed we had to be good friends for us to be traveling together; it was beyond her that we had just met for the trip.
Growing up in New York City, I attended schools with Black kids and White, Latino kids and Asian, biracial and immigrant. We weren’t rich by any means; we also weren’t poor. Our parents had regular, working-class jobs in offices, restaurants and stores. They saved up their paychecks to take care of our necessities—rent, food clothing and parochial school tuition. It wasn’t a ton of money, but most of our families had to spread the tuition payments out over the 10-month school year to make them more manageable. My classmates and I from diverse backgrounds were just regular.
When my family moved to the New Jersey suburbs, the diversity fell significantly. There were a lot fewer brown kids (Asian, Black, Latino and biracial) in my middle and high schools. The vast majority of students were White; they lived in houses their families owned, and their parents were the managers and supervisors of the offices, restaurants and stores where my old classmates’ parents had worked. It was a solidly middle-class community. I would say about the racial breakdown was about 60 percent White and 40 percent other.
You can imagine my great surprise when I visited public schools across the United States two decades later that were segregated by both race and class. I was coaching classroom and reading teachers across the country, while working for an education startup in Brooklyn. I traveled a great deal in the four years I had that job. All the schools received extra federal funds, since they served a significant population of low-income students. The federal Title I funds paid for my services as a professional development specialist through the Reading First program. I wasn’t surprised that the students were poor; that’s why they had the extra money to pay for me. I was surprised that they were all poor AND the same race—all White poor in rural Oklahoma, all Black poor in Chicago, all Latino poor in Miami. I was perplexed.
In 1964, the United State Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” public facilities (pools, schools, water fountains) were inherently unequal. Districts were mandated to integrate, and many did during the 1970s and 1980s. However, some did not. One tactic that Southern Whites used to avoid integration during this era was to open private academies, funded with municipal dollars supplemented by private resources. Another strategy was to create a new, separate school district for White students based on neighborhood, which also happened to be racially segregated. As a result, we developed White, suburban middle class school districts (throughout the country, not just in the South), and working-class, urban school districts for students of color. Residential housing made this easier.
But the Office of Civil Rights of the US Department of Education was committed to ensure equal access to education and to promote educational excellence through vigorous enforcement of civil rights in our nation’s schools. Beginning in 1980 with the leadership of Cynthia G. Brown, the first Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, OCR investigated some of these places, and put them under court order to develop desegregation plans. And it worked… for a time. (Atlantic magazine piece, Academic journal article).
Ironically, the very law that was supposed to provide more equitable and integrated schooling is largely to blame for the resegregation of many public school districts, including DC Public Schools. Prior to the Brown decision in 1954, 44,897 White students and 59,963 Black students were enrolled in the public schools, 43 and 57 percent respectively. A decade later, when the District had fully implemented its desegregation policy in 1966, the scales had shifted dramatically. 13,369 (or 9%) of students were White, and 133, 275 (or 91%) were Black.
The Brown decision was made based on the premise that separate educational facilities for Black and White children were inherently unequal. Since the 1960s, researchers have identified the links between race and socioeconomic status on academic achievement. Title I funding, which began during President Johnson’s War on Poverty, has been given to low-income schools to increase the amount of resources in the hopes of making it more comparable to affluent communities. Yet, despite more than four decades of financial investment and education reform efforts, student achievement in low-income communities remains tragically low. We have dropout factories in every major city – where a majority of the freshmen that enroll do not graduate from high school four years later. We have dozens of schools where more than 90% of students are low-income and more than 90% are Black or Latino. After sixty years, the Brown decision may have helped to integrate suburban and Southern communities, but it has left Northeastern, Midwestern, and Western urban schools largely unchanged.
By 2009, whatever advances that had been made integrating American schools were disappearing. By the time, I moved to DC that March to work full-time, I knew that I wanted to be directly involved with educational policy work. I was no longer content training teachers on how to administer literacy assessments and use the results in their classrooms. I wanted to deal with the bigger picture of why Black kids are more likely to go to racially and socioeconomically segregated schools than White students. For two years, I worked for the national association of magnet schools, which were created as a way to encourage choice in integration, helping their leaders develop organizational skills to be more successful. It took another three years for me to decide to get my doctorate in education policy and become an academic. During that time, I researched programs, prepped for the entrance exam and visited my top choices. Ultimately, I chose Stanford.
Author ACADEMIC. ACTIVIST. ARTIST. ASANA.