on social inequality

I watched a documentary tonight about a neighborhood in New York City where a relatively new prep school was opened across the street from the Chelsea-Elliott Houses.  The statistics in the film were incredibly disheartening, but not surprising.  When the high line was constructed on the abandoned, elevated railways on the west side, no developer, architect or resident predicted the shockingly high appreciation in real estate the neighborhood experienced.  The vertical growth is impressive, as are the new buildings with private pools and car elevators.  The projects remain in the neighborhood, for now, although low-income housing in New York has dropped by forty percent in the past ten years, so I’m sure many developers lie in wait.

The film explores the relationship, or lack of relationship, between the residents of Chelsea-Elliott public housing and the students at Avenues: The World School.  Mark and I both rolled our eyes when we saw the colon in there.  Good grief.  It’s hard not to dislike (another double negative, sorry–sometimes they’re affective) this school off the bat.

The kids from public housing are from hard-working families, most of whom have lived in the neighborhood their whole lives, and they all seem on the brink of some form of disaster.  One little girl in the film steals the whole show.  She’s spunky and precocious, wise and creative, imaginative and unstoppable.  I fell head over heels.  Her name is Rosa and she’s eight years old.  She says, “I can tell you for a fact my family is not going to be living in the projects for ten more years. They think they’re comfortable living where they are — my mom’s been living there for twenty-five years already — they think it’s fine, but honestly if we face reality, it’s not. New York, for me, is one of the places your dreams come true. Don’t get me wrong, when I leave the projects I’m not going to forget where I come from, but I want to succeed in life.”  She has sparkly eyes and curly hair, to boot.

While the students at Avenues come across as smart and likable, too, there’s a weariness among them about how they’re supposed to feel or respond to their $50,000 per year education.  A female junior decides to cross the boundary between her school and the projects, and create a community project.  She calls it 115 Steps, referring to the number of steps between the two buildings.  I admired her intrepid action; it felt authentic and investigative, but I’m not sure the kids who crossed onto her turf experienced the same satisfaction.  They had to go back to their side of the street when it was over.

I taught with Teach for America when I graduated from college.  I started with kindergarten in Washington Heights, then second grade in the South Bronx.  In many ways my experience was quite similar to the juxtaposition of Avenues and the Chelsea-Elliott projects.  I lived on the Upper East Side on 77th between 2nd and 3rd, in a charming studio subsidized by my parents, and I took the 6 train to the Bronx each morning.  I was earnest in my desire to help my students, like the junior from Avenues, but like her, I had the underlying safety net of a roundtrip ticket.

In the summer of 2003, I started TFA training at Fordham University.   Within several weeks there were rumors of class and racial tension among corp members.  My roommate, an amazing woman from Puerto Rico, asked me to participate in a town hall-style conversation among teachers.  Apparently there were a lot of insensitive comments being made in some of the training sessions.  I did not personally experience this in my group, but I wasn’t surprised that there were issues.

The tricky part about organizations like Teach for America is that predominantly privileged, college graduates go into impoverished regions of the country to “make a profound impact on low income rural and urban communities.”  There are  many assumptions made in this statement.  Additionally, much of the language from TFA is incredibly loaded with words like “equity,” “justice,” and “unwavering commitment.”  Let’s start with the problem in the last statement, “unwavering commitment.”  Well, the commitment is actually only two years, and this poses a problem for the teachers who have committed to their students for decades.  When a privileged, white woman, like me, shows up in the Bronx to confront the injustice, finally, how does that impact the community who has been striving for justice all along?  You can imagine how offensive the organization can come across to veteran teachers.

So, here’s what happened at the town hall meeting.  I arrived, was given a chair on stage, and was pointedly asked in the first five minutes:  “Where do you live?” “On the Upper East Side.”  “Who do you think you are?  A white girl like you traveling to the ghetto for the day?”  “Why does it matter where I live?  I’m here to help these kids.”  You can probably imagine how the rest of the conversation went. I left in tears, defeated, embarrassed, ready to call it quits.  The thing is, she had a point.  It’s one thing to dedicate your life to the injustices in our country; it’s another thing to stride out of college debt free, rent a quaint studio apartment to teach kids for a couple of years, then decide what you really want to do with your life.  She was totally right.

I left the meeting, and my dear friend, Henry, was there to comfort me.  And when the rest of the group left, I was called back in by one of the TFA administrators.  I was kind of expecting a “How are you? Sorry you had to take all of that heat alone.” But, I was in for a different scolding.  “Aggie, at Teach for America, we’d really appreciate it if you’d avoid words like ‘these.’ As in, ‘these kids.'”  While I was too young to fully absorb the significance of that evening–the nuances of privilege, institutional racism, social inequity, etc.–I was aware of what was fundamentally problematic about her takeaway from that whole discussion.  She missed the fact that I did care about the kids.  A lot.  Many of my former kindergarteners and second graders are now college graduates, and I still talk to many of them.  Tamia is now a professional ballerina (I was her teacher when a ballet school came to do an informal evaluation); DeJane went to Harvard and is now studying to be a veterinarian; Tomas is starting law school at, believe it or not, Fordham University.  What she heard was semantics, and while I think words are important, she missed the whole point.  I needed to learn to fill in the grey area between my apartment and my school.  What happens when the two years of commitment are up?  What happens when you build a school in a community that’s been there, fighting for its life, and you never acknowledge its presence?  Those were the questions I needed to strive to answer.

Indeed the widening social inequality is among the most challenging we face as a country–now more than ever.  In the documentary a family watches Barack Obama give a speech regarding the status of undocumented parents whose children are U.S. citizens.  He says, “You can come out of the shadows.  If you pay taxes, you can stay.”  This statement, a relief at the time to millions of families, seems like a distant memory.  The family, whose father is undocumented, cries tears of joy because they will be together.  I can’t begin to fathom that being one’s constant fear.

The divide between the projects and Avenues school is indeed far greater than 115 steps.  As invisible boundaries and imagined borders close indefinitely, how will children like Rosa cross the divide?  And how will we meet her there?

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