Remixing & Re-vision

My mother passed on to me a recipe for sweet potato pie that her mother, my grandmother Lucille, had likely had passed on to her by her mother, my great-grandmother Civvie. I have memories of my mom baking batches of these pies for both Thanksgiving and Christmas and giving them away as gifts for co-workers, neighbors, and relatives. For a month, our freezer would be filled with these sweet potato pies. As I got older and showed an interest in how to make this delectable creation, my mom brought me into the kitchen, directing me to strain the crushed pineapple, crack eggs, mix in flour. She eventually tested my cooking sensibilities – nothing was ever measured – by having me taste the batter to determine if it was ready yet and if not, what was needed: more brown sugar? more karo syrup? more cinnamon? more flour if it was too soupy? more milk if it was too stiff?

Once I got on my own, I called my mom and asked her for the recipe. I carefully wrote down the ingredients, her guesstimates as to how much of each was needed, her directions on the order in which to add the ingredients in the batter, and finally the proper oven setting and length of baking time. The first time I set out to bake the family sweet potato pie, I hit a homerun. Well, almost. The crust got burnt on a couple (then she told me the foil trick). Nevertheless, they were tasty. I would make them again, but not annually because it was a heck of a lot of work and there weren’t enough people in my life worthy of that kind of energy output. LOL – I’m just being honest.

Those sweet potato pies were glorious. Honestly I’ve never tasted anyone else’s recipe that even comes close to being as good as the Lazarus Family recipe (nope, not even Patti’s!). I want to make them again and really had an unction to do so this past holiday season. But I didn’t bake them this year. Why? Because about 7 years ago, I discovered I was allergic to eggs, pineapple, and cow-based dairy – key ingredients in the recipe [just trust me on the pineapple]. When I first got the lab tests back that showed this, the first thing I mourned for was this sweet potato pie. Ever since, I’ve been thinking of a way to alter the recipe to make it something I could eat and not get sick from (I now understand why I never felt quite right after my annual pie gorging as a kid). I’ve done this with other dishes: I make my macaroni and cheese without eggs and although I use 2% milk, I’ve found homeopathic aids that mute the dairy allergy response (yes it’s really an allergic response, not just lactose intolerance). I have doctored box cake recipes with egg substitutes made with tapioca and potato flour mixed with water. I’ve just cut pineapples out of my life and in recipes calling for it, I’ve substituted with oranges or kiwi or mango or something else instead. I have even discovered that enjoying wine or liquor while eating an egg-based dessert prevents the allergic response that usually comes (doesn’t work for pineapple).

Despite that, I’ve not yet remixed that sweet potato recipe. You may be wondering what’s holding me back? [You may also be wondering where the heck I’m going with this, but just be patient and hang on, lol.] It’s taken me a while to figure it out, but I think I just did today. If you’ll indulge me a bit longer, I’ll explain and tie it to some of the current questions, challenges, and conversations on my Twitter feed.

Some might say that the sweet potato pie isn’t the problem. The recipe is fine as is. I just can’t eat it. So, I should just let it go. Good recipe, just not for me. Leave the recipe alone.

Some might point to the ingredients in a way. If the pie is made with sour milk or rotten eggs, then a whole lot of people would be getting sick, not just me. If that’s the case, then – again – the pie’s recipe isn’t the problem, it’s the quality of the ingredients. If we’re working with good ingredients, then we return to the first conclusion: I just need to leave the pie alone and go eat something else. Like an apple crisp. [Good but just not the same.]

The real issue is that it’s supposed to be *my* family recipe. I can’t eat and enjoy (without putting my wellness at risk) something that is supposed to be for ME. It’s part of my family legacy; it’s my inheritance. The thing that was passed on to me with love and pride and joy. But that inheritance makes me sick. Literally. And changing the recipe to adapt it to my needs means it’s not THE LAZARUS FAMILY recipe anymore. Changing it – using crushed oranges instead of pineapple, the tapioca and water mix instead of the eggs, a sweetened coconut milk instead of cow’s milk – is more than a remix. That’s a whole new pie recipe. I will have re-visioned the recipe as something very – even, entirely – different than it was. Who knows what it will taste like. It may be awful. That scares me too. I think I have good cooking sensibilities (comes honestly from both dad and mom), so that might all work together just fine, but what a risk.

Do I stay with a recipe that makes me sick for the sake of honoring my forebears? Do I put it aside and dare to find a way to come up with something different that incorporates some of what was good and what I learned from that old recipe, but no longer really bears the stamp of my mom, my grandmother, my great-grandmother? Will their cooking wisdom be commuted onto this new pie recipe regardless because I am *still* their legacy?

Similar questions as this confront us about institutions of far greater social consequence than my sweet potato pie. Recently, especially Black Christians, are being asked hard questions of the religion and the God we claim to follow and worship (see Son of Baldwin here on the passing of Eddie Long and Dr. Jonathan Higgins on Kim Burrell); of higher education (see my blog posts here, here, and here and Craig Steven Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy); of the U.S. political enterprise built as it is on settler colonialism, slavery, rape, theft despite its high-minded treatises on equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (see my blog posts here and here).  All these pieces confront us with the choice of remixing, transformation as remix, revolution and turning away from the legacy we have claimed as an essential inheritance necessary to bind us to the past as a bridge to the future.

We could say the problem lies not in the institutions themselves but in the people who are made sick by them. They should just leave, these folks would say. Folks have been saying that hence our current (under Obama) and ongoing (under the next administration) deportation, criminal injustice, and Christian fundamentalist terrorist crisis.

We could say that the problem lies in the quality of the ingredients alone. Get rid of the misogyny and fundamentalism and the Christianity can be saved. Excise the capitalist profit motive and the democracy can be saved. The connection between K12 and colleges and universities is simply spoiled and with refreshment, our educational system can be saved. Again, it’s not the recipe that’s the problem. All we need is a remix.

What will we lose if we turn away from these social institutions that have been handed down to us but which absolutely make us sick in ways that have material effects on individuals, whole communities, our nation, and which have ripple effects on the world at large? What will we continue to lose if we don’t?

What will we gain?

Re-visioning the things that have been handed to us requires courage, but it requires creativity, imagination. Our artists – poets, writers, musicians and songwriters – have been showing us the way. Are we ready to let go?

Am I ready for a new sweet potato pie recipe? To try and fail to arrive at something that tastes as yummy and try again until I get something that doesn’t make me sick?

Are we ready – for a new religion? a new education? a new form of government? Are we ready to try at something that might fail in the rhetorical power of what we have had but that doesn’t require our overlooking the sickness of some to enjoy?

We have decisions to make.

Death Rattle? Naw, Just Clearing Its Throat

This post begins on last Tuesday night, about 11:12pm EST, when MSNBC called Ohio for Obama putting him over the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the election. It begins when four states broke the 32 straight losses handed to marriage equality proponents. Throughout the course of the night Maryland, Maine, Washington, and Minnesota added to the number of states where any two consenting, unrelated adults can get married, regardless of their sex or gender. This post begins when on that same night 19 women were elected or re-elected to the Senate, the largest number in history. This post begins when a record number of Asian Americans, queer people, and people with disabilities were elected to legislative office on the national and state level. This post begins on that night when people who straddle the intersections of multiple oppressed identities, like Tammy Duckworth (woman, double-amputee, and Asian American) and Mary Gonzalez (woman, pansexual, and Latina) were elected to represent districts on both the national (Duckworth) and state (Gonzalez) levels that were supposed to reject them and their complicated multiplicity, but didn’t. This post begins when Florida was finally called for Obama, bringing the final Electoral College tally to 332-206 and Obama winning 50.6% of the popular vote, while Romney carried a karmic 47.8%.

This post begins with a dance party, ushered in by none other than DJ Kool’s iconic song surely “to get the people going” (nod to JayZ and Kanye), “Let Me Clear My Throat”:

If you’re like me, you couldn’t help but dance in your chair a little, just now. Indeed, over the past week, the victory of the marginalized has been heralded and people have been literally dancing in the streets, in their chairs, and anywhere else. Obama’s Democratic Party has been cited for its ability to build a diverse coalition of voices who recognized that we really were all in this together. Meanwhile, the GOP has been mocked, hammered, and castigated for allowing itself to become the handmaiden of (religious) extremists, out of touch with the modern world – “a ‘Mad Men’ party in a ‘Modern Family’ world,” as Maureen Dowd quotes some Republicans admitting. Liberal commentators are announcing the “death throes” of the GOP, and of white, male (read, Republican) privilege to boot.

That’s an appealing narrative, heady and very seductive, and completely delusional. I refer back to DJ Kool and assert that White, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, economically-secure privilege has merely taken a moment to “clear its throat.” Let me explain by means of an historical analogy.

Fifty-six years ago, on this day in 1956, the Supreme Court struck down segregation on public buses. Mostly affecting the South, no longer would White people be able to unseat a Black passenger. Black people could ride anywhere on the bus they wanted, front, back, didn’t matter. Folks celebrated and although there was no DJ Kool yet, I would imagine that the sonorous tones of “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” stridently proclaimed victory in church basements and house parties. Wait, that song hadn’t come out yet either, so maybe it was a really bumping rendition of “We Shall Overcome” instead.

It was not just a matter of racial animus that made the idea of Whites riding the bus with Blacks side-by-side repugnant. Social class was also at work, most of the Black riders were domestics, cooks, day laborers – men and women who shared a social class status that put them beneath Whites whose own blue collar jobs afforded them the protection of unions, higher pay, and the illusion of class mobility into the upper income strata during an era where cars were still a luxury purchase.

The creation of the suburbs, which led to urban decline, the disappearance of walk-able neighborhoods in the inner-cities, and the exodus of property tax dollars from the city-center to the suburbs, allowed the racism and classism that birthed segregation on public buses to turn its death rattle into a throat-clearing reinvention of itself.

I couldn’t see how this operated until I left my small hometown of New York City for the Midwest,  ostensibly just for college. When I was growing up, it seemed like everybody rode the public transit system. From people who worked on Wall Street to people who worked Wall Street, social class did not appear to distinguish who rode the buses and subways and who didn’t.

But when I went away to college in Michigan and have since continued to live in Ohio, I noticed a very different dynamic. When I first moved to Columbus in 1996 to begin grad school, for example, I found an apartment on a main bus line, excited that I could leave my car at home and take the bus to campus, probably about a 40 minute ride on two different buses. When I shared that plan with others, people looked at me like I had ten heads and was dumber than a rock. Why would you ride the bus when you have a car? People explained that the buses were “dangerous,” “dirty,” and that they really were the enclave of the unhoused and the mentally unstable, as much as those who were simply poor. I rode the bus a couple of times anyway, just to see for myself, and what I noticed more than the filthiness and the unreliability of the service schedules was how few middle-class, White people I ever saw on the bus, especially beyond the downtown limits. I’ve seen this same dynamic play out in other cities in Michigan and Ohio and have heard the same bus narrative retold in other places around the country. The racial and class privilege that birthed segregation just found a new way to assert itself, cloaked in a narrative of convenience and independence.

So even as residents across more than 30 states file secession petitions and D. L. Hughley insightfully comments on the cognitive disconnect produced by the phrase “we, the people” for some U.S. citizens, what we are witnessing is hardly the death of anything. Privilege is just pausing to clear its throat.

An election victory, or even several in one night, is not enough to dethrone the notion that certain people want Bill O’Reilly’s “stuff” and “things” (i.e., the benefits of privilege), as they join O’Reilly in bemoaning the new minority called the White establishment (by the way, Bill, white men still control most of the seats in Congress). As Jesse Hagopian argues, and I agree with him, the current budget negotiations do absolutely nothing to reverse the flow of wealth from those who already have it to those who don’t have enough. Compromise inevitably preserves the status quo. As Frederick Douglass said over a century ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Compromise is not a demand.

November 6, 2012 will go down in history for many reasons, but it was hardly the demand strong enough, loud enough, persistent enough to force the hand of power. Not unless it’s followed by continued momentum. As President Obama said himself in the wee hours of November 7th, our work was not completed at the polls on November 6 and it can’t wait until November 2014, either.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand.” So, what are we, those who want to sound the death knell of privilege, demanding? Are we really satisfied with women occupying 19% of the Senate when we are 55% of the population? Are we really placated merely by electoral victories? Political parties don’t reallocate power and privilege. Such reallocation requires the dismantling and rebuilding of the structural systems that award privilege. Tweaks and compromises won’t get us there.

 

Note: This post was originally going to be about the Republican Party and where it needs to go from here, but the anniversary of the end of public bus segregation took me on a whole different path.

 

Hope for the Future

This is a political post. But it’s not about either of the candidates or their respective parties. It’s about the next generation of voters and how hopeful I am that they will be anything but apathetic.

Yesterday, I volunteered with the group Organizing for America to get out the vote (GOTV) in the town in which I live. I’m not new to this kind of community organizing effort. In 2008, I canvassed on a couple of evenings, in mostly Republican neighborhoods, trying to convince people to vote for Obama. Then in 2010, my town had to decide on whether protection from discrimination in housing, employment, public education, and public accommodations should be extended to more people, including the LGBT community. To get those ordinances passed, I became what was known at the time as a “super volunteer,” devoting dozens of hours on the phone and on the street, but mostly on the streets canvassing voters and training other volunteers. But for this election, I had been mostly absent. My research travels kept me gone for most of August and September. I kept putting off the patient but persistent volunteer who kept calling me. I told him I would help in October. When he called back and I answered the phone, it was the last week of the month and there were 10 days before the election. I finally got on board. So, yesterday was my first canvass for this election cycle.

When I arrived, the place was all abuzz with volunteers. The folks coming to walk the streets, clipboards and literature in hand, were a cross-section of our local community. Young people, middle-aged folks, senior citizens, men and women, racial diversity, you name it, it was out (believe it or not for my small town). The staff organizers were mostly young people, traditional college age and maybe a bit older. Young adults are still heavily involved in this election, don’t let anyone fool you.

But the person who most impressed me was my canvassing partner for the afternoon. There were an odd number of volunteers who showed up for this particular shift and I was the odd one out. One of the volunteers called over her son to partner up with me. I was surprised to see that the person who came forward was a young boy, 12 years old, just a year younger than my daughter. I’ll call him “T.” T is in the seventh grade, plays soccer, and has older brothers. This is an activist family, from mom on down to her sons. T had been volunteering after school and giving up his weekends since soccer season ended doing everything from phone banking to door-to-door neighborhood canvassing.

Let me repeat myself: T is 12 years old.

We got our materials together, grabbed a couple hand warmers and a bottle of water, and headed out. I had to chuckle to myself when he asked if I had a car – clearly he wasn’t able to. And then I was just very impressed that a young person who couldn’t even vote, let alone drive, was volunteering so much of his time to this election.

As we walked together, knocking on doors, talking to a person here and there about the importance of their vote (and yes, encouraging their support of President Obama), T and I also talked. We criticized whoever “cut” our walk route, how much we both hated having to go into apartments, and how cold we were. We went together into hideaway apartment buildings downtown that he termed as “scary” and I agreed with him. We talked about strategy for talking to undecided voters.

As we returned to the staging office, he told me he was going to call one of his friends to see if he would come out for the next canvassing shift. He had been there all day and was ready to go out again for another 3 hours of walking, knocking, and talking. In this whole campaign cycle, I’ve given a total of 4.5 hours (1.5 hours last Tuesday calling folks and the 3 hours yesterday). I looked at T and immediately felt incriminated.

I signed up for a shift on Election Day because I wanted to follow T’s good example. And here I thought I was supposed to be the role model. I am reminded of Sweet Honey ‘n the Rock’s song, “Ella’s Song.” They sing about freedom and not resting until it comes, but they also remind us that it’s the youth that will lead the way and whose strength and energy will help us to keep going.

With young people like T on board, I feel confident that I will see a future in which freedom comes. With T and others his age leading the way, the future looks bright. I have hope.

Thanks T.

The Mirage of Common Ground

The Mirage of Common Ground*

It’s Monday, October 29, 2012. Next week Tuesday, November 6, 2012 is Election Day (voter suppression efforts now targeting Spanish-speaking voters be damned). In the next 8 days, our televisions, radios, and Internet ads will bombard us with more vitriol and political attacks sponsored by both the Democrat and Republican candidates, their party’s national committees, and various super-PACs (Political Action Committees, aka big-money fundraisers).

Sidebar: The U.S. democratic-republic was never meant to be a partisan, two-party system and actually the Democrats and Republicans used to be one joint party that rejected the Federalist party’s assertion of national government authority. For more info on the development of political parties in the U.S., click here. But since we have become a two-party system and would rather ignore the presence of third party candidates that are out there (bolstered by the structure of the Electoral College), I’m going to speak in terms of the now-split, Democrat and Republican parties.

In the midst of all this distasteful rancor (not at all new, but still distasteful to many), I am hearing calls to find “common ground,” to meet in the middle, to dare to find what’s admirable in the other candidate’s platform and loathsome in the platform of your preferred candidate. This call to walk toward each other instead of away from each other is admirable, necessary, and even desperately needed in many facets of life. I, for one, will be the first to recommend this course of action when the topic is convictional belief (a.k.a., religion, spirituality, faith, existentialism) and even for those ever so serious, fundamental athletic loyalties that many, including myself claim (snark intended). As Eboo Patel’s organization the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) proclaims in one of its youth-targeted campaigns, “we are better together.”

However (you were expecting a “but” weren’t you?), as laudable as the call to seek what is admirable in your opponent may be, I dare to argue its applicability in this present moment. Far from being an oasis in a storm of bile and vitriol, the call to find common ground is really a mirage, a siren song that lulls us to sleep and causes us to ignore real, fundamental differences in how to implement this country’s promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Give me your attention for a little while longer while I attempt to explain where I’m coming from.

This all started swirling in my mind the day after the last presidential debate between President Obama and former Governor Romney when I saw a challenge posted on a friend’s Facebook feed to comment with one, just one, element of the platform that you agree with for whichever candidate you oppose. This friend is himself a Democrat and intends to vote the Obama-Biden ticket and had become dismayed by the name-calling he was seeing on his newsfeed as Democrats and Republicans squared off in verbal duels that were leaving blood all over the Internet floor. His call was issued to both Democrats and Republicans among his Facebook social network. I haven’t seen this level of vitriol in my own newsfeed (seems most of my Facebook friends and the folks in my Twitter feed are all peace-makers), but I consider this person an actual friend, not just a Facebook “friend” so I took his challenge seriously. I thought for a moment about Romney-Ryan’s proposed policies regarding taxes, job creation, social security programs (as broadly conceived, including but not limited to the government retirement program), health care, civil rights (including but not limited to the rights of women, LGBT folks, and racially-minoritized groups), immigration, foreign policy, and the role of the federal government particularly vis-à-vis the states. I thought for a moment, commented that I hadn’t come up with anything but would continue to ponder, and went away to another friend’s post. I did keep thinking and returned to my friend’s wall and still hadn’t come up with anything.

It seems to me, from all that I’ve read while writing this post, that this idea of seeking the good in your opponent’s position stems, at least in part, from Jesus’ command to love our enemies. In the sermon “Loving Your Enemies” delivered by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he makes this connection explicitly:

A second thing that an individual must do in seeking to love his enemy is to discover the element of good in his enemy, and everytime you begin to hate that person and think of hating that person, realize that there is some good there and look at those good points which will over-balance the bad points. (MLK, Loving Your Enemies, 17 Nov 1957)

King had learned that looking within oneself was the first step and while doing so, one might discover that the reason such hate might be generated for someone else was really about something internal. It followed naturally then that King would recommend seeking the good in the other person. In the context of encouraging mostly Black folks in his congregation who were fighting segregation while being on the receiving end of hate-filled taunts and mob violence at the hands of mostly White folks in the South, this makes sense. The movement would have been crippled (and eventually was in my opinion) had the people victimized by hate allowed themselves to hate in response. King’s message though was about hating people; he was not teaching us that we should not hate ideas nor that we needed to find common ground with ideas and philosophies that opposed us (imagine finding common ground on segregationists’ principles!).

If my friend had asked us to name one thing about our opposing candidate as a person, I would have had an easier time. There are things about Governor Romney and Representative Ryan as people that I can appreciate. No, I won’t name them here because that’s not my point. My point is that this isn’t about people, it’s about policies and ideas and philosophies. I do not hate the former Governor Willard Milton (Mitt) Romney, nor do I hate his running mate, Representative Paul Ryan. I also do not hate people who intend to vote for Romney-Ryan. I do hate their policies, I find them odious and rooted in injustice, arrogance, and downright meanness, and although I have tried – really I have – I cannot find one good thing about their vision for the U.S. that I find appealing, laudable, or “good” (nay, what is good; there is none good but God). And I’m okay with that.

There are issues on which these two candidates agree, on which they share common ground. We heard a lot of it during the second debate that was focused on foreign policy (or at least it was supposed to be anyway). Here’s just one agreement, a plot of common ground, that I find the most disturbing: They agree on the use of drones in military strikes. Although using drone strikes may save the lives of more U.S. troops, it puts at greater risk the lives of civilians in target zones and distances the drone operator from the ethical responsibility of murder in the context of war. Drone strikes make actual warfare akin to the manipulation of joystick controls on a video game. This is a connection I find to be immoral and unethical, and which jeopardizes the pursuit of freedom across the globe.

We can find common ground. My question is should we always stand on it.**

This song that we sang at my church yesterday as we moved forward to receive Communion is the ground on which I choose to stand:

(From the song, “These Three are the Treasures” words by Colin Hodgetts)

These three are the treasures to strive for and prize:

be gentle, live simply and have the humility

to shy from the struggle to put oneself first,

these are the pearls.

 

If mercy’s abandoned by those who’d be brave;

economy squandered by those who’d be generous;

humility slighted by those who would lead,

this is sure death.

 

Be gentle and you can afford to be bold,

be frugal and so have enough to be liberal,

be humble and thus be a leader of all,

this is the way.

 

Through gentleness those who attack win the fight,

and those who defend have their safety in gentleness;

this gentleness rests in the children of God,

this is their sign.

President Obama and Vice-President Biden’s vision of the U.S. may not have all of these components, but they have most of them and have more than what I see across the aisle in this current iteration of the Republican Party (it hasn’t always been like this, really it hasn’t). So, I’m casting my vote and standing up for this UN-common ground in this election, rejecting the mirage that common ground offers that would blind me to the real differences I see between these two choices.

*Today features my return to the blogosphere after an unintended lengthy absence. Although I meant to be gone for a bit to focus on my research travels, I didn’t mean for my absence to last this long. After all, my research trips were completed at the end of September. Oy vey. After being gone so long, I began to consider what would be a topic worthy of my re-introduction. The impending presidential election was an obvious choice, but I didn’t want to be just another partisan voice extolling the virtues of either Obama or Romney and, reflexively, harping on the faults of the other candidate. So, I offer this because it’s been forming in my mind since the third presidential debate between the incumbent and his challenger. Hopefully, it will add something novel to the discussion – not claiming these to be new ideas, in fact, many of them are not, but this seems to be the road less travelled thus far this election cycle. And, although hoping not be “just another partisan voice,” I am not claiming to be a NON-partisan voice. In fact, I’m very clear about my choice in this election and I know for whom I will cast my ballot (whether early or next Tuesday I haven’t decided yet).

 

**Even as I write this, I am afraid of how it will be used. This seems to be the essence of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” theology that I find so odious, ostracizing, and oppressive as a queer person in the Christian church. It seems to be the same as that, but I honestly don’t believe it to be the same thing. One key difference is that I’m not talking about labeling anything that is a product of creation, human biodiversity as “sin.” Facts supported by personal narrative, rigorous science, and historical evidence need to be distinguished from dogmatic belief that rejects the three-legged stool of reason, tradition, and scripture in favor of a twisted, errant, and abusive use of just one leg – scripture – around which then tradition is molded and to which reason is subjected.

Reforming Education Reform

Today, the teachers in Chicago’s public schools went on strike after months of deadlocked contract negotiations. Chicago is the 3rd largest public school district in the nation with over 400,000 students. If this can happen there…? Chicago’s teachers union is finally pushing back after years of mandated educational reforms that belittled teachers’ knowledge and removed resources from public schools. The following text is from the Teacher’s Activist Groups website in solidarity with Chicago’s teacher union:

Chicago has been the focus of corporate school “reform,” but Chicago is now the epicenter of the push back against it. On June 11, 2012, Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leaders announced that 89.73% of CTU members—98% of those who cast ballots—voted to give the union authority to call a strike if contract negotiations with Chicago Public Schools fail (Chicago Teachers Union). This astounding vote was about much more than a contract. It tapped into teachers’ deep anger at 17 years of neoliberal education “reforms” that have demoralized and blamed teachers and belittled their knowledge, taken the joy out of classrooms, and decimated public education. After 17 years of the tyranny of high stakes tests, business-like management of public schools, school closings and turnarounds by private operators, disinvestment of resources from neighborhood public schools, and moves to pay teachers based on competitive performance measures, teachers have had enough. A new revitalized teachers union, along with parents, students and community members of Chicago are standing up to the assault on public education.

Meanwhile, the GOP and Democratic parties unveiled their platforms during their conventions last week. According to education scholars at Iowa State, including higher education scholar and ASHE president Linda Serra Hagedorn, the platforms are heavy on platitudes and light on substance.

You can read highlights of both party’s platforms at these links:
GOP – http://www.ontheissues.org/celeb/Republican_Party_Education.htm
Dems – http://www.ontheissues.org/democratic_party.htm#Education (scroll down to Education and click where it says “13 full quotes…” – for some reason my silly tablet just opens up a pop-up window that I can’t get a direct link to)

Implementation rarely accompanies vision statements – that’s the next committee’s job. So, I agree with my colleagues at Iowa State that no one wants to discuss how to put their ideas into practice. The devil, in the form of a lot of criticism, is in the details. After all, you can’t fact-check vision.

However, what you can do is get a sense of differences in values and priorities. I encourage you to look at these platforms and consider what values and premises about what is true can be discerned from them. How does each party define success? What does choice mean to both parties? They don’t talk about choice in the same way. They also don’t seem to mean the same thing by “accountability” or have the same reference point for “competition.” These differences have real consequences for how visions finally do get implemented.

I saw someone recently compare the GOP platform for education reform to the Hunger Games (the young adult novel series by Suzanne Collins, also the movie based on the first book). That seems a bit sensationalist, but so do the criticisms of the POTUS and Democrats’ vision for education. Basically, their plan will celebrate mediocrity, crush innovation, and support teachers who are lazy and want to indoctrinate students to all become radical, homosexual, socialists who have indiscriminate sex and aspire to live off the public dole.

Yikes.

Here’s what I believe:
1. Before the advent of publicly funded primary and secondary education, the only young people who learned about the world beyond their front door came from families who could afford private tutors or the loss of income for a parent (mom usually) to stay home. In the absence of public schools, upward mobility was generally unheard of and the middle class was weak and miniscule. And that’s not spin, it’s historical fact.

2. Pitting teachers against each other and against test scores doesn’t produce teachers who invest in their students’ potential. Rather it rewards teaching that exploits student achievement for their own gain.

3. There is a big difference between schooling that leads to education and schooling for training in my view. Schooling for education seeks to draw out a student’s potential to maximize their possibilities. Schooling as training reminds me of the tracking systems that still operate in more schools than anybody wants to admit that sort students based on racial, intellectual, and class biases that hinder upward mobility, not support it.

4. I believe that schools are meant to expose young people to ideas and ways of being in the world that they don’t already know, otherwise we merely reinforce embedded ethnocentrism.

5. I believe that our community colleges are already overloaded as Hagedorn said, so this emphasis on both sides might bring more resources into this sector but it does so at the expense of other public colleges. I believe this shift in emphasis from 4-yr to 2-yr higher education reflects a view of community colleges as training grounds for the status quo, not a view of community colleges as gateways to higher potential. I agree with Kevin Dougherty’s critique in this regard.

6. Education is for mind, body, and spirit so programs in physical education, art, drama, and music are important and should be supported.

7. I believe that teaching requires a certain set of skills and competencies that should be acknowledged, valued, and compensated appropriately. Back in those days where there were no public schools and private tutors directed teaching on an individual basis, when those young men showed up at our nation’s early colonial colleges (Harvard, Yale, William & Mary, etc.), they usually needed remedial education to bring them up to the college level. I’m just putting that out there.

8. Last one, teaching to a test, whether that test is the SAT or the state high school graduation test, doesn’t improve college readiness. The more we emphasize tests, the less prepared our students will be for college and the greater the gap will be between those kids and the ones who were able to go to private, independent schools (not charters) and didn’t get taught to pass a test.

No matter what plan for education eventually emerges after November’s election (it won’t be in its pure form no matter who wins), it will likely be little informed by any substantive understanding of pedagogy, teacher education, or student development. I don’t believe we’ll really see real education reform until we stop making public schools copy and paste practices that seem to work elsewhere, but which aren’t done at the private, independent schools in our nation. Until we believe that the kids who go to public schools deserve the same education that the kids in private school do, we’ll just continue to reproduce inequality. Right now, I’m not sure either party really believes that.

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#higheredWed: Election Season

This post covers both yesterday’s #higheredWed and tomorrow’s regular Friday post, so it’s coming on Thursday.

Anyway, it’s election season (in case the countless political ads and convention coverage evaded you and you’ve turned off your Facebook friends’ notifications about politics) and we’re going to be in this space for another couple of months (the debates begin next month; here’s the schedule). Those of us who work in higher education are likely planning or thinking about ways to make this a learning moment for our students, particularly undergraduate students. At the same time though, election season can be frustrating and seemingly useful only for hardening people’s opinions, not for facilitating constructive dialogue. Yet, I am a firm believer that education can come out of this madness we call politics in this country and that college and university educators can create the space to make it happen.

1. Remember the cognitive development and maturity required to engage in debates in a reasonable, sensible way. Notice I didn’t say “logical” or “unemotional.” Cognitive development theorists such as Marcia Baxter Magolda, Pat King with Karen Kitchener, and the authors of Women’s Ways of Knowing (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule) all acknowledge that emotion and subjectivity play important and necessary roles in developing cognitive maturity. Often, once people abandon the “because my parents told me so” rationale for their beliefs, the next step is to connect on a personal level through their own experiences or those of someone close to them. Later comes the ability to take those personal experiences and place them in a broader context and use evidence to determine what is more or less likely or probable. Crafting programs that engage students on a personal-level is an important aspect of building bridges for more advanced (read “more complex”) cognitive thinking.

2. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. You may have scheduled a panel of speakers, a debate, or a lecture that deals with one or more of the salient issues on the table in this election. That’s great, but it’s full value will be lost if it’s not paired with time for attendees to talk about what they’ve heard with each other in conversations that are facilitated by adults invested in helping them think better, not come to whatever conclusion they prefer. I often hear people complain that debates and the convention speeches are useless because nobody ever changes their minds; they just look for justification for their own beliefs in what they’ve heard. The only way to change that is to allow students to directly engage the issues and talk with each other, not just be talked at. Probing questions that get students to explore how what they’ve heard affects them help bridge the gap to the next level of cognitive development, not just sitting listening to someone else talk for an hour.

3. Heart, soul, AND mind. There’s been a lot of talk about values in this year’s presidential election and that is a good thing. Values, what people believe about the life they want to live, what’s important to them, and how they define key concepts like success, freedom, and responsibility are fundamental to how people will make decisions and sort through the issues this fall. Getting students to answer these questions for themselves AND getting them to listen to how their peers answer these questions will help overcome the knee-jerk demonizing of opposing views that typically characterizes more simplistic cognitive maturity. For educators who are facilitating these discussions, being transparent about how your values play a role in your political action is really beneficial, especially for traditional-age students who are still crafting their own voice (what Baxter Magolda calls the development of self-authorship).

4. Panoramic views please. There’s so much talk about “the” Republican Party and “the” Democratic Party that not only makes it seem like each party is a monolith, but also portrays them as consistent over time. I bet many students would be surprised – no matter their political allegiances – to learn that it was Republicans who more ardently and consistently supported civil rights for African Americans and other racial minorities in the 1940s and 1950s, not Democrats. Helping students to see the complexity of political history and present-day discussions will also help students who may agree with one aspect of their party’s platform but disagree with others. I recently saw on Facebook someone decry the possibility of being fiscally conservative but socially liberal when in fact it is entirely possible to hold those two perspectives at the same time. Showing historical examples, or getting students to find them for themselves, shuts down myths like this.

5. Translate talk into action. Inspiring civic engagement begins with constructive dialogue, in my opinion, but it doesn’t end there. Getting our students to the polls – regardless of who they intend to vote for – is the ultimate objective in my mind for this election (and any election). Part of this is helping students see how local, state, and federal politics are interconnected and why it’s important for them to remain engaged in the issues beyond the presidential election.
Unfortunately, I see much of our political conversations happening on very simplistic, lower levels of cognitive development. I believe it is our duty as educators not to cooperate with that. We can elevate the tone of the conversations with our students. When we do, not only will our students benefit, but our whole nation.

Deadline to register to vote is October 9th. Election Day is November 6th: http://www.sos.ga.gov/elections/election_dates.htm

Labor and Labor Day

Today is Labor Day in the United States. A national holiday meant to celebrate the effective activism of workers, blue-collar workers, and labor unions who advocated for reasonable working conditions (5 day work week and weekends, the concept of shifts and 8 hour work days, restrictions on child labor, worker safety and protection laws, etc.). It’s come to be the unofficial end of summer, the end of wearing white shoes, pants, skirts, shorts (if you care about such things), and in some parts of the country Labor Day signals the beginning of another school year.

As I reflect on this Labor Day – on which I’ve done quite a little bit of work so far – I’d like to return to the original meaning and honoring those who stood picket lines, voted, went on strike, and in countless other ways brought me the opportunities that I and many other workers in the U.S. now enjoy. No, I didn’t build this. I didn’t make possible the existence of the career I have, nor did I create the infrastructures that will provide for my economic security once I retire. I am grateful for those whose blood, sweat, and tears (and that’s no hyperbole) did build it. To those who made it possible for me to grieve the loss of a weekend to work, who put the idea in my head that there’s something amiss when I’ve worked through vacation periods and holidays, who have taught me to aspire to working more effectively within a reasonable timeframe during the day – to all of my ancestors and elders who did build this, I say thank you.

All of these accomplishments are good and worth sustaining and protecting. They are also worth extending to the millions of workers in this country who do not have the privilege of these rights and gains. There are countless “pink”-collar workers (mostly service and retail industry employees) who are working on this Labor Day and who work almost every holiday and weekend throughout the year, so that the rest of us can “rest” and have “leisure” time. And then there are those who comprise our emergency workers (police, fire, hospital staff) whose hours are long, unpredictable, and sometimes full of danger to themselves and others. Utility workers who race to climb above the trees to make sure we don’t miss “the big game” but have schedules that blow their Circadian rhythms out of the water and may be jeopardizing their long-term health. There are millions who work without health insurance, who are hired with hours that are just below the cut-off for employers to provide mandatory insurance coverage. Most of those same millions are also working without any retirement benefits, who are solely hoping that politicians will figure out how to protect Social Security.

Side Note: You should listen to my mom talk about Social Security. She’s adamant that it’s not an “entitlement” program, but an earned benefit wrought through her decades of employment. I’m inclined to think she’s right – and not just because she’s my mom and she has an amazing way of usually being right about most things.

We have continued to have an entire labor sector that is “off-the-books,” folks who are working in dangerous, dirty, exhausting, and/or thankless jobs in our nation’s agriculture, construction, and textile industries who are invisible to the worker safety protocols offered by OSHA. Yes, many of those laborers are undocumented immigrants, but a whole lot of them are not. In my opinion, capitalism’s engines run based on the “invisible” work of these millions who work without protections, without holidays, without a consistent shift (12 hours might be nice, let alone 8).

We have legions of unemployed workers who don’t show up in the official stats because they’ve stopped looking for work – one can only take so much rejection for so long – or because they’re back in school trying to retool their skills so that they can qualify for a job. These aren’t people who are looking just to get a paycheck off the government dole, not mostly. These are folks who want to work – Americans who have been socialized to be autonomous, independent, and fiercely proud of remaining so. They would work if they could. And the full picture of our nation’s unemployment isn’t revealed until we break it down by industry and race and gender and then see that unemployment hits certain communities harder than others, including those who are transgendered, racially minoritized, and had previously worked in low-tech/high-labor industries.

Yes, let’s remember and honor those workers who brought us the leisure time we call Labor Day. And let’s remember and honor those workers who supply the means of our leisure, whose work remains unprotected, who fall outside the bounds of visible labor. We honor and remember them best by making sure that the workers’ rights won in the 20th century don’t become obsolete or another means of differentiating the haves from the have-nots in the 21st.