Those Savage Civil Servants

Those Savage Civil Servants

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I am the child of a civil servants. My mother is a lifetime social worker for the State of Illinois. My father is now a retired Illinois State Trooper. The apple doesn’t fall far… as my sister is a civil servant for the State of Illinois, and I as a high school teacher in the State of New York.

I have no clear/concise words to express my feelings in this moment. We are all awaiting an announcement about a Black body whose life experienced violence at the hands of a Missouri State civil servant. This memory, this image, this mirage, this deja vu has played multiple times in the very distance past, in the very recent past, and according to news across the country will be delivered to a plethora of additional families of color in the very near future.

As I grow, as I reflect, and as I question my own place within my civil servitude – I see that I too am implicitly perpetuating the racism and privilege of White America – simply by walking into my place of employment each and everyday. Each day I am walking into an individual school building run by a larger institution of governance purposed to “teach” sub-ordinance to its citizens of color. My place of employment engenders inferiority in my clients. And implicitly impedes and seeks to stunt the progress of its most feeble citizenry.

Part of the beauty of White Supremacy is that it is a near perfected system. It requires almost no effort and no support from allies and enemies alike to propagate its caste. It matters not if you’re Black, White, and everything between. Its default is to multiply. It is by definition a virus. It is perhaps the most virile ailment on Earth.

As a civil servant, we, perhaps, stand alone between upholding historically racist authority and power over our subjects while also tasked with protecting and educating them to liberation and freedom. The battle with which I am having with myself at this moment is – is it even worth it to continue within this system? In this very moment, I do not think I will be returning to my post as a teacher next year. I feel surrounded by hypocrisy, ignorance, and indifference to the suffering of my students. These students look like me. These students represent me. I represent these students. Its almost a good thing that they [my students] are ignorant of the bureaucracy and administration(s) that castigate them in almost every way. Their ignorance, is my pain.

I actually don’t know how to move when I, as a teacher, see the same racism that steals Michael Brown’s life away show its ugly face in the classrooms that educate us all from preschool up through the ivory tower. Its something I never imagined taking part in. Its as though I’ve caught myself, red-handed in killing my people. Its hard seeing the parallels between the privilege of police officers feeling their lives endangered by unarmed gangster boos with the ball-tugging teachers feeling offended and threatened enough by their students to revoke their right to a free and consistent education in the public school classroom.

When I see the power politics at play behind closed doors, I can’t help but to be as offended as my students would be if they had the privilege to be a part of the processes that ensure their destruction. In the past week alone I think I’ve been involved in three separate situations where social ignorance makes space for racism and classism to block justified debate and decision-making in favor of a better world for we people of color.

It is easy to forget that our job [civil servants] is to maintain the order and will of the state. However, no matter what [y]our will, [y]our purpose, or belief system, civil servants serve as the [un]armed task forced directed to walk the fine line between empowering and protecting its citizens, and maintaining State-sanctioned rule.

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” – James Baldwin

[I don’t think this is the exact quote, but you get my drift]

To my police officer brothers and sisters – You are a power wielding servant of the people. Question your training, question your bias, question your approach to all situations. You set the tone for all interactions you engage in. If you know people are frightened by your very appearance, you should strategize your interactions AND communication before engaging your community, in which you’re sworn to protect.

To my educator brothers and sisters – Outside of our Law Enforcement brothers and sisters, we hold the keys to our populations’ futures. Question why your teacher training infused little to NO scholarly works from Black, Latino/Chicano/Native scholars. Then go out and seek that knowledge yourself. It was done for a reason. Question how your approach to communicating with, about, and around your students teaches oppression. Understand that your discipline practices, of any kind, mirror those used in the criminal justice system. Understand that we are the blood relative of the state and federal run prisons across the nation. Understand that your actions and thoughts with your students should, at all times, be contextualized as working with minors, as working with developing human beings, and as stemming directly from the ingredients you bring into that classroom and your practice everyday. Understand that what we do in our classrooms is a direct and explicit offshoot of what our law enforcement brothers and sisters do in the streets each day. We are just confined to our classrooms. Understand that as law enforcement accidentally/prematurely takes Black and Brown lives from the streets each day, we do too. And in far greater numbers as we force our students to assimilate to white/western/dominant ideology coded as education and curriculum. Understand that we are perhaps the biggest bandits and most ruthless killers within these institutionalized systems, as we are sworn to educate the masses out of oppression, yet focus more on our own middle-class creature comforts . Most importantly, understand that racism is alive and well in all of our school buildings, and that if we don’t care to identify it, then we are implicitly leading our students, of color and caste to a road of mediocrity at best: prison or death at worst.

To my friends of color – You are greatness incarnate. The young people around you soak in your presence with every second of exposure whether you know it or not. Do great things all of the time so they can see that they too have the ability to move freely about this world, as opposed to the subjugated pathways our institutions have already carved out for them.

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To my White Brothers and Sisters – Seek empathy. Seek knowledge. Seek communication with those as much unlike yourself as possible. Your most basic of thoughts and actions hold more power than many of you may ever know. Far too often, I personally feel surrounded by dictation and projection as opposed to acknowledgement and understanding. Two quick examples of situations that have happened within the past week.

Ex 1 – I recently traveled to upstate NY for a training. After getting off the commuter rail, I jumped in a cab to get to the training destination. As I took my seat in the cab, I realized the cab driver had gotten another, additional rider to join with me. This person, who in walking behind me clearly saw me besiege and enter the cab first proceeded to open the door and get into his seat. As he [an older white man] did, I looked at him, and said hello with a smile. He proceeded to look me in my eye, say nothing, and take his seat. My neck cocked real quick to the side. My thought bubble read: “Did this mf really just hear me greet him, and not say shit to me?” The ancestral energy flowing through my bones went from 0-100 n…. real quick. Luckily our cab ride together only last about two minutes together. You see me, you heard me, you entered a space that I was in first. Acknowledge my existence. Its simple.

Ex 2 – I was walking somewhere in the streets of NYC. As I approached an intersection there was a heavy flow of foot traffic coming from my left that caused me to come to an abrupt stop, as there was no way I could walk through them without interrupting all 7 of our’s progress. As I stopped, a young White couple (male and female) who happened to be walking approximately 4 strides behind me not only caught up to me, but proceeded to walk, unaffected through the oncoming crowd. It almost seemed magical, as I don’t know how they calculated their trajectory and determined that they could get through the sea of people without fucking everybody’s shit up! Not only did they not notice me stop my gate and wait the 5 seconds for the small crowd to clear, they also failed to acknowledge the black couple they abruptly cut off. The female member of the couple [positioned on the right] failed to acknowledge that she literally bumped into the black girl as she walked through. They failed to acknowledge the Black female’s angst at their lack of awareness. Failed to hear my bewildered “Are you fucking serious?” in response to the situation as it unfolded in front of me. Sometimes all it takes is a little hand, I’m sorry, my bad, slowing of pace, or side step to at least show someone that you see them, and are adjusting to also incorporate space for their safe passage through time and life as well.

White brothers and sisters… acknowledge those around you. If you see me, I exist.

To my other friends – Don’t believe the hype. I refuse to believe that I must live in a world where Black, Brown, Female, Trans, Disabled, etc… humans must come second to those that are too consumed with themselves to see that change and growth are possible and necessary. Starting today, be the change. Starting tomorrow, share the change.

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To my school-aged little brothers and sisters –  I love you so much, and only find the strength to do this for you. I’m moving to hold myself accountable for figuring out how to liberate you so that you don’t have to live in a world that acts like it doesn’t see you.

To my brothers and sisters in and around Ferguson, Missouri – I support you. Thank you for standing up for yourselves in a system designed not to care about you. Keep holding us all accountable to speak out about the injustices that happen everyday, everywhere, and every time we step outside our homes and into this liberating multi-dimensional American culture.

Capstone: Social Commitment

Capstone: Social Commitment

The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side. (Baldwin, 1961, p. 240)

For me, social commitment is self explanatory. As Elder Baldwin highlights, while my knowledge of this great field of teaching and education grows, so does the trauma I face as I begin to unravel the shortcomings we (un)knowingly push forward onto our students, their teachers, and the communities they jointly represent. As I grow in skill and scholarship, I’m ever more encouraged to meet the repulsive side(s) of education head on, as opposed to the relative indifference I am led to believe I must helplessly wade through until met with retirement. This growing dedication and desire to battle and triumph against the challenges of my beloved field represent a commitment to see social development within my lifetime as a result of my specific and consistent efforts to be the change agent I know my communities need.

“It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me… It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, I heard nothing without hearing it, and felt nothing without feeling it. It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm.” (Douglass, 2003, p. 46)

Part of the suffrage I endure thanks to my education is that I am never actually able to release myself from the perceived injustice I feel this craft is doing to its teachers and their students. The burdens are quite comprehensive. Yet, I haven’t felt weighed down. Oddly enough, I feel empowered. Throughout my short life I’ve learned to trust myself in being able to create an answer where my peers and colleagues may not see one.

Contextually, as a newly minted urban education master, being committed for me means giving myself the space to be that entrusted revolutionary. It hasn’t been easy articulating that capacity to critically think about my own ideas as opposed to the ideas shared with me by well-meaning pedagogues. I actually still encounter doubt as I often disagree or at minimum have a vastly different opinion on everyday classroom scenarios and education theory. However, I’m getting to a place where I feel comfortable with this distinction. I’m in a place where my values push me to always act out of integrity and purpose, not only in my classroom and in my scholarship, but also in my social and private life. I commend people that are able to flip a switch to shift from one aspect of their identity to another. Personally, I’ve found that I’m most dynamic and effective when I bask in my self-hood as not an, but THE advocate for my students and other less fortunate individuals. This is something I aspire to do all of the time, even when it means slighting myself in the short term.

“My name is Amara Enyia,” she began. “I live in East Garfield Park. I work in Austin. I met Arraon a few years ago. Arraon’s been doing this work in theater for years, I always respected, always enjoyed it, and I am running for mayor of the city of Chicago.” The three dozen teens applauded. “I wanted to say a few words to encourage you,” she continued. “As someone who remembers, not too long ago, when I was your age, I know what it’s like. I know what it is, in the community here, and I want to encourage you, all of you, to do what you’re passionate about, and not to let anyone tell you anything is impossible.” (Steinberg, 2014)

One of the practices I’m socially committed to within my own development is creating positive/asset based forms for viewing the world and its challenges. I actively seek out positive, developmental, encouraging gospel to aid me as I sculpt this frame through which all phenomena can be met via a conquerable context. It sounds complicated in academic form. In my head its normally as simple as a “Self, we got this!” mentality. One extension of this has taken shape through digestion of commencement speeches from those that I admire. I recently watched Oprah Winfrey’s commencement speech for Spelman College’s 2012 graduating class (Spelman College, 2012). Winfrey, an Honorary Doctor from Spelman herself, imparted three pillars of knowledge upon her audience which I’ve decided to infuse into my own explanation of the social commitment domain:

(youtube.com/watch?v=Bpx8uNzRdew)

1 – Know who you are, and know what you want:

Who am I? I’m an honest and hardworking educator. I teach the same community that when boiled down equate my own sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews. If expanded out, these same youngsters morph into my parents, my neighbors, and my ancestors. I view myself as the contemporary intermediary between the Harriet Tubmans and Duboises of yesteryear, the Barack Obamas and Aja Browns of today, and the Laquan and Sakeenah’s of my tomorrow. My community entrusts me to see them out of the predicaments they’re in, and through that trust I draw focus and power.

Oprah states that her defining moment was when she realized that she needed to use television for good, as opposed to being used by television. I can relate in that I feel that teaching, at its core, is commonly used as a destructive force for marginalized communities; though its warning label for the uninformed public and teacher would never say so. My mission is to use these tools given to me by LIU to truly educate my pupils and peers about their ability and destiny to define their place in that world. I feel as though I have begun to decolonize my mind from the years of propaganda used to limit my existence to a simple middle class citizen destined to live life as it were defined by someone else.

Pride in our people shouldn’t stem from the fact that we used to be a great empire before the white man came, but from the fact that we stand as a great empire regardless of that conquest… [D]ecolonization should be a process of changing the way we view the world… Frantz Fanon wrote, “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land and from our minds as well…” Sometimes in our urge to break free from mental colonization, we become ensnared in the same thought processes of the people we despise… The residue of colonization allows for the continued stratification of people. Rejecting labels, selfishness, egotism, a black and white binary, discrimination and judgments are, instead, traits of the decolonized…A person with a decolonized mind accepts their past, loves their present and creates their future, regardless of what stands in their way. (Giron, 2009)

As I continue to embark on this journey I aspire to create a new vision of this world. This vision includes showing those that I’m entrusted to educate the power in creating their own futures. This will help lead them to a success that is established from within their own internal being. I am ready to make these moves independently, and create the change I want to see myself, and alone if necessary. However, I understand, respect, and encourage the power that we all can have in creating a utopian society together.

2. Find a way to serve and be significant:

Many people work tirelessly to become famous and well known by society. Oprah states that fame, although easily accomplished is not long lasting, and isn’t the true way to find success. A life filled with purposeful service is the quickest way to be deemed significant by your peers and is the way to true immortality.

Negroes often do themselves harm when they actually believe that they are doing good. Under their present teachers they cannot easily learn to do any better, for such training as we undergo does not open our eyes sufficiently for us to see far ahead of us… If we can finally succeed in translating the idea of leadership into that of service, we may soon find it possible to lift the Negro to a higher level. Under leadership we have come into the ghetto; by service within the ranks we may work our way out of it. Under leadership we have been constrained to do the biddings of others; by service we may work out a program in the light of our own circumstances. Under leadership we have become poverty-stricken; by service we may teach the masses how to earn a living honestly. Under leadership we have been made to despise our own possibilities and to develop into parasites; by service we may prove sufficient unto the task to self-development and contribute our part to modern culture. (Woodson, 2012, pp. 84-85)

For me, my service begins as I commit myself as viewing the schoolhouse as the absolute place of hope and opportunity for all. I understand that statistically, socially, and institutionally speaking this may not seem feasible to some. However, those things are abstract and do not directly impact the very tangible process of teaching and engaging with my student population each and every day. My classroom door IS the barrier between cultural expectations/limitations and my teaching to my students’ highest possibilities. [You must view your classroom door as THE barrier between cultural expectations/limitations and your teaching to your students’ highest possibilities.]

LIU’s claims are a great beginning tool to guide our cultural scrutiny as graduate students. However, they miss a monumental opportunity to push us to challenge our own thinking and furthermore to try, ourselves, to breed the new and useful additions to global canonical research. Part of what I’ve worked to uncover through my LIU products, teaching products, and SkoolHaze (my personal blog where I reflect on my teaching practice) products has been an effort to contribute to what I consider my own modern day Library of Alexandria. The more I seek to break new ground and shine new light on Afrikan accomplishments, the more I see the need to lay down the seeds of my own pilgrimage to this place of wisdom.

Such has been the education of Negroes. They have been taught facts of history, but have never learned to think. Their conception is that you go to school to find out what other people have done, and then you go out in life to imitate them. What they have done can be done by others, they contend; and they are right. They are wrong, however, in failing to realize that what others have done, we may not need to do. If we are to do identically the same thing from generation to generation, we would not make any progress. If we are to duplicate from century to century the same feats, the world will grow tired of such a monotonous performance. (Woodson, 2012, pp. 138)

In my mind, I think about the generational transformation for LIU and its teachers as they work purposefully to pollinate their urban youth using seeds of their own dedicated and intimate research interests. LIU, as a socially committed and connected organization, should reach out to its “talented tenth” in an effort to review where the program stands in it’s strengths and areas of immediate development. This think tank would be an amazingly authentic opportunity to use your own expert practitioners to innovate from within. We must all remember that we lead from the front. When we work to serve our communities and fill in the clear gaps that exist, we become significant in their eyes because they see our efforts to continuously add value to them and the people they’re working so hard for.

3. Always do the right thing:

If we know it takes overt excellence for our urban students to reach success, let’s not set them up by training their teachers that anything but is acceptable. Excellence should be the target all of the time. In fact, excellence should be our baseline. Part of my Marginalized privilege is that I have internalized that the standard for my productivity must always be excellence – always. I would venture to say that my graduate school products have shown this better than I can explain it. Keeping classroom expectations into perspective, we know as educators that its not uncommon for us to push our students for even more than what we envision is possible – and we do this purposely to stretch our pupils into giving us their best as opposed to giving us their scraps.

We, as leaders, must take that first crucial step to do what we know to be right, even if society has coded it as impossible or fruitless. Impossibility is in the eyes of the beholder. Impossibility/implausibility is only so until we see someone has accomplished what we had never thought of before. Understandably, this puts us on the stage for the world to see and ridicule. But, that quickly changes once they see what dedication to justified and equalized education can do for its teachers and their students.

“Many an able leader is lost to his race because of this fear, and sometimes we must admit the reasonableness of this argument; but as I have said leadership means martyrdom, leadership means sacrifice, leadership means giving up one’s personality, giving up of everything for the cause that is worth while.” (Garvey, 1967, p. 48)

I recently watched a video delving into the power of pulling on our ancestral knowledge produced by the Stanford Graduate School of Business. The compelling piece, features graduate student Aulani Wilhelm as she discusses her connections to ancestral knowledge, and how we seamlessly shift from being descendants of our ancestors to ancestors of our descendants. When we come to recognize this shift as meaningful, looming, and prescribable, we realize the power we have to create the very fabric of our childrens’ futures.

“We inherit molecular scars from our ancestors, not only do our weaknesses and deficits get passed down. but so do our strengths and our resiliency. We inherit loving behavior, we inherit kindness, we inherit positive outlooks. So that eternal optimism that you have, that ability to overcome to persevere likely came from somebody in your family line who overcame something and then passed those awesome traits on to you. So I started thinking what kind of ancestor do I want to be? What kind of negative things am I carrying around or things that I’m creating that I don’t want to pass on. Conversely what are those positive things, those awesome traits, or those things I have yet to create that I want to make sure that I do… Simply thinking about our genetic origin can help us perform better… Imagine what ancestral wisdom is stored up in you from the thousands of years since your ancestors were born. Imagine if we could tap into that ancestral databank to help us make better choices now, to help us perform better… What kind of ancestors do we together want to be to leave society better. We start off as descendants of our ancestors in life, but at some point either directly or indirectly, we end up as ancestors for our descendants. Our choices, our decisions are going to affect what happens to future generations.” (Stanford Graduate School of Business, 2014)

(youtube.com/watch?v=YfeqU5nnOPg)

In closing, I seek to draw attention to our imperfect humanity. I seek to draw attention to our continued and contemporary agency in defining the immediate and distant futures for ourself-singular, and humanity-the whole. The more I teach and engage with my students, the more I see that energy does, infact, transfer, it never dissipates. Therefore, I am gladly able to state that my mission, my commitment to myself and this world, is to continue to exude the energy and force of justified development of all members of society.

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“Your crown has been paid for, put it on your head and wear it.”

(Spelman College, 2012)

————— Sources

Baldwin, J. (1961). Nobody knows my name: more notes of a native son. New York: Vintage Books.

Douglass, F., & O’Meally, R. G. (2003). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Classics. (Original work published 1845)

Garvey, M., & Garvey, A. J. (1967). Shall the Negro Be Exterminated?. Philosophy and opinions of Marcus Garvey or, Africa for the Africans (2d ed., ). London: F. Cass.

Giron, I. (2009, January 1). Decolonize your mind: A decolonized mind defends its cultural roots. Decolonize your mind. Retrieved July 25, 2014, from http://web.utah.edu/venceremos/Articlesix.html

Spelman College. (2012, May 22). Oprah Winfrey Delivers Commencement Address to Class of 2012 [Video file]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/Bpx8uNzRdew

Stanford Graduate School of Business. (2014, April 28). Oprah Winfrey on Career, Life and Leadership [Video file]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/6DlrqeWrczs

Steinberg, N. (2014, July 31). Does “Amara Enyia” ring a bell? It will.. Chicago Sun Times.

Woodson, C. (2012). The Failure to Learn to Make a Living. The MisEducation of the Negro. Buffalo: EWorld Inc. (Original work published 1933)