—- E M P A T H Y —-
Empathy: the confrontation that takes place when we realize we have all been reared in a universe where racism is real, depends on unconscious biases, and can only be arbitrated when beseiged by direct and transparent restoration methods.
As I’ve reflected on this traumutizingly edifying portfolio process, I thought, for a second, that perhaps my observations were a fabricated manifestation, built from the mental anguish experienced through teaching and learning for two years with only an iota of a break. Luckily, I’ve been filling the long pauses between writing with episodes of the 2013 documentary series – The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The documentary takes us through 500 years of African and African American cultural contributions and developments that impact and dissolve into the very soul that nourishes (present tense) our country. Sectors of the soul-baring culture have without a doubt spawned programs, such as this one, in which we seek to be privileged with the distinction as being teachers, masters, doctors, and professors of urban education practice. Validity in us as a distinguished practicing class has yet to be established in lieu of the great academic and critical thinking gains absent in the audiences we wish to teach.
I’m supposed to begin this piece, by defining Empathy as I’ve come to understand it, followed with multiple examples of how I’ve demonstrated this skill with my students. The latter is fairly simple, and a natural sentiment that I extend to all people. In many ways, my own personhood is founded on extending conscious courtesy as often as possible. Call it my midwestern upbringing; call it my compassion for my fellow human beings; I’m almost tempted to call it my minority privilege, in that I’m biologically gifted with the foresight that connects me with and causes me to pause in authentic reception and service to my fellow marginalized man. This process has been incredibly rich for me. I now, thanks to LIU, know so much more about the way things work here on Earth. However, another equally invested part of me is disappointed in myself because I feel I’m anguishing over this far more than my peers. I love them and have been built by them as well, but I assume they’re knocking this project out, while I’m sitting here fumbling through my bookshelf finding resources to highlight my authentic journey through this process. But, at the end of the day, none of that even matters – we’re all leaving here with the same shit attached to our names…
The passing of Elder Maya Angelou was heartbreaking for me. She spoke with so much poise and wisdom. Luckily, her fossilized words will continue to highlight for people the true strength we wield as a humanity. One of the more popular quotes people shared from Elder Angelou after her transition was “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but will never forget how you made them feel.”
When I think about my own Empathy practice, I envision it embodies Angelou’s words. My students, like my young brothers and sisters in this world, are my responsibility to protect in the broad sense of the word. Fundamentally and minimalistically, I require my students to enter my classroom space in a place where they contribute to the safety and patrol of our close knit community. In other words, Paladin’s classrooms at the bare minimum require students to 1) respect their fellow brothers and sisters in the class, and 2) restrain from creating environments that threaten or tarnish the safety of that space. I believe it is a privilege for students to have me as their classroom leader in this regard, and don’t hesitate to communicate that to them. The rest, such as effective instructional and behavior management techniques are mine to push.
However, boxing out peer-to-peer/adult-to-peer negativity to help my students feel comfortable is only a small part of my empathetic role as an instructional leader. My main role, is to make my students feel/see their intelligence. I’m effective [edit: I’m developing] at this, but am eager to still drastically grow in this regard. I try to push my students to truly learn themselves. I do this by pushing them, as family does, to not settle for what they know or have been told; to reach. To reach deeper behind the veil to find even more of themselves than they knew existed. My ultimate role as a classroom leader is to plant the seeds of trust, security, belief, and esteem deep within my babies. It’s not that important to me that the seeds germinate in my presence. I’m more interested in my students realizing later, when confronted with adulthood, that they know who they are, and are able to stand firm in that foundation rooted in the seeds of empowerment and freedom planted so long ago.
My mentees, as I see them, will be amazing leaders in the future. I see it in their eyes every time I challenge them to push their leadership to the front. These kings and queens are nowhere close to being perfect, but hopefully in me they see a model of love, nurturing, and support that worked to push them toward their successes so long ago in life.
Initially, this post was far more angry. It still may take a sharp left down Embittered Ave. But, I know the most immediate thoughts would be, what is this Black boy talking about? He must have graduated from troubled and finally reached his full Black-brute state. Thanks to some self reflection, I’ve come to better understand that I do in fact have the right to be upset and downright irate and here’s why:
I’m angry because I’ve realized that all of us, like fools, have continued to participate in systems that ensure our oppression. And when I say our oppression, I mean the oppression of everyone who believes they act out of free will in this country. Most importantly, we people of color, minorities, and people labeled as having an ability difference – we are marginalized sectors of the population. Additionally, and maybe more invisibly, each member of institutional employment participates as well. [Teachers, Police officers, etc…]
Allow me for a second, to give an unauthorized history lesson. I don’t quite remember where our education began as teaching fellows, somewhere along the lines of the 1800’s up through the creation and implementation of IDEA and other forms of the law. This was all somewhat helpful in becoming a empathetic Special Education practitioner. However, let’s also think of perspective and the history of humanity in general. Education practice and law has been around for centuries, long before America had even been thought of as a new world. Did not the Native Americans teach the first settlers how to tow the land to reap the best harvest from the soil they knew so intimately? Reaching back even further, must not someone have taught the Egyptians and their servants/slaves how to build pyramids aligned to track the cosmos? Education as a practice has been here since day one. How did the gift of fire or the dissemination of the plans for the wheel get to us now, if others had not sought to show their peers what they were doing? How much care, appreciation, and authenticity are we showing for this education process if we haphazardly choose to only recount the last few seconds of what has been a truly epic tale?
Take a second and contemplate this question – As an industry entrusted to educate the urban masses, where are we headed? What is our/your end goal? Most probably don’t have a clear answer to these very basic questions. Do you? Who is setting our educational agendas from pre-school to the Ph.D? And what are their motives in the standards they choose to push? Do we know? Do we care? Perhaps that is all part of the design.
“The leadership of the Negro of to-day must be able to locate the race, and not only for to-day but for all times. It is in the desire to locate the Negro in a position of prosperity and happiness in the future that the Universal Negro Improvement Association is making this great fight for the race’s emancipation everywhere and the founding of a great African government…” (Garvey, 1967, p. 49)
The above map (Abagond, 2014), highlights an estimation of the major civilizations as of 2014. I would draw attention the sections highlighting the African, Latin American, and Western civilizations as those three regions represent the bulk of the stakeholders in my school setting. Garvey states it clear and he states it well. Let us take stock of what is going on, not just with the negro people, but with humanity in general. Once we know where we are, we can plot an effective plan for our futures. One detrimental fact of our scholarship at LIU is that it never, successfully, approaches the true role of state-funded education (preschool through the PhD.) or our roles as facilitators to these various levels of education and training. Our industry, public education, and ourselves as educators play the most critical role in creating a future society in our own image. We, almost solely are responsible for showing our youth pieces of a culture deemed acceptable to perpetuate and habits that are not. This social programming, aka education, is helpful because it develops us from reactionary persons to a more proactive, thoughtful people. We think about what we do before we do it. We plan. We wish for certain outcomes and work to make them happen.
Something I’ve stumbled upon through my scatter plot research this year was the recognition that the era of civilization(s) didn’t stop with the fall of the Roman, Greek, and Egyptian empires. One would imagine that this would be open and useable knowledge to draw upon as we develop the people of our future. Yet somehow, even in what we care to call this advanced state of civilization, we still struggle to identify and codify what it means to be a living, breathing, modern day humanity. Struggling to come to grips with that explains, partially, why we as Americans don’t often talk about the leading civilizations of our time, and how precariously and maniacally we retain our seat at the top, for the moment.
Perhaps it’s because the powers that be are scared that if people understood the world from its global perspective, they would wake up and begin making the small independent changes that would lead to revolution and dare I say it – spontaneity.
What is empathy?
The surface answer would be attempting to understand the emotions, feelings, and situations of someone that is experiencing a dimension of life that I, myself, am not experiencing. Empathy is not simplistic in its practice. Considering the cultural fabric we’re all crafted from, I claim that most people, in fact, do not empathize with their students. Especially if those students are of color and lack the radiant entitlements ascertained by those in privileged groups in the American/Western caste system.
“Anthropology is the study of the colored peoples of the world. They don’t study anybody else. Social Studies itself was founded and funded by the Mellons and the Carnegies, and those people who were interested in the deviates who were not like them. It got its first money from those people and they never studied themselves. Urban studies is the study of black people. And the approach vigorously held to in these studies – Blacks as wards of the state, never as its pioneers. It does take two to hold a chain – the chained and the chainer. And its takes two to make anthropology, the student and the studied. And although no group in the world has had more money spent on it, to have it genetics examined, its fecundity stopped, its intelligence measured. Cross acculturation is consistently neglected. And I would like to know who are these people who know our sperm count, but they don’t know our names? That being the case. It is time, it is way past time for the study to examine the student, and to evaluate its own self. And the fruits should be immense value to us, to all of us.” (Morrison, 1975)
Thusly, sympathy as opposed to empathy, is often employed when dealing with individuals that society has deemed as worthless and forgettable. I regretfully claim that my peers sympathize with my students. My professors, sympathize with our students. Our teacher education programs, sympathize with our students. I, however, live, breathe, and bleed empathy for my students. Sympathy views people as weak, dependent on support, and as victims. Sympathy takes the power away from the individual affected, and puts it in the hands of the privileged assessor. Empathy, recognizes value in all experiences, places equal value in all points of view, and actively makes space so those experiences can sit side-by-side in an effort to build a new product from their interaction. Empathy seeks justice. Empathy is sleepless when it senses perpetrators on the loose raping the world of its most glorious future.
>>>> One can not be empathetic to an urban school population if one is not willing to proactively verse themselves in that culture by seeking authentic learning opportunities and progressive solutions to alleviate the symptoms of a plagued urban education industry. <<<< [re-read] My peers, my elders, my neighbors, for the most part know naught of African/African-American culture and history. Why does this matter? To feign care for me, yet ignore and actively disconnect me from my parents and my lineage is malpractice. Marginalized communities have long fought to be recognized as valuable contributions to society. Unfortunately, our (their) self-hood is continuously cast aside as nonessential specks to the racist White-savior slant time and time again. As Elder Angelou teaches, “When people show you who they are, believe them.” (Angelou, “OPRAH’S LIFECLASS: When People Show You Who They Are, Believe Them”, 2014) >>>> I therefore have been forced to deduce that you, my esteemed professor(s), have no interest in supporting the development of individuals that represent the Afrikan, Latin, and Disabled-American diaspora.<<<< [re-read] For if you did, surely you would work more diligently to shine light on the African, African American, Latino American, and Disabled American contributions and points of view in educational and sociological research.
To begin with, our prospective teachers are exposed to descriptions of failure rather than models of success. We expose student teachers to an education that relies upon name calling and labeling (“disadvantaged,” “at-risk,” “learning disabled,” “the underclass,” [“urban,”]) to explain its failures, and calls upon research study after research study to inform teachers that school achievement is intimately and inevitably linked with socioeconomic status. Teacher candidates are told that “culturally different” children are mismatched to the school setting and therefore cannot be expected to achieve as well as white, middle-class children. They are told that children of poverty are developmentally slower than other children… In other words, we teach rationales for failure, not visions of success. (Delpit, 2006, p. 178)
One of the first things I remember hearing as I entered the fellowship program was “Teaching is a very difficult job, and you shouldn’t expect to change the world.” To be fair, said person was just trying to frame our feeble idealism within the boxed-in a context commonly referred to as “realism”.
The strong idealistic force within allowed me to shake the bulk of this declaration off, as evidenced in my work ethic. >>>> However, as we can deduce, teachers of urban/disabled students, from day one, are never expected, or rather pushed, to make lasting/large scale impact on their communities!<<<< [re-read] How then, is one (teachers/teacher education program leadership) empathetic to the urban community if they implicitly condone the continued failure of the community in their watch?
The Danger of Realism and How it Codes Marginalized Despair –
The long reaching power of a community built on the pillars of empathy and support can be seen in my own peer group. As a Chicago native, born and raised, I had the pleasure to attend Crete-Monee High School with 2015 Chicago Mayoral hopeful Dr. Amara Enyia. Having graduated high school in 2003, it’s sobering to see Dr. Enyia now, roll out her powerful and confident Mayoral campaign. Especially considering she graduated high school a mere two years ahead of me in 2001. The cavalier holds a Ph.D. in Education Policy, and a Law degree from the esteemed University of Illinois. On the campaign trail, Enyia was asked how she could realistically win against a politically popular nuisance such as the current Mayor, Rahm Emanuel. Dr. Enyia’s answer sheds light on her spirit and her own Opportunity Paradox I spoke to in my Knowledge Domain:
“[Lyderson] – Realistically, do you think you have any chance to win the mayoral race?
[Dr. Enyia] – No one in history who has changed things did it by being realistic. My dad always said revolutions never come from people in the status quo; they come from those on the outside. You can’t be “realistic” when it comes to these things that are truly transforming. There’s a certain “delusional” quality that you have to have, because you see something that other people don’t see. For me, being realistic is being mediocre. It’s telling the guy on the street in Lawndale that this is it—this is as good as it’s going to get. I’ve seen otherwise. By running for office I want to reveal to him what I see, with the hope that he sees it too.” (Lyderson, 2014)
Speaking of Chicago, the violence there holds an immaculately grim mirror to our faces as we work to decode for ourselves how to create and innovate (see maintain status quo) every aspect of the institution of education from the teacher education programs to the scholarly work used to inform our practice. Thinking of the atrocities taking place everyday in my homeland, no one in their right mind can justify how or why a city of officials charged with protecting their public has continuously allowed vagrant violence to overtake the terrain. However, the media and propaganda machines work not-stop to ensure that the blame for the chaotic city is placed on one public, and one public alone.
Unfortunately, though, I’ve learned to redefine what constitutes an American tragedy. American tragedies occur where middle America frequents every day: airplanes, business offices, marathons. Where there persists a tangible fear that this could happen to any of us. And rightfully so. Deaths and mayhem anywhere are tragic. That should always be the case. The story here is where American tragedies don’t occur. American tragedies don’t occur on the southside of Chicago or the New Orleans 9th Ward. They don’t occur where inner city high school kids shoot into school buses or someone shoots at a 10-year old’s birthday party in New Orleans. Or Gary, Indiana. Or Compton. Or Newport News. These are where the forgotten tragedies happen and the cities are left to persevere on their own. (Dennis, 2013)
Are we to believe that the violence occurring in Chicago is innate to individuals in which it is consistently occurring? In being realistic, do we shrug our shoulders and hope they see the light on their own? Are we to believe that the current abysmal education curriculum, statistics, and theories utilized by education “professionals,” from Pre-K to Ivory Tower, are all we have to offer?
Would we, the educators entrusted to bring equality to this land, stoop to codifying urban and disabled student failure as merely the way life works? Somehow, we see that the urban classroom, its teachers, and their urban teacher education programs have distanced themselves from ensuring the proper and effectual fertilization for all of our young marginalized citizens. To be an urban educator, and to only care about your students from 8am-3pm is the microaggressive posture that prepares our students to be overlooked, and further castigated, in this American culture. To keep status quo infuriates the empathetic citizen.
As a tactful and fully capable core, we must show true empathy for our students young and old. To do this, we must start by revamping how we educate the future teaching force about the long and compelling history of the marginalized people that represent our student communities. A truly empathetic and knowledged professional would find a way to make innovation happen as they seek to continue to create the history that makes our country and our lived experiences so rich.
It’s time for America, the country where every dream is possible, and where everyone is born into this world an equal, to show us who they are, and this time we can feel at peace in believing in them.
I get scared, overwhelmed, shaken, and defeated when I think about how far we have to go. There’s just so much that hasn’t been accounted for. It’s devastating to understand the complexity of life, but I just can’t pull myself away from what I know I can do to make a change. My most esteemed elder, Malcolm X, eloquently describes how I felt/feel upon discovering the educational injustice smothering my people out of future existence.
“…if there is a rattle snake in the field who has been biting your brothers and your sisters, and you go and tell them that that’s a rattle snake and all of the harm that has ever come to them has come to them from that particular source. Well then that rattler will think that the warner is teaching hate. He’ll go back and tell the other snakes this man is teaching hate, this man is teaching hate. But its not hate, it’s just that when you study people who have been harmed and discover the source of their injury, the source of all of their defects, and you begin to point out that source. its not that you hate the source, but your love for your people is so intense, so great, that you must let them know what is wrong with them. What is the cause of their ills. This is one of the basic factors. I believe involved when people think or when the propaganda is put out that Mr. Mohammed teaches hate. He teaches black people to love each other, and our love for each other is so strong we don’t have any room left in our heart.” (The Hate That Hate Produced, 1959)
Angelou, M. (Performer). (1997). OPRAH’S LIFECLASS: When People Show You Who They Are, Believe Them USA: Harpo Studios.
Dennis, D. (2013, May 15). Why isn’t New Orleans Mother’s Day parade shooting a ‘national tragedy’?. theguardian.com. Retrieved July 18, 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/15/neworleansshootingnotnationalnews
Delpit, L. D. (2006). Other people’s children: cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press :.
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.
LYDERSEN, K. (2014, February 20). Who’s Afraid of Rahm Emanuel?. . Retrieved July 18, 2014, from http://inthesetimes.com/article/16321/amara_enyia_rahm_emanuel
Morrison, T., St. John, P., Callahan, J., Callahan, J., Baker, L. (1975, May 30). A Humanistic View. Black Studies Center public dialogue. Pt. 2. Lecture conducted from Portland State University, Portland, OR. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/portlandstatelibrary/ portlandstateblackstudies1
The Hate That Hate Produced. Perf. Malcolm X, Mike Wallace, Louis Farrakhan, Louis Lomaxis L omas and Elijah Muhammad. PBS, 1959. Television Documentary.