On the Other Side Mourning

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We looked out

saw streets littered with the wind

Bodies raptured into homes on lockdown

Four walls stared at me and began to whisper

I thought I was alone until I whispered back

They say that hope is a tease that lures you in

with promises that don’t always come true

I say that hope is often hidden from us

on the other side of darkness where dreams reside

It cannot be found in things that we might seek because

we only know the real world when the shades have been lifted from our eyes

Before COVID we did not see how Black and Brown bodies were being wasted

How sickness and economic deprivation were not new

Eyes would not see what was clearly in front of them until the maps came in

Plotting points that we knew all too well

That Black and Brown lives have barely mattered under the sun

They say that nothing is new under the sun

But on the other side of the post-COVID sky

They also say you can hear things that you rarely heard before

Like the tanagers singing in Central Park

Or the receding waves of pollution that flooded the skies of our cities

We see now the ways that environmental injustice bumps up against racial injustice

sits alongside economic injustice

invests in xenophobia and dudes who called themselves president

Setting precedents for closing down shit that was never theirs to close!

I can’t sleep some nights cause COVID’s got me woke as fuck

I can no longer diet in daydreams, convincing myself that remote education is a real thing

It feels like an oxymoron to me

By definition, education can never be remote – as in stranded alone on an island

Or pushed away like kids do peas or society does Black and Brown folk

Put out like trash on Sunday evenings

set aside on streets to be removed from sight

while we forget that landfills are real

They called COVID “novel,” but this shit ain’t new

Same old pains and same old struggles

Pandemics in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities are as diasporic as our kinship ties

The only thing novel about COVID is its name

and the ways that it has made some folk finally surrender to reality

But if they see us . . .

They will see that we are more than just the disproportionate percentage of bodies occupying ICUs

We are also the collective commitment of humanity daring life to respond

We are the club quarantines

And the IG live DJ battles

We are the consciousness of ZOOM chats

The counselors begging teachers to give students time to heal

We are the voice of those crying out in the wilderness

Baptizing the moment in the waters of our grandmothers’ tears

We are

Promise keepers

Peace prophets

Life givers

Collective community healers

Wisdom whisperers

We are something not even COVID can kill

Because our lives are more than the anguish of disease

Or the fixed routines that uplift capitalism and human misery

More than the death tickers that complicate our TV screens

More than the buildings and streets that longed for a pause

Our lives are the quilt-work of our Ancestors who stitched air into eternity

And we join them in this moment and in the moments to come

Knowing that, though we may be sitting alone, we are not lonely

So we raise our voices in unison

Triumphantly saying, “Weeping may endure for a night

But joy waits for us on the other side of morning.”

More than words: Teaching literacy to vulnerable learners

Recognition is a political act. We cannot talk about it without talking about power. Like other systems of power, who is recognized in literacy education is defined by who is seen, and who is seen are students who are well fed, compliant, come from homes saturated in print, have loving parents, and possess confidence and previous good experiences in school.

By flattening literacy to this idealized (for some) identity, literacy teaching imagines a very narrow version of us—a version that is incomplete and favors privileged identities over vulnerable ones. The farther away students are from this identity, the less likely literacy classrooms will work for them.

When students do not come packaged the “right” way, too often our systems decide we cannot teach them. Instead of adapting to them, our systems label them, suggesting that something is wrong with vulnerable students. They label them as lazy, unfocused, misguided. In a sense, they blame their families, their genders, their socioeconomic circumstances, or anything else about vulnerable youth that deviates from the ideal. Our systems fail to see them, and thus our systems fail them.

There is clear evidence that this inability to see some students drives educational outcome disparities. The problem is not necessarily the unseen but our assumptions about what we see. Seeing is not neutral.

Read the full article here.

Lemonade (for Excel at NYU 2019)

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Rumi said: “Soul receives from soul that knowledge.”

So drink from cups that overfill,
And pour into ones that seem empty.

Dream dreams that eyes cannot see
See things not always present or visible.

Rumi said: “If knowledge of mysteries comes after emptiness of mind,
That is illumination of heart.”

Seek knowledge outside mysteries, though,
And find mystery in knowledge
Hidden in the secrets of the every day
Of smiles that never grow old
Of the love our mothers give in their sacrifices

Sip on experience
Quench soul from cups that overfill with knowledge
Because “soul receives from soul” mysteries that come after emptiness of mind,
That is illumination of thought.

Drink from the presence of pain,
Not from those other jars
For pain becomes fuel when we chose to swallow it.

Know then, that every object, every being,
Is a jar full of delight.

Be a connoisseur of circumstance,
Drink pain like raindrops until it runs away like rivers
Becomes your life force like the Nile . . .
But taste with caution, unless you drown.

Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a queen, and choose the purest,

Drink from the cup that overflows,
Let it move you
“as a camel moves when it’s been untied,
And is just ambling about.”

For lemons can be found in the sand
Sour tasting
Or bitter like dirt
Plant your seeds in them anyhow
Let them grow
Into Lemon Trees

. . . and learn to bask in the shade.

Is the illiteracy-to-prison connection real?

For the past five years, I have been studying the relationship between literacy and incarceration. In public discourse, the relationship seems so normalized that few people question its validity. But how valid is it? Researchers maintain there is a clear relationship between literacy and incarceration in the United States. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, two thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. The U.S. Department of Justice suggests that upward of 85% of all systems-involved youth and more than 60% of all prison inmates are “functionally illiterate.” According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a fourth-grade level, “meaning they lack the reading skills to navigate many everyday tasks or hold down anything but lower (paying) jobs.” Although these numbers are alarming, they do not necessarily prove a link between literacy and incarceration. They might, however, suggest something more inauspicious—that the people we lock up are the same people we fail to teach to read and write. But why?

Please read the full the article in Literacy Today or here.

What Charlottesville Means To Me

Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds. I have always kept an open mind, a flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of the intelligent search for truth. –Malcolm X

The daily reminders and the crushing weight of knowing what this country so eagerly denies are disheartening: We live in a racist country. This is not a big secret and should shock no one. The nation, for whatever it’s worth, elected a racist president in some ways to make up for electing its first Black one.

We must stop hiding from the truth that we live in a racist country because this denial is both dangerous and implosive. If we can’t admit to the racism that plagues us, we will never position ourselves to press past it.

The events today in #Charlottesville and the president’s dismissive response to them are both upsetting and sobering. There are too many of us who close our eyes to stories like these, as to wish racism away even as it feasts on our souls.

There are those who will argue that I am racist for writing about/condemning racism, as if their dismissal of me will absolve them of their own racist denial. There are also people who will argue that this president is not a white supremacist even though there is no evidence that he is not. But to the contrary . . .

Our response to racism cannot be passive or polite. I don’t want to read or hear another Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela quotation that tells us that we are something that we are not. I don’t want another whitewashed conversation about how much progress we have made to trick people into “feeling better,” which is more about lulling us into complacency so that we will be less likely to resist this miserable condition we find ourselves in.

I live with the pain of racism everyday along with millions, if not billions, of other people. I am reminded of this as soon as I walk out my apartment and enter my place of work: Racism exists. I notice the trends: the disparities in pay; the questionings of Black intelligence; the infantilization, criminalization, and vilification of the Black body. I bear witness to the scene of racial transgression against Black people, the violence and illogical hatred that spews at us for no particular reason (other than the fascination that God made some of our skins Black). My soul withers within me under this scorching heat–under the flames of bigotry and the suffocating smoke of indifference.

I want the truth, so I will write the truth here: Trump is a bigot, and there is a faction of bigots that makes up a significant part of his base. We would be naive to believe that they are alone.

I direct a research center that focuses on issues of equity. We wage peace against the violence of racism and discrimination in education. And to be sure, some of the people I work with are racists who, ironically and sadly, “engage” in anti-racist work.

I have colleagues, some of whom can quote every racial justice theory popular in the academy, who also do “antiracist” work, who themselves won’t even speak to but loathe some Black people—especially those of us who refuse to be “respectable.”

I know so-called white liberals who in the company of other liberals (in the squalid liberal public) will laugh and “love” on Black people, but when they are outside the coziness and poshness of liberal gatherings, these people quite literally run from Black folk, especially “non-respectable” Black folk, because to them Black folk are like white walkers from Game of Thrones. (This has happened to me at least five times. Each time, I crack up. Note to these people: I’m not gonna rob you. I don’t rob people.)

What Charlottesville means to me is this: that we have a lot of work to do. And we must be honest about this if our intentions are actually to improve the racial situation in the U.S. If we can’t admit this, then I can’t buy the idea that people are as committed as they say they are to getting past our dark and sickening racist past and present.

Racism persists in the shadow of our lies. I am, nonetheless, persuaded that we can end racism when we begin to embrace our darkest truths . . .

A Crusade for Billions? How a Betsy DeVos Department of Education Could Lead to a Massive Transfer of Public Funds into the Private Sector

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On Monday, January 30, 2017, hundreds of patient protectors braved the bitter New York City cold to stand firmly in defiance against the impending appointment of billionaire school-choice crusader Betsy DeVos, 58, for Secretary of Education. The brazen assembly, short on time yet not lacking hope, was among one of many gatherings crisscrossing the nation. Since DeVos’s name first surfaced as President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, a stubborn, nation-wide procession of feet has emerged in stride to protest what many fear is the beginning of the end of public education in the U.S., as we know.

From the march-worn concrete streets of New York City to the rally-fatigued lawns of the National Mall, the rising chorus of dissent to DeVos’s appointment is not without merit. On the eve of the U.S. Senate vote to confirm Devos’s nomination as education secretary, Democratic Senators staged a day-long talking protest to convince a least one more Republican Senator to switch her or his vote. In line with Senate Democratic efforts, there have been countless social media campaigns aimed at convincing legislators in the Senate to reject DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Given what we know about her–DeVos’s ties to the multibillion dollar Amway Corporation, for which she is heiress–people are well within reason to question and, even worse, fear how she might run the U.S. Department of Education. In this light, it is important to note that DeVos’s husband, Richard DeVos, Jr., inherited his billions from Amway, a company known for exploitative business practices, i.e., multilevel marketing–also known as pyramid schemes–to funnel precious resources from the thin pockets of the masses to the greedy bank accounts of the gluttonous few.

While her record on education appears to be lacking, what DeVos brings to the job of Secretary of Education is an unmatched charisma for fiscal alchemy–the ability to turn other public money into private profit. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the only real educational policy DeVos seems to have durable knowledge of is the Title I provision (the most lucrative provision) under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act–better known as No Child Left Behind.

Under No Child Left Behind, in access of $14.5 billion of federal monies were set aside to address education funding inequities by financially bolstering school districts with large proportions of poor children. The stated purpose of the funding was to give poor children greater access to the same types of learning opportunities as wealthier children who reside in affluent districts with schools that benefit from higher property taxes, among other supports.

Further, we know that, as a result of choice policies such as the voucher programs that DeVos champions, 20 percent of all Title I monies earmarked for poor students–roughly $2.6 billion–end up in school districts with a higher proportion of wealthy families. This often overlooked detail could shed light on some of DeVos’s intentions as Secretary of Education, while giving us incredible insight into a department of education that, under a DeVos regime, could resemble a Ponzi scheme.

Much of DeVos’s past efforts in education, an associated knowledge of educational policy, seem to deal with mechanizations for a massive transfer of wealth from the public sector to the private sector, that is, from taxpaying citizens investing in a public education project crucial for the development of our nation’s youth and the maintenance of our democracy to the uber wealthy elites who conceal their money in hidden offshore accounts. Many of such individuals, like President Trump, neither pay taxes nor plan to. Thus, in relationship to her lack of knowledge of policies such as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), created to serve vulnerable students, Devos’s focused knowledge of Title I reads as alarming. According to Nate Malkus, a contributor to U.S. News and World Report, “Given DeVos’ long history of advocating for school choice and Trump’s proposed $20 billion investment in it, her pointed position deserves a full discussion.”

According to New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, DeVos, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, has a passionate record of steering Title I monies away from public schools. For example, the Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts boast the 10 largest shares of students in U.S. charter schools. The State of Michigan sends $1 billion in education funding to charter schools annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation. Moreover, the DeVos family, the most prominent name in Republican politics in Michigan, have been the biggest financial and political backers of education resource diversions into the private sector.

With the selection of DeVos, President Trump seems serious about the $20 billion school voucher plan he rolled out during his campaign. The proposal would redirect huge swaths of the federal education budget away from school districts and toward low-income parents, allowing them to spend a voucher at a public or private school of their choice, including for-profit, virtual, religious, and other predatory systems of schooling.

To be sure, DeVos enters the conversation with enormous conflicts of interest. She and her family have invested millions in divestments schemes, lobbying the federal and State of Michigan governments to open up education markets to opportunistic millionaires. She and her family have also invested in online K-12 education ventures, alternative systems of education that too often prey upon our nation’s most vulnerable students to turn a profit.

Indeed, this playbook on exploitation is not without familiarity, particularly for an administration whose leader, Donald Trump, has become the icon for exploitation in private education. Remember President Trump was regularly dogged on the campaign trail for his own failed foray into for-profit education with the now infamous Trump University.

The other part of this story deals with the policy that DeVos doesn’t know: IDEA–a policy advancing equity in education, assuring rights of otherly abled students to participate and gain an education equal to that of all other students across a range of abilities. DeVos’s ignorance of IDEA could suggest that she isn’t interested in educational equity, or is, at best, indifferent to it. Thus, we must question her public rhetoric on education–especially when she pivots to equity claims to conceal her broader history in support of school privatization (even at the expense of educational equity).

Had she been genuinely concerned about public education, DeVos would have known what IDEA is. Had she been genuinely concerned for the education of all American youth, she would be aware of how disastrous policies that redistribute public funds to the private sector are. If she were really concerned about American youth, she would have regarded her own resume in public education, and pulled herself out the running for Secretary of Education.

All this seems too late now. What matters is this: President Trump did not select Ms. DeVos to be Secretary of Education because of her affect toward the vulnerable, her love of public education, or her knowledge of disability legislation. (Remember he is the only president in my lifetime who has publicly mocked disabled Americans.) President Trump choose Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education because of her record, which is replete with examples of diversions of crucial funding away from the vulnerable and into the pockets of the rich.

Trump, himself, has a rich history of this kind of profiteering. So does DeVos.

 

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David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.

 

IN THE END, LOVE WILL WIN, BUT WE WILL NEED AN EDUCATION FIRST

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On November 17, 1999, a Michigan jury found, then-13 year-old Nathaniel Abraham guilty of second-degree murder for a killing committed when Abraham was 11. At the time, the young African-American boy was believed to be the youngest American ever charged and convicted of murder as an adult. Abraham’s story reflects the heightening, yet longstanding, public spectacle of viewing Black bodies through prisms of racial and developmental bias – lenses through which Black innocence evaporate into the (il)logics of prejudice.

Such prejudice is often masked socially in a painful ritual of rhetorical charades. For example, many media accounts used sensational turns of phrase such as “adult crime equals adult time” to justify the erasure of Black innocence in Abraham’s case. In the more recent cases of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, some media outlets have used descriptors such as “petty criminal” and “dangerous thug” to justify the murders of these young men.

By now, it is common knowledge that, over the course of two days, two Black men lost their lives to police terror. One was Sterling, a father and family man gunned down by police in Baton Rouge, LA. There is graphic video of two police officers pinning down the 37-year old Sterling before shooting him as he lies on the ground. The other is Castile, who while sitting in a car with his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter, was gunned downed by a police officer after being asked for his identification.

With tragic events of police killings of Black people happening almost daily across our country, we are reminded of how powerfully perceptions play out in the real world. Thus, there is no longer room to deny the power of perceptions and the dangers of ignorance in maintaining racial biases that cost us daily innocent life. In the context of unchecked bias, skin color argues as convincingly as words for some, where in the American imagination race can condition one’s perceptions of innocence and guilt.

For example, a recent report from the Human Rights Watch found that, in the state of Florida, 12,000 children – a disproportionate number of whom are Black – have been moved from the juvenile to adult court system in the past five years. While they make up 27 percent of those who enter Florida’s juvenile justice system, Black boys account for more than half of all transfers to the adult system. Florida isn’t alone in this tragic neutering of Black innocence.

In Cook County, Illinois, Black boys are much more likely to be tried as adults in criminal court as well. The Juvenile Justice Initiative reports that, although only 44 percent of the children in Cook County are Black, 83 percent of its juveniles tried as adults were Black. Given such instances, it comes as little surprise to many when innocent Black teens such as Trayvon Martin are gunned down by armed and hostile vigilantes, such as George Zimmerman. In contexts of over-policing and hyper-punishment of the Black body, perceptions of Black innocence would likely disappear beneath the erasure of a public gaze, distorted by silent systems of prejudice prevalent in the American mainstream.

It is meaningful, then, that Trayvon Martin, like Nathaniel Abraham, was merely a boy when he perished. The same meaning holds for twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who while wielding a toy gun, was murdered by a Cleveland police officer who saw Rice as older and less innocence than he actually was. Not unlike Zimmerman or the Cleveland officer who gunned down Rice, a significant population of Americans, including a vast number of White Americans, fail to recognize the innocence and humanity of their fellow Black citizens. The language ascribed to Black people tends to frame them as, in the cases of Sterling and Castile, hostile and criminal, and, in the case of Martin and Rice (and a litany of others), vicious and less innocent.

In our quest to achieve greater equity in society, we must better contextualize humanity beyond race and in spite of (and to interrupt) systems of disparity that are likely reinforced through racial stereotypes.

In so doing, I have been wondering about the role of schooling in shaping better people. For example, I’ve been asking questions such as how does one finish school still holding discriminatory perceptions of people? Are we not doing our jobs as educators?

Just as we wouldn’t allow students to finish school unable to read, write or calculate, why must we let them finish school unable to love and accept others? What if we made being human, like being literate, a prerequisite to graduation? What if our school systems made it an absolute priority to ensure that each student leaves more human and more respectful of life than when they entered?

These are important questions that we must ask in this time of national reflection – questions that deal with fostering fully humanized citizens sensitive to other humans. In asking and daring to answer such questions, we demand more of our schools and also of ourselves. Perhaps equally important, we position education as a site of hope to eradicate all forms of ignorance and nurture people who are fully responsive to how we can best share our world.

In order to redress the consequences of racial bias – which, I believe, are at the root of the murders of Sterling, Castile, Martin, Rice, and many others – we must promote a counter-campaign for ideological justice, where we renew the importance of heightening our humanity through formal systems of education. With this, it is important that we begin to demand that formal education endorses standards (such as Common Core Human Standards) and curricula (such as anti-bias curricula) that challenge longstanding racial biases and logics associated with discrimination (and each of their consequences including racism, misogyny, patriarchy, xenophobia, colonialism, and so on).

But the use of education to eradicate racial bias cannot be limited to communities concentrated with people of color because the origins of racial bias are rooted in indifference and White privilege. Privilege is when you don’t think something is a problem because it’s not your problem. While it has become vogue to teach about race, social justice, and equity to students of color, students who attend schools that are overwhelmingly White may need this kind of education the most. Exposing such students to new standards, curricula and pedagogies that center a love and respect for all humanity will broaden their worldviews.

What I am proposing is a paradigm shift in education, transferring the focus of instruction from skills, content, and capacities to relationships, from disparity and discrimination to a focus on our needs and capacities as human beings to bridge empathic, cooperative, and social gaps that hinder learning, development, and societal harmony. This is an education for greater compassion because it affirms all students equally, whereby challenging us to commit ourselves to the hard work of interrupting biases and dismantling systems of historic violence against our nation’s (and our world’s) most vulnerable citizens. Left unchecked, such systems promise to play out in patterns of death and destruction rehearsed repeatedly each day (as we are now seeing).

Then let us commit space and time in formal education to reconciling that the true value of learning is in greater compassion and saved lives. Though histories and institutions of inequity and oppression are deep and resilient, our courage and resolve cannot only match the depths of this particular kind of despair, they can exceed them. However, change will start in classrooms with teachers seeing, treating and listening to all students so that no one graduates our school systems unable to trust, respect and understand people who do not look like they do.

We will need an education first, but in the end love will win.

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  1. This article first appeared on July 17, 2016 in NY Slant as an op-ed. The article can also be found here: http://nyslant.com/article/opinion/in-the-end,-love-will-win,-but-we-will-need-an-education-first.html.

 

 

David E. Kirkland is the Executive Director of the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools, and an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: davidekirkland@gmail.com.