One year ago to this day, I left Diaconia. I thought it would be the end of my tenure with the organization, but it was not to be. Since then, I founded the American affiliate of Diaconia (Diaconia Connections) and have continued to work for the organization as a volunteer director. It's been incredibly rewarding, and I'm happy to say that we've been able to raise around 30,000 dollars for humanitarian causes. In fact, just this past month, I took a group of 5 individuals from the Milwaukee Presbytery to Ukraine and Moldova to visit with our partners and learn more about Diaconia's work abroad. It was a successful trip.
Anyways, I "left" Diaconia, moved into a new apartment, placed Ada into daycare, and started my new job as an analyst at Spectrum. I thought I had a made a change that would last 2-3 years. But, alas, it was not to be.
Less than a year later, we're moving again. While we're moving only a few houses down, it's nevertheless a needed change. With our added child, Jamie and I need more space, and we're also looking for an apartment that will allow us to host family and friends from out of town. And I believe we got what we were looking for: a 3-bedroom, hard-wood-floored, bungalow.
And as of May 1st, I resigned from my position at Spectrum. My decision to leave my job was not so much an indictment of my place of employment but was actually a decision made out of deep reflection and clarity. Spectrum afforded me the wonderful opportunity to consult with numerous nonprofit organizations: museums, social service groups, advocacy organizations, and schools. Most of my work with the clients was behind-the-scenes research. I helped them articulate their strategic missions and visions, I wrote and edited final reports and white papers, and supported our staff of professional consultants. It was rewarding work because I knew what we were doing necessary and important. However, I know that I'm a communicator and realized, after about 9 months, that I needed to find a job where I was engaged in more face-to-face interaction. I needed a position that was more service-oriented, preferably with an organization that was grass-roots in attitude and management (for better or for worse).
After a lot of deliberation and much thought, I've made the decision to pursue a career in education. I've decided to join the organization Teach For America, which is an alternative certification program for young professionals and graduates who have an interest in education but have not necessarily studied education or been certified. I will be teaching in Milwaukee, WI, in a public school.
I don't really need to rehash all of the statistics, but Milwaukee has some of the United State's most shocking numbers when it comes to educational equity. Most of the problem stems from Milwaukee's hyper-segregation and history of economic exclusion and discrimination. Jamie and I live in the neighborhood of Riverwest. Less than one mile from our house is the neighborhood of Harambe. The zip code there is 53206. It is the most impoverished zip code in the state of Wisconsin, and it has the highest rate of incarcerated males IN THE COUNTRY. The community is resilient, but it's at a major disadvantage. African Americans in the state of Wisconsin have the United State's worst prospects for wealth accumulation and job growth. And, not surprisingly, the public schools are being called on to fix the problems, even if they're not given the resources to do so. Milwaukee Public Schools have high drop-out rates and their academic scores are often behind their rural and/or suburban peers. These numbers, however, are not an indictment of the inherent "inability" of poor students in urban Milwaukee, for they are usually the result of decades of state-wide under-funding along with an encroachment from choice/charter/and open enrollment schools that "leech" money from the public education system. (TFA places teachers in choice, charter, and public schools....opinions are my own).
I believe that equity in education is one of my generation's greatest civil rights battles. In the United States, children's futures are often predetermined based on where they live. Regardless of the ideals that we espouse as a country of "freedom" and "opportunity," the truth of the matter is this: opportunity exists for those children/students who live in regions where the property taxes cover the cost of the schools. There is very little of this in urban areas. The fact that our educational system is as unequal as our tax system is an embarrassment and it is a rejection of our most fundamental American ideals.
I want to learn more about this current crisis, and I want to see if I can be of any help. When I initially requested to teach, I asked that I teach history. The TFA staff told me that Milwaukee Public Schools are in dire need of special education teachers and that if I were willing, they would want me to pursue Special Education at the graduate level. I initially balked at the idea. However, after some weeks of reflection, I decided to accept my offer. I rarely talk about my own educational journey, but I realized that my experience may give me greater patience and insight to indeed help some of the school district's toughest students, because I was a "special ed" kid myself. (there is a lot more to write here, but I'm going to leave it at that).
I have no illusions as to how difficult the next two years will be. I recognize that I have little in common with many of the students of color in Milwaukee. I have very little understanding of their life experiences, of their stresses, of the conversations that they have with their parents around the kitchen table. And if we were picking our teaching assignments based solely on the places where we would have the greatest impact and be able to relate the most, then I am 100% confident that I should be teaching in Appalachia. BUT, reality is far more complex, and there is so much to learn from people and students with different backgrounds.
This lack of knowledge humbles me. It makes me realize that my students have to be teachers as well. They have to teach me about their lives, of which, they are the experts. I can teach them about mine, about subject matter, about the ways in which we can relate to each other to move forward. It's not going to be easy, but I know it can work. I have to be open to their viewpoints, their passions, and interests in art, music, clothing, etc. I have to know when to let them lead in their learning and think critically about where I can push and motivate. Because of my skin color, because of my own family heritage and history, there are going to be times where there will be miscommunication, but if I were to boil down what I want my students to take from me, it would be this: That I believe in their inherent humanness and intelligence. That I believe their history is important and empowering. That I appreciate and respect their perspectives and lived experiences. That I care about them as individuals. That I recognize my own shortcomings and "blinders." And that I hold them to high standards because I believe in their abilities.
Lastly, and briefly: As someone who has studied Global History and has had the opportunity to teach in Nigeria, I firmly believe in the power of history as a liberating force. I will be very proactive in my classroom in encouraging students to tell their own stories, to explore their family's histories, and to explore the literature, art, music, and architecture of African-American history, and Sub-Saharan African history. I personally believe that beyond all the emphasis on STEM and technology in the classroom (which are undoubtedly important), the single most redemptive piece of a "liberating" education is when People of Color are able to not only reclaim their own history, but to tell it. In so doing, they understand the agency within themselves that has been passed down for generations and they will begin to see that 1) they belong, that 2) their race and heritage have made this country/city stronger, and 3) that they can be proud and confident in their skin, in their language, and in their art.