In this episode: details about problems and programs, some startling facts about returning prisoners, a brief eruption around mistaken racial identity, we talk about mentoring. Again, a mosaic of experiences. Remember, these discussions are not being “performed” for Whites; the point is a group dominated by people of color are trying to understand what is going on and what they can do to contribute to solutions.
Next up is a panel of six people from Unitown, all in their thirties to sixties. None were here yesterday for the first day of the conference. They are a White woman who runs a faith-based nonprofit with a significant prisoner reentry project; an Asian woman community organizer; a Black man who has been a local politician and is head of Unitown’s office of equal opportunity; a Black man who is a former prisoner who is now the head of a returning prisoner’s organization, and a Black married couple (both professionals) who have been involved in a lot of different activist projects; she is now chair of Unitown’s Equal Opportunity Commission. I know five of them from the various groups I’ve worked in and have heard much of what they say before. My notes are details that caught my attention.
The organizer talks about building youth political groups who hold conferences on disparities and build political capacity. She gives a very cogent analysis of the problems with the disproportionate minority confinement project we’ve been involved with – lots of meetings, lots of concern, lots of buy-in from officials, but the racial disparities are still there. In one middle school, 54 of 55 kids suspended were African American – this is the school my children went to, it is 16% Black, 19% Asian and 57% White (less White than when my children were there). An 11 year old child committed a sexual assault against a family member and will be on a sexual registry for the rest of his life. She also talk eloquently about the importance of being able to cry and the prevalence of depression in the community. There it is again – an epidemic of depression among young people.
The equal opportunity director brings up a variety of issues around race, including a widely-publicized incident a few years ago when some White teachers circulated an email of critique and resistance after a district-mandated two day “courageous conversations about race” training in the public schools. This is linked to other talk about teachers’ racial biases hurting children of color.
The White woman and the ex-offender talk about programs for returning prisoners; the Circles of Support program creates groups of five people to support one returning prisoner. The head of the returning prisoner’s group says that when he went to prison, he got rehabilitative programs that allowed him to come out with skills and succeed in a legitimate life style. But it is different now. When he was in prison, he met young kids who were sentenced to 20+ years under the RICO act, they were young low-level drug runners but charged under conspiracy acts. Inside prison, that they no chance to be educated or learn skills. Now with the recent crack cocaine decision, 20,000 prisoners are being released immediately from federal prisons, they are just being released to the streets, instead of getting the usual 90 days in halfway houses. Young men who went in at 17-19, spent 15-20 years warehoused in federal prison are now just dumped on the streets. “They are still children in men’s bodies.” He talks about the extreme discrimination in the workplace for people with conviction records, even if you have a college degree, and how people who really want to change their lives and stay out of prison get discouraged and throw in the towel. He complains about the lack of diversity in the skilled trades and says they are the logical place for young men in good physical health with few skills, but it is “like pulling hens teeth” to get ex-offenders into a trade apprenticeship.
The married couple go next. They are prominent in activist circles and appear separately and together in many forums about many issues. They have taught classes to Black parents about positive parenting approaches and headed Unitown’s slavery reparations movement. In addition to raising a birth child who turned out fine, they parented a foster child who got into trouble and spent time incarcerated. His style moves around from serious objective (spoken in “standard” English) to jokey (spoken in “Black” English) to militant (spoken in eloquent “standard” English laced with “Black” English phrases); he makes a “jokey” point of saying that he is going to let his wife go first, because he knows what is good for him. Her style is more soft-spoken, sounding warm and compassionate as she talks about the needs of children. They sort of hand the stage back and forth to each other, speaking as distinct people but also as a team, as I’ve seen them do before. He talks about rescuing the Black male, “No one will save us from ourselves but ourselves” and “We need to stop focusing on telling our children what they cannot do, we have to tell them what they can do.” He gives a wide-ranging short speech condemning racialized imprisonment, the decline of rehabilitation, teachers who only want to teach the bright students, schools that don’t route children in to the classes they need for college, the importance of schools caring about the children.
She argues that the most important thing is for teachers to love and respect young people as human beings. She is critical of “cultural awareness” and “cultural competence” programs, saying that you really cannot teach somebody else’s culture, you just trivialize it if you try, and that “cultural competence training can be fear generating.” (I’m not sure what she means by that, I don’t get a chance to find out.)
The Chicano professor who looks White and sounds Anglo from yesterday speaks up and says that “cultural competency” is a euphemism, a cover, that really what we are trying to teach is about who controls power and curriculum can make a difference. The Black man says something I did not get down as a quote, but it was something like “You think you know, but you really don’t know about the minority experience.” It is clear that he is coding his challenger as White. The Chicano professor says, very loudly and sternly, “No you don’t know what my experience is.” The two get into a tussle where it is clear that the Black speaker is treating the Chicano man as White and the Chicano man resents it. The organizer calls time and ends the session. The two men get into a heated conversation which I don’t hear. The Chicano professor is still pretty steamed when I talk to him a few minutes later.
After break, we have small groups with the assignment to talk about some concrete plan for what we will do back in our community. My group includes mostly people from Unitown – the married couple, the head of the returned prisoner’s group, the White woman who heads the faith-based organization (who leaves early), the white male police officer, and me – plus a black man from Segtown and a facilitator from Farmtown. I know there is already a lot going on in Unitown and everyone at the table is already involved in something. How is a randomly selected small group of people thrown together at a conference in Farmtown going to plan a project that would necessarily have to locate itself with respect to all the other projects in Unitown? How do we even know that we want to work with each other rather than all the other groups we are already working with? This is my only criticism of conference planning. While we wait to get going, the Black woman and I chat about how maybe we can have a book-writing support group back home, as each of us is trying to write a book.
We open with a discussion of a prior project to develop an Afrocentric class that, after a lot of work, ran aground because the white leaders of the school district called it racist. The man from Segtown talks at some length about “the 300 pound white gorilla,” Eurocentric behavior and racism. He says that we need to do work on something we have control over because if it is in the control of a school district “we will be litigating forever” – the school is Eurocentric and puts us in an inferior position. He says we should develop a multi-faceted mentor program, try to help people connect into trades and professions. Most of the people at the table say something positive about a mentoring program. I was especially struck by the returned prisoner’s statement. He says that he learned an enormous amount from mentors: “What was normal for me was abnormal for society. . . How to treat women, get up and go to work every day, or hug and kiss their children. I did not learn this in my dysfunctional family.” He picks up on the theme from his earlier talk about the children in men’s bodies, this time stressing the need for mentoring about relations and life skills. The Black woman from Unitown talks about a really broad agenda to include college preparation, occupational, parenting skills, life skills such as how to walk and speak and manage a checkbook. The Black male facilitator from Farmtown talks about how they run a men’s group for their black male students, who he says are lost, from the streets, and want to keep a thug mentality; he says they need to change to a proud black identity to get an education. (He is quick to add that they also run programs for women and other ethnic groups.) He offers to bring a busload of his students to Unitown once a week to mentor students there.
Listening to the discussion, which seems to focus mostly on Black identity and role models, I ask about the role of Whites in mentoring plans. Several Black people say Whites are needed and welcome, that young people need to learn how to relate to White people and those of all ethnic backgrounds, and give the example of the Circles of Support, which usually include white people. The man from Segtown adds that it is important to expand the discussion to include women and other ethnic groups.
The facilitator wants us to commit to the next step. I keep quiet; I think my plate is already full. The group agrees to explore options back in Unitown.