The final session of the two-day conference I’ve been describing in the “Farmtown” posts is supposed to be reports from the small groups that met in the morning. These reports get longer and the discussion gets more animated with each successive speaker. As with the sermon, I’ve tried to capture the flavor of the longer speeches. Again what interests me is the way people weave different themes together when they talk.
The first group decided to work on more parental involvement in the schools, and focused on developing a program to accomplish this. (Nobody talks about the problem that there is a fundamental conflict at the core of parental involvement: the schools want parents to be involved so parents will do what the school wants them to do, while parents want to be involved so the school will do what the parents want them to do. I think this, but don’t bring it up, although I have at other meetings in UniTown sometimes.)
The second group took a brainstorming approach and came back with large sheets of paper full of ideas and proposed solutions. Their main emphasis was to list the many groups that are involved with these issues and to develop program to increase the relations among existing organizations and to increase overall community involvement. One proposal from group two is “outlaw zero tolerance.” One Black woman (a district attorney) not from the group speaks up and says, “well you want zero tolerance for some things.” We then get into a vigorous discussion/debate with a lot of speakers (including me) about zero tolerance policies and whether discretion is good or bad. The discussion goes toward a critique of policies that eliminate thinking and judgment in deciding how to respond to problems and then to a rebuttal that there are things you have to be against, you need school safety. I said that I could imagine a circumstance in which even bringing a gun to school would not warrant expulsion and sketched a narrative about an heirloom 19th century rifle (which I made up on the spot) that made everyone laugh but did not seem to persuade anyone who did not already agree with me. No consensus.
The third group reports a lot of ideas about schools: Make students be part of the rule-making process. Social workers in the school. Think about the goals of the school and address them. Extra curricular activities. There is discussion about not always blaming the teachers and the need to get parents helping in the classroom. “Look at whole system.” The community organizer (see Farmtown #6) gives what I think is a very well-taken speech. She says: There is too much pointing at the kids, you also need to point at other people. We need to organize for systemic change, hold people accountable. People have to get together and look at the whole. It is purposeful that all of us are competing for limited dollars for programs and competing against detention programs that have high failure rates and get more money, a social program with that failure rate would never get that much money. We need to get key stakeholders involved. And elect people who will make change. We need not just write to legislators, but to be a powerful force with elections.
The fourth group is the one I was in. I wonder how the report will go. It is given by the black man from SegTown. As several times before, he gives a very long talk about his own experiences and opinions, which are interesting to me, although his way of occupying floor time might be considered inappropriate in some groups. He talks again about his son’s experiences teaching, stressing that the son is mixed race and cannot tell whether he is “Black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, or Arab.” He describes a case of a 12-year-old threatening to hit another child with a fire extinguisher then pushing a child through a window; the police took the child to jail although the son did not want them to. His son offered food and child care so parents could come to the schools; they’d bring the whole family to eat because this was their best chance at a meal. (This image really hits me.) He says: The poor need resources. A lot of the problem is racism, there too much emphasis on symptom and not the disease. You got to do small things, not too big. We have to make a difference one at a time.
Then he tells a longer story that really strikes me as it unfolds. I was mentoring women trying to get them to college, they had a stroke, I never asked them about their personal lives, they each had a stroke because their sons went to prison, I did not know because I was busy helping with them going to college, writing term papers. I did not know about the other problems. One woman got beat up. Mentoring is important, the people in these situations don’t make good choices, they have choices bad and worse, they don’t even get to good. Under stress people panic and the only decision they make is bad. Who do we mentor? People already in jail, children? Preschool? Parents? We are in such a crisis we should deal with all of them. I thought I’d been doing my job mentoring, but I had not realized how bad it had gotten, and I did not realize until my son started working in the school. He said while his son was caring about the kids he was teaching, he (the father) was trying to pull every political string he could to get his son transferred out of the school where he was into one in a safer area, but his son wants to go back to the same school. Then he goes on: I raised a lot of hell, caused trouble for every employer I ever had. Change only comes about through some kind of conflict. It’s a seven-headed hydra. Money is drying up for the people we are talking about. There is no money in these communities. No jobs there any more. Without financial resources you are not going to have a healthy environment for kids to grow up in. We should do all the things we say we will do, but when you cut off one head another one will grow back. We live in a Eurocentric society. I was astonished yesterday to learn that half our children are labeled as learning disabled. The label says we don’t have to educate that child. People in the room yesterday yelled at me and said that we Blacks are equally responsible because we get money for SSI when our children are labeled disabled. We talked about mentoring, but in the final analysis it won’t solve the problem because we are part of the problem. We talked about a six month time frame for setting up mentoring.
The speaker is followed by a wide-ranging discussion with a lot of participation from many people. Someone says: ” This is a whole community problem, when the child in the community cannot read. It is no wonder that they act up in class if they cannot read.” There is discussion about how we will connect with other groups, how we need new paradigms, how we need actions in the community.
We are past the announced ending time. A conference organizer stands up to make closing remarks, to end on a definite note. We don’t have plans here, but you can generate something. We (the task force who convened the conference) are committed to a five year plan, we will keep working, we hope others will become involved, we will have a strategy to attack this thing. We hoped that groups from community would come here, then go back into the community to work as a community team. We just want to be the initial body to encourage teams in your community where the real work will get done. You need to form the network you will need as you take on this issue. The racial serpent will rear its head. You have to be prepared. We will keep working, we will meet again.
Next: The last Farmtown post: Reflections on the experience