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Standing for ALL our Children

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I came across this article that I wrote in 1996 … these are the roots of my work as I finish the hard work of of designing and growing a new public charter school in Midtown Detroit (which is the reason for my silence in this past year). In three weeks, we will have successfully completed one year (and celebrated with our 346 students and their families) at Experiencia Preparatory Academy. Cheers to beginning year two! 

Standing for All Our Children

— Sasha Roberts

On June 1, 1996, the largest demonstration for children in U.S. history took place in Washington, D.C. More than 300,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the first ever Stand for Children Day. The words of a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock flashed through my head:

Step by step the longest march can be won, can be won.
Many stones to build an arch, singly none, singly none.
Any by union what we will, can be accomplished even still.
Drops of water turn a wheel, singly none, singly none.

As I rounded the corner from the elevator to the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I encountered a sea of color: Hundreds of thousands of people from every nationality, state, race, religion, age, sexual and political persuasion and social class were gathered.

It stretched from the very steps where I stood with my two sons, Alexander six years old and Ramon four years old, all the way to the Jefferson Memorial on the horizon. It wasn’t until this moment, from this perspective at Lincoln’s feet looking out onto rather than on the ground level looking into the multitudes of people who had traveled from as far as California, that I felt the reason we were all here.

Ramon woke suddenly from napping in the stroller (the reason we’d taken the elevator and not the steps) with the exclamation “MAMA! look at all these people.” I replied, “And you know why they are all here? Because each and every one of them cares about children.”

He then asked, “All of them?” An African-American grandmother who has custody of her six grandchildren smiled and replied, “Yes baby, all of us here.”

Silently taking in this visual, powerful promise of hope, I made a mental note that I would never have to feel alone in this struggle.

Yes, we heard Marian Wright Edelman tell us that each person can and must help–and not hinder–our children growing up safe, healthy, educated, productive and moral, and that each citizen must ask whether our personal, community, business, and public actions make it easier or harder for children to grow up safe and well.

But the challenge Edelman put before us was “the most important way citizens can stand for children is to struggle (and it is a challenging task) to live in-deed what we teach in words. We must also work together to weave a web of family, community and government support at all levels that leaves no child behind. No one raises a child alone.”

June 1, 1996, was a seed in my garden of hope. And those of us who rode through the night on the eight buses from Detroit to the National Stand (thanks to generous support from UAW Locals 22 and 600), who worked to organize, publicize, raise funds for scholarships enabling mothers and children and homeless teenagers to attend, who talked to youth groups, elder groups, religious and civic groups, and who held rallies, meetings and walkathons in conjunction with the Stand for Children (more than 250 across the country on June 1) have begun to build a “Community of Hope.”

Love and concern for children, hard work, and unity of purpose made June 1 an inspirational and historic day and will make our movement to “leave no child behind” a success. In Detroit, we are already moving forward. Some are focused on volunteering, others on lobbying or writing letters; some who have never been involved in a child-related cause before will “walk our talk.”

Across the country, there are many examples of groups coming back from the National Stand and getting to work. In Detroit, many of us who attended the National Stand continue to meet at the First Unitarian Universalist Church to plan future actions. On September 5 Erma Henderson, lifelong political activist, and community leader organized a coalition to support her annual Conference of Concerns at Cobo Hall focusing on our tasks of Standing for Children. And on October 5, 3500 of us stood on the State Capitol steps in Lansing renewing our commitment to the work of standing for children, every day.

This campaign has instigated a new level of consciousness on the plight of our children and our determination for change. We will change this country person by person, group by group, community by community, state by state until no child is left behind.

To quote Marian Wright Edelman, “If each one of us every day lights our small candle, it just might be the one that sparks the movement to save our children.”

(For more information contact Stand for Children, 1832 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington D.C.; fax (202)234-0217, email TellStand@aol.com; or call 1-800-663-4032.)

The Politics of Language and White Privilege

It is easy to underestimate the importance and power of sociopolitical aspects of language… Interaction, negotiation, interpretation, intended meanings, misunderstandings, and pragmatics all underscore those roles.  When such considerations are extended into communities, regions, nations, and continents, the political side of language becomes evident (Brown, D. 2001 Teaching by Principles P. 115).

As a white speaker of standard English, who grew up in a white suburban neighborhood, and not ever having much contact with any people of color or English Language Learners, my white privilege was invisible and unknown to me.  I was not conscious of it until I moved away from home, and consciously made friends and business associations with people of diverse race and cultures.  At first, I was shocked and unbelieving that the incredible injustices that happened to my friends on a regular basis, could be happening.  I didn’t understand how anyone could treat another badly – based on a difference in race, language, sexual orientation, or age.  The only comparison I had – was the gender bias I had experienced growing up in the early sixties.

Many years before becoming a teacher, I met Louie, a full blood Lakota, the same age as me, living in between Ann Arbor and South Dakota, a foot in each culture, simultaneously.  Though our friendship, I embarked on a personal journey of understanding the language and cultural barriers of being Native American.

Louie was raised in a mission school.  The children were taken away from their families to be schooled by nuns who hit them with rulers when they spoke in their native language.  Louie told me that on the weekends the children were let loose into the canyon, and as their families had no means of transportation, they were cut off from their families, culture, and language. They were not embraced or welcomed into the white mainstream culture. They were made to feel powerless. There has been little written on this subject of Indian Mission Schools, in spite of the fact that so many individuals were deeply scarred by their experiences. This is a subject worthy of another post, but for those readers who are interested there is a powerful movie called Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School (2008) – that is worth watching! Producer Gayle Ross gently but purposefully exposes the practice of assimilating indigenous children into a foreign white culture, and the devastating effects on these young people as well as on generations of Native Americans to follow.

On the reservation, Louie was a spiritual leader, a singer for a medicine man and an artist – a maker of wooden flutes and prayer pipes. There were few to no paying jobs on the reservation so he left for Ann Arbor, where he worked for minimum wage, buffing floors on the midnight shift at K Mart.  He felt foreign and uncomfortable in both worlds and belonged fully to neither.  He never graduated from high school, and viewed himself as not being able to read or write well and I inferred that he doubted whether he could do any better.  He knew that his lack of a high school diploma is what kept him from getting a higher paying job, and felt that his job working the midnight shift at K Mart was better than having no job at all.  He could find no real home in either place, culturally or economically.  He was caught between two different worlds, which affected him socially, economically and politically. I listened painfully to stories Louie told me of moving back and forth between “the Res” and Ann Arbor. I don’t know where Louie is now. It seems he has vanished. I have a sketchbook that he gave me for safe keeping, that I’d like to return it to him. I am grateful for the lessons he taught me, which opened my eyes in a very personal way and have shaped the kind of teacher I have become and I’d like to tell him.

This relates to something I read recently, suggesting the very democratic idea – that in a limited sense, all human languages can be said to be both equal and perfect.  It is a principle I agree, but it is an idea, which is not extended into communities, regions, nations and continents. It is perhaps, what I am striving for and the very reason why as an urban social-reconstructivist teacher I find myself teaching reading in a school with diverse culture and languages.  The personal experiences of many of my friends have taught me that if in our hearts we believe this “equal and perfect principal” to be a universal truth, it fails to hold water in the real world of white privilege.

Teaching reading and writing is a political act.  As teachers of conscience, we can’t ignore the sociopolitical aspects of language – we must always consider them. This is the hard work and hidden curriculum of being an urban teacher. We must roll up our sleeves – there is so much to be done!