Conversation with parent advocates on school integration

On June 30th, 2017, Natalie Zwerger, the Director of the NYU Center for Strategic Solutions, sat down with 3 parent advocates and activists to explore the complexities of school integration. Barbara Gross is a Principal Associate for Community Organizing and Engagement with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. She is a White woman and mother. Natasha Capers is Coordinator for the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice. She is a Black woman and mother. Megan Hester is a Senior Associate for Education Organizing with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. She is a White woman and mother.

NATALIE ZWERGER: I am so excited to have you all here for a conversation on school integration. I have just one question for you in my notes, what are the complexities of school integration?

NATASHA CAPERS: I will take it on. I think some of the complexities around school integration… especially as it currently is…one really obvious complexity is how neighborhoods are set up and how we actually see community. Some of the other complexities are how we narrowly define integration or segregation or desegregation to think of only as a movement of bodies or movement of student bodies and not adult bodies, like how do we mix that up. We tend to think of only now and we leave out the complexities of how we did it before and it did not work that well and people feel hurt. And then the power dynamics shift so communities of color then feel marginalized again even in their own communities.

NATALIE ZWERGER: Right.

BARBARA GROSS: I feel that’s what we heard yesterday when we had this meeting with some parents of color who are leaders in [a district experiencing gentrification] and it was talking about what’s happening there with like white folks sending their kids to their schools. You really felt the raw pain, the rawness of it, the anticipation of it and the worry of it, the mistrust of people’s agenda. It was pretty powerful. In my limited experience, it feels like the only people excited about “integration,” in the traditional sense, are white people and I don’t think for bad reasons…they want their kids to be in diverse environments. I think that is the motivation.

NATASHA CAPERS: Yea, assume best intents. I always think that is really, especially amongst progressive folks, they want their kids to have a more diverse friend base and peer base and so, yea, I think there is a piece of that, a big piece.

NATALIE ZWERGER: Yea, and yet, even in that, even just hear the two of you say that out loud, it is so centered in whiteness. It is a great intention- white folks wanting their kids to have this exposure- but it’s centered entirely in white kids and what white families want for their white kids, and it hides behind those good intentions, paying no mind to the harm done to communities of color, which are already communities in existence…

NATASHA CAPERS: Full, complete communities.

NATALIE ZWERGER: Exactly.

MEGAN HESTER: Along with integration this is where culturally responsive education comes in…there is usually not a look at how, when white people come into a school, that whiteness dominates the culture and the dynamics of the school. There is often a desire to have our children in diverse environments, but not necessarily an awareness or desire to have an awareness or a consciousness of how do we not take over an environment. At my daughter’s school which is predominantly immigrant parents and the white parents communicate predominantly through email and the immigrant parents don’t, so anything that happens over email is going to be white dominated. Period. So, we may want our kids in a diverse environment but that doesn’t mean we actually want to behave differently which creates a problem. For so many parents the whole frame of integration is just so offensive. The whole idea that the way to improve a school is to bring in white children is inherently offensive and doesn’t interrogate or challenge the conditions that mean that Black and Brown schools are deprived of resources and teaching expertise. The whole idea of integration takes that as an immutable fact and then suggests that bringing whiteness in will improve it and ignores the fact that Black and Brown schools aren’t a priority and aren’t invested in. I was thinking about the research that is often cited that shows that one of the most effective methods for improving education for kids of color is integration because their academics improve, but the whole basis of that research is that the schools that they would be in otherwise are shitty because of the racist system. So, sure bringing in whiteness is going to “make them better,” but that totally misses the point.

BARBARA GROSS: It’s so wrong. So, in terms of that complexity- you asked that question- actually school administration and district administration – and I don’t know if they are Black or White- is responding to the White parents and raising the same issues as parent leaders of color to no avail.

MEGAN HESTER: And elected officials too.

BARBARA GROSS: So, it’s like so ingrained and there is so much resentment about that, understandably.

NATASHA CAPERS: I mean it’s the same thing we see with gentrification. Like there has been a pothole in the middle of the street for 5 years and people from communities of color have been calling constantly to have that pothole fixed and then here come the gentrifiers and here come the White families and then they get a few calls from White families and it gets fixed and it’s like “Why didn’t these people ever call 311 before? We just called and it was fixed.” And it’s like…WE HAVE. WE BEEN. But no one cared. You have to investigate that. That is the same thing happening in schools. The fact that we have stood on steps and steps in faces when it snowed. In sleet. In rain. Walked uphill to Albany 150 miles from NYC to say our schools are under-resourced. We don’t have any books. We don’t have any libraries. And I guarantee you that schools that are integrated in neighborhoods that are gentrifying will have those resources and it’s like…I literally just said that to you. It’s like what an example of erasure is in the actual physical right now literally happening in front of your face.

BARBARA GROSS: Even when you have won stuff with CEJ and others, it has been with blood, sweat, and tears…very basic stuff…

NATASHA CAPERS: The other complexity around wanting our children to have a diverse experience is how it is centered in whiteness and I think about the ways that I never, as a person of color, as a woman of color, ever get to opt out of whiteness. As a Black woman, I can’t opt out of whiteness.

NATALIE ZWERGER: Even if you have good intentions, you can’t do it?

(Laughter)

NATASHA CAPERS: Even if I am just gonna stay in the house with my kids and my family and I turn on the tv, I can’t opt out of it. There are full shows where I can watch hours and days and weeks of and never see a person of color and it’s cool, I love The Honeymooners…I’ve watched it continuously, and never ever seen one, not one…but that can’t be said for other folks. White folks can completely opt out of blackness, can completely opt out of the Latino experience, can completely opt out of our experience as marginalized communities cause you can, cause there is a mechanism to do that.

MEGAN HESTER: Natasha, you say this all the time, but there is plenty of diversity in Black and Brown schools. Naming the entry of white children “diversity” is also totally offensive.

NATASHA CAPERS: Cause not all Black is the same.

MEGAN HESTER: It really just means White kids.

NATASHA CAPERS: You could go to a school that is 95% Black and Brown but it does not actually mean it’s a monolith. You have different nationalities, you have language diversity, religious diversity, and there are a lot of layers within those communities. Even as a Black woman, an American Black woman, most of my friends were Puerto Rican and Dominican, from the Caribbean so all of our experiences were different. I used to go to one friend’s house and then another and have a completely different experience. There is real diversity in those skills. So, when we talk about it, it’s a code word, a proxy for just adding whiteness. On the reverse when we talk about White schools, it’s a proxy for adding some pepper to the salt…and that is not diversity and that is not integration. Adding a few to the many is actually not integration. And that is actually the most offensive way in which we can think about it but that seems to be the only way we think about it.

MEGAN HESTER: A Black parent in one school we heard from that used to be predominantly Black but is now predominantly White in a gentrifying neighborhood said there has been this push to have workshops about talking to our kids about race. That is an example of something White families want to do and they want to make a push for it for parents in the school and this parent was like, “What do I need to talk to my kids about race for?”

NATASHA CAPERS: She was like, “I do it all the time.”

MEGAN HESTER: She was like, “I don’t need to have a special facilitated conversation with my kids about race.” It was just an example of that White frame and I think the White parents really have no idea. It is driven by good intentions but it is also driven by a real blindness to how people have different experience in the world. That is how White people come into an environment, myself included, with a sense of entitlement and assumption that we are welcome, and assumption that we have something to bring and that thing is valuable. In a lot of these gentrifying schools, one of these things is money. What we hear from parents of color, is that this idea that you can dangle money and make everybody jump…White parents see that as benevolent and generous…

NATASHA CAPERS: And this is how the world functions.

BARBARA GROSS: That’s true too.

MEGAN HESTER: The parents of color perceive it as offensive and as blackmail.

NATALIE ZWERGER: Which is very much attributed to this idea that, if the world invites you in with a warm hug everywhere you go, then you expect to be greeted with a warm hug everywhere you go…whether you are racially erasing folks, whether you are a gentrifier…and I love that Natasha uses that as an active role because we talk about gentrification like it’s a thing that happens, not that it is a thing that is perpetrated by a group of people…they are choosing, they are pushing in and they are marginalizing and deepening the levels of marginalization…

NATASHA CAPERS: And that its ongoing.

NATALIE ZWERGER: Exactly.

NATASHA CAPERS: The Meatpacking District wasn’t super dope just a decade ago and then White people pushed in and it was great, it was hip and “up and coming” and they priced folks out and then they had to find the next…so it’s like these patterns that we see. I use the example of my own neighborhood…I live in Brownsville and had gone to school in East New York right next door. Those were not always Black and Brown communities. My Nana grew up there and went to high school there. Those were White Jewish communities for generations. Then you have redlining. You have White flight. All of these things happening, most of which were by design. And then it transforms into a Black and Brown community. So now you see the other side of that which is gentrification taking over…and now people are saying you are going to have another new community…I’m like why am I supposed to trust this trend. What history shows me is that…as cool as this is now…it won’t be in a decade or decade and a half and there will be another wave. So, I can’t depend on the migration patterns of other people to shore up my community. That is not how we should be thinking about how we built community. Is that how we should be thinking about how we should be funding schools? So, if these folks come in, the community get these resources and then when they leave, now what? Now we’re not great no more? Now we don’t get the resources no more? Now you’re not gonna fix our potholes no more? That ain’t cool.

NATALIE ZWERGER: It’s literally colonization. It is quite literally colonization. We will take the resources that look good to us, it’s up and coming and exciting to us, and when we are done, we will leave.

NATASHA CAPERS: And the important part that gets lost is that it gets attributed just to individual people like these are the individual people that live on my block and now I’m mad at these people. When in reality it’s a system, that allows it to happen, that fuels it to happen, that doesn’t actually need you to do anything for it to happen, cause white supremacy is going run without you saying “Hey I would like to be a part of this system.” It’s just gonna do what it does and this is what it does. So, we have to think above the system and the problem is we get so caught up in the individual relationships that happen because it is so hurtful and because none of us have the full complexity of the real historical context to be able to sit in it and deal with it. It took me a good 2 years to realize why I was so mad about this integration conversation and why I kept opting out of it. It took 2 years! And I do this work every day! So, what are we expecting everyone else to be able to do?

NATALIE ZWERGER: Well, the system you are describing…this is racism. This is us and how great we are talking about individual racism which allows for folks to say, “That is not me. I’m not a member of the KKK.” It allows folks to distance themselves. But if we are not having that complex conversation about the fact that the system moves with or without you actively participating. If you do nothing, it perpetuates itself because that is the status quo just operating as it has for generations. It is just finding new avenues- pushing into Brooklyn, now it’s the Bronx.  And like you said, this is the wave of now, and there will be another and another.

NATASHA CAPERS: And it’s not my neighbor’s fault.

MEGAN HESTER: As White people, we have a tendency to come into places and imagine there was nothing there before us- like the history of this country- and that is how it is in these communities and schools. We often neglect to look at…What has come before us? What is the history of this neighborhood? What have people been working on? What do people want? What have the challenges been? What have the priorities been? What has been achieved in the schools and why? And so that is not a good place to start to build relationships. We expect that- because of the way a person moves through life with privilege- a lot of us tend to expect and assume that what we want is what everyone wants. So that is something that folks who are coming in to integrate need to be very aware of and conscious in countering in our behavior because otherwise things will proceed the way colonization proceeds.

BARBARA GROSS: That’s a complexity.

(Laughter)

BARBARA GROSS: So these White folks deciding they are sending their kids to Black and Latino schools are patting themselves on the back for it and then there is a realization if folks challenge them, then there is a horror of people facing it and I imagine a real paralysis or freaking out about “What do I do?”

NATALIE ZWERGER: Neither of which are good ways to start a relationship when you come into a community.

BARBARA GROSS: White folks might then think they should just go full steam ahead and not let these thoughts get in their way. Or maybe the move their kids somewhere else. I honestly don’t know what the answer is in terms of resources in terms of capacity to address these issues.

MEGAN HESTER: White folks who come to this spot where this is an issue also face an enormous amount of peer pressure to send our kids to schools outside of district to specialized schools that are predominantly White. So it’s not a great choice and there haven’t been resources or support from the DOE or elsewhere to convene communities or build capacity to figure this out. The choices are bad on all sides. Also, one thing we haven’t mentioned yet is that the amount of schools this integration discussion impacts versus the amount of attention it gets in the media is very telling. You would think it was the entire city. In fact, most kids in this city will not face integration in this sense and there is not enough attention to the quality of education in those schools.

NATALIE ZWERGER: We just spent 25 minutes on one question, “What are some of the complexities of school integration?” And so all that you just said and then we are surprised when folks don’t come to a town hall or want to reach across the table. This idea of relationship-building… we can’t even talk about relationships until we think about being in the same space and how much each of us walks in with in terms of history and emotion in even entering this type of dialogue across race, culture, ethnicity, and other identities.

Learn more about CEJ here.

Learn more about Annenberg here.

Learn more about NYU’s Center for Strategic Solutions here.

Natalie Zwerger, the Director of the NYU Center for Strategic Solutions, is a White, Puerto Rican educator and advocate for racial justice.

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