This post original appeared on TheRootDC.com:
Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 03/22/2013
'180 Days’ and ‘American Promise’: Two films that show racial and financial disparities in America’s school systems
By Eisa Nefertari Ulen
Two films scheduled to air on PBS in the coming days examine schooling in America and feature two vastly different populations. In 180 Days, a two-part documentary that spends one year in Washington’s DC Metropolitan High School, students are overwhelmingly poor, families are fractured by drug abuse and homelessness, and children struggle to resist the lure of criminal activity. In American Promise, a documentary that spends 12 years in New York City’s The Dalton School, students are overwhelmingly rich, families are cohered to high expectations and achievement, and children struggle to maintain academic excellence.
Though the populations featured in each film could not be more different, the young people in them are linked by race, and that one common element is so powerful that, though the external, day-to-day experiences in each school are vastly different, the internalized fears, the yearning to find one’s place, and, yes, the unseen yet ever-present and all-powerful force of institutionalized racism limiting the potential of each student could not be more achingly similar.
The conversations launched by each film are also achingly similar. After screenings for each movie, black parents clustered, huddled in their desire to reach the same end goal: How to achieve the best education for our children. How to win.
At DC Met, as the District public high school is lovingly called by the adults and young people featured in 180 Days, school principal Tanisha Williams Minor races and even rhymes to prepare her students to take the DC Comprehensive Assessment System tests (DC CAS). A bright and beautiful young woman willing to bop and rap to engage and motivate her students, Minor code-switches with ease, transitioning from standard English to colloquial expressions and expressing authentic closeness with her students - and the communities from which they come. The DC CAS scores in math and English are one in a series of about 15 metrics that Minor says the District of Columbia Public Schools system uses to rate schools and determine the professional destinies of the adults who staff them. If students fail, the principal and teachers fail, and school staff members may lose their jobs.
Teachers join students preparing for the DC CAS in the school cafeteria and help them rotate through learning centers where basic skills are drilled through worksheets, student play, and educational games. Seemingly liberated by Minor’s leadership style, one teacher jokes about one student’s use of the letter D, “as in ‘das’ not the correct answer.” A moment later in the film, after their shared laughter, the same teacher explains why she requires deeper thinking about the work from a group of successful students before they can move along to the next learning center: “I need you to understand why these answers are correct. You’re not going to fail this test on my watch.”
Without employing the near-militaristic use of discipline in many franchise charter schools popping up around the country, teachers at DC Met demand students reach their personal best - and scores improve. According to Minor, 100% of DC Met students improved on the DC CAS, though not as much as DC Public Schools Administrators wanted them to. In a system where the Black-White achievement gap is more than twice the national average, Minor considers a statistic like the 92 percent attendance rate she achieved with a student population prone to truancy an important victory. Her numbers, however, may not be enough to save the school.
Minor laments the numbers-driven approach to assessing schools that dominate public schooling and yearns for what she calls stories-driven assessment. During the Q&A following a screening of the film, Minor asked the audience to consider the experience of black students on the DC Metro, riding with early morning commuters who don’t look like them, or even at them, who don’t want to see them as they ride through rush hour on their way to school. Let’s start with that story, she offers.
Their anxiety doesn’t disappear in the afternoon. As DC Met In-School Suspension Coordinator and basketball coach Gary Barnes says in the film, consider that when some of these young people ride home on the Metro, they aren’t even sure they have a home to ride to. Their housing situation is so unstable, they may not be able to eat, may not know where to sleep, may not have clean clothes for the next school day. And the students in these situations will not tell their teachers this story. They simply show up, and in what one school social worker in the film calls the “Get Over It Society,” they have not had the opportunity to process their feelings. The young learner staying with someone other than whoever is listed in the official paperwork feels like their home situation is really none of the teacher’s business, Barnes says.
How will these kids respond when a teacher asks a simple question like where is your homework? Certainly not by stating they had no chance to complete it as they tried to figure out housing for the night.
The key, Barnes says, is to convince these young learners that the adults really want to help and not use the students as a statistic, to bump scores to save a job, or to dominate a league or division to get a trophy.
Minor uses the Big Picture Model at DC Met. When a student doesn’t have a pen, teachers simply supply one instead of denigrating him for not being prepared. By helping kids recognize their inherent greatness first, and then overcoming whatever obstacles are in place in order to help them in the world outside school, Minor says she and her staff are “moving a mountain every day.”
Coach Barnes moves mountains with honest talk. He tells players that if they win a championship in high school but can’t get a job after they graduate, then “sports has used you.” The school has won accolades, the coach has received recognition, but “you’re on the street looking for a job.” And, Barnes tells them with the same quiet passion as the teacher in the school cafeteria DC CAS drill learning center, I’m not going to let that happen to you.
Raven Q. selected DC Met over Anacostia High School because she wanted to be in the school’s very first graduating class. When her grandmother reported her drug-addicted mother to social services, Raven and her brother were sent to live in separate homes. In the film, Raven says she robbed people just to experience the daily sensation of placing her fist against her victim’s flesh. Attacking strangers, she says, enabled her to express her feelings.
After a close friend is shot multiple times and killed for stealing a cellular telephone, Raven determines to change the course of her young life. In the foster home where she lives, she shows one wall of her room, where she has hung t-shirts that are designed to pay homage to her peers who have died on the DC streets. On the opposite wall, she has hung memorabilia that celebrates her successes and motivates her, images like the test she took at DC Met that earned her a B-.
In her senior year, Raven joins a poetry club, where she reads Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son.” Another poet reads in his own work that he going to take “college classes with this 1.6 average.”
Raven learns to express herself on paper instead of across a victim’s face at DC Met - and she feels safe enough to write and share poetry in a school where, she said during a post-screening Q&A, teachers insist on showing students how important they are, who “heard my side,” she said, who “always cared.”
Raven wanted to go to college, but didn’t know how. Counselors at DC Met held her hand through the application process. In 180 Days, viewers will cheer when they see Raven ring a bell to celebrate her acceptance to Bennett College, an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) where she currently majors in social work. During her first semester at Bennett, Raven improved from her solid B- test score and earned placement on the school’s Honors and Dean’s Lists.
Dispelling the myth that children situated on the margins of American society and at the bottom in American schools will never obtain an undergraduate degree, use those credentials to get a job, and use that job to give back to the communities from which they come, as Raven says she wants to do because she “grew up in the system,” is one of the many stories Principal Minor wants to tell. These are the stories that should drive the public discourse about American education and so-called failing schools. It is a privilege to hear these stories as they are told in this film.
“180 Days” director/producer Jacquie Jones says three teachers didn’t sign the release forms to appear in the documentary until late in the filmmaking process. At a screening in DC, one of those three teachers approached Jones and said she was glad she had signed the release. “I want my mom and dad to see this,” she told Jones. “I want people to see what we do every day.”
“180 Days” reminds us that public education is a civil right. Listening to the stories in this powerful film is just one way of joining The Movement. Listening is one way to help all our children get to the end zone, to succeed in school systems that still have not been structured for them to win.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of the novel “Crystelle Mourning”. She can be reached at www.EisaUlen.com.
This post originally ran on TheRootDC.com:
Posted at 12:16 PM ET, 02/25/2013
Seth MacFarlane and The Oscars: What’s all the fuss?
By Eisa Nefertari Ulen
The Oscars got political again this year, though clearly not in the way many viewers may have preferred. Social media hummed with a cacophony of righteous clicks, but it was a drumbeat of outrage against the night’s master of ceremonies, Seth MacFarlane. Discontent, expressed in 140 characters or less, made a mad cadence down many a timeline before MacFarlane could even get through his performance of “The Boob Song”.
“Can someone kill seth macfarlane on stage that would be nice,” was typical of some of the more hardcore tweets. Even NPR weighed in this morning about how the reviews of MacFarlane were less than stellar in some parts.
But anyone familiar with Seth MacFarlane’s work expected him to teeter over the knife’s edge of good taste. This is the dude who created “Family Guy,” “American Dad,” “The Cleveland Show.” Someone with more power than MacFarlane even gave him the opportunity to hit The Big Screen, and Seth gave us “Ted.”
And last night was just as fresh. I don’t want waving peace signs. I don’t want an explicit request for greater diversity in the industry that purports to show us, bigger than life and in HD. I don’t want seductive yet vaguely paternalistic expressions of respect for women actresses. You want that? Dig in the crates. You’re gonna have to go back in the Academy Awards days to get that display of political correctness.
Me? I want exactly what I got last night. I want a 9-year-old black girl flexing muscles for millions of other 9-year-old black girls to see. (Beast it, Quvenzhane!) I want Robin Roberts bald and beautiful. I want Octavia Spencer just a little bit cocky on the mic. And I want a host willing to push buttons that will keep the audience awake, engaged, clicking about more than smoky eyes and body size.
Give me whole songs that are questionable, even outrageous, almost offensive. Comedy is the brutal art. It is supposed to hurt. So give me more of Oscar Night 2013, please.
And all the talk the day after.
So let’s offer a counter-narrative to all the negative talk about last night’s show. What does The Boob Song really mean? That Seth McFarland is a sexist, well, boob? Or, does the lyrical accuracy of Seth’s song and dance mean that we need to examine this truth - that Hollywood demands full-frontal female nudity? That nearly every actress that town produces, each a woman of incredible talent, must, at some point in her career, even sometimes at the pinnacle of her career, reveal her breasts? That Hollywood hates its women? That America hates its women?
I dug how Seth walked the racial line, too. The Denzel-played-in-the-Nutty-Professor-movies joke? That could have been a line from the seminal, ground-breaking, biting satire of Black life in Tinsel Town, Hollywood Shuffle. Yeah, that was a good line. Give it to me.
Give me McFarland’s perfectly-pitched awkwardness with just a pinch of diffidence. And with all that, give me the best news of all: At least this year, the show was memorable.
A few years after Hollywood Shuffle was produced, Phife Dog swore he’d “Never let a statue tell me how nice I am” on A Tribe Called Qwest’s “Award Tour”. In the defiant spirit of Golden Age hip hop, in celebration of the sheer numbers of black folk in the house last night, and (finally!) pushing past the Django juggernaut, here is a list of awards and shouts for folk from the red carpet to the last category called:
- Shout to Roshumba Williams for saying Quvenzhane Wallis’s name and not calling her “Little Q” on the red carpet.
- Tie for Best Keep it Real Moment: Kerry Washington on the red carpet for joking about how she poured a little out for the brothers upstate, and Queen Latifah just before the show for throwing up real hood peace signs and a smile.
- Two extra, unrelated shouts to The Queen: One for rescuing Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger last night, and another for never insisting that we call her Miss Dana Owens. I see you, East Orange!
- Shout to Quevenzhane’s mamma for dressing that child like a child should be dressed
- Shout to Octavia Spencer for working that dress: Make Way for the Big Girrrrls!
- Shout to Chris Tucker. You still look good, Smokey.
- Award for Most Beautiful Human Who Ever Played an Alien who Kinda Sometimes Looks like an Alien in a Really Beautiful Way: Zoe Saldana.
- Award for Best Sisters in Spirit Moment: Halle Berry and Robin Roberts. Said Halle: “So glad you’re here.” Said Robin: “I am. I am here.”
- Shout to Adele for channeling her Inner Black Girl on the red carpet (“I feel like Beyonce.”) and on stage (“And my man. I love you, baby!”)
- Awkward Award: Jamie Foxx. Don’t hit on the Destiny’s Child interviewing you while your college-aged daughter is standing right next to you, brother.
- Award for Best Re-Enactment of a Film using a Brown Sock Puppet: Seth McFarland
- Award for Best Crushed Velvet: Sam L.
- Shout to Shirley Bassey. I didn’t need to Google you to know you belong to us, sis.
- Award for Biggest Surprise of the Night: Michelle O.
- Award for the Biggest Winner who Lost Last Night: Quvenzhane takes it again. She the man.
- Award for Turn. Ing. It. Out.: J Hud. Say, word. Cuz I ain’t goin nowhere neither, chile.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of the novel Crystelle Mourning. She lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.
This article originally ran on TheRootDC.com:
Posted at 12:04 PM ET, 02/12/2013
President Obama: He must address causes of inner city gun violence in Chicago speech
By Eisa Nefertari Ulen
President Obama will go to Chicago this Friday to address the persistent problem of gun violence. The homicide rate in Chicago rivals
the death rate in war zones, and many want the president to shift the discourse beyond safe sound bites and offer real talk to the residents of this city where he launched his political career as a community organizer.
Among them is Cathy Cohen, David and Mary Winton Green Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and founder of The Black Youth Project.
“We are hoping that the president will detail a plan of action to help stem the violence,” Cohen says.
“This plan has to address many of the underlying factors and cannot rely on just policing and incarcerating black and Latino youth. We want the president to remind the country of the moral worth of black and Latino young people and to call for the country to devote the resources necessary to end the violence and provide opportunities for these young people and their communities.”
Founded in 2005, Cohen’s Black Youth Project (BYP) provides an online space for young people of color to speak, uncensored, about the issues affecting them. Considered one of the most respected organizations advocating for young African Americans, BYP launched a Change.org petition asking President Obama to speak out against gun violence that garnered more than 45,000 signatures. BYP also produces research on black youth at the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.
The underlying factors Cohen identifies as root causes of Chicago’s alarming murder rates are the underperformance of black schools, the unemployment of black youth, and what Cohen calls “the fractured nature of gangs in the city into smaller groups and the violent culture that surrounds them.”
Cohen also identifies the proliferation of illegal guns in Chicago’s communities of color, despite the strict gun laws in place there. These problems, systemic and inter-generational, are rooted in the soil of racism and classism and run so deep that they are considered impossible to yank from America’s garden. These problems are thought of like weeds that might be pulled away for one season but that reoccur every spring. The problem of the schools?: An overwhelming behemoth. One school is difficult enough to improve; trying to radically change and thus improve a school system is impossible – and political suicide.
The problem of unemployment?: Too closely related to the unfixable schools, statistically off the charts in communities where people were forced to work through the generations for hundreds of years for nothing, and an increasing problem in working class suburban communities where votes are essential to elected officials with aspirations to higher office at the federal level.
The problem of guns?: Too closely related to the schools and unemployment. An issue that ignites a raging public discourse only when the victims are white; an issue that places any elected official directly in the line of fire of the NRA. Americans have more often than not given up on these problems – and they have more often than not given up on the children directly impacted by them, too.
Ironically, even cruelly, children growing in the garden strangled by these weeds are expected to nevertheless compete with these weeds, and grow, even thrive, despite them. Ranked against children growing in gardens that are almost entirely weed-free, where an army of news reporters and psychologists and hang-wringing ordinary folk swoop in to dig and yank and tear those weeds away as best they can whenever one is found, our black and brown children are more likely than not sprayed with fix-it concoctions that often kill the spirit of the child while the weed itself only forms a resistance, gets stronger, grows roots that stretch even deeper.
Too few Americans seem to realize that the gardens overwhelmed by weeds are their gardens, too. Too few Americans seem to claim the children growing in them as their children, too.
“While we understand the instinct to blame young people and their ‘bad’ decisions for the gun violence experienced in Chicago,” Cohen says, “ the truth is we all have some responsibility for what is going on in Chicago. What we mean is that as a country we have allowed many black youth to go to subpar schools where there is little chance of securing the upward mobility promised in the American dream. We have watched as far too many neighborhoods have been decimated, marked by high unemployment, increasing poverty, and disproportionate incarceration. And while we each have tried to hold on to the possibility of a better future for our own children, we have often silently allowed that possibility to be foreclosed for other young people.
“We at the BYP,” Cohen continues, “believe that all young people deserve an equal chance to succeed and right now far too many Black youth do not have that equal chance. And while some might feel more secure by locking up those ‘bad’ people perpetrating violence, our 20 year experiment with excessive incarceration in black and Latino communities has shown that investing in policing and incarceration is not the answer.”
Ordinary Americans have been on the frontlines of creating radical change that transforms communities, improves the nation, and inspires people across the globe. We’ve changed whole systems of control and domination, so folk could begin to imagine a better way to be in this world. Let’s honor that American legacy and refuse to believe that the nation that elected the first African American president to two terms could neglect the young people throughout this country who look just like him. Let’s refuse to believe that the murder of Hadiya Pendleton, following on the heels of the murder of Trayvon Martin, rooted in the murder of Emmett Till, will not compel Middle America to rise and stand and act. Let’s create a way for suburbanites and rural dwellers to work with city folk, city folk who have labored to solve the problem of violence in their communities through the generations, but have lacked the support, the fervent, zealous determination on the part of people who are not their neighbors, to get the job done.
As Cohen knows after years of grassroots advocacy and action, “Politicians in Washington can both direct attention to these issues and devote resources to supporting programs that we know are effective in stemming the violence.”
President Obama could be – and should be – the shining leader who transforms whole communities and alters our collective sense of what is possible in places where children are shot more frequently than soldiers. Let’s hope his Chicago speech this Friday truly elevates the public discourse and helps get us all to a better America, together.
Eisa Ulen is the author of “Crystelle Mourning”, a novel that examines the impact of gun violence on women and calls for healing in the African American community. You may contact her online at EisaUlen.com or on Twitter @EisaUlen.
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