Learning to be silent and stand by: accompaniment training to support our immigrant friends

The word friends was included without quotes in the title of this post because the unadorned word properly reflects the core values of community, solidarity, advocacy, and recognition of humanity expressed at an accompaniment training held at New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith/nonfaith group fighting for immigrant rights, in midtown Manhattan this past Monday. Accompaniment as defined by the presenters is a form of “advocacy for others without confrontation,” a way community members can stand in solidarity with immigrants who are facing different kinds of hearings and check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Something I loved about the presentation was the emphasis on seeing this form of advocacy not as a savioristic enterprise – volunteers are not there to “save” or “speak for” the immigrants who are going through these difficult experiences. Attempting to do so is a means by which to silence, to pave over the extraordinary efforts that are already taking place in immigrant communities, where the battle has been taken up by families, houses of worship, schools, and other centers of strength and communion in the fight for the right to live with dignity. We are simply standing with them, with our friends and neighbors. According to the presenters, judges in the New York City immigration court system have said that the presence of accompaniment volunteers is “critical” to the decision-making process regarding whether an immigrant defendant will, for example, be issued a bond or given more time to find an attorney if they don’t have one. Essentially, the paradox emerges that judges are more likely to be fair if they see that an immigrant defendant is surrounded by community members, e.g., volunteers, especially older White women, like many of those in attendance with me tonight.


Source: Reuters / Kyle Grillot

I will be signing up to participate in various accompaniment days. We can’t take pictures inside the courthouses and of course cannot speak of specifics of the experience. That won’t matter, and in a way, the dignity involved in not trying to speak or get attention or command authority, which those of us with power in this country by nature of our skin or bank accounts or language or status unconsciously assume as a birthright, will be beautiful. I’ll be standing alongside my friends and neighbors, using my Spanish when I can, my Whiteness and my privilege as a grad student with a flexible schedule, and my anger, sorrow, and energy to do my part in helping save our entire community.

Advertisements

Crying us a river: the New York Times’ lament of the poor education of detained migrant children

The expression “cry someone a river” according to Wiktionary has two definitions:

  1. (idiomatic, often sarcastic) To weep profusely or excessively in the presence of another person.
  2. (idiomatic, usually sarcastic, by extension) To try to obtain the sympathy of another person by complaining or sniveling.

I’ll focus on the first definition. The New York Times published an article on July 6th entitled “In a Migrant Shelter Classroom, ‘It’s Always Like the First Day of School.'” The article discusses the ongoing challenges in the education of migrant youth being held in detention centers for days and weeks at a time, mostly from the perspective of their teachers and those who visit to monitor for human rights compliance and violations. According to the article, the teachers who attend to the education of these children are working with limited curriculum (educational programming), resources, and training (some are not certified to teach), and they lament this. The author of the article likewise laments this state of affairs, citing a troubling example of a human rights worker who visited one of these detention facilities:

At Berks County Residential Center, an ICE facility in Pennsylvania, there are two classrooms, one for children aged 2 to 11 and another for children 12 to 18, according to Eleanor Acer, of the nonprofit Human Rights First. Ms. Acer, who has visited the center several times, said that the wide age span left the older children in each group bored, and that much of the instruction was done through computers and worksheets.

She added that some teachers were unable to communicate effectively in Spanish, and that classes cycle through the curriculum every two weeks, meaning students who stay longer repeat the same material.

“The impression is that they are not really taught much of anything,” Ms. Acer said.

This of course is a terrible situation. The odds are stacked against the teachers and, much more importantly, the students in these classrooms, who have been struggling with trauma, abuse, stress, inappropriate medication with psychiatric drugs, and, of course, a senseless and inhuman incarceration experience that does not see any immediate resolution, in spite of a federal judge’s order that children be reunited with their parents (which apparently isn’t even possible for some children, whom the Trump administration has lost track of). All of us in education shake our heads at such insurmountable odds, at the injustice, at the loss of opportunity to learn and grow of these children, of the potential damage this may cause them in future educational contexts and, by implication, in future opportunities after school.


Source: https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/We-Protect-ICE-Trump-Tells-Rallying-Crowd-as-Thousands-of-Migrant-Children-Await-Reunification-20180708-0007.html

But here’s the thing: Those of us who work with immigrant youth in public schools, particularly in large urban centers like New York City, see a version of this same story in our public school system every damn day. It is an ongoing injustice that we do not have the resources (including classroom space, materials, support staff, etc.), the sort of dynamic, flexible curriculum that can support and include all of our diverse learners, including newcomers (recently arrived immigrant students) and students who are categorized as SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education), or the consistent training and support that teachers working in our cities’ public schools require to educate fairly, justly, and appropriately.

The Times mentions that HHS requires that the schooling provided for detained migrant children “[take] into account their ‘linguistic ability’ as well as ‘cultural diversity and sensitivity.'” For god’s sake: Our education system doesn’t do this now. We do not support our Brown or Black or immigrant students in public schools now, preferring to focus on individualizing, psychology-based strategies like mindfulness and resilience/grit which make children responsible for “resolving” their challenges while ignoring the structural issues that non-White, lower-income children experience like poverty, unstable housing, disproportionate policing and punishments in and out of schools, and other issues derived from systemic racism, xenophobia, and marginalization. We do not recognize that the slashes our country’s leaders have made to the education budget at the federal level and policy mandates that maintain our myopic, maniacal focus on testing punish our public schools, their teachers, and our students, all the while justifying moves to privatize and militarize. The following quote rings so hollow when we consider the state of affairs most children of color, immigrant children, and poor children experience in the day-to-day now in our public schools:

“You can only imagine the children surrounding them, how that impacts their education.”

Cry me a river. Yes, these migrant children are facing bald myriad injustices, but the reality is that their situation, lamentable though it absolutely is, is an extreme version of the same story of heartlessness, blindness, exclusion, and marginalization that millions of children in U.S. public schools face right now. We who are U.S.-born, and especially those of us who are White, should recognize that while these are not crocodile tears per se, the professing of ignorance will not do.

I’ve made my point, but I have to mention the last kick in the pants that shows up in the paternalistic final quote included in the article, taken from Ms. Baez, one of the teachers who work with the young people:

“The kids are very responsive, very glad to be in school learning and very eager to learn English.”

Well, what the hell else would they do? These children are prisoners. They are desperate for stability, for human contact, for stimulation, for any hope that correct and obedient behavior will get them out. And we can’t forget that our public outcries for this to stop, forceful and beautiful though they are, have many more lives awaiting their calls for justice.

The threat of blindness: the problems with merging education and labor

Something that has gotten little attention in the news lately is the fact that under discussion is the merging of the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Education at the federal level, a conversation that was apparently inspired by businesswoman and First Daughter Ivanka Trump. The fact that this momentous change is under consideration is understandably obscured by current news about the separation of asylum-seeking migrant parents and their children at the Mexican-U.S. border, which results in illegal incarceration, trauma, and the destruction of family units. Important to our thinking is the consciousness that this seemingly recent stage of of politics which is drawing our attention (and, perhaps, morbidly creating an opportunity for broad, ecumenical, supra-political unity on what amounts to violence and abuse) is in reality part of a much longer history of dehumanization of immigrants coming to this country seeking work, succor, or opportunity.

According to CNN, the proposed merger is part of a major government overhaul, which Secretary of Education Betsy Devos claims to be a means by which to “reduce the federal footprint in education and to make the federal government more efficient and effective.” As Devos has argued publicly since her appointment in early 2017, states and individual municipalities should have control over what happens in their schools, overlooking the fact that the federal government continues to exert influence through funding policies as well as constitutional protections of student’s civil rights, including protection against discrimination (see here, herehere , and here for more information about this ongoing tension).


By Lexicon, Vikrum [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney stated that this merger “makes tremendous sense. Because what are [these departments] both doing? They’re doing the same thing. They’re trying to get people ready for the workforce. Sometimes it’s education. Sometimes it’s vocational training.” Essentially, Mulvaney is articulating a shift that has been taking place in educational thinking in our country over the last several decades, a progression which included Ronald Reagan’s pledge in 1981 to eliminate the Department of Education in a time when “big government” received increasing criticism. Reagan’s pledge, unfulfilled though it remained, referenced his and other conservatives’ ongoing push to make education a process of job training, a position illustrated in his public speeches in the 1960s in which he argued that “taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” (That Reagan was a mediocre student and didn’t seem to care about his own schooling is perhaps a separate conversation.)

Two questions to address are these: how are we defining schooling, and how are we defining education? What is the purpose? Yes, schooling prepares us to emerge into and participate in the adult world, but this is so much more than work. True, we have moved through different eras of educational approach and philosophy, ranging from Taylorism (a.k.a. industrial education or a factory model of education) to John Dewey’s view of education as a laboratory for democratic thought and exploration. We have employed schooling to serve political as well as economic purposes, as a buttress against perceived threats of nuclear war and a preemptive strike against losing our place as a world superpower. There has never been a single unified vision of what schools should do,  how teachers should teach, or how children best learn. I would suggest that healthy and impassioned debate about this should continue on as long as schools exist.

Instead, I hold and hope that education itself – not schooling, that embattled and ever-changing space where children adopt ways of thinking that adults approve of (yes, this is a radical stance, but not necessarily a leftist one!) – can survive the neoliberal, market-friendly restructuring that threatens from the highest office. Education is the means by which we encounter – note, not “become” – our thinking selves, our feeling and knowing selves. We explore abilities, take chances, find heroes, start fires, and trip and swing and, damn it, learn. Grow. I take a radical view in stating that I believe that education takes place in many places and spaces: at home, in religious centers, with siblings and grandparents, on playgrounds, when we travel, when we suffer loss. Schools may purport to act as a locus for such experiences, which urge excitement of the mind into spaces of new becomings, but it is education itself that accompanies all of us as we become our human selves and grow into possibilities.

These possibilities may include ways of participating in work, but they also include ways of participating in society as democratic subjects and human beings living together in a shared political community. If we reduce education to job training, they we lose the opportunity to explore and understand so much about our reality. We begin to accept our current state of affairs as what is “right,” “normal,” and “unavoidable.” We begin to lose sight of the fact that this time is only one of many shimmering off the back of collective humanity. And in a time of great pain, anger, fear, and abandonment, we cannot afford to go blind.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”: Mr. Rogers, the separation of immigrant families, and the complicated notion of “love”

Last night I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, a biopic about the life and work of Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister and TV personality known to people of my generation as the host of PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers donned his iconic cardigan sweaters and talked to the audience through the camera in every episode, welcoming children into his world of puppets, imagination, music, and conversation about being a kid and being human. Along with Sesame Street, this was my earliest memory of television, and, after remembering this experience through the movie last night, a precious one.


Screenshot from Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Focus Films, 2018)

I didn’t realize how intentional the work of Fred Rogers was, in terms of his commitments to children and their development, as well as to helping them understand a confusing, sometimes cruel world, as well as their feelings and reactions to it. Rogers believed that children should feel as though they were special just as they are, and that a neighborhood, as he framed his show and its unifying theme, should be a place where you feel welcome, and safe, and accepted. This posture was affectionately termed “radical” by some of the team that supported his work, and indeed it continues to be today. Indeed, in public schools, we define “specialness” according to test results, conformist behavior, and eyes-on-the-prize thinking which make the experience of being a young learner a question of educational management rather than exploration, contestation, and becoming oneself at one’s own pace. Some of these tensions have existed in schooling for generations (see critiques here, here, and here), to be sure, but the pervasion – perversion? – of neoliberal values in our schools has changed education in the United States fundamentally, if not irrevocably.

Rogers, who died in 2003, held the unshakeable perspective that children should be guided by adults in approaching the world in safety, reassured that the grown-ups would take care of them, and that each the way each person, young or old, experienced this world was valuable and important. A beautiful quote from Rogers is as follows:

Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all parenting, all relationships. Love or the lack of it.

A beautiful and moving idea, one which the filmmakers suggest was rooted in Rogers’ faith. It was with this ethos in mind that he explored topics related to the Vietnam War, racism and segregation, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and, much more recently, 9/11.

Interestingly, Rogers was a lifelong Republican, which makes me wonder how he might respond to our current cultural and political environment. While a living expression of the deep power of care and commitment to one’s fellow human, he was, like all of us, a limited individual with his own experiences and commitments upon which he built his world. This made me wonder how he might address, or even think about, the recent stories that have emerged in the news about immigrant parents being separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions defended using a now-critiqued citation of the Bible. Rogers might well have spoken out against this blatant cruelty, trauma, and violence being inflicted on families and children, some of whom are toddlers, and called upon the U.S. government to consider the lasting impacts these actions would have on the young people who are taken from their parents, put in detention, and relocated to foster families or relatives’ care. Yet I also wonder: would Rogers’ political conservatism generated complication and controversy for him?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Rogers would have thought these terrible events excusable or even tolerable. I suspect he would have been appalled. Yet I can’t help but suspect that this would be complicated for him, like all of us. Would he, like many of the members of our society today, feel even slightly differently were these U.S.-born children, especially White, English-speaking children?

My point is this: Even if a person believes that they are doing good in the world, their political alliances and the narratives that support them condition their way of enacting this good. It is, ironically, this reason that supports the rise of the testing regime in this country as a means to avoid leaving any child behind. The creators and users of these tests truly believe they are helping our children. And the nativists and White chauvinists in power today truly feel that they are protecting their country. We can love, and we all should do our best to do so as inspired by Fred Rogers’ life and work, but we also must remember that to love does not mean to love blindly, universally, or without tradeoffs.

By Rhododendrites [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The gravitational forces of public institutions: community-building for more just policing in New York

Being a student in one of the two largest public university systems in the country is an amazing experience. CUNY is powerfully connected to its complicated history with New York City, and there are few people who are not proud to study or teach there (or both, as many of our graduates continue on as professors at one of our campuses across the five boroughs). This history is activated in our collective actions as we stand alongside immigrant rights activists in downtown Manhattan, fellow demonstrating students fighting for the right to unionize, our masters students whose tuitions may rise in top-down decisions from school leadership, and many others.

Last week, I encountered two examples of how public institutions of higher education generate the centripetal forces that pull people from our communities together to fight for a common cause, like gentrification, unfair housing policy,  our city’s role as a sanctuary, and, like these two examples, the policing of Black and Brown communities which has terrorized families, perpetuated fear and anxiety, and resulted in the senseless death of far too many people. The first was a station set up on 5th Avenue with an information booth and colorful signs draped down its sides. It had been set up by the New York Civil Liberties Union.When I asked what was happening, one of the organizers told me that the signs were actually stickers that people could pull off and attach to a postcard that would then be mailed to the mayor’s office to articulate the community’s concerns about policing in New York and how it could be changed in the name of a more just system. Below is the flier the NYCLU provided with the same images:

 

I made my choices, added my postcard to the pile, and thanked the organizers doing this great visible-izing work in an area where they knew they’d get good support: CUNY students, professors, staff, and community members.

The second example of these amazing community forces flowing through CUNY showed up in a flier I found inside our building, one of hundreds that paper our hallways and bulletin boards:

A plain-language discussion of how gentrification and institutional racism are reinforced by police profiling of communities of color, the flier offers real solutions, resources, and contact information for all of us to become a part of community-based change by building relationships between residents, joining cop-watch teams, seeking mediation, and getting information on how to provide first aid.

These texts are living, continuing a dialogue in which we speak truth to power and give care to each other. So proud to be a part of this place.

Solitude and “co-being”: connecting Russian and Rilke in becoming a scholar

In the fourth year of doing a PhD, different people come up into, and against, different feelings. Some become more invigorated, generating an ever-so-slight fullness of smile, a growing sense of purpose, of voice. Others seem bogged down, sagging under the weight of hours staring at one’s silly words, uncertain that anything will ever come of all of this fuss and pennilessness. Still others — many of us, myself included — traverse the space between these two poles, sometimes full up with both feelings and plenty more besides (like loneliness, acid reflux, 3rd-grader-ish pride, shoulder pain, delight at being in limbo and relatively unaccountable, unresolved desire for unspoken engagements, and so on). It’s an ambiguous, profound, alien time, much like childhood, in that no one can really track where you’re headed, as you stumble and clamor and climb up trees and over hills.

I attended a student working group with my advisor and several other of her advisees tonight. One of the group members presented his work, terrific research on social workers and the tension between their values and the structural and political realities that constrain and delimit ethical engagement with their practice. During the talk, the presenter offered the Russian word sobytie, which he translated to mean “event,” and connected it to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, philosopher of language and literary critic. Our advisor, who is from the former Soviet Union, offered more information about the word, stating that its literal meaning is “event,” yet it can be broken down into the elements so, meaning “co-,” and bytie, meaning “being,” and that “co-being” in Russian means that one’s existence is a shared ongoing experience. She explained that there are many Russian words like this, which begin with the prefix so, thus embedding the idea that communalism is a fundamental part of being human. An illuminating example of the fact that language can contain so much history, so much social vision, in a single word.

As a PhD student, it often feels that our “co-being” is diminished, as we tell our friends and family (and ourselves) that we’ll have to talk later because this paper is due or a presentation is impending. We are lonely, but we know it’s a loneliness that is relatively temporary (only 5-8 years or so) and in fact is required to discover the trees and hills we want to climb. I also think, though, that there is something transformative about this solitary life. It is a life of learning, and one where the companionship that bubbles up along the way features sharing of brilliant, thrilling dialogues and the hardest questions you’ve ever faced. Bohemian-Austrian Romantic Rainer Maria Rilke encapsulates this beautifully:

I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.


By Unknown – http://www.zeno.org/Literatur/M/Rilke,+Rainer+Maria, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7279454

This is a comforting notion. It’s a bit extreme, I’ll admit — there are people I care very much about who are not on a quest to chart unseen worlds or pen unwritten words — but I like the idea of companionship in the tender, sometime darkly-lit explorations we do as doctoral students. It makes the mental calluses, the hiccuping sleep, the yawning uncertainty of the future, seem a bit more tolerable. It reminds us that exploring is a good way to make a life.


Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/monkeymind/2007/10/rilkes-ninth-elegy.html (artist unknown)

 

“Still Living Undocumented”: Immigrant stories, and what lies beyond

Last night I watched “Still Living Undocumented,” a film by Tatyana Kleyn about the continuing story of three undocumented people working, praying, and fighting for the permanent, lawful ability to live in the United States, with my students at City College in Harlem. The story picks up from the last film from 2012, “Living Undocumented: High School, College, and Beyond,” which features several Dreamers and students at City College pursuing their degrees and looking ahead to a variety of futures. The young people in both films are energetic, bright, clear-eyed, and inspiring. They have struggled to build a life that walks the knife-sharp edge of liminality, meaning “existing in a state of being in between, of non-belonging,” a way of being which has certain implications in legal, social, educational, and political terms. DACA allays the stresses of living this way, but because it both requires renewal and faces attacks from the current administration, it cannot be a permanent solution.

This second film expressed both more seriousness and less certainty, as well as more clarity in terms of what next steps stand before those of us who support actions by our government to ensure that undocumented youth can join the country that they have known since they were small as citizens. The post-screening panel discussion (below) opened up a conversation with the young people featured in the film, along with the movie’s co-creators and producers.

Jong Min (second from the left) is one of those individuals. The film ended with his story, a risky move because it is less positive than the other two, and yet an important one. Jong Min had missed the opportunity to receive protection under DACA, without which he won’t be able to continue his education (he can’t get scholarships to support him) or get a job. He works at his parents’ store in Queens. The other two students (one of whom is a former student of mine) have done better, continuing to create new paths for themselves and sharing these triumphs with the filmmakers. Yet it was Jong Min’s story that really caught my attention. There is no answer for him. He is unprotected, and he has had to accept that his life’s dreams are slipping away. He’s in his late 30s, and many of the possibilities, the plans that U.S.-born people take for granted as a simple question of “working hard enough” (the perennial nod to American meritocracy and its embedded prejudices against people of color, the poor, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, and others), are simply fading away. When the moderator of the panel asked Jong Min what he had learned, how his life had changed, over the five years between the first movie and the second, he thought carefully, and answered drily, “Not much.”

After questions went on for a few minutes, the conversation turned back to Jong Min. He was asked about final thoughts, and he paused thoughtfully before admonishing the audience:

We need to move beyond the stories.

The moderator responded professionally and politely, but I think there was a powerful message here. Telling hard stories is important, but it is only one piece of this puzzle, and at its worst and laziest (not the case with these important films), it often keeps “those poor immigrants” in an objectified role of receiving benevolence, rather than as active contributors to U.S. politics and society.

For those of us who are lucky enough to be U.S. born, we have to move from being audience members to being community members, true companions in the struggle to make changes to protect DREAMers. This means putting ourselves at risk, of course, in financial and sometimes even political terms. But good things are happening, and the fight is far from over. Grassroots actions and coalitions across communities have emerged across the country. Activism has generated palpable change and shifted public opinion. New questions are being asked, new creative actions are taking place, and new challenges are being met with the force of the will of the people. We are increasingly discovering our ability to resist, insist, and persist, in all the ways we’d expect, and in all of the ways yet to be discovered.