Solidarity and community when you’re a “non”  

As a non-parent, I’ve had different experiences of adulthood than most of my peers. Friends and family members complain of their child’s sleepless nights, the challenges of potty training, the unbelievable pain of childbirth, the unmatched joy of connecting with your baby and knowing she is yours and you are hers. My nieces and nephew are a big part of my life and I see them all the time; as an Auntie, you have special benefits like hanging with the kids when they’re relatively rested, relaxed, and happy to see you. And when I head home in the evening, I return to being a non-parent once again.

It occurred to me today that as a non-parent – and also a non-believer in any religiously-based deity – that I pass into and out of social circles where these things are not important, as my membership derives from being a daughter and a sister, a friend and a partner. But in terms of social activism, it’s more difficult for someone like me to find my entrée. I read a good book over the summer called “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities,” which gave advice to non-parents in the community who wish to support the progressive actions of their parent counterparts through a series of essays by people from all over the country with widely varying interests. Generally helpful, the stories brought home a lot of important issues, including, for example, the fact that child care is overlooked in social activism (even by organizers who may be parents), a point that leaders who are non-parents could keep in mind to be more inclusive of parents while planning meetings, organizing events, and involving community members in decision-making. Good stuff, though I still felt that there was a strong sense that the norm is “got-a-kid” and that as “don’t-got,” what is assumed is that I orient off of the mainstream and adapt my social behaviors accordingly. This extends to social activism and my membership in community groups; as a non-parent, I am eccentric, perhaps slightly suspect at first but eventually welcomed.

The reason why being a non-parent (or a non-anything else) is important to me is that it resonates with my work in (coincidentally) non-profit adult education, specifically with immigrants from all over the world: Morocco, Algeria, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, China, Sri Lanka, and many other places. Their educational backgrounds range extensively as well – some are finishing their GED, while others have master’s degrees. Some are parents, some are not; some are married, some divorced, some single. I’ve taught 18-year-old’s up through people at retirement age. They are brought together by a desire to improve their socioeconomic position through job training, which they will apply as they become certified nursing assistants, pharmacists, and cash register operators. The other thing they have in common, of course, is that they are non-American.

In our Pedagogy in Urban Classrooms class at CUNY, we’ve been reading a book by the late Jean Anyon entitled “Radical Possibilities”; Anyon speaks of different ways that educators can contribute to real social and political change, as well as a transformation of our schools as well as ourselves, by participating in activism around economic justice. It’s a logical and well-thought-out text, with a lot of great takeaways, and Anyon’s words inspire and admonish the reader to change his perspective about what is possible. In discussing Anyon’s work, our class contributed suggestions, questions, confusions about the process of becoming politically active; as educators, we tend to think our place is in the classroom, while Anyon argues for teacher involvement in the greater community. My classmates brought up examples of how they used politically engaging content in their classes to help their students develop social agency, knowledge and skills they could use to apply in the outside world in advocating for their own needs and plans for their lives as future citizens and participants in the community. Their students, inner city non-whites, non-wealthy/middle-class, are bound together in their youth, their geography, their historically racialized status, their ways of being depicted by the rest of the country.

Yet I came home tonight with an unanswered question: What about the “non’s” of my diverse group of students, who differ by age, country of origin, race (and even in their countries, race means something different), language, marital status, parental status, gender, location in Boston, etc., etc…In short, could I try to make my teaching an event that inspires a similar sense of solidarity and political awareness? Is solidarity necessary at all for the development of what Paulo Freire called conscientization? In the classroom, there is a de facto community simply because my students have committed to the program they’re in; however, once they leave the room, they return to their respective communities, families, homes, religions, languages, and unique non-American-ness. An even bigger conundrum is the fact they came to this country to be freer, safer, and more hopeful than they were at home. What does solidarity – let alone political consciousness – mean when it’s confronting a system they’ve chosen over the one they started with? Why would they come together at all, simply because I told them that they were “non’s”?

I am stuck, thus, with both the issue of how to create space for activism in my classroom, as well as how to give this activism the chance to bloom in the hands of my adult students in the world outside. As a united, solidary group this most likely will not happen; as each of them are a “non” in her own way, this small starting point will travel with them into their places of being. I imagine my guidance in how to support their growth as democratic subjects in this country, irrespective of whether they are non-Americans, will come from my students themselves.

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