Posted by: MC | February 10, 2010

So, where do we go from here?


“I think change is trying new things and trying to see
something works for the better or for the worse. ”
Alcena, HighTech High LA

Yesterday, Bob Herbert used his column in the New York Times to lift the curtain on the economic numbers behind the ‘average. ’  On average, as reported this past week jobless rates were vastly improved – i.e., decreased.

Herbert quotes a recent Center for Labor Market Studies report: “A true labor market depression faced those in the bottom two deciles of the income distribution; a deep labor market recession prevailed among those in the middle of the distribution, and close to a full employment environment prevailed at the top.”   He then gives actual data from the fourth quarter of 2009.  For households earning more than $100,000, unemployment is 3.2-4%.  For households earning $12,499 or less, unemployment is at 30.8%.

Later in the article, Herbert glances toward the implications of educational access and success for this circumstance.  There are, of course near innumerable variables tangling the American fabric through which so many are falling.  Education is certainly one of them.

Last year on February 10, all of this was relatively new.  We hoped it was old and already almost done with, but most economists and many others among us knew it would take it’s time.

Mrs. Laura Gamble, a grandmother in her 80’s, lived as a young African American girl in rural Texas during what we later named the Great Depression.  When I asked her if she’d seen job circumstances like this before, she said, “Oh.  Not in a long time.  Maybe way back in World War II.  Of course I was a kid, but you had to get stamps for shoes and different stuff like that.”

In the meantime, Mrs. Gamble raised 10 children, citizens who, parents themselves, now serve as educators – four in administrative posts at universities – and business people.  Since 2003, Mrs. Gamble is raising 4 grandsons – all in the center of the Texas hill country where towns and communities dot the banks of the Guadalupe River and the bluebonnets carpet the land every spring.

Constant as the bluebonnets has been Laura Gamble’s personal policy on education and its link to economic health. 

“Jobs right now are really hard to come by.  A lot of people are getting laid off or downsized.  I feel sorry for everybody, not just some.  It is bad.  I know the government.   It’s not going to get better in a week or a month, maybe not even a year.  We just have to wait and see.  I’m not an outrageous Christian, but I believe.  You just have to pray and wait on the Lord. 

“If you happen to be people who get a good job, be ready for it.  Prepare yourself.  Be ready, because if you bring your best, then you can stay in it.  If they have to downsize, keep yourself educated and prepare to be knowledgeable enough to get another one.  It may not happen today or tomorrow, but sooner or later, if you’ve prepared, then you can find something that you can do.  I tell these kids, and they’ve done real good now in school.”

A few days after I spoke with Mrs. Gamble, I took a morning walk through the Highland Park neighborhoods of Dallas with Juliana Perkins, a health care professional and mom.  She’s been primarily in the mom role for the past 20 years, but now is back working as a public health and emergency room  nurse.  Most of that time she, her husband and two children have lived in this neighborhood where single-family homes and careful landscapes line long avenues, each plot a minimum of ¼ acre, each home a minimum of 5000 magnificently crafted square feet.  On our walk, we even passed the soon-to-be permanent security barrier at the entry to the G.W. and Laura Bush’s new street.

Juliana guided her beautiful golden dog along the sidewalks.  Her talk of change was lilting, direct and clear.  She spoke early of her awareness of the privilege of that place and her life.  “Day to day, my life is still pretty plum – pretty much in a fat bowl of cream.” 

She also voiced concerns.  “All the verbiage about being kinder and gentler and all of that – I’d like to see that actually be real and not just talk.  There’s a lot of different ways of doing that and a lot of ways of defining that, but it would be nice to see some genuine efforts in that direction. 

“In all honesty, as I mentioned before, personally I’m doing ok.  I’m not sure how things could be better.  Things could get worse.  We could have more money, but we don’t need more money.  It’s not going to really alter how we live if we have more money.  Whereas for most people in our country right now, that’s not the case. 

“The real seed of all of that is greed and self-centeredness – this worship of the almighty dollar.  The path and the route to happiness is not more money and more stuff – bigger houses, newer cars.  That doesn’t work and it has bred this whole psyche in our country of greed, simply put.  And that has really got to change.  But it will take time.”

Later that day, I had the opportunity to talk with Juliana’s daughter and two of her friends, all three Seniors at the elite Hockaday School.   Without any prompting Holly, Margo and Olivia each spoke of their awareness of their privilege and the responsibility that bears. 

They riffed off each other as they spoke – one making a statement, the other two chiming into the middle a “yeah” or “not really” and then adding their perspectives.  In one exchange they got onto education as it relates to economic stability and environmental protection.  They all agreed that the primary flaw in the system is weak education.  “So much can come from people just being a little more educated. So many problems can be fixed with that,” Holly said.

She went on to speak to the privilege of access.  “Like the people I personally know will be totally fine, but in a broader sense, they’re probably not going to do very well.  Because people are receiving less education in a world that needs – like there’s more knowledge, but people are becoming less educated.  At least in America.”

Olivia added, “And so many people are motivated only for themselves these days.  There are so many things that might not benefit them but would benefit future generations.” 

Then Margo put it all together.  “In the future we just really need to focus not necessarily on doing what’s easiest, but doing what’s best for everyone.  I think what will be best – well, like Holly said – is increasing awareness in people knowing and learning about things that are already affecting all of us now.” 

The insights I heard in Texas brought back those I’d heard from the people I’d listened to up to that time, particularly the students in Kathy Goodman’s high school advisory at HighTech Las Angeles.  Exactly a year before Bob Herbert’s column appeared in yesterday’s NYT, on February 9, 2009, I’d spent a few hours in Ms. Goodman’s class.

Most of the students in the classroom were Latino.  Most, if not all, were hoping to be the first in their families to go to college.  The easy banter between teacher and students belied the great respect they shared for one another.  Ms. Goodman’s combined high expectations and obvious availability as a resource and supporter showed up in her good humored but tireless goading of each student for her or his best thinking.  Evidence of their access to education that was working for them came with the words they said about change and things they believed should stay the same.

Will opened with this. “I think what should stay the same should be our values and our care for the planet, because it seems to be a very big problem at times.  I think what should change is the government – new ideas, new people, new perspectives.” 

Marina said, “I think what needs to stay the same is the basic idea of our government – that people are allowed to change the government if they’re unhappy with it.  I think that idea should apply in these times because it seems everywhere you look someone’s complaining about the government, the economy.  I think everything needs to be completely redone now following that basic principle.”

Later David described what he thought to be most important about American values. “I believe that the Constitution should stay the same because it hasn’t changed in a long time.  [Except for the Amendments,] I don’t think it’s even changed once, you know.  I think the most important thing that should stay the same is as Thomas Jefferson pointed out, ‘All men are created equal.’  I think that, at least, should stay the same – to make them believe that if someone is rich you don’t necessarily let him go first to do something.  I believe that Americans want to go to a place where everybody is treated equal.  I know that’s what they want for the future.”

The Los Angeles charter school has this as its mission:

HighTech LA is a diverse community of active learners dedicated to fusing the
traditional academic subjects with real-world technical applications and problem
solving skills. Students are productive, self-directed learners engaged in rigorous,
relevant work.  HTLA prepares students to be motivated, influential leaders
committed to the challenge of connecting our community to the larger society.

Seems a wise and viable antidote to this “Great Recession” – a wise and practical change in the face of what Bob Herbert describes as “bland, class-and-category-neutral solution(s).”  The question is; given the real numbers behind joblessness and economic privilege, and with the consensus in the words of the Americans I listened to that these numbers and the effectiveness of our education system are powerfully connected, where do we go from here?

The class system is well in place.  Traveling the country asking about change, I saw the privilege dynamic. I saw the students at HighTech LA engaged in a process of saying “No” to the oppression of socio-economic conditions and I heard students at Hockaday School in Dallas speaking of the answers residing in education.

It is only heartening to see and hear these things.  They point to the real possibility of gaining privilege and of using it to help dismantle longstanding systems of privilege based on retaining systems that harm other people.  It is hard for those who benefit to identify that harmful kind of privilege.  It’s harder to say no to it.

Questioning privilege systems, however, is likely a good part of the answer.  Education can be a real help with that.

As Margo suggested, where we go from here is toward change – “not necessarily doing what’s easiest, but doing what’s best for everyone.”

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