Magazine article Poverty & Race

Inviting NYC Students onto the Scene of School Integration

Magazine article Poverty & Race

Inviting NYC Students onto the Scene of School Integration

Article excerpt

Last year, as I sat with my 10th grade advisory, I listened to students vent about poor free-lunch quality, excessive test prep, unfair discipline, and an overall resignation with school. I had heard this kind of venting before, but I was no longer interested in responding to it as if it were typical teenage angst. With the UCLA's report on New York's Extreme Segregation in nearly every major newspaper in New York, I felt it was time to invite them to be part of a new conversation. I knew I did not enter into the field of education to pacify young people's resistance, nor did I enter into education to be compliant with a system of unequal access and distribution of resources. I entered education to fulfill my commitment to create racial and socioeconomic justice and to facilitate an experience of liberation for young people. My students needed to know that. And they needed to know that thousands of people around the country were talking about the unconstitutional nature of the complaints they were sharing. Up until that point, I had been listening to their concerns through a filter of what I saw as possible at the school level. I feared I could not deliver if I opened up a new realm of possibilities. I feared I would offend colleagues or disrupt systems that so many of us had created to remedy structural inequities. I feared I might put my job or my school at risk for scrutiny. But mostly, I feared students wouldn't buy it. I was afraid they wouldn't believe in the possibility that brought me to them each day. But I let that go, and IntegrateNYC4me was born.

Through our conversations, I realized how the divide between my response to their complaints and my activism around systemic inequality was a dishonor to their experience, to their power, and to myself as an activist and an educator. IntegrateNYC4me was created out of this moment. It was created out of the choice to be actively engaged in conversation and action around the inequities experienced in racially and socioeconomically segregated schools. It was born out of the choice to believe in the curiosity, power and brilliance of students to transform the realities of segregation and to create the possibility of integration in and outside of our community.

At first, our advocacy efforts centered around social media. Students wanted to share their voice. We began surveying students, parents and teachers about their vision for public schools in The Bronx. "Better lunch!" "More sports!" "After school clubs!" And with just a few dozen tweets and several conversations, the project took off. Students, teachers and activists around the city resonated with our concerns and shared our vision. We were encouraged to speak at City Council hearings, received a request from other schools to collaborate, and noticed an outpouring of support from other activists who were inspired by our energy and pizazz. Our resignation about segregation and inequality had been transformed into a new conversation about integration: How could we integrate people and resources in a place like the South Bronx? After discovering a re-tweet from Councilmembers Danny Dromm and Brad Lander, Francisco, a student activist, said, "One day, when I'm older, and I see a bunch of kids like me with a bunch of kids who aren't like me, I'm going to remember this. I'm going to remember I was part of this."

Within two months, our efforts moved towards building relationships. The students requested doing a school exchange with a predominantly white school. They wanted to explore what different worlds there were in K-12 public schools around the city and meet young people who they had never had the opportunity to interact with before. Several months after that, they met with advocates and lobbyists around the city who had been in the work for decades, accomplished amazing feats in districts throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, who wanted to support our organizing. Leslie, one student activist from The Bronx, said, "Before I started this work, I knew something wasn't right but I didn't have language for it and didn't think anyone would listen to us as kids. …

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