Reflections from an Educator & Parent on “Creating a Culture of Change: Race & Youth Education”

On June 30, I attended the first conversation of the series Creating a Culture of Change. This was a great opportunity, with each of the speakers and the subsequent discussion offering valuable insights, information, and concrete guidance for action. I registered to attend largely because every previous event organized by Al-Bustan that I’ve been able to join has proven to be eye-opening and enriching. I’ve written this to share some reflections, with the hope that more people will be drawn to attend and engage – particularly those who might expect that these events are only relevant to Arab Americans.

In light of the focus on youth and race education, I brought two major concerns to the event. First, as an academic and instructor to college level students at a couple of institutions in the Philly area, I hoped to find guidance about how to better serve my students, the majority of whom see and understand racial and economic injustice and how to fight it much more clearly than I did at their age – and to be sure many of them understand this differently and better than I do still today. Second, as a white mother to two young children with an Egyptian heritage from their father, I came with a desire to think more deeply about how to raise them with an understanding of who they are and the responsibilities they inherit as white and Arab Americans. I also brought broader questions to the event. I hoped to gain a better understanding of some of the ways people in non-Black communities of color perceive and respond to anti-Black racism.

In both teaching and parenting, a culture of hierarchy, expertise, and one-directional knowledge transmission is still very influential. I see its influence in myself in the classroom and in the living room.

The discussion helped deepen my appreciation of the reality that some of the very same assumptions that underpin this model of relating to young people also serve to reinforce the culture of white supremacy that continues to threaten the lives of Black people and other people of color in America and around the world. Dr. Krystal Strong’s contributions in particular challenged me to rethink my own approaches to teaching and course design and the assumptions that have shaped that work in the past. She not only emphasized the imperative to “transform conversation into action,” she also provided stories and resources to illustrate what this looks like. A big part of this is taking the lead of young people as they figure out how to make a world that they will be able to live and thrive in. Dr. Strong provided a recent example of Philadelphia high school students who sought to memorialize a walk out organized by Black students decades earlier. These students were showing through their actions that the political work of young people can change the conditions in which they live and learn. The students of today understood that their predecessors had made concrete changes to the way that they were all educated, as that walk out led to the creation of an African American Studies requirement for all Philadelphia students. The students of today were deeply disappointed that the adults in charge of their education had not publicly recognized this political work of previous generations within their learning community before. This story impressed upon me the importance of placing my students experiences and priorities at the center of our classroom experience. I teach courses in religious ethics. We usually begin with abstract concepts and historical arguments. Now I am thinking about how to begin directly with the very conditions of their college experience, through discussion of the ongoing pandemic and the movement for Black lives. All three panelists spoke of the importance of centering and empowering young people in situations like this. They forcefully articulated the need – and testified to the possibility and power – of re-imagining relationships between and within various communities, but particularly relationships between educators and youth, in ways that can be liberating for all involved.

Guest presenters of June 30 conversation on Race & Youth Education
Top row, left to right: Director of Arab American National Museum Dr. Diana Abouali & Hip hop artist Omar Offendum Bottow row, left to right: Scholar Dr. Krystal Strong & Educator Dr. Debbie Almontaser

As a parent, I see some of the problematic assumptions at work when I set for myself the task of figuring out what to say to my kids about race. While Dr. Strong emphasized the experiences and political work of young adults and teens, Dr. Debbie Almontaser and Omar Offendum both brought up younger children.

Dr. Almontaser has worked for years in the school system in NYC. She cautioned against springing into conversations about racial justice with children before devoting considerable time to inner dialogue and reflection on how we as adults have been shaped and impacted by a racist culture. This type of self examination involves asking difficult questions of ourselves. Asking questions then becomes a way to engage with younger kids. We should not approach young children as if they don’t notice or understand race and discrimination. She gave one example of asking young school kids, “have you ever been made to feel different?” I doubt if my own children have – but I haven’t yet asked them. This question has also prompted me to think of other questions that might enable me to better understand how my kids do perceive differences, what meanings they ascribe to them, and what kinds of responses they feel are appropriate when they notice that another child is being treated unfairly. It was very moving to hear Omar Offendum share about his own young children, who already by the age of four grapple with the contradictions in the ubiquitous messaging celebrating people in uniform (what’s the difference between the police and the firefighter?) and recognize that their Blackness exposes them to risk. It’s not just the questions that we ask our children that might make a difference. We also need to ensure that they have the space to ask us questions, and commit to giving them honest answers.

It was extremely powerful to hear Dr. Almontaser say, “we [in the Arab American community] need to reckon with racism… it does exist in our community.”

As she said this, I realized that I haven’t noticed white Americans talking in this way – we don’t say “we” about our whiteness, probably because we got used to comforting ourselves that racism is a problem with individuals and we still try to absolve ourselves as individuals. Dr. Almontaser also highlighted that the political struggles led by Black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement made it possible for Arab and other immigrant communities to establish a home in the United States with legal rights as immigrants. Her work to make Arab Americans recognize how they have benefited from the sacrifices and struggles of Black Americans has laid the foundation for solidarity between communities. Through her engagement specifically with the Yemeni community in Brooklyn, she has pushed for the simple principle of reciprocity: Yemeni store owners benefit from the Black communities where their shops are situated; they should give back. Principles of solidarity and reciprocity underlay the messages of all the contributors. Each complemented the other with stories of how realizing these principles requires doing long-term, sometimes slow, work of building relationships, starting wherever you are and within whatever communities you find yourself.

In the wider context of my own study and reflection on race, racism, and the significance of my own white skin, I have often found myself grasping for some sort of script – I want to know what should I say (or not say) and how? what should I do (or not do) and how? I’ve also doubted this idea of a script. It’s an inadequate metaphor because it is often used pejoratively to imply that someone is not thinking for oneself or doing original work. What I have in mind is the need to speak the truth and do something, which goes out ahead of deeper personal transformations that must take place (as Dr. Strong put it, “abolishing the police that’s inside every one of us”). An audience member asked, “what can we be doing right now?” A final take-away from the event was that this is precisely the type of question to ask. It was tremendously clarifying to hear Dr. Almontaser state simply and unequivocally that we should all in this moment take the lead of people from the Black community as the movement for racial justice grows and evolves. What should we be saying? Where should we be standing? What resources should we bring? By beginning to provide answers to these questions, the speakers did provide a kind of solidarity script, each in a different voice.

Betsy Mesard, a friend of Al-Bustan, lives in the Philadelphia area where she teaches courses in Religious Studies, Ethics, and Middle East Studies.

 

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