my challenge: what can i/we do for others in need

I received an email yesterday from a friend regarding the death of, yet, another beautiful soul, Mosey Alexander. I didn’t know Mosey; yet, my heart was/is torn.

I am feeling challenged today because it is clear to me that beyond my/our need to truly dig into and deconstruct my/our understandings of suicidality among LGBT youth (and adults)…beyond my/our desire to call out the systems, the ideologies, the theologies, the state practices/regulations and the isms that oft serve as the invisible hands that kill others…beyond my/our need to pontificate and debate, march and testify in this moment…I am left to consider what it is that I/we are possibly being called to interrogate?

I can recall the moments in my own life when I considered suicide and made actual attempts to take my life. In retrospect, it was in those moments when I felt as if I had been wading through violent waves and my cries for help, as silently-loud as they may have been, had often gone unheard. I remember calling friends and literally fumbling over words as I asked for help. Is it that friends were unable to read my cries for “help” when they were coded by statements like: “I don’t know. It has been really hard for me to get pass this heaviness” or “Sometimes, I just want to end it all” or “Yeah, I know it will get better, but when?” or “I can’t take it anymore”? I actually remember sleeping through the most beautiful and sunny of days on a bustling college campus only to wake up at night–after having missed classes, crying and hiding under my blankets, while situated in a dark room where the sun was blocked out by curtains–to walk and talk with others, while in pain, and, yet,  feel alone the whole time.

But, what is my point? I think that we are being presented with opportunities to intervene in the life of another. Indeed, we have to consider the big system issues (i.e. intersectional structures of oppression, state practices/laws, media affects, theologies etc.) that weigh down on folk, but we must also consider the mundane practices (i.e. they ways in which we relate to family members, friends, and strangers; our presences-or lack thereof-in the lives of those in need; our willingness to listen when others speak; our desire to help when others cry out for our help; our responses-and our responsibility-to say and do something when others may hint at suicidal ideation, etc.)  that order, or dis-orders, our lives daily. In other words, we actually have a responsibility to ensure that we live lives that don’t feed into the systems that we critique as oppressive.

It’s quite basic, what I/we can do:

1). Stop hating! Literally…I am challenging myself to think and utter positive things about other people. We kill with our words and our actions…conversely, we can also give life with our words and our actions. I have to cease the jokes that hurt others…I have to cease the eye rolling, the harmful gesturing, the ignoring, the hubris, the stuff that marks others.

2). Be present! I am challenging myself to not only be by the side of others (beyond moments when they are in need) but to be PRESENT: attending to the spoken and unspoken cues; putting my phone down when we are together-this is difficult for me; empathizing with their situations; answering the phone when others reach out when, in fact, they may be calling out of need (I’ve been there. I’ve called friends many-a-time in pain only to speak to voicemails. I am also guilty of not answering calls when others needed me). Essentially, I am challenging myself to practice what it means to be human, that is, what it means to be a relational being.

3). Take care of SELF! I am challenging myself to get in touch with my own “stuff”…my desires, my ideologies, my prejudices, my dislikes, my joys, my pains, my ish, the negative energy that I might disperse, my vulnerabilities…Not doing so prevents me from being present and possibly perpetuates the kinds of negative energy that harms others. Even more, when I am in touch with self I am better able to be in touch with others.

In sum, our activism doesn’t have to wait. Change, does not have to be imagined as something forward.  It starts with us…now! It begins with me/us answering: Who will I love today? Who will I help? Who will I hug? Listen to? Attend to? Whose tears will I wipe? Who needs a smile? Who needs food? What can I do to make someone else’s cloudy day full of light?

all love…darnell

Creating Space to do the Heavy Lifting: The Potential of Autonomy within the Newark Global Village School Zone

Every day in Newark Public Schools (NPS) hardworking, committed, and knowledgeable people are engaged in the arduous work of transforming schools.   They are principals, teachers, parents, students, and community partners.  Yet, in the flash of press cameras, front-page national headlines, charismatic leaders, and unprecedented private gifts, the work being done as seven public schools join together to dismantle the underperformance shared by their schools is easily forgotten.  Layer on a climate of reform that glamorizes the kind of top-down control that prohibits the collaborative efforts required to transform public schools (or any organization for that matter), this work may even seem obsolete.

However, on a flawless October afternoon a few principals from these seven hardworking schools sit together excitedly recounting how their teachers returned from a professional development day not only brimming over with instructional strategies they believed would improve their teaching, but also convinced they needed time during the school day to observe and learn from each other.  In their conversation, it is quite evident that what has started to take place in these schools is far from immaterial.  It is, in fact, the work that in the long-run matters the most to changing schools.

Supporting the implementation of the very collaborative and deep localized professional learning discussed by the principals are two Memorandums of Understanding (MOU). An MOU is a legal document that creates formal agreements between two or more parties.   The first MOU is an agreement between Newark Public Schools (NPS) and the seven schools in the heart of Newark’s Central Ward that formally joins these schools as the Newark Global Village School Zone (NGVSZ) and grants the NGVSZ schools autonomy from district policies and procedures in numerous areas.  The second MOU is between NPS and the Newark Teachers’ Union (NTU) and establishes modifications to the collective bargaining agreement including among other things compensation for extended-learning time, teacher transfers, and professional development.  These MOUs are the framework through which the NGVSZ will transform the conditions, expectations, and accountability for public education in the Central Ward.

As is the work of any legal agreement, the MOUs are technical articulations of the roles and responsibilities of the NGVSZ schools and their relationship to the school district and teachers.  However, the roles and responsibilities articulated in the NGVSZ MOUs are directly tied to best practices in core aspects of school organization, teaching and learning, community engagement, assessment, governance, and accountability—all of which are widely held levers for creating excellent schools.

While it’s true that much of what is laid out in the MOUs has been done—for example, school based decision making, local governance, and extended-day—what chomps at the bit of change are three things. First, is the acknowledgement that to build sustainable change these aspects of schooling must be transformed in concert; change must occur across every domain of the educational process simultaneously. Second, is the recognition that to have meaningful impacts on the opportunities and outcomes experienced by students, transformation must occur at every point on the developmental pipeline along which children travel; resources must be mobilized to address every aspect of children’s lives. Lastly, is the belief that sustainable change requires those most impacted by the problems that exist in schools and communities are an integral part of identifying problems and creating their solutions; organizing parents, teachers, students, and leaders to produce critical analyses of problems leads to transformational solutions.

At a time when the public debate about how to solve the problems of public education is locked into caricatures of superheroes and villains and dichotomies between the “status quo” and “real innovation,” the NGVSZ MOUs concretize a vision of what it takes to do the work everyone is talking about.  When Newark Public School Superintendent, Dr. Clifford Janey, charted the path of the NGVSZ schools in this direction, he drew on a long history of experiences that had shown him over time how public schools could use autonomy to achieve greatness while remaining part of a larger school system.  For example in Boston, where Dr. Janey was previously superintendent, a network of autonomous schools called the Boston Pilot Schools have lower retention rates than other Boston Public Schools, and higher test scores and higher college persistence rates for their graduates.  But, students in the Boston Pilot Schools are not just scoring higher.  They are scoring a lot higher.    In fourth grade—just to pick a grade—the proportion of students scoring advanced proficient on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) was 59% in ELA and 76% in math.  The framework through which the Boston Pilot Schools Network was able to utilize autonomy to achieve this success while remaining a part of Boston Public Schools was made possible through the collective efforts of the superintendent, the mayor, the teachers union, and the school committee in a school district under Mayoral control.

When the MOUs for NGVSZ were crafted, the principals of the seven schools went directly to the Boston Pilot Schools’ model for a blueprint of what needed to be in place to support this kind of student success within the zone, and within NPS.  What they encountered were policies, structures, and practices that had created the flexibility called for at the school-level to organize schools, staffing, and curricula in ways that best meet the needs of the students in each school.  This autonomy allowed the Boston Pilot Schools to differentiate their practices to support the specific strengths and needs of their school communities.  With a well-documented and scientifically evaluated model to guide the direction of their vision, the NGVSZ principals incorporated the following policies from the Boston Pilot School model into the NGVSZ MOUs:

  • Waiving of rules and policies that are not specifically applied to NGVSZ or that are necessary for compliance with state/federal laws or applicable collective bargaining agreements.
  • The flexibility to plan, design, and implement curricula and assessment developed by teams of classroom teachers, Department Chairs, coaches and other relevant professional and to work in collaboration with university partners with expertise in these areas.
  • The option to extend the school day for all instructional personnel or stagger the schedules of all instructional personnel according to the work hours required by the current collective bargaining agreement.
  • Authority as to allocation and expenditure of site-based per-pupil allocations, including Title I funding and grant funds, consistent with regulations of the state of New Jersey.
  • Collaboration between NGVSZ and NPS in the hiring of principals and development of a process for selecting and assessing teachers and paraprofessional.

Some will say what worked in Boston will not work in Newark.  Others will argue that when something has been proven to dramatically transform schools it should be tried in other places.  In my experience, both perspectives are correct.  Of course, very few things can be replicated in exactly the same way in new contexts where they are influenced by entirely different sets of relationships, histories, politics, cultures, and events.  However, that does not mean a good idea should not be considered because it took root some place else first.  It does mean, that a critical part of replication is understanding the particular local context and assessing how this context maps onto a “good idea” or a scientifically proven program or a best practice.

I might suggest that creating a zone among a feeder pattern of NPS schools is just one way in which the local context played out in determining how to move autonomy within a network of schools forward as a best practice in NPS.  Another example of how local context is extremely relevant to NGVSZ is in the extensive work that goes into building support across many layers of stakeholders in Newark.  While the Boston Pilot School network was developed out of partnership among Boston’s mayor, the superintendent, and teachers union, in Newark building the collaboration where stakeholders from every level hold NGVSZ and NPS accountable for meeting the terms of the MOU is an essential underpinning of the work.

At the heart of autonomy are vision and accountability.  When the teachers mentioned earlier in this post returned from their professional development session they were not only invigorated by a vision of what their practice could look like, they were inspired to open their classrooms, thereby establishing a level of public and collective accountability that by most accounts did not exist before.  Supporting this energy requires that principals and the schools they lead can deliver what these teachers need to reach the pedagogical expertise they envision and to ensure that accountability becomes an authentic tool for driving meaningful teaching and learning.  Research shows that this depth of responsiveness requires the kind of attention to school-level needs—the local—that the vision of autonomous schools set in motion by Dr. Janey and articulated in the NGVSZ MOUs call for.

The state of public education is at a new high in the public imagination.  While public schools may be the “sexy” reform agenda of the moment, our children and communities have been calling for the best education possible for much longer than the public memory will allow.  NGVSZ has created the scaffolding through which it can bring everyone’s focus in on the work of building great schools that are responsive to students and communities they serve. There are, of course, bumps in the road, fit and starts if you will.  However, the true vision of NGVSZ resides in what can happen when those who work directly in schools and classrooms have the opportunity to respond to the learning and other needs they see their students and colleagues struggle with everyday.  For those who doubt that the majority of teachers and principals we already have can do the heavy lifting or make the professional choices that this change demands all you have to do is look to Boston for strong evidence that autonomy yields achievement.

Lauren Wells, Ph.D.


The Broader Bolder Approach to Education

Metropolitan Center for Urban Education

Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development

New York University





The Trouble with Intellectuals and the Culture of Poverty

by fayemi shakur

As a young person, being identified as an intellectual always made me cringe. In elementary school, I loved it because it seemed to make me special in some way. By the time I reached high school, I seriously disliked the association and rejected opportunities to attend a school for the academically gifted. Even in college I gravitated more to community meetings than classrooms. Back then I couldn’t articulate why the academic intellectual label rubbed me the wrong way. It’s a good thing to be a person who thinks. However, intellectuals go too far sometimes and yet not far enough. I am cautious and mindful of the way intellectuals share their gifts and how much authority and influence they are given to define people and places.

My brilliant friend and cultural anthropologist, Dr. Aimee Cox, shared a recent New York Times article about the culture of poverty making a comeback among scholars. It reminded me all over again why some intellectuals and intellectualism still rubs me the wrong way.

The article shares “new” studies that are surfacing about the culture of poverty. For those who remember or studied the Moynihan Report of 1965 similar studies were used back then to influence policy in ways that negatively impacted impoverished communities. So this resurgence of scholarship on culture makes me stop dead in my tracks.

Why? The article acknowledges that the topic generates much interest on Capitol Hill because so much of the research intersects with policy debates.

Then I read this:

To Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard, culture is best understood as “shared understandings.”

“I study inequality, and the dominant focus is on structures of poverty,” he said. But he added that the reason a neighborhood turns into a “poverty trap” is also related to a common perception of the way people in a community act and think. When people see graffiti and garbage, do they find it acceptable or see serious disorder? Do they respect the legal system or have a high level of “moral cynicism,” believing that “laws were made to be broken”?

Researching levels of moral cynicism and disorder, Sampson did a tired and lame study dropping stamped envelopes around a housing project to see who would mail it back as a sign of caring about members of their community. Is he serious? That’s what he’s using to judge whether or not these communities look after each other? And he teaches at Harvard?

Next the article mentions a favorite topic: why low-income women are unmarried. The findings report these women noted potential partners are not “marriage material”. Simplistic, trite findings like this don’t give me much faith in what these studies will report. It should be common knowledge that marriage rates in low-income communities are low due to the high numbers of men who are incarcerated and under the probation system and therefore unavailable. Some women are also rejecting and reconsidering marriage altogether for an array of reasons. The research doesn’t go far enough. It still sounds like making judgments based on values.

I get seriously territorial and protective when I hear things like this. I want to know who is doing the studying, how is it begin done, why is it being done and how it will be used.

Forget the conversation about values and morals. We know the answers already but nobody’s listening. Crime is connected to joblessness. Duh.

Morality? No, how about a discussion about spirituality, overall health and the impact the lack of quality supermarkets and high concentration of fast food restaurants has on low-income communities? Or what about how media programming influences young people?

Education? I can’t. I’ll be here all day. All types of excuses are used to explain why our children are left at a disadvantage, underprepared for their futures, and guaranteed a continued cycle of poverty –and how we, not government must fix it. It’s a sad truth but then where’s the accountability. It’s just not the same in places like Montclair, NJ and don’t tell me it’s because the parents are more involved. I’ve seen them, most of them just drop their kids off at school like most people do.

Attempting to explain why or how neighborhoods become “poverty traps”, blaming a “culture of poverty” or “shared understandings” sounds dangerously close to blaming the victim. I don’t support the idea of victimization. I’m glad some social scientists are willing to examine sustained racism and economic factors that create the isolation and “culture” in the first place. But, the fact that these studies are being reignited at all tells me that low-income communities are under the microscope again and policy related decisions will soon follow.

The only point that matters to me is: these challenges low-income communities face are honestly too big to expect individuals to be able to overcome on their own. The pull your self up by the bootstraps philosophy may have worked for some, but that type of individualistic thinking rarely helps the collective. Some people need more support than that and we should care more.

Thank goodness there are some intellectuals who really get it. Be an intellectual by all means, but be an intellectual that affects policy with a clear understanding of the people’s needs, rather than an elitist or simplistic perspective.

It’s always fascinating to me that some elitist intellectuals hold so much value but because of their own conceit they don’t know how to best use their influence to help others. Some just don’t care to think about it in that way.

In 2004, I had an opportunity to help organize and produce the National Hip-Hop Political Convention. There I met hundreds of grassroots activists from all over the country doing incredible work. No one waited or cared about the results of any study to roll their sleeves up and get involved in affecting real change. From prisoner rights groups to reproductive health activists, these young people were on it and truly involved in the communities some people only talk about it. Why not work with them and frame new perspectives and solutions? Some scholars actually do this and believe in the value of collaboration over mere research.

One amazing woman I met briefly was Adrienne Brown, an activist from Detroit and current Director of the Ruckus Society and a National Coordinator of the 2010 US Social Forum. Reflecting on a short story by Ursula K. Lee entitled “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, Adrienne recently wrote an analysis of Lee’s work. Her words stay with me. She says “we must transform ourselves to transform the world. We have a moral imperative to reject happiness or luxury that relies on the systemic dehumanization of another – even if we don’t know what the alternative might be. We have to be willing to confront and walk away from systems founded in inequality…and we need to evolve our community organizing practices to be collaborative, not competitive.”

Is the academic community ready for that? Should policy decisions be made based on intellectual pap? I know lots of brilliant people who can do this effectively. If the academic community seeks to define our communities it should be done by intellectuals who inspire, support and create solution oriented action in a forward direction. And they need to really think out of the box. We don’t need Moynihan revisited – at all.