Thursday, August 28, 2014

Saving the World

I started the training for my school year staff this evening by taking them out to dinner.  I think very highly of my mostly teenage staff, and believe they have one of the most important jobs around.  A favorite moment from the summer was at our staff barbecue when I had the chance to offer affirmations about each one of them.  I am so privileged to work with and direct these young adults, who stand out in their dedication to helping children.

I have never seen another group like the one at Harbor House.  Oakland is extremely diverse, but in my experience, people tend to stay with their group.  When I was teaching, the third graders were so used to being separated by language and ethnicity that an African American boy punched a Mexican American boy in the nose on the first day of school, saying "He ain't supposed to be in my class."  Teachers were constantly on the lookout for racial tensions, not just between students but also between parents and even teachers.  Some students had friends of a different ethnicity, but they were the exceptions and not the rule.
At Harbor House, the kids all play and learn together, and rarely do I see any form of racial tension.  I attribute most of this success to our staff.  This summer, our staff included young adults whose families come from Mexico, Cambodia, Jamaica, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Japan, Burma.  We also had staff who are white, black, and Native and have been in the United States for long enough to make it hard to trace their roots further, as well as biracial staff in any combination you can imagine

.  They were also extremely diverse socioeconomically.  We have teenagers who had been and are currently homeless, staff who share a bedroom with way too many family members, and people who live in very nice houses in tony suburbs.  We have some who went to elite private schools, some who went to enviable public schools, and some who went to schools that I wouldn't want to teach at.  

And they are all equals.  They have their squabbles and their tensions but none of it is about race and none of it is about inequality.  They work together and, even more importantly, they treat all the kids fairly.

School teachers receive a variety of professional development trainings on multiculturalism and race relations.  And yet, I've watched teachers yell at a male black student for running in the hall and then talk sweetly to the Asian female doing the same thing.  I've seen teachers try to trade black students for Pacific Islanders because "they listen and have respect."  Although these young interns have had only a brief workshop I offered at Harbor House, they didn't have these problems.  

I'm not saying that having a teenage staff is always easy, and I take their training seriously.  But in these ways, they have astounded me over and over.  I have never once seen one of my interns give preferential treatment to a student of their own ethnicity.  I have never once seen one of them treat a parent differently because of their race.  Our kids are learning from that example.

It's been a rough time in America lately for race relations.  Really, when has it not been?  But I firmly believe what I told my staff on the last day. They are saving the world.  Not all at once, and not the whole world, but these are the kinds of relationships and respect that I think will save us.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Gathering Them Up

When I was a third-grade teacher, I had a wonderful student in my class named Roxana.  Twelve years later, I was looking for young adults to hire at Harbor House, and I reached out to Roxana and some other former students on Facebook.  Roxana said that she was going to UCLA now, but she had this friend we'll call Lisa who she thought would be a really good fit.

I am so grateful to Roxana.

Lisa is quiet and unassuming. She is also efficient, determined, loyal, and incredibly caring in a very practical way.  We quickly promoted her and she now has quite a bit of responsibility in several different departments at Harbor House, although she hasn't turned 21 yet.  She saved my sanity during the school year with her computer knowledge, reliability, and ability to deal with anything that came up, with absolutely no drama.

I was feeling quite stressed out one day and was talking to my executive director about all the things I had to do.  I briefly mentioned that I had asked Lisa to make a flyer to put up on the front door when she walked in to deliver it.  She had not only made the flyer I had asked, she had translated it into three languages, printed two copies of each, put it in the shared files, and emailed them to me. I immediately felt better with this kind of competence and efficiency around.

However, this summer was when I truly realized how fortunate we are to have Lisa in our Harbor House family.  Lisa was in charge of our youngest group of children, ages four to six. She was also responsible for five young staff, mentoring them and managing them, and she did this beautifully, helping both children and staff realize their full potential.  She never lost her temper, even when she had children who bit and threw tantrums, but dealt with all situations fairly and patiently.

In addition, Lisa ended up having her own flock of children who she transported to Harbor House every day.  It began when we hired her younger sister and then she enrolled her nephew in our program. She added another student who lived nearby and her cousin to the list as well.  Next, with her car full to bursting, we found out that a child in Oakland (at the school I used to teach at) had been caught in the crossfire of a shooting and was paralyzed.  As this student's mother was in the hospital all day with her, the younger brother needed somewhere to go, and he happened to live near Lisa.  Lisa went with our executive director to talk to his family, providing Spanish translation, and agreed to borrow a different car every day in order to fit yet another child in her car.

As I was thinking of affirmations to share at our end of the summer staff barbecue, I just kept thinking of Lisa driving around East Oakland, picking up children who aren't hers to bring them to Harbor House.  I kept thinking about Jesus saying "Let the little children come to me," and Lisa bringing them, literally, to a place where they can learn that Jesus loves them.  Bringing them to a safe place where they can feel loved and free to be children.  When I brought this up at our barbecue, a long-time staff member mentioned that this is how Harbor House started. Olive Freeman, our founder, saw the needs of children in Oakland and started the program out of her car.  I feel like it's a modern-day parable: this young woman driving a huge truck around Oakland, gathering up children to come be loved.

From this you might assume that Lisa comes from a privileged background, the product of strong schools and parental support.  The reality is even more impressive: Her parents came from Mexico and are hard-working but speak limited English and I suspect that she and her older sister have had to provide a lot of translation and other help for their parents, beginning at a very young age.  She probably navigated her education alone, and she was not in neighborhoods with good schools that would provide a lot of help.  She is also essentially raising her younger sister, and shares a room with this sister and their nephew.

This growth, transformation and opportunity to excel is a strength of Harbor House.  Although Lisa wasn't in our program as a student, I can see young "Lisas" in our classes today.  Despite the significant difficulties they have in their lives, these children are learning from staff members like Lisa.  It's not just learning to read and write or their multiplication tables:  Lisa, like the other Harbor House staff members, is a living example of how to be giving and loving.  And it's clear that that even the young fives in Lisa's class are watching and learning.  I can't wait until they're ready to be the next generation of the Harbor House staff.