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.

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