Changing Policy, Changing Lives: Angela Roman’s Fight for Underserved Young People

Angela 5

 

Angela Nikki Romans works relentlessly in actualizing the promise and possibilities of historically underserved young people. She invests in proliferating pathways of success traveling from cradle to classroom to college. Dismantling policies and disrupting practices that inhibit access, opportunity and resources, she is a catalyst for change on multiple fronts, spanning classrooms, school districts, municipal agencies and non-profit organizations.

 

Change as Groundswell

 

Angela’s commitment to educational reform evolved from over two decades working in myriad educational and political settings, first as a high school math and science teacher, then university admissions officer, school network manager, senior education advisor for the mayor’s office in Providence, Rhode Island, and her current position as principal associate. Each experience has made her ask of herself progressively tougher questions about her advocacy work. “Where do you start at the individual teacher level, the structural and policy level, to make sure that kids have the right opportunities to be able to succeed, and with the right support to be able to succeed?”

As a principal associate at The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Angela’s work centers on national policy research and reform initiatives to improve public education. Under the umbrella of school district redesign and leadership, Angela’s energies centralize around understanding “How districts shape themselves,” then involving diverse stakeholders willing to collaborate in creating “the right policies, supports and structures for students to have equitable opportunities and equitable outcomes.” To Angela, partnerships provide “the strongest and most sustainable way to support school districts” because “school districts can’t do it alone.” They need a web of “community-based organizations, higher education institutions, public agencies, all [working] together to support student outcomes of success.”

Angela’s current projects are a nationwide study of college readiness involving several urban school districts, improving disciplinary practices within and across schools, and increasing the number of college graduates. She is the Annenberg Institute lead on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s College Readiness Indicators Systems (CRIS) Project, a multi-year collaborative project with four major urban school districts and an educational management organization aimed to generate and systematize indicators of college readiness. Its goal is to identify indicators of and replicate effective practices and policies in measuring college readiness at the student, school, and system levels, culminating in “the right policies and practices and support for individual students.” Another national project is building learning networks between school districts and CBOs (community based organizations) “to look at school district disparities constructively and look at alternatives to harmful school discipline practices.” In partnership with the Providence Children and Youth Cabinet (CYC), Angela is working to increase the number of local college graduates. Recently the CYC obtained a significant grant from Lumina Foundation (under the auspice of the Community Partnership for Attainment) to assist efforts in helping adults achieve high-quality post-secondary degrees.

Prior to her position as principal associate, Angela was the senior education advisor for the Mayor of Providence, RI, Angel Taveras. Working as a cabinet member of the mayor’s office afforded Angela an advantageous position to cultivate systemic change. “I took the job because with a mayor who has that type of governmental influence over schools [the mayor’s office appoints the school board and hires the school superintendent with approval from city council], there is a real opportunity for change-making…opportunities that are under-utilized and under-tapped.” As senior education advisor, Angela’s work gravitated around “being involved in and shaping a larger citywide conversation and notion of community accountability around education.” Her primary focus was on creating sustainable support systems for young people, doing so through assembling and aligning willing partners.

To initiate this change, Angela implemented a collective impact model (CMI), “a social change movement that is focused on community-wide, cross-sector engagement,” to generate “collective common goals that everyone agrees on, common metrics, and the notion of shared accountability.” Under Angela’s leadership, the existing Children’s and Youth Cabinet (CYC) was restructured, populating it with stakeholders representing diverse perspectives and resources. With over 120 individuals and 70 organizations brought together, she convened parents, residents, businesses, non-profit organizations, municipal and state agencies to champion their local schools. Angela deems CMI as an effective framework because it moves us “away from the notion that just the superintendent is accountable, or just the schools are accountable, or just the mayor is accountable. It is collective accountability across all the different stakeholders.”

During her first summer of employment in the mayor’s office, Angela convened a small workgroup from the CYC charged with collecting and examining previous reports and data, generating a set of citywide goals to move forward. For Angela, this collaborative approach to effecting change is “great work because it is changing the way we think about whose responsibility it is to improve outcomes for children and youth, helping organizations and institutions move away from a ‘siloed’ way of thinking to a collaborative way of thinking that is really trying to align our resources in ways that haven’t been done before.” This concerted approach to change “is an intentional and difficult shift, but one I believe we have to fundamentally make to move the needle considering we are failing thousands, millions of young people every year.” Further restructuring included creating small workgroups, an executive committee, and hiring a director.

 

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Changing Possibilities through Changing Paradigms

 

Angela’s work to reform how historically underserved youth are serviced and supported is shared by her work in redefining them. To Angela, defining young people as “at risk” emphasizes the notion of problems prevailing over their potential, harbors negative social implications, and perpetuates detrimental political repercussions. For Angela, “It’s about what is at the forefront of your mind,” whether “you focus on the challenges young people face, or the assets that young people and communities have and how you build on those assets to make sure that young people reach their promise.” She contends that “What people tend to do when defining ‘at risk’ is to think about what are the factors that make students most likely to fail. To fail in their educational pursuits in being productive members of society in terms of economic outcomes, social outcomes, indicators around marriage and stability…And those are [typically attributed to] race, class, gender, parents’ educational background, contact with the justice system, use of drugs and alcohol…and tons of social behaviors…statistics correlated with students not doing well. If students have these factors, [the argument is] that these students are at risk to fail.”

In place of labeling students “at risk,” Angela articulates “a more proactive approach in saying that all students are ‘at promise.’” If “we really think about the notion of equity and the fact that we want strong opportunities and strong outcomes for all young people, then some young people need more support to get there. Because they have had fewer opportunities or different personalities or are in different environments, that just shows that they need more support to reach their promise. That’s the way I approach my work as an educator. In speaking about research and policy and working with school districts, and working with institutions, as well as individual young people, it’s how I define the dichotomy between ‘at risk’ and ‘at promise.’”

 

When the Personal Becomes Professional: Subjective Experience as Impetus for Social Change

 

Angela’s own academic experiences sensitized her to the challenges students “at promise” face, and the transformative difference that can be realized with help from committed stakeholders. Growing up in a single parent household, she credits good math and science teachers, some who were “particularly thoughtful women of color” for recognizing her interests and acuity, inspiring her and pushing her toward excellence. By attending a magnet high school specializing in math and science (in Atlanta, Ga) her senior year, she became a member of a thriving community of scholars of color, studying under “teachers who were pushing kids to do amazing research” in local universities. Angela regards this educational opportunity and setting as impactful. “My classmates were such an inspiration to me because, oh, you’re supposed to be this way. You’re supposed to be smart, accomplished, and competitive in a generative way.”

From an early age, Angela wanted to be an educator. An avid reader and enthusiastic student who was involved in engineering, science and math camps most summers, Angela was excited about learning new things, and the prospects of igniting students’ learning too. However, given the lackluster reception of the idea from her family, she felt the best decision was to channel her alacrity in math and science in pursuit of an engineering degree. “There were not that many engineers of color in the profession and that there were not a lot of women of color.” So “Being a woman of color going into engineering would be something that was a challenge, but also something that would be sought after…[I was told] you should be an engineer.” It was the career path advocated by her family. Fascinated by nature, biology, and physiology, she sought a way to merge these two interests, and decided to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. After talking with a student of color attending Harvard University, she applied and enrolled.

Attending Harvard University proved informative, both as a place to be tooled with means for professional success, and a place where she began her political and social awakening. Being in a competitive engineering program with fewer than thirty students, one of the few women and women of color in particular, and at times having professors of patriarchal orientation, made for a confluence of variables that at times made the pursuit of personal and professional success difficult and challenging.

Yet her experiences at Harvard yielded valuable lessons about paving, preparing and participating within a supportive village. Paying it forward, she worked in the admissions office as a way to continue increasing the number of students of color attending the university. “It’s important to be available to the young folks who are the first, or one of the first of their family, to aspire to a strong education, and get there, and how to get there.” She also learned the value and impact of supporting one another. Facing a dilemma of completing difficult cumulative projects to obtain the professionally advantageous BSc degree, or take an “easier” route and graduate with a BA, Angela had a hard decision to make. Then a classmate, a fellow senior and woman of color, implored her to choose the former when saying, “Angela, don’t leave me.” Her peer’s beseeching did more than influence her to complete the more challenging degree. Angela has been since impacted to invest in supporting students facing challenging intersections, especially those with few resources.

After obtaining a BS in biomedical engineering from Harvard University, the calling to teach resurrected with a strengthened volume, compelling Angela to return to Harvard and now obtain a Masters of Education. There she learned of education as a means to empower both individuals and communities, learning about educator Ted Sizer, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the constructivist approach to learning and education. The program advocated and promoted a “real inquiry based education for young people, that empower[s] young people, [one] that is relevant and creative, and generative, and really empower[s] teachers and educators to design schools in ways that are best for the community.” This epiphany fueled both her want to empower others and to be empowered as a teacher. Participating in such an educational program “started me thinking about what I really wanted to do and what really meant a lot to me.” It “really pushed me to think about [how to make to] a choice with my feet.”
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Making a Difference in Urban Classrooms

 

Immediately after graduation, Angela sought opportunities to teach in urban high school settings. “I really wanted to teach Black kids. That was something that, graduating from a high school that was all Black, having lots of Black role models and mentors, it was really important to me to become a mentor and role model for Black kids. And to be a mentor and role model to kids who did not have a mentor or role model. That was critical for me.” She sought employment in schools that “availed teachers the power to create curriculum, and create school culture, and strong cultures of inquiry-based teaching.” One such school was Urban Academy in NYC, which she describes as “just an amazing place.” “Everything there was about students discovering their own knowledge and learning, shaped in a very strong Socratic way.” Her instructional facilitation supported students finding trends and patterns within the process of problem solving, such that “Once you see patterns, we can then create our own rules, or we can articulate what the rules are.” She did this in lieu of conventional direct transmission where a teacher may relay “this is how I solved the problem, now you solve fifteen more like it.” Consequently, “students understood a lot more math.” Science classes were thematic. Compared to just covering a textbook from cover to cover, Angela and colleagues taught courses in animal behavior, research methods, and the science of food, involving students in actual research. “I never gave a lecture.” After a year she returned to Boston and taught at Fenway High School, another small high school. Angela “focused on teachers and teacher-driven curriculum, culture, and more project-based learning, more than the traditional high school.” She situated teaching within a workshop model, and began a new venture in advising and mentoring students.

But after three years of teaching Angela felt incomplete because her support of students was primarily confined to classrooms. “I love being an educator and working with young people, but wasn’t sure the best way for me to do that was through running a classroom.” She explored harnessing her support on larger scales. Brown University afforded her a platform to do professional outreach and support of “at promise” students within post-secondary institutions.

 

Building Post-Secondary Bridges

 

For eleven years Angela worked as Associate Director of Admissions and Director of Minority Recruitment within the Office of Admissions at Brown University. Working in this office particularly allowed her to serve students “standing in the intersection between high school and college,” helping them navigate that transition, especially “for those who don’t have in their friends, families, and communities, a lot of people that have [previously] navigated that transition successfully.” Within her numerous positions, she targeted her work around recruitment and retention of underserved young people. Young people “who could, and should be succeeding in places like Brown, that would never have found them, if not for that person who either came to their high school, or emailed them, or encouraged their counselor to recommend people like them, or all those serendipitous things.” Angela forged “a culture in the admissions office of trying to look beyond some of the traditional markers for underrepresented students, looking to how we could really capture extraordinary potential, in ways that are measured beyond just test scores. Students who have been extraordinary leaders, students who have gone above and beyond their school community such as seeking out summer programs.” She helped to shift orientations toward assessing the potential success of underrepresented students. What resulted was an increased enrollment of students of color, particularly first-generation students.

Angela began to miss working within urban schools, and left Brown University to return working in them, this time as Network Manager for Diploma Plus. Diploma Plus is a non-profit organization which provides a competency-based education model focused on college and career readiness, targeting high school populations of predominantly over-aged and under-credited students. As Network Manager of schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Angela’s work on the frontline spanned (1) providing professional development to principals, teachers and staff, (2) forging and sustaining collaborations between schools and community based organizations and higher education institutions, (3) mentoring students directly, (4) advocating for policy reform and educational initiatives in support of these schools both at municipal and national levels, as well as (5) supporting the national organization on myriad educational and political fronts. “It really gave me an opportunity to return back to the small schools where I got my start as an educator, really thinking about creating small schools that were supportive of students, with a culture where teachers had an opportunity to shape the instruction and the design of the school, AND working with students who were the opposite in terms of the academic achievement spectrum to those I worked with at Brown, for whom school had not been a good experience and had not been successful, but were still seeking it out, sticking it out even though school had not served them well for many years.” Angela’s work also culminated in the opening of a new and successful DP high school in Boston.

 

Advocacy Beyond Office Hours

 

Angela’s work to make a difference extends beyond the office or work hours. “So much of the personal is professional for me.” She is involved and invested in several volunteer initiatives. For the past four years, Angela has chaired the board of a local non-profit organization, College Visions, which mentors and supports first generation high school students in their post-secondary pursuits. Its mission is “providing individualized support so students get into and through college.” In addition, Angela serves on the board of the Harvard Alumni Association, through which she interviews perspective students, and is a past board member of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. She does volunteer work for the Rhode Island Black Storytellers. She is also called to speak at many functions and for numerous organizations. Angela has also received awards of recognition. The YWCA recognized her in 2013 as a Woman of Achievement. She also an Annie E. Casey Foundation Children and Family Fellow. Angela continues to contribute to the educational field by writing articles. Recent articles include one she co-authored for The New Educator titled, “Engaging City Hall: Children as Citizens,” and the Atlantic’s Quartz online publication titled “Americans Who Say ‘College isn’t for Everyone’ Never Mean Their Own Kids.”

Looking back on her career, Angela shares the following reflection. “I continue to be both exhausted and inspired by the work that I do to try as much as I can to improve the lives of young people in this society because so much of what we are doing is not working…and have been really focused on the systems, the ‘unsexy thing’ that we have to think about in making sure that there are big sweeping institutional changes because there are many things moving in directions that are not good for young people.”

Angela Nikki Romans is on a mission. It extends before attaining elaborate trappings or award-garnering recognition under bright stage lights. Where Angela lends her talents is in the junctions of neighborhoods and crevices of school systems where ostracized and high needs students are falling between the cracks, fading to black. It is within these obscure and unpopular yet over-populated spaces you will find Angela digging to make a difference. With her soul’s sleeves rolled up, Angela thatches hope, aerates opportunities, stakes possibilities, prunes budding talent. In all, she is working to harvest underserved young people’s academic, economic, and personal success.

 

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(This article is also in digital and print format at http://www.magzter.com/US/Bronze-Magazine/Bronze-Magazine/Women’s-Interest/)

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Strength, Courage and Wisdom: The Makings of an Urban Teacher

In this article, Carla Cherry shares her personal and professional evolution, divulging how she helps students actualize their humanity and academic success.  It’s an intimate look into the makings of an English/Language Arts teacher, and the difference she is trying to make in students’ lives within the NYC educational system.

Fundamental to her familial fabric was first acquiring knowledge of self.  Her mother taught her to read at age 2 ½. Later obtaining his Bachelor’s degree in Black Studies, Carla’s father surrounded the family with resources centering on African and African American culture and history.  For Carla, school “didn’t really emphasize African American heritage,” becoming an impetus to read widely, serving as “a catalyst for me to get into education, to share what I learned.”

Carla as an infant.
Carla as an infant.

Several experiences ministered to Carla choosing teaching as a profession.  Attending a lecture with her father, Carla met Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor Emeritus of the New York State Board of Regents.  A phone conversation with Dr. Sanford informed Carla’s ethos of giving back to the community.  “I always admired her activism in the field of education.” “If she could give the best of herself to our youth, why couldn’t I do the same?”  She tutored while a teenage member of Co-op City chapter’s of the National Council of Negro Women.   She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, but recalls constantly defending people of color in class discussions; such insularity she did not want her future students enduring.  Attending Spelman College further inspired her career choice. She credits two professors, Dr. Donna Akiba Harper and Dr. Judy Gebre-Hiwet, with her literary acculturation and instigating within her the passion to hone her writing, namely to be exact with her words and employ the formal writing process in designing well supported effective arguments.

Carla in high school.
Carla in high school.

In 1993, Carla graduated Spelman College, returning to NYC as a single mom working part time.  Enrolling at New York University in 1995, she completed her Masters of Arts in Public Education, and began teaching in 1996.  Serving 17 years within the NYC Department of Education, she taught in middle and high schools, currently teaching at Innovations Diploma Plus High School, a transfer high school model targeting over-aged and under-credited students with educational opportunities and social support.

Carla's graduation picture from Spelman College.
Carla’s graduation picture from Spelman College.

Pedagogically, Carla fosters and facilitates students in (1) interpreting texts, (2) using writing as a tool, and (3) participating within various audiences and media. Students are (1) generating group reactions to quotes excerpted from a text, (2) selecting quotes and interpreting them individually in double entry journals, (3) responding on a discussion blog about themes within a class text, (4) creating monologues in the persona of a character, (5) crafting a poetic character sketch modeled on William Carlos William’s “This is Just to Say,” (6) arranging in small groups fragmented excerpts from a novel into dada poems,  (7) discussing characters’ actions from different perspectives and (8) constructing and writing formal literary arguments.  Her methods prove successful; annually the majority of her students pass the NYS ELA Regents exam.  It’s important to note the particular population with whom Carla is experiencing success; the majority of her students have previously dropped out of other high schools, range in age from their late teens to early twenties, and have struggled with reading and writing.

Students read books “they would not otherwise be exposed to.” Included are African American titles A Piece of Cake, Sula, and My Daddy was a Numbers Runner, international works The Kite Runner and Persepolis, and books about tense family dynamics including When I Was Puerto Rican and Bastard out of Carolina.  Her classroom is a place to explore and contemplate the world from divergent points of view, some not always palatable or comfortable, sometimes winning students over, sometimes experiencing their opposition. “If I am preparing them for the real world, you can’t always run away from something you might think is boring or uncomfortable.  Sometimes you have to face it and open yourself up to other ideas and other people.”

Carla’s classroom brokers connections across social and technological contexts.   Recently she participated in a study group offered by the New York City Writing Project using the online forum “Youth Voices.”  Her students discussed class texts, recorded their writing processes and progress, and shared obstacles encountered in their research, culminating in posting their essays online “so that they can see the evidence of the work they have done in a public space.”

Also a poet, writing poetry is “a way for me to understand my life, the world and my place in it.”  Inspired by her cousin giving her a book of self-published poetry after her father’s death, Carla self-published her first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings, and a compilation CD with her cousin, jazz musician Eric McPherson. Proceeds from her book and promotional goods were donated to charity.

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As a single mom Carla balanced work with remaining active in her son’s school activities while cultivating his evolving writing interests.  He was a semi-finalist in the Knicks annual poetry slam, a student in a black male initiative supporting young men writing poetry resulting in a performance at the Nuyorican Café, and a participant in the Urban Word Summer Institute.  He is currently a sophomore at SUNY Purchase.

Carla learned from her family to use knowledge to emancipate self and others, which she is passing on onto her son and generations of students.  Hers is an unsung narrative.

Below are two poems from Carla’s publication Gnat Feathers & Butterfly Wings (© 2008, Wasteland Press).

To order Carla’s book and audio CD, please go to Amazon.com or BN.com.

Anike

As she models her

brand new brand name

dress

in the mirror,

I watch.

She gives her chocolate brown

kinky twists

a toss

so her hair can fly.

She spins

to feel the wisp of cool air

against her butterscotch skin.

She smiles

and calls herself

the cutest girl in the world.

Shielding my eyes

from her sparkling aura

I shake my head

and my index finger.

Stop that, I say

Thinking modesty is noble.

But then again,

As I look at my life

I am glad my niece believes.

Maybe she won’t end up 

with her self-esteem all black and blue. 

The Anteroom

Baby, I must tell you

I can’t be the type

to eat

a plum, or a 

peach,

or an apple

before it’s ripe.

Though you desire my dainty meats,

a pure heart and motive is what I seek.

Love is more than honeyed lickings,

strawberry cream,

and appetent sighs.

I do want you,

but caress my thoughts before my thighs.

Fondle my aspirations,

my breasts won’t disappear.

The small of back can wait,

knead my doubts and fears.

Explore my world,

Then, take me to heaven.

This article is also featured in the recent online edition of Bronze Magazine (except photos and poetry).   Please go to http://bronzemagonline.com/strength-courage-and-wisdom-the-makings-of-an-urban-teacher/

Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Redux: Are We a Nation Rhetorically at War with Itself?

What do we as a nation think of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case?   Here are recent posts from CNN’s website covering different aspects of the Trayvon Martin case.[1][2]

you know: what a good scapegoat for blacks to point at and cry racism.

P41: Caucasians are liars, murderers, thieves, rapists, sodomites, false witnesses, blasphemers, gluttons, idolaters, envious, lazy, swindlers, haters of GOD ALMIGHTY, and of the ORIGINAL BLACK MAN, BLACK WOMAN, AND CHILD.

Turbokorper: …there once was a community of thugs
…who were really good at pimpin’ and selling drugs
…we just move away,
…hopin’ they will stay,
…in the squalor, the crime and the bugs.

Lagergeld: Zimmerman is a brown Mestizo like the average Mexican yet CNN and the other networks keep pimping the lie that he is white to promote such BS agendas as this and to somehow twist words, journalistic accuracy, and reality itself to make some freak show tie-in to Emmett Till.  This is Communist News Network. As you were, Comrades.

Kimip: Far more Republicans (56%) than Democrats (25%) say there has been too much coverage of Martin’s death, Big surprise there. They would only care if it was someone from corporate America that was shot and killed. 

Michwill: If you’re not a part of the black community you need to keep your opinions to yourself. We don’t comment on the priests that molest the white altar boys or all the pedophiles in your communities or even when the white husband decides to kill himself and the whole family!!

Justice Has Occurred: I just read some of Trayvon’s published tweets. He was an inmate waiting to happen. Putting him down now may have saved some lives…black and white.

Recent responses to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman dynamic have clearly plucked a raw nerve, suggesting that this case has repercussions and ripples extending beyond that fatal night.  In some respects, the case has us all examining our experience of race and ethnicity in this shared country, particularly around civil liberties, law enforcement, due process, interactions with other ethnic groups and the perceptions we believe others hold of us based on our own positionality.  This is a case that harnesses within both individuals and groups a pulsing plethora of emotions and positions: vulnerable, victimized, and vindicated.   It is hard to not take aspects of the case personally and be impacted by them.

But as suggested by the smattering of the comments above, there is an undercurrent that is surfacing.  That facts and aspects of the case are being chiseled into reactions that are then used as leverage to hurt and harm a stranger or unsuspecting group.  What particularly resonates with me are some of the personal attacks that people have hurled at one another.  It’s made for a charged atmosphere of hurt feelings and caustic retaliation, the flinging of accusations and assumed political agendas.

Yet I wonder about the impact of such flagrant and rampant personalization, how it is churning and festering within us as citizens of a shared nation, leading us into then maliciously attacking specific individuals and groups. To some degree, it is human nature to hurt when harmed (a scorned lover, a bullied child).  But to sharpen understandings of the case into weapons to inflict undue damage is making for unfortunate fallout.  A failing of compassion.  A missed opportunity to understand and be understood.

The inflation of the case whereby people are using it to insult, instigate, implicate, and inculcate fellow humans does nothing to further understanding the incident, the case, each other or us as a nation.  But what the hurling of such incendiary comments, abuse of facts from the case, and exploitation of stereotypes does is beg us to look into the mirror.  Why are we using this case to purposefully and deliberately disrobe, dismiss and denigrate?  Why are we fashioning the hurling of hurt? What benefit manifests from adding insult to injury?  What long-lasting good comes from using this case to leverage insults against fellow humans? What do any of us score, or even win?

Why are the branches attacking the body?

This is not to suggest anything against our right to free speech.  This does detract from the historical, social and cultural backdrop against which this case occurs.  But we can retain emotive clarity.  When I read such comments as those listed above, and see their growing proliferation like dandelion spawns in blistery winds, I wonder where else they will land.

And, like the nature of weeds, what potential for life they will begin to choke.


[1] Study: Republicans, whites more tired of Trayvon Martin coverage. CNN.com. April 5, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2012/04/04/justice/florida-teen-shooting/index.html?hpt=ju_t4

[2] Trayvon’s Death: Echoes of Emmett Till? CNN.com. March 24th, 2012.  http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/24/trayvons-death-echoes-of-emmett-till/comment-page-3/#comments

From Native Son to Invisible Man: Reflections on Trayvon Martin and Rearing a Black Man-Child in America

Early this morning I was drafting a guest blog post about what it is like to be a new wife and mother. The wife version I completed, and just when I was to start drafting the part about raising a son, I read several posts and articles about Trayvon Martin’s murder. And I read Sheree’s FB post that ignited my heart and fright. 

What a tragedy of life and travesty of justice.

I then heard my son crying and went to check on him. He drifted back to sleep, except for grabbing my thumb which he would not let go of even while sleeping. After reading of this event, it moves me even more that my son trusts me to comfort him, even in his sleep.

But I don’t trust the world to protect him. Or my husband.

I asked hubby while eating breakfast today to be careful, for he is someone’s son. And he is someone’s father.

George Zimmerman’s father advocated on his behalf, yet I wonder if George thought of the impact of his actions on Trayvon’s mother and father who would be affected by what he was about to do to their son. About the dangerous stereotype he was about to reinvigorate and perpetuate because of his skewed vigilantism (how can you claim self defense when you pursue someone despite the police dispatcher’s admonishment to not do so?). About the permission he took that was not his to take in the taking of life.

As he walks free. While many of us hold sons, husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers tighter in our grasp.

It’s 2012, and black men continue to be a hunted endangered species.

I think I will be writing a different piece about what it is like to be a mother . . .

For the weeks and months to come, many will write about the tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the travesty of justice they foresee as imminent.  The contemplations, discussions, and emotions will be broadened to encompass indignation toward Geraldo’s flippant “hoodie” defense (what happens when you dress a certain way), the desired resignation of the neophyte Sanford Chief of Police and examination of his department’s shoddy execution of investigation and due diligence, and musings over how long the slaying of a yet another Black youth will dwell in the nation’s conscious after mainstream media no longer broadcasts it.  Yet what’s begun to stir within me is an investigation of me, of the inner workings of the new intimate space within me called parent, of what I am responsible for doing in rearing my newborn son to endure (and survive) a current and post-Trayvon Martin era.

The excerpt above was the first of two Facebook posts I wrote emotively on March 19th after hearing about this young son’s death.  The holding of my own son, who arrived just a few short months ago, has suddenly become more intense, an honest reaction to a hellish circumstance.  But while my arms can for now shield his growing body, the eventuality is that he will outgrow them.  Although he will practice his first steps within the preparation, guidance, and sanctuary of my arms, the eventuality is that he will walk away from me into and within the world outside them.  If I have done my job well, he will be learned and equipped in how to stand on his own.  On his physical legs, yes. Yet I contemplate how best to support his standing with strategies for straddling his inherited duality; although he is spiritually and ancestrally a temple, he is a target socially, culturally, and historically.

The scrimmage fought between being a man-child of great potential and the caricature misinterpreted as being executable is a stark reality. It is alarming that prisons are built at a rate proportionate to students’ performance on elementary literacy tests, the notorious cradle-to-prison pipeline.  And many of us are now resorting (rightfully) to practicing with our sons how to interact with law enforcement (how to speak, how to posture, how not to exude being a “threat” or “menace”).  The gravity of protecting and harvesting a son (both my own and our collective) weighs on me.  I vacillate between which should “weigh” more—helping him to harness his holiness and hopes, or conduct regular drills with him on how to interface with the outer emboldened and armed law enforcement representatives and fanatics.  For this brief moment, I feel parenting duties prioritized to preserving his physical life, and once out of my arms’ reach how to effectively (ideally) do so on his own.  As my role as a parent daily unfolds, so does my quandary and question over what takes precedence in what to teach and educate.

Without Sanctuary, Lynching Photography in America, chronicles the epidemic lynching of yesteryear and its commercialization through postcards (yes, people could send well wishes to family on one side with the image of an incinerated and castrated body on the other).  Lynching, this cultural attitude legitimizing the denigration and objectification of black males and the abhorrent act manifesting from it, seems to be rearing its ugly head, with strange fruit again populating our nation’s fatigued trees (Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, and those  whose lives ended suspiciously as chronicled by filmmaker Keith Beauchamp in “The Injustice Files: At the End of a Rope” to name a few, regrettably).   Trayvon’s death eerily echoes and harkens back to this era, as Zimmerman’s 911 calls serve as the prelude to the semi-automated lynching he was about to conduct.  Or has the era ever left us?

This is my initial reaction as a parent.  To save my offspring  from harm.  To guard what is of my flesh, my incubation.  To prepare him for a hostile world.  We know the risks of bringing forth a man-child in this land of promise (though not always of promises kept).  He is a native son, born into the milieu of fear, flight, and fate that is disproportionately slated for our young men.  He will have to make strategic decisions in his navigations and negotiations as an invisible man in these states.  Therefore, I wonder how much I must teach my son how much his body is and is not his.  What places he can and cannot be (and at what times).  What he can and cannot wear.  How he can and cannot speak.  I feel the pressure of teaching him that daily he will have to walk and breathe in duality.  To know it is his right to live by his own construction, but that such living will intersect and conflict with, as well as disrupt, others’ construction of him (and how people may consequently act on those constructions regardless of his innocence or best intentions).

Though Trayvon’s parents did not will his son to be a sacrificial lamb or martyr (nor would any parent of their lamb), they took the risk to release their son into the world; an innocent who went into the world alone was returned to them in a body bag.  However, his life and death harnessed and galvanized an insurrection and reflection bigger than himself.

But I/we as parents must be and remain brave and bold.

My infant son’s favorite position is being perched on my shoulders.  There, he steadies himself, hands and forearms braced against my shoulders.  His routine is first to peer over my shoulders, then emboldened, begins his ritual of incessantly searching out the world around him. Rapidly rotating from side to side, his eyes and head venture then fixate.  Venture, and then fixate.  Quickly that shoulder’s geography becomes a bore, and like a rock climber ambitiously leaping to a new rock, so does he.   I catch and cradle his search, support his navigation, lest he lose balance and fall from pursuing and practicing his ambition.

But this is the point.  Instinctively, he trusts (and ideally all children trust in their guardians) I will support his ambitions and protect him in his pursuit of them.  Though in these recent weeks I feel intimidated by the possible taking of my son’s life by others armed myopia, faith reminds me that the most selfish thing I can now do is cage my son.  It is important to teach him what Jesse Washington dubs “the Black Code” of conduct (1) when having to deal with law enforcement representatives and in situations that challenge his life, but he was not born or purposed solely to fulfill his or anyone else’s fear.  I would be less than a parent to teach him to cage himself because of the cowardice and inner conflict harbored and festering in others.  He trusts me that while in my arms and upon my shoulders I will bolster his investigations of the world, and support him venturing into it.

The second post I wrote on March 19th is my ideal, my illustration, of how I am trying to raise my son.

After playing on our alphabet playmat, my son in exhaustion drifts to sleep. Resting his head on my thigh, he found his comfortable spot and relaxed. Both of us breathing heavy. Him as he descends into deep sleep. Me as I descend in thinking about Trayvon Martin. 

Will he grow from “native son” to “invisible man” (pun intended on Wright’s and Ellison’s seminal works)? Are sons and statistics interchangeable? Synonymous?

I am thinking on the world in which my son is born into, and what we will need to do to steel, strengthen, prepare and guard him. And also what we will need to instill in his imagination as chords for an (ideally) melodic world he will have to create.

And I wonder what fellow parents raising sons are wondering too . . .


(1) http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gNZGRWMd7msShtng3-UP3YcivEuw?docId=cf76e46b87df4e90bbf77cbbbabce150

Looking into the Mirror of a Great Divide: How We Define Ourselves at the Expense of Others

In the recent blogpost titled “Black Canadian Like Me,” Alyson Renaldo suggests a contention between kindred of shared borders—Black Canadians and African Americans. She recycles the “Black on Black” crime of people of shared African Diasporic experience disliking and distancing themselves from each other, suggesting that cultural cluelessness, assimilation, and a “lack of reaching back” are the culprits.  Yet in irritating this sore spot, is the author as much its promoter as its clarifier, when suggesting for example that artist Jill Scott’s lyrical references to southern cuisine lacks insight and makes her “clueless” to the cultural experiences of others, and the questions of one Los Angeles bus driver to the author about her diction suggest a universal myopia about African Americans’ understandings of other Black people’s experiences?  The post below explores the dimensions of Alyson’s argument, and the larger dilemma underlying the building and burning of bridges between Diasporic neighbors.

In the blogpost “Black Canadian Like Me” (http://www.theroot.com/views/black-canadian-me), Alyson Renaldo begins her blog sharing reflections on recently attending a Jill Scott concert in Canada with her friends.  She admires Jill’s music, acknowledging it as a portal into an intimate portrait of Jill, a translation of personal experiences churned into lyrical public artifacts.  But it is this very translation that the author criticizes and deems offensive, indicting Jill’s song on a platform larger than her lyrics, holds the song responsible for more than self-expression.  Going wider and deeper than classifying Jill’s performance as creative expression, she critiques both Jill’s song and herself as an artist.  Because Alyson and her friends were unfamiliar with some of the cuisine and cultural references Jill made, the author alludes to Jill’s references to food as intentionally excluding her and her friends from what “should” have been a concert of inclusivity. What follows are some of the comments Alyson and her friends recorded that they made during this collision between concert and culture:

“[Jill’s] just setting up her experience in the song. But, well, not really, because she’s asking us to reminisce with her, which means we’re supposed to know about these strange food combinations, too,” and “I don’t think they know there are others on the planet with them. Maybe she thinks the ‘c’ in ‘Canada’ really stands for ‘Carolinas.’”

Alyson and her friends situate Jill’s center of gravity—how she defines herself—as off-putting, and in the author’s words, “cultural cluelessness.”  She asserts that Jill Scott disappointedly does not take into consideration the experiences of others within her music; talking about certain cuisine indicative of her personal story excludes and alienates others’ stories.

The author seems to be going in the direction of a cultural indictment of a personal cuisine-based affinity upheld by Jill Scott, but is using Jill’s lyrics to lead into a generalized assumption of African Americans’ cultural insularity and exclusivity. She interprets Jill’s culinary affinity as an elitist cultural alienation of them, foregrounding it as an implication of African Americans as a whole as being culturally insular and ignorant.  Using the concert as a case study, the author devotes the rest of the blog to also discussing a premise that African-Americans participate in a self-erasure, with this erasure being a non-affiliation with Diasporic cultural and historical roots, a cultural and ethnic myopia whereby border kindred of African Descent (in this case, Canadians) are disregarded, and an unhealthy assimilation and absorption of Americana.

The blog has me pondering, and probably will continue so long after writing my own response.  Trying best to not write tit for tat, there is something about this supposition of Diasporic and border-based betrayal that does not rest well.  I think the blogpost offers a personal account about how one’s identity is formed and informed by historical and contemporary factors, but makes an over-sweeping judgment to about African Americans as a whole that further contributes fuel to an artificial fight between the survivors of the African Diaspora.

Jill Didn’t Mean No Harm

Alyson frames Jill Scott as “culturally clueless” because of the particular culinary references and cultural connections she made with them.   However, artists work on dual planes—they express a particularized experience, yet do so in forums which universalize its access and foster new possibilities.  This universal access then allows as audience to experience the framing of life as offered by the artist, while also being invited to innovate upon this offering by infusing or revising pieces of ourselves (writing a poem or essay based on a phrase, creating a dance to complement it, reminisce about a time in our lives when we experienced similar, do research, ask questions, etc.).  As another option, we can accept it at face value as just an artist’s interpretation and integrate nothing of ourselves.  To Jill’s defense (and credit), while not everyone grows up on collard greens and candied sweets as particularized by her, there is a universal human experience induced by food and tradition.  As a universal human experience, food and tradition are intertwined, used to commemorate universally human events such as rites of passage, marriage, birth, death, war, victory, etc.

Art is an invitation into a dialogue between artist and audience, a conversation amongst a multiplicity of beings.   I am a fan of Jill Scott in how she mixes a range of emotions, experiences and epiphanies with a range of sounds.  I admire how John Coltrane translates the divine into music.  Composer Clint Mansell generates a soundtrack for the movie “Requiem for a Dream” that gives a sound to addition—razor-backed, uncomfortable, brooding and solemn.  Teena Marie blends guitar and a multi-octave range to make compelling narratives.  Jamiroquai makes the ethereal into the audible.  Astrud Gilberto sings Bossa Nova in a way that is seductive, soothing, and sonorous.  Yo-Yo Ma interprets the history of countries and different music genres, rendering them into melded art.  I may not come from where each of these musicians comes from, nor agree with or enjoy everything each produces.  But, as artists do, by siphoning their specific experience through music, each provides a medium and channel into the human experience.   So to argue as Alyson does that someone’s articulation of his/her experience to be deliberately excluding of others is a huge stretch.  To suggest that an artist’s singular articulation is endemic of a practice of a people is erroneous and unfair condemnation (I’ll return back to this point in the next section).

We have to be careful of criticizing musicians (and perhaps artists in general) as cultural elitists and exclusionists because of references made in a song, and just because some references are unfamiliar or outside the realm of our specific experience.  My husband is a fan of several artists old and new, across a span of artists (from Aretha to Adele, from The Dramatics to The Bee Gees, from David Ruffin to Neil Diamond), eras (60’s, 70’s, 80’s), genres (movie scores to classic soul) and continents (here and abroad).  Several of my nieces love and grew up with Soca and Calypso.  Being around them has made for me a feeling of discomfort because I am unfamiliar with many of the songs and artists they like.  However, it is the intersection of our shared lives as family, amidst this discomfort, that has encouraged me to ask questions and penetrate past a wall of assumed difference, rather than be immobilized by assumption.  Lesson learned  and the take-away. . .while there is variance in our musical tastes, and in the content and cultural referencing of the artists, these things make for more of an opportunity for curiosity than criticism or Diasporic cutterage.


Cultural identity Held Up in the Mirrors of Others’ Eyes

Another argument made in Alyson’s blog is that there people of the Diaspora living in the United States  “process race and community differently than I” (than Canadian-located counterparts), that there was a kind of oppression-and-assimilation orientation that people of color in the United States hold compared to brethren living in Canada.  She recounts her rearing as being entrenched with identifying with the country of family origin, not current location (in this case, Canada where she was born as a citizen).  She makes several statements that that end.  For example, she states, “It was absolutely unheard of for anyone of my ilk to claim Canada,” which “absolutely everything, from your table etiquette to your family pride — was figuratively imported,” and “my generation’s parents knew what they were doing when they insisted on raising us as West Indians first, rather than Canadian.”

There are two implications here.  One is that only Alyson has been reared this way, suggesting that no other immigrant groups, whether voluntary or involuntary, practice the preservation and continuation of old traditions in new lands and inculcate their young to do the same.  Second, the author implies that if someone was not raised this same isolationistic way, that she or he is deprived and “less than.”  The author’s mentioning of how she “processes race and community” seems more as to bring separative distinction and deliberate distancing to the forefront.  Isn’t this the very same elitism she accuses Jill Scott of doing during the concert?  Jill is accused of cultural elitism because of references made in a song and “promoted” during a concert, yet the same indictment could be imposed here for the author’s elevation of how she was raised to the assumed absence of how others are not.

The author also makes an interesting statement about her rearing and interracial interactions between white Canadians and people of the African Diaspora living in Canada.  She asserts that in Canada there is a deliberate distancing between those of West Indian descent and the white majority:

“. . . when it comes to my sense of self, I am Caribbean, first and foremost.

As a child of West Indian immigrants, I clearly remember my dual development: When I stepped outside, my whole world was white, with a smattering of minorities, but when I returned home, the inverse was true. My entire socialization mirrored black and West Indian sensibilities, training that took place exclusively at home. All standards of progress were set by West Indian ideals. None of this was explicitly articulated so much as explicitly modeled.

It could be reasonably surmised that, as a community, we were invested in privacy and distance from the majority. Our parents interacted with the country’s white majority as one would a friendly co-worker. Caucasians were not our parents’ superiors — nor were they subordinate. They were just people with whom our parents were expected to spend significant amounts of time. Granted, if, while using this model, they forged friendships, that was cool, but it wasn’t even remotely necessary or solicited. Also, it goes without saying that it was not considered wise to bring one’s ‘work’ home . . .

Perhaps my generation’s parents knew what they were doing when they insisted on raising us as West Indians first, rather than Canadian. It meant that we could live within a white majority but not be defined by that majority. This is how our parents ensured our solid foundation, which was and remains an immeasurable gift.”

The author states that confining interactions with “the majority” to just work is optimal to preserving one’s own identity.  To contrast, it is the lack of preserving this distance, and the adoption of “the American dream” has led to the “downfall” of African Americans. Based on a brief stint of living and going to school in Los Angeles, talking with a bus driver, and attending a party with white Americans, Alyson contends her understandings about African Americans grew.  Yet the author condescending argument has holes as well, as evinced by judgmental comments about African Americans such as, “[there is the] American cultural norm of self-absorption, a trait to which black Americans are not immune,” “I had completely forgotten is that black Americans are still Americans, a nation firm in its resolve that no person or thing on this planet — or in the heavens — matters as much as they do.”

Alyson doesn’t specifically state what she believes as the way African American process race and community, and its differences to her own.  By implication, it seems from the blogpost she is suggesting “differently” that being born as an African American means to be devoid of rearing that infuses one’s growing up with being brought up with history, knowledge and traditions of Diasporic ancestry.   It also implies an over-willingness to accept, acculturate and assimilate the beliefs and practices of the dominant culture—to the consequential cheapening of one’s self.   Her premise also implies that to assimilate some beliefs, to participate in some of the traditions of one’s current country of citizenship, is a cheapening of oneself.  Suggesting that there was not enough “resistance” placed against integration and “hence the consequence” of marginalization.  As if to suggest living a daily strategic negotiation on multiple fronts of culture, employment, and identity are demeaning work.

However, growing up through multiplicity does not lead to mediocrity or “selling out.”  As a woman of color born and living in the United States, I am the culmination of various experiences.  Some directly rooted in my ancestry and ancestral history, others based on living within a multi-ethnic nation.  Some experiences I have had through growing up in a major urban city, others from visiting family in rural settings.  Some experiences are inherited from family traditions, others from sharing in the family experiences of others.  Some experiences as a woman of color have helped me ascend, other have been afflictions because of people’s assumptions based on my gender and ethnicity.  Who we come to be is more mosaic than singular.

I was not sure of the connections the author makes between Jill Scott’s music, her cultural upbringing, and suppositions about the African American experience.  What I did read and note was the tracing of experiences distancing, in both the author’s accounts and also in my experience as the audience.  A conventional conclusion that summarizes talking points wouldn’t do justice here, because what Alyson’s blogpost brings up is the need for more dialogue and conversation across borders of land and heart.

For now, for us all I offer one suggestion.  Stop placing so much responsibility on a song, and so little on introspection.