A Gospel-Centered Response to Urban Education in Memphis
Justine Brunett, MTR Class of 2016 and Elementary Resident (ESL concentration), shares her end of course reflection for the Cultural Foundations course of the Master of Urban Education. She answers the question, “What is a gospel-centered response to urban education in Memphis?”
I think I am somewhat of a stereotype: the bleeding-heart white girl who, with starry-eyed idealism, thinks she can save the world. (This is, of course, a fairly positive stereotype that is completely incomparable to the harmful stereotypes surrounding people of color, and I am not saying I can empathize with their experiences. I do think it represents how many people might perceive me, though.) Fortunately, my college education informed me that pity is not an appropriate response to people with inherent agency and dignity, injected a healthy dose of cynicism and critical thinking into my over-inflated idealism, and instilled in me the belief that “saving the world” is an incredibly complex task for which I have absolutely no qualifications. It also heightened my awareness of my privilege and encouraged me to consider the effect my privilege has in any helping relationship I might enter into with a person who has less privilege. Unfortunately, it did not erase the fact that I am still white and privileged, and, regardless of my ability to think critically about that fact, I still will be as I stand in front of a classroom of students of color who experience poverty in a few short weeks. Sometimes I wonder if I should have just stayed in the suburbs and lived out an “American Dream” lifestyle because I do not know if I can truly empower my students when I come from such a dissimilar background. Worse, I fear I might subtly reinforce the idea of white superiority just by being a white person in the more powerful “helper” position of a helping relationship. However, confronted with the injustice of educational inequality in Memphis and the truth that Jesus commands his followers to restore goodness in the world, I have ultimately chosen to pursue urban education but with a reflective awareness of the complexity of the issue and serious contemplation of how I can best stand in solidarity with my students despite my privilege.
Educational inequality has a long and complex history in Memphis. In 1972, a Federal Appeals Court ruled in Northcross vs. Memphis Board of Education that Memphis public schools needed to actually implement the Brown vs. Board injunction to desegregate a system that had for years offered a highly inferior quality of education to African American students (Branston, 2011). In response, school officials created a busing plan that would have integrated the schools had not “tens of thousands of white Memphians…fled the city for points north, south, and east” or sent their children to private schools in order to avoid the plan, leaving almost exclusively children of color living at or below the poverty line behind (Branston, 2011). Eliminating de jure segregation paradoxically resulted in the de facto segregation that exists to this day. In addition, today’s standards-oriented educational landscape measures high achievement by uniform standardized tests for all students regardless of their backgrounds, and schools that fail to live up to the standards face consequences that further burden them (Bankston and Caldas, 2009, pp. 146-151). Thus, in Memphis now, re-segregated public schools, which are attended almost exclusively by students confronting external socioeconomic circumstances that make achievement difficult, face enormous pressure to achieve at the same rates as more affluent schools. Good intentions have failed: desegregation broke down some barriers to equitable education, but ended in entrenched de facto re-segregation. Now, the good practice of holding students to high standards has been implemented in a way that fails to differentiate among the varying needs of diverse students. In the midst of such complexity and injustice, the only “right response” is “the anguished cry of lament” (Katongole and Rice, 2008, p. 77). When human attempts to fix a problem just perpetuate it, we can only turn to God and plead with him to make the situation right.
God can make broken situations right; in fact, the entire Bible tells the story of “the restoration of an original good creation” (Wolters, 2005, p. 12). God created everything good, but because of human disobedience, sin now distorts all of it. Abuse of the environment, domestic violence, exploitative labor practices, mental illnesses, civil wars, racially-motivated terrorism in peaceful churches, unequal education—these all stem from the pervasive, evil, distorting effects of sin. Although the continued presence of these injustices and suffering shows clearly that God’s kingdom of restored goodness is “not yet fully present,” the kingdom has “already” come “in Jesus’ life and ministry” (Livermore, 2009, p. 36). In other words, Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and powerful resurrection began the work of reconciling people to God and restoring the goodness of creation even though the work remains unfinished. It will be completed when Jesus returns, but in the interim, he calls his followers to join him in the work. 2 Corinthians 5:19 says that God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation,” a message that we transmit most clearly when we actively and diligently work to restore people’s relationship with him and each other. Striving to create equal education for children living in poverty is an act of reconciliation because it allows them to more fully glorify God by fulfilling their God-given potential and equips them to make relationship-restoring changes in their neighborhoods, city, and world. God amazingly invites me to join him in that act.
However, as someone with privilege, I need to be very reflective about my work as an urban educator in order for it to be truly reconciliatory. In his influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere (1970) argues that simple “anguish” over the realization of one’s own privilege “does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed” (p. 49). “True solidarity with the oppressed,” he asserts, “means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality that has made them these ‘beings for another’” and occurs when an oppressor “risks an act of love” (Friere, 1970, pp. 49-50). I cannot lament the disparity between my privilege and the complex, humanity-denying injustices faced by my students, and then just ignore that disparity when I teach. I cannot shed and certainly should not try to deny my privilege, but I can resolve to consistently, tangibly pursue active antiracism and social justice (Tatum, 1997, p. 94). I need to make a radical choice to be on my students’ side and empower them to challenge the systems that oppress them so that they can also more effectively be agents of restoring the goodness of creation.
How, as an ESL teacher, can I genuinely stand in solidarity with my students and empower them to make change? I can start by honestly acknowledging to my students that I do not understand their struggles but will make every effort to educate myself so that I can at least have an academic knowledge of the marginalization they face. I can also teach with excellence, knowing that—problematic though it may be—their level of English proficiency will likely correlate with their access to a dignified standard of living in the U.S. and their power to make changes in their communities and for immigrants in our country more broadly. As I teach them English, though, I can also encourage them to value their own languages and cultures by allowing them to speak their first languages in my classroom, learning at least a few words in their languages myself, finding books to read with protagonists who look like them and share their experiences, and giving them opportunities to share their cultures with the wider school community. I can also give them opportunities to name, question, and offer alternatives to the marginalization they face. I am sure that I can justify how a reading and discussing a book about a student bullied for his accent or a research project about DREAMer activism against the limited higher education opportunities for undocumented immigrants provides my students with the opportunity for authentic use of the English language.
Above and beyond teaching, I can also advocate for my students and be “like a lawyer” for them, as one of the participants at the community center where I worked last year described her ESL teacher. I can educate my general education colleagues on best practices for teaching ELLs, look for ways to bridge the gap between immigrant and domestic-born students at my school, and help my students navigate a new culture and society. I can also connect their parents to community resources for immigrants and ensure they have access to interpreters when necessary. Additionally, I can join in the already-established immigrant rights movement to advocate for more funding for programs that help immigrants, better educational systems for them, protection and dignity for undocumented immigrants, and a more accepting attitude toward immigrants generally within American society. To make my advocacy more effective and my solidarity more genuine, I can relocate to a neighborhood where my students live. The work of “reconciliation…[cannot] be done effectively long-distance” because I will never truly understand my students’ needs for restored relationships or, more importantly, the assets they already have with which to meet those needs unless I interact with them regularly (Reed, 1995, p. 36). Relocation can make my students and their families into not just people I see only within the school context, but also neighbors who I can understand on a deeper level.
One of the most influential professors I had in college frequently warned us that “our two biggest enemies are cynicism and simplicity of thought.” Her words easily apply to educational inequality in Memphis. It is easy to become “bitter and angry” looking at the injustices and the failures of good intentions and to question whether it is even worth it to try again to make a change (Katongole and Rice, 2008, p. 134). However, God clearly issues a call to his people to join him in the work of restoring goodness on the earth. In answering that call, though, I need to be very careful not to jump at simplistic solutions that fail to take into account the complexity of the issue. I can only contribute to true restoration if I humbly stand in solidarity with my students, advocating for them and equipping them with the skills they need to fulfill their potential and become advocates themselves for change in their communities. Perhaps it is idealistic, but that is my gospel-centered response to educational inequality in Memphis.
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