Somewhere between the Zimmerman verdict and the March on Washington 50th anniversary events, people tripped over debates about sagging pants. "Pull your pants up" has become the rallying cry—particularly among members of the African American community who feel that other black leaders wax poetically and passionately about structural racism while ignoring the self-inflicted oppression of black people. Sagging pants represent the lack of personal responsibility, which has, they believe, done more harm to the advancement of blacks than institutional racism.
Opponents of these half-baked, individual agency vs. structure arguments miss opportunities to offer solutions for improvement and community change. Good solutions take structures and motivation into account—the exception being legislators who regularly propose sagging pants legislation, which probably has the net effect of putting more black men in baggy, orange jump suits.
A pragmatic agenda can take into account more positive assumptions about change at individual and institutional levels. Instead of focusing on sagging pants, here are five practical things you can do in your neighborhood to make institutions and individuals more responsible.
1. Develop a neighborhood wellness center that houses a nutritionist, physical trainer, conflict mediation specialist, and tailor.
Enough with postmodern, relativistic, and circular arguments about standards. Standards constitute who we are as community—we just need nondiscriminatory and inclusive ones. Standards of beauty, professionalism, style, and decorum are necessary and inescapable. No one community is in need of standards. Most American communities are overweight, angry, and poorly dressed.
If they know what's in their food, people are less likely to insidiously harm their bodies. Nutritionists and dietitians make the complicated world of food consumption consumable. Physical trainers can establish fitness plans for entire blocks. Communities also need to learn about their mental health. Accessible preventative counseling may avert 911 calls. Centers can deploy conflict mediation specialists to deal with acute, mundane disputes. Wellness centers can also certify peer mental health workers that promulgate positive coping skills. And yes, our communities desperately need style doctors. Football jerseys are not semiformal. From hipsters to hip-hoppers, folks are just getting lazy with their dress.
2. Hire resident artists and philosophers in every school.
There's never been a time when society didn't need philosophers, and artists, but societies regularly fail to see that need. As a result, officials' meager attempts to solve communities' most pressing problems mostly result in exacerbating the original crises, chiefly because we didn’t go upstream and ask "why?"
From seemingly indiscriminate profiling and mass incarceration to the myopic closing of the "achievement gap," surface practicality and "all-in" investments in the acute never solve deeper problems. All the while, the ubiquitous "market" pushes art and ethics out of schools like black boys with two uniform violations.
We should never dismiss the practicality of good thinking. Hiring artists would build bridges between the mathematician and the engineer. Artists would also encourage critical self-expression to be the primary outcome of language arts. Philosophers could articulate the deeper communal needs of an education and unpack the lunacy of empty rhetoric like "poverty doesn't matter." Highflying acts of moral depravity among students and teachers beg for explicit lessons of moral and ethical decision-making. Having art and philosophy professionals in our public schools would encourage critical thinking skills that communities definitely have a "market" for.
3. Three hours of reading for every hour of Scandal watched.
The larger point here is that if communities are serious about changing a culture of anti-intellectualism, the overconsumption of pop culture must be addressed. We should consume less of entertainment television, pop radio, and sports and engage more with theater, live shows, and books. Instead of watching football from the couch, go for a run or lift weights. Imagine you're athletic.
I love hip-hop and R&B, but I can't let my two-and-a half-year-old listen to it. Early exposure to mainstream stations stunts the growth of children under the age of 12. Seriously, what does removing or bleeping out FCC-prohibited words do when the entire song is salacious? Even Top 40 is all about "dating."
I'm not saying get rid of overtly commercial television and radio, but make it your sometime intellectual food not your all the time intellectual food. It will take time to get off the crack of pop culture, but with time and effort, communities will be able to enjoy August Wilson and Toni Morrison, as well as current greats like Jesmyn Ward and Gregory Porter.
4. End the school to prison pipeline.
Expulsion leads to incarceration. The societal costs of incarceration far exceed schools' efforts to establish their culture. It's in the public interest to curb expulsion. Aren't schools supposed help improve communities after all?
In my years of working in the schools, I've failed to see a legitimate reason why an elementary student should be expelled. Yes, there are rare cases of extreme violence that challenge the claim, but social and emotional problems of the youngest children can and should be address with the school as a partner. Schools can ban expulsion at the youngest grades. Even for middle and high schools, most expulsions and long-term suspensions emanate from low-level status offenses that certainly should not involve the court system. A school's adoption and interpretation of the criminal justice systems' "no tolerance" policy flies in the face of education. Schools must assume that behaviors can change through education.
Progressive models of in-school suspensions and restorative justice techniques should be implemented nationwide. States should also provide schools with the mental health support to help redirect behaviors that disrupt the learning environment. For instance after a repeated suspension, states can require schools to pay for interventionists. Schools must have resources or build capacity to reinforce learning behaviors. States must also disincentivize schools from expelling children.
5. Create connections between education and employment (walk and chew gum).
Without a job, education is a long reach. Without an education, a job is a stretch. Education without a connection to jobs is like Corn Flakes without the milk (nod to Oran Juice Jones). Also by not making a connection to employment, you ignore significant predictors of academic success, which are household income and wealth.
Professional settings help students develop much-needed soft-skills through the application of academic standards. Sure you can teach a kid French in a classroom, but it's so much easier to teach French in France. Similarly, teaching English language skills is so much easier when students are placed in jobs in which the spoken word is corrected through professionalism.
Someone in a district, charter management organization, or school can proactively work on connecting student learning to professional and academic settings. Educators can walk and chew gum at the same time.
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