A City Education: Why Adults Must Model Racial Unity for Students
In our A City Education series, two City Year corps members share their experiences working as tutors and mentors in schools in hopes of closing the achievement gap and ending the dropout crisis.
"Mister, why do you hang out with him?" a Latino seventh-grader student asked my teammate Ricky at lunch.
Ricky knew exactly what the student was trying to get at: Why is Ricky, a Latino man, buddies with our teammate Aaron, a black man?
Ricky grew up here in Los Angeles and went to a school similar to Markham Middle School, where we serve. Markham is located in Watts, a historically black neighborhood in South Los Angeles. In the early 1990s blacks began moving out of the area, and immigrants from Mexico and Central America moved in. Cultural differences and poverty ignited frustration and led to the growth of racially segregated gangs.
Now Markham’s student population is 73 percent Latino and 27 percent black, and racial tension leads to a lot of fights and little interaction between the two groups. Given the tension on campus and in the community, Ricky and Aaron's friendship stands out. A black and a Latino man always hanging out and laughing together is something the students rarely see.
"Why does it even matter what Aaron is?" Ricky asked the student.
The student explained that blacks have different cultural values from Latinos and they're from different gangs. He said he didn't have any black friends and he fights with blacks a lot.
"So do you listen to hip-hop?" Ricky asked.
"Yeah, doesn't everyone?"
"Who do you think sings that?"
"I don't know."
"It's a black guy!" Ricky laughed.
The student claimed that hip-hop is different, but couldn't back up his argument.
Ricky asked the student who annoys him other than his classmates. The student replied that his little brother is annoying.
"Do you think the way he acts is special to him and your race, or do you think all kids do it?" Ricky asked.
Stumped again, the student didn't have a comeback. Ricky was able to give the student a perspective about black people—from one Latino man to another—that he had never heard before.
Of course, as City Year corps members, our focus is on boosting academics, but having a diverse team of young people matters. The 16 of us at Markham include biracial, black, white, Latino, Cambodian, and Korean people. Despite our racial or ethnic differences, our students see us getting along, and we’re setting an example for how to befriend people who are different.
Realistically, it's hard to teach our students something that isn't also taught at home—and reaching every student at a 1,223-pupil school isn't doable. But, those students we haven’t directly connected with can't avoid seeing the positive, fun, loving, and caring way we interact with each other.
At City Year, we stress a philosophy called Ubuntu: "My humanity is tied to your humanity." If my teammates are able to help students think about race in a different light—and help them understand that we share more similarities than differences with each other—that’s a step forward to bringing peace to this school.
Photo via City Year Los Angeles
Text Messages You Can Smell This company's device and app allows you to send scents through your phone.
This Tree Produces Forty Types of Fruit The living, edible art of Sam Van Aken's grafted stone fruit experiment
Dear 14-Year-Old Me The intuitive, emotional side of yourself guides your experiences and shapes how you learn. You grasp information viscerally, which can make traditional schooling a little bit harder for you.
Danish Architects Reimagine the Zoo The search for a more ethical wildlife park
Learning to Farm Fish Responsibly Breakthroughs in aquaculture are winning over longtime skeptics.
Stories for Boys Sundance-winner Rich Hill picks up where Linklater left off.
The Human Side of Spam Spanish photographer Christina de Middel smudges fact and fiction with her staged images of Russian widows and Nigerian lawyers in distress.
Why Oysters are Shacking up in Old Subway Cars States scrap over metal in a race to boast the greenest reef.
A Cable Car Revolution in the World’s Highest City The future of Bolivia’s public transportation takes to the skies.
When Humans Fight, but Animals Win Penguins have resorted to using landmines to keep pesky humans away.
So You Think You’re a Foodie? Pop culture was onto these trends way before you were. A sampling of the screwball comedies, sob stories, and sci-fis that anticipated our culinary moment
Dear Nine-Year-Old Me The transition is going to be difficult for you, but whenever you feel a little lonely and left out, take comfort in the knowledge that you are honing one of your greatest superpowers.