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