Sunday, June 26, 2011

Just a few Life-Changing Revelations

I spent the last five days in a professional development with Lee Mun Wah of Stirfry Seminars. The official title of the workshop was "Cross-cultural facilitation skills for diversity trainers," but it was so much more. The biggest thing that I took away (and I think this was true for everyone in the workshop), was what I learned about myself. And there was a lot that I didn't even know that I didn't know about myself. Somehow, Lee Mun Wah worked his magical compassionate listening and communication skills to really hear the intent of what I was saying and the impact of experiences I've had. The word I've been using to describe the past five days is "transformative."

Like I said, there are a lot of things I learned about myself but obviously it doesn't feel appropriate or comfortable to name them all here. But one of the things that helped me during the workshop was relating to other people's stories. Many times they spoke in ways that could have been coming directly from my head, so it feels worthwhile to share some of those insights from other people based on the assumption that I'm not the only one they will speak to.

The first was a revelation for me that came from another woman in the group. Like me, she is mixed race; she has a Chinese American father and a white mother. She was talking about how and why she has gotten involved in social justice work and race relations. Race issues are something very important to me and, as I think is obvious to many people in my life, something I'm deeply passionate about. But I don't know if I've ever thought about why, beyond that visceral reaction. The obvious answer is that I'm a person of color and want to fight the oppression I've faced. Which is true, sort of. When I listen to stories of many other people of color who are involved in this work they can usually identify very personal, very vivid experiences with racism. It's not that I haven't been oppressed by my race (and lord knows I learned a lot more in this workshop about what racism has done to me), but I don't have the kind of stories that people want to hear about racism, about being called a racial slur or being forcibly excluded from somewhere or having my physical safety threatened. I don't have the stories that confirm that racism only comes from individuals rather than a larger system. Also, it seems a little incomplete to say that fighting racism is important to me because I've experienced so much of it. As a woman, I experience sexism and know that it has painful effects on me, but fighting sexism or learning more about gender differences has never spoken to me the way race does.

So this mixed woman in my workshop was talking about what led her to be so passionate about race relations. She said that her hunger for a healthy multicultural community comes directly from her experience as a biracial person: "If there can't be a multicultural community, it literally splits my heart in two. If we can't have a multicultural community, where does that leave me?" She pinpointed the thing I never realized about why multiculturalism is so important to me. Even with racism in play, there's still a black community, a Chinese community, a Mexican community, even a white community, etc. But without a multicultural community, I'm left homeless. Or even if I somehow am accepted into one community or the other, I have to give up a piece of myself to be a part of that. Despite the many ways that racism has touched me, my personal connection is exactly what this woman said: If we can't have a multicultural community, where does that leave me? I need a multicultural community because that may be the only community I'll ever have.

Deep stuff. As a little interlude/segue, one of the things Lee Mun Wah said was that in the end, racism is all about fear. There are so many things to be scared of because what will it mean if you hear the things that are difficult, if you hear a confirmation that your deepest fears may be true, if you hear that your view of the world that has allowed you to live is actually not what you thought it was? So I know this is a long blog post, and for the handful of people who actually still read this blog, I hope you'll keep reading.

The other thing that I want to share (for now) is a reflection Lee Mun Wah made. A white woman who is in a mostly white environment asked how she can use the few people of color to help other whites understand racism, but without exhausting the people of color. This mirrors a sentiment that I have often heard from people of color--and have definitely experienced myself--that it is so tiring to over and over again tell people your experience and "educate" white people. Over and over they don't know, so the burden falls on me to have to tell them. It is truly exhausting. An older black man in our workshop said, "I'm tired. Maybe I just want to finish out these last few years at my job and retire quietly." Lee Mun Wah reframed it, considering that we were all eager to tell our stories in the setting of this workshop: It's not that people of color are tired of telling their stories, it's that they're tired of the reaction they get when they do tell their stories. They're tired of the invalidation, of the defensiveness, of the interrogation, of the not being believed. It's these reactions that are exhausting. But if the reaction were curiosity and affirmation and genuine learning (every teacher will tell you that just because you tell someone something doesn't mean they learned it...), then people would actually be empowered to tell their stories and would gain strength from it. This has obvious familiarity for everyone who has ever been invalidated. If you try to say something and nobody believes you, you'll stop saying it pretty quickly, or become worn out by the energy of saying it over and over again to deaf ears. If you say something and people force you to defend it, you'll eventually give up saying it because the fight is too much. It's not saying it that's exhausting; it's exhausting not to be believed.

So now this begs the question, how do I make sure that when someone tells me their story, I don't make them feel invalidated, I don't exhaust them. What I learned from this workshop is so simple and so obvious that of course no one thinks of it: if you want to someone to feel validated, to know that you heard them, show them. Don't tell them, "I hear you; I'm listening." Tell them, as word-for-word as you can, what you heard them say. It's pretty unbelievable what happens next.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


One of the hardest--and best--things about being a teacher is getting to know students beyond the academic content I cover in class. Yes, I know my students as learners of math, but sometimes I forget how much else they have going on outside of school. Thursday felt like one of those days where I was hit pretty hard with some painful reminders of who my students are beyond the classroom: So at the risk of sounding like a Freedom Writers/Dangerous Minds/Dead Poets Society kind of post:

Thursday started off with a parent meeting that the parent had requested. I knew that this woman's child had been struggling with depression, but on Thursday morning she just unloaded. Things were going from bad to worse and her student was about to go into a hospitalized treatment program. These are the things I feel completely untrained to deal with. I adore her child, and it broke my heart to hear that the situation has become so dire. I think what the mom needed most of all was just someone to talk to, which I am happy to provide, but beyond being the patient listener I felt like I had no advice to give. 

In the afternoon as I was heading out and locking up with the rest of the teachers, a man sort of stumbled through the front door. We asked if he needed any help, and he only said "No" and stumbled up the stairs. Finally we figured out that he was a father looking for his child, so another teacher walked with him around the school. I found an administrator and when I named the father, the administrator responded, "Oh no, is he drunk?" Clearly he was, but I did not know that this was a regular occurrence. The student wasn't at school, so we ushered the father outside I took down his license plate number and called the police because he was clearly in no state to drive away. Having known this student for some time now, learning about the alcoholic home life made a lot of things clearer. I wonder how I would have interacted with this student differently if I had known earlier? 

Thursday evening was graduation. There's one student who I haven't been able to stop thinking about since I learned a little more about his background. Watching him walk across the stage made me sad and angry because I know his future doesn't hold in store. This student is incredibly bright, driven, and all around awesome. He got accepted to some pretty competitive colleges including UC Santa Cruz, his first choice. He has an impressive resume, is Latino, and is the first in his family to go to college, so the scholarships should be rolling in. But they're not. He also happens to be an undocumented immigrant, so he's not able to even fill out the FAFSA. At least in California undocumented immigrants are eligible for in state tuition, but that still comes to well over $20,000 per year. We can't suggest that he work to pay tuition because he won't be able to get a job that pays much of anything (or is legal). How do you tell a kid who has done everything right that all his hard work won't actually pay off?

Who knows what other stories my other students have.  It's a sobering reminder of who they are as people outside of school. And just to make sure this gets political, write your legislators to garner their support for the DREAM Act (and funding for schools). 

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

What My Gang Affiliation Would Be

After school today, a couple of students were trying to convince me to let them give me a henna tattoo.

M: "We could write 'I love math' on your arm."
Me: "I'll think about it."
E: "We could write 'M.O.B.'"
Me: "No, you could not write that."
E: "Math over biology!"