Category Archives: Society

Help Close the Achivement Gap

I’ve been talking about Ferguson for the past week or so, and it’s left me feeling raw and frustrated and powerless. That’s a good time to take action.

This isn’t directly related to Ferguson, but I think it is a good way you can help the general problem of racial disparity we see at work in Ferguson.

The Achievement Gap

Minnesota is one of the top states in the country for education. We’re also one of the worst states in the nation for the achievement gap. What’s that mean? It means the performance gap between white students and students of color in Minnesota is among the worst in the nation.

So to put it bluntly—Minnesota has a great education system, but only if you’re white. If you’re a student of color, you’re not going to do as well.

Here are some reading scores from St. Paul Public Schools: 2014_08achievegap

(see the full PDF report)

Now those are older numbers (2004-2006) and the state is making a concerted effort to improve. But a recent report noted that both Minneapolis and St. Paul are only hitting state goals for white students.

The achievement gap is a very real problem. It can go on to impact all sorts of other things: graduation rates, college, income levels, etc.

If we want to break the racial disparity in the United States, we must address the achievement gap.

What’s it Look Like Locally?

The West Side neighborhood has had a problem with under-performing schools. Here’s some data comparing three schools in St. Paul’s West Side and the city of West St. Paul (which are two different school districts):

2014_08schoolscomp

(You can get this data for any school from the Minnesota Report Card.)

Cherokee Heights is the elementary school for the West Side. Nearly all of their scores are below 50%. Only 27% of their students are “on track” for success. Students have not made a year’s progress (AYP) in reading for the last five years (2009-2013). The racial breakdown for Cherokee Heights is also incredibly diverse: 88% people of color.

By comparison, Garlough and Somerset are both schools in the nearby West St. Paul district. Garlough’s scores are in the 50-75% range and Somerset is in the 75-100% range. Garlough has 68% of their students “on track” for success and has made AYP for all but two of the last five years in reading. Somerset has 71% of their students “on track,” and has hit AYP all five years. Demographics wise it should be no surprise: Garlough is 60% people of color; Somerset is 20%.

One Way to Fix the Achievement Gap

I don’t say any of this to throw Cherokee Heights under the bus. They’ve got hard working teachers doing their best. But they’ve got a long way to go.

Now I’m also not an expert on the achievement gap. But my wife is a kindergarten teacher. She knows this stuff. She works at a new charter school in the West Side neighborhood of St. Paul called West Side Summit. Charter schools are public schools with a specific focus, and are effectively their own district.

West Side Summit’s goal is to close the achievement gap.

They’re working with the same population as Cherokee Heights (West Side’s population breakdown is slanted more Hispanic and less black and Asian, but it’s very similar: 84% people of color). They’re using a new blended learning model—the only elementary school in Minnesota doing it—where the kids work on computers for large chunks of the day, using programs that adapt to what each kid needs to learn. They also have an extended school day and an extended school year—more time in the classroom.

And they’re doing it. In the school’s first year the entire school averaged a year and a quarter’s progress in reading (West Side doesn’t have data in the Minnesota Report Card site yet; my data comes directly from the school). That may not sound like much, but most schools aren’t hitting AYP at all, let alone going above and beyond. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts as a whole haven’t hit AYP at all for the last five years in reading. Even the West St. Paul district (with the highly achieving Somerset school above) has only hit it in 2013.

Get to the Point!: How You Can Help

So aside from depressing you about the state of our schools (remember: Minnesota is among the best in the nation), what’s the point?

Giving kids access to books has been hugely important. A previous Donor’s Choose project put a ton of audio books in my wife’s classroom. Last year her class had a year and a half’s progress in reading. That’s amazing!

Right now my wife is doing a Donor’s Choose project to put iPods in her classroom. The iPods will be a big improvement over CD players—no more scratched discs, no more dying batteries, plus kids can record and listen to themselves reading. It’s an innovative way to get kids into books, boost their reading and close that achievement gap.

The project total is nearly $1,500. That’s a lot of money. However, the Bill & Malinda Gates Foundation is offering a 50% match if the project can be completed before Sunday, August 24. That’s tomorrow. So we need your help now!

As I’m writing this, we only need $450 more to hit the goal and get the matching grant. Will you help? Please donate now.

I realize this is only one tiny way to help close the achievement gap. It’s a giant problem with far-reaching consequences and there are probably a million things we could be doing.

But that’s overwhelming. This is one way you can help right now.

Thanks for your support.

Update: The project was fully funded on Sunday, August 24. We did it before the deadline and got the fully matching grant. A big thank you to those who donated.

Do I Teach My Son That Police Are Heroes or How Not to Get Shot?

In the aftermath of the Mike Brown shooting and the chaos in Ferguson, Mo., there are so many questions and frustrations rolling around in my head.

I managed to write about it (in brief) on Church Marketing Sucks yesterday, simply encouraging churches to address the many pains and hurts in this world and asking, “How long must we sing this song? How long, Oh Lord?”

Don’t Get Shot

One of the painful and difficult questions I’m struggling with is that Ferguson happened this week. A black teen was walking down the street and ended up shot to death by a police officer. Another reminder that parents of black children simply must teach their children how to deal with racial profiling and harassment:

“As a father, I should not have to teach my kids how to be arrested. I should not have to teach my son to do everything possible to make sure that you are not killed out here in these streets when a police officer pulls you over.” (NPR)

I need to teach my son how not to get shot by the police.

Police Are Heroes

But two weeks ago a police officer was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop not two blocks from my house. The work police officers do is dangerous. They put their lives on the line to protect our communities.

The out-pouring of support for Officer Scott Patrick and his family was incredible to behold. As it should be.

The night before the funeral procession we had the Night to Unite block party. Police, firefighters, EMTs and city officials were making the rounds, handing out glow sticks, tattoos and stickers. They were welcomed, encouraged, thanked.

I need to teach my son that police officers are heroes to be trusted and respected.

How Do I Reconcile the Two?

I don’t know how to reconcile those two. There are some petitions advocating for new federal laws and cameras. That’s something. The militarization of police is especially troubling in this case and makes it all the murkier.

I don’t want police officers to get killed, but is it necessary to send six squad cars to arrest a black woman for jaywalking? I don’t want anyone to get killed, but these are the disturbing realities we need to face.

The World Is Not What We Think

China is poised to become the “most Christian nation” in the world:

Prof Fenggang Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.

By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.

Muslim women get more dignity in Middle Eastern mosques than U.S. mosques:

As someone who has had the privilege of exploring mosques in many different places, I have to say that North American mosques are—with a few notable exceptions—among the worst I have seen in terms of the access and dignity afforded to women. The best? Iranian mosques. By a long mile. The world is never as black and white as it seems.

(That comment by G. Willow Wilson was also repeated at the Festival of Faith and Writing, where she gave an interesting rationale:  the difference in how a religion acts when it’s in the minority vs. in the majority.)

Diversity Is Not Enough

“We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism.” (“Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”)

In many ways it comes down to white privilege (that phrase can be difficult to digest—this is the best explanation of white privilege I’ve found). The white establishment (i.e., people like me) doesn’t understand what people of color face.

People like me are blind to all the small things that are stacked up against people of color. Each one on its own seems small, but together it creates institutional racism. The result is things like the Noah movie using an all white cast as “stand-ins for all people” because “race doesn’t matter.”

If you don’t see anything wrong with that, that’s white privilege.

If you watched the Noah movie and didn’t think it odd that everyone was white, that’s white privilege.

Or any movie.

As G. Willow Wilson commented, “Where are all the black people in Middle Earth? The answer is ‘In Laketown,’ apparently.” Extras in the Laketown scenes in the second Hobbit movie were the first non-white human characters in the Lord of the Rings movies.

If you think it’s political correct garbage to want racial diversity in a fantasy movie, that’s white privilege.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

It reminds me of the book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas where the 9-year-old Bruno is oblivious to the German Holocaust, even though he lives outside the gates of Auschwitz. He befriends a Jewish boy, Shmuel, but is completely unaware of the ostracism and hatred his friend endures.

Bruno is not antisemitic. He’s not even aware of the German propaganda about Jews, and when he hears it he doesn’t believe it. But he’s blind to all the barriers Shmuel faces as a Jew in 1940s Germany.

It’s not an ideal comparison. But it feels familiar. When people don’t understand the need for diversity or insist that we’re beyond racism, it reminds me of Bruno.

2014_04aliftopper

Searching Out Diversity

I keep coming back to the conversation about diversity in literature. I think it’s important. I heard it several times during the Festival in Faith and Writing and today I came across an article about how to get more diversity in your YA fiction.

That piece has some good advice. You have to actually search out diversity, recommend it and support it. It doesn’t happen automatically: Search, share, support.

Lately I’ve been trying to search out more diversity. If I don’t, my shelves are mostly full of white folks. It’s the same with my music collection. I don’t like most hip-hop, and the alt-rock and punk genres are pretty homogenous. So I’ve been working at it.

You also have to recommend it, and it’s something I need to be doing more. Though I should be clear this isn’t about simply recommending stuff because of the diversity, but because it’s good. So here are a couple recommendations, something I’ll try to do more consistently:

Books

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow WilsonAlif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The hacker youth culture of a Cory Doctorow novel meets an Arab security state and slips into a fantasy world worthy of J.R.R. Tolkien. The mix of realism and fantasy was pretty great. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of fantasy, but I really enjoyed the glimpse into the Muslim world.

Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul CurtisBud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
This is a YA classic but somehow I’ve never read it. An orphaned boy goes in search of his long-lost father in Depression-era Michigan. An early scene of Bud being abused by foster parents made me physically angry, but the story moves to tenderness as Bud encounters more warm-hearted people on his journey.

Music

Music seems like it should be easier to find diversity. But I’ve always been a rock fan, and aside from a few big names, rock isn’t very diverse. I’m not a fan of hip-hop, so that leaves my musical horizons pretty limited.

Thanks to Spotify, I’ve been researching more diverse voices.

“You Can’t Be Told” by Valerie June
This foot-stomping single is a bit different from the rest of her album, but I love her rootsy voice, regardless of anything else.

“Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit)” by Noisettes
This one has a swing-dance style that’s just fun. The band has some more recent stuff, unfortunately it’s only available in the U.K.

2014_04deza

The Difference Diversity Makes

That whole ‘diversity in literature’ conversation keeps coming up and I think it might help some people to understand why it’s so important.

If you’re never confronted with it, if you’re always finding people who look like you in your entertainment, then it’s a question you might never think about. It helps to step outside of ourselves and see a different perspective.

I came across exactly that perspective in Deza Malone, a character in Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Mighty Miss Malone:

When I was in Gary and would read novels I used to put myself right in the middle of the story. I knew it was a great book when it felt like the author was writing about me. Some of the time I’d get snapped out of the book when I read things that I couldn’t pretend were about me, even if I had the imagination of Mr. William Shakespeare.

Words like “her pale, luminescent skin” or “her flowing mane of golden hair” or “her lovely, cornflower-blue eyes” or “the maiden fair.” I would stop and think, No, Deza, none of these books are about you. Continue reading

Illustration by Christopher Myers

Where’s the Diversity in Literature?

Illustration by Christopher MyersI read a lot. And in all that reading it’s apparent that diversity is lacking. I like to tell myself that’s because of my own tastes or my own white privilege.

But it’s not just me.

It’s a problem that pervades the publishing industry. Earlier this month I tweeted a story about how 93% of the characters in children’s literature are white. The New York Times has run a pair of opinion pieces on the issue, Where Are All the People of Color in Children’s Books by Walter Dean Myers and The Apartheid of Children’s Literature by Christopher Myers, that gives some context and reality to the dry stats:

“In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature,” writes Walter Dean Myers, “the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.”

Continue reading

Having a Conversation About Marriage

The ongoing marriage debates in our culture right now make me want to wave a flag and hide in the corner at the same time. I’ve talked before about this shifting conversation, and I think that shift is only speeding up. Even the Pope seems to be allowing that some form of civil union should be considered.

Many traditional marriage supporters may be wondering what’s happening as the ground shifts beneath them. That’s understandable. But from my admittedly biased perspective, it seems like the traditional marriage folks have clung to a dogma without having a real conversation. Again and again they talk about how they were for marriage, not against it, and were defending marriage from all the crazy redefinition that would include gays.

The problem with that is I never saw an actual conversation about what marriage is and how it’s working and not working. They would chant “one man and one woman” and ignore all the mess of collapsing marriages. People get divorced all the time. It’s not ’til death to us part,’ it’s ’til we no longer feel like it. I think that’s an important reality that’s been absent in the traditional marriage conversation.

Continue reading

Lupita Nyong’o & the Shade of Beauty

I watched the Oscars last night (I know, what?) and was blown away by the poise and energy of the best supporting actress winner Lupita Nyong’o and her role in Twelve Years a Slave. She gave a moving acceptance speech with the line, “No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.”

She’s got quite a story, from nabbing an Oscar on her first film out (check IMDB, Twelve Years a Slave is her movie debut) to the incredible support from her brother Peter (he was her date for the Oscars, landing himself and his enviable hair in Ellen’s famous selfie). She even rocked the Oscar red carpet with that Cinderella dress.

But this wonderful speech she gave at the Black Woman in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence is probably even better. The reality of how skin tone effects young women is something most of us never think about. Lupita’s dark skin plagued her own self worth and perception of beauty, but that perception was something she could rise above and embrace her true beauty:

“You can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What actually sustains us, what is fundamentally beautiful, is compassion, for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty inflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master. But it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit, even after the beauty of her body has faded away.

And so, I hope that my presence on your screens and in magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey, that you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”