By New York Fellow Mariana Lara Lennon
This all started when I was invited to attend a meeting at my son’s school for Parents of Students of Color. Needless to say, I found this whole invitation a little disheartening. At this day and age, do we still need separate meetings for people of color? What was wrong or missing with the general meeting that the school felt it was necessary to have a separate yet “equal “type of meeting?
Has the movement of ensuring equity access to all gone so far that now we are now going backwards?
Too many questions with very little answers!
After many attempts to clarify and meet with the director I was finally able to meet with him. I then wrote him the following letter:
Dear Director of Diversity,
As I hope I conveyed, I believe that while we may have a difference of opinion on how we go about things and even some of our beliefs, I know that we both share something in common, and that is to hopefully make the world a better one for our children to live in, and this institution a better school for students to learn from. As Dr. King points out in the following quotes, I try to concentrate more on character and intelligence rather than color:
"I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character"...
"The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education."
I am not oblivious to the fact that Dr. King also felt a need to assemble, protest and take action to advance his ideals he stated and that simply feeling as he did and writing/speaking of it was not enough to make them ultimately come true. So I am aware that even now it remains necessary to do things (hopefully far less extreme now some 50yrs, and many civil rights laws, later) to keep advancing a very worthy cause to which I am no less connected than you other than in terms of simply the shades of our skin. And while I do not work a specified job as you do that is aimed expressly at this righteous cause, I encounter it no less every day in the NYC public school system as the co-founder of my own school in that system in a very racially mixed, and even divided, section of the city where I and many of my kids are a clear minority in every sense of the word. So this subject we speak of is no less dear to my heart, particularly as a mother of a child that is of Hispanic background. Mr. King's words are not mere ideals to me, and I am not naive to the realities that stand between the world we know, and the one Dr. King hoped for in his words.
As mentioned in our meeting, I do agree with you that race is an important part of our history, and yet despite the positive force of diversity there still is plenty of racial tension around us. Unlike many, I do not feel that racial pride -- of which I have plenty of my own -- need be the source of such tension. Then again, not all people see the world as I do, nor are as accepting of others' backgrounds and pride as I may be -- whether one's skin color is white, black, or anywhere in between.
I recognize too that surely part of your job is to ensure that people in the racial minority do not feel by virtue of that position that they are somehow excluded, overlooked or without a voice, as sometimes may well be a fact. I accept that and applaud (almost) any effort to counteract it. But I think the point of my questions in this vein is why that in turn requires in effect a literal segregation of any such people in order to discuss and counteract such a problem that somehow is presumed to be felt by all minority/people of color with kids at this school? In a sense, this strikes me as two steps back to try to take one forward. Isn't the point to NOT have to be separated out, but to instead have that seat amid all the people "not of color"?
I worry that doing so does less to resolve the problem than to in some way institutionalize it by making the separation now by design, and not just subtle. And while it may be the case that people in such minority based meetings feel some sense of satisfaction after by having been heard, I fear too that this merely appeases and coddles, but fails to resolve the problem which is the point to begin. If you are able to then advance a sentiment voiced at such meetings, doesn't it come at the expense of having to separate people out and effectively list their demands on the majority rather than working with that same majority in a single group that includes, rather than excludes or separates them and their kids?
I guess it then begs the question: Is there really anything being imposed by a school of the exceptional caliber and intention as this school that is really so wrong to kids of color that requires such an extreme measure by their parents and a designated part of the administration? How is it exactly that they have no such voice in the general community of all colors? By my own experience, this school been anything but insensitive to us or my own child of color.
I realize it is not my decision to make, but that of the school's administration to determine. But had I my druthers, I would prefer for this school (ie people in your position) to concentrate instead on why some parents are not attending meetings and in resolving that issue, rather than creating separate ones for them that may well intensify the issue more than ease it -- at least if you have a long term view of resolution, and not one of short term appeasement.
This of course is my humble opinion, and I suppose it may do little harm to hold such meetings to address people who somehow need separation. But I think that is the subtle, yet no less harmful effect of such meetings; it drags along the rest of the minority people who do not care to be viewed as in need of such separation (or segregation) in order to resolve their issues, like it or not.....not unlike the very stigmas that racist views impose on many very undeserving minorities because of a the unfortunate ones. And while we can disagree on that, as a person of color myself I feel those effects no less than those others complain of in terms of exclusion or racial insensitivity.
Even if I choose not to attend, my child may well be viewed at some point because of his ethnic background -- or darker skin -- as in need of that help, when in reality he doesn't really have such need at all. That is the problem, as I see it, of approaching problems as these sorts of meetings do. They can create patronizing stigmas of people like us. That does not mean to say that anyone should stand for wrongful effects of racism that persist in our world, even in our immediate world of this school. But I do believe how one goes about it in this much later stage of eradicating racism is no less important in finishing the effort of pioneers like Dr. King so that we don't in effect undo much of the good that has already been done. I know that is not at all your or the school's intention, but certainly food for thought from a person with plenty of experience in dealing with racism ever since moving to this country as a child and growing up in what was then the ghetto in Brooklyn.
I know my views are perhaps ones that are not widely shared or voiced, so you can imagine how unwelcome I too might feel at your separate meetings, which is no less a shame in a sense. But in the end this is not about me, my feelings, racial pride or even your job or the feelings of other parents really. It is, and should be, about what is best for our children. So I hope that is what results from even your and my dialogue here, and in one life that is most dear to my heart -- that of my son. As I pointed out, I hope that regardless of any of this discussion that my views and opinions don't have any adverse consequences for him in his years with at this school. Your job -- which in many ways is one I feel very strongly about -- is obviously one that indirectly is to benefit him and even look out for him in your efforts to help people of diverse backgrounds such as my son’s. I just hope that in that effort you will take into consideration just how that job gets done so that he and other kids like him are not ultimately, and certainly inadvertently, cast in a lesser light than in the intended better one through the work that is done with meetings like the ones of which we speak. Frankly, I am glad there are people like yourself there looking out. But in a way I think even you could agree, the world would be a better place if there was no need for such jobs. How we get there seems to be our only real difference of opinion, I believe.
If it did not come through in our meeting, I hope it has in my writing above; I do very much value the intent and work that you do. Thanks again for your time and listening ear, and should you feel that I can assist you in anything, please don't hesitate to contact me. Once again, thank you.
Mariana Lara Lennon started her educational journey in 1993, as a bilingual special education teacher and went on to become the lead teacher for reading and math, providing professional development to colleagues. Her passion for supporting school improvement led her to the role of Educational Administrator for Region 7, bringing new initiatives to schools, as well as supporting the required mandates. Mariana was a middle school Assistant Principal for many years, supervising the ESL and Special Education departments. In 2013 she became the Assistant Principal of PS 310 in Brooklyn, a school she helped co-found.