Facing Race

I want to avoid putting a label on what we are trying to do in our schools. 

“Black lives matter.” 

“Anti-racism.” 

There is apparently an imperative hard-wired into the human brain to put labels on things. It’s deeper than habit, deep in the human DNA.

We put a label on something and we think we possess it, understand it. Then we can fight about it.

You are in the club.

You are not in the club.

You are righteous,

You are not righteous. 

There is movement around us, in the media, in the streets, in the schools, in our classrooms. We don’t need to agree on a label, but I am moved to respond to what is happening. Without naming. 

We are grappling with this in our schools. We have a group that has been meeting for a number of months. I call it, “After Floyd.” I have to call it something.

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I have been teaching for years that a way to find one’s purpose, one’s mission, is to look inward to one’s own pain, to one’s own demons.

Beginning with yourself, embrace your demons, take care of your demons, and then allow yourself to see that others suffer from very similar demons and begin to reach out to care for their pain. Help them to embrace and feed their demons, widening the circle as others join you. This is how a movement grows.

Now, I am offering an alternative as well. Respond to the needs in front of you as they stare you in the face. Respond to suffering. Embrace the sufferers. Help them to find their demons, feed their demons, embrace their demons. Heal.

As you do this, allow this experience to touch your heart, to awaken your demons within.

With each demon that we confront and embrace, our practice deepens, our hearts soften.

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“Bringing to the societal table those who have been excluded.” 

For me, these are perhaps Bernie’s most important words.

Who is excluded?

For some, this is initially a theoretical question. Whose oppression is worst? Or most fundamental? How do gender, race, class, disability intersect?

When I was younger, I found these questions engaging. As my Zen Peacemaker practice has evolved, I have been finding a different way.

When I was at Brooklyn Children’s Center, it was probably the voices of the child patients who were most often unheard. If all people diagnosed with serious mental illnesses find their voices silenced, — that may after all be the major function of the mental health system, to silence voices, to lock them away or sedate them so they cannot be heard, — the voices of the children are doubly shut down. “Children should be seen and not heard,” is, after all, a familiar slogan of their oppression.

A few years later, I found myself involved in the creation of The Verrazano Foundation, originally intended to solve a management challenge facing South Beach Psychiatric Center, incorporating as a not-for-profit, coming up with a mission statement. South Beach at that time was struggling to adapt its programs to the rise of the movement for patient rights. The Verrazano Foundation embraced the agenda of that movement, responding to what was right in front of us. Our mission: to combat stigma and discrimination against people living with mental illnesses. 

There was no discussion about which form of discrimination was most central or whose oppression worst. We were working in the arena of the mental health treatment system. In this arena, those who were excluded from the societal table were obviously the patients. Right in front of us, right in front of me, here was the need, the pain, the suffering, the silence. I first heard then (and still cherish) the slogan of the recovery movement: “Nothing about us without us.” Mostly, these people were poor. Mostly they were living on Social Security Disability payments. 

When The Verrazano Foundation began to explore the possibility of creating a charter school as a way of advancing our mission, we began by asking, “Who were the children living with emotional challenges who were most neglected by our education system?” Ironically, perhaps, it was not the children with the most severe challenges. The New York City Department of Education did have some pretty good programs to serve these kids. It was the students whose problems seemed less severe (because they somehow managed more or less to keep up with the minimal academic achievement needed for promotion to the next grade) who got little or no service, and who were subjected to the worst peer discrimination and bullying and who were most likely to drop out of high school. These were very often students with the academic abilities to go on to college and productive lives if they could just get through high school. No one was hearing their voices or the voices of their parents. What these students needed to thrive as a learning environment in which their special needs could be addressed without removing them from their “normal” peers, in which their different abilities would be appreciated rather than denigrated. 

We built our integrated model on the premise that all students could thrive in classrooms with small class sizes, with skilled teachers, with universally available supports. Service and support without stigma. Bringing to the societal table those who had been excluded. 

Although we didn’t plan it this way, 75% of our students were poor, entitled under federal guidelines to free or reduced-price lunches. 85% were Black or Latino. When we opened the schools, we sought a mid-Island site. Staten Island seemed, in those days, even more racially segregated than it is today. 

Our dream was a school that would reflect the diversity of Staten Island. We have found that our schools served a student population that is predominantly Black and Latino. These are the kids who are not thriving in the regular district public schools. Their parents are looking for an alternative, a pathway to a seat at the societal table. We call it college, but it is not necessarily college.

When Lavelle Prep and New Ventures merged in 2017, it took us hours to settle on a name for the new corporation. We finally settled on Integration Charter Schools. I loved it because I always felt that the association that it evoked with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was important and valid. To me, it always seemed that the roots of the patient rights movement lay there. Others thought it evoked unnecessary baggage. Would some white people with money who might otherwise donate to our schools hesitate because of the name? 

History has raised our awareness. The murder of George Floyd and the national, international, reaction to his death, the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted, has presented us with a new challenge. How do we address this? How do we face it? Our board, our leadership, our faculty are all predominantly white. How do we face this challenge?

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Not so long ago, I thought that Bernie and I had different demons. He was homeless. Mine was a mental illness. Going deeper now, closer perhaps to the bottom, I find the same demon — exclusion, aloneness.

In Zen, we practice alone, no matter how large the Sangha. The inward journey is always a journey that we make alone. It’s a bit like swimming. We are always in the pool alone. The coach on the deck may be yelling, “Kick!,” but only I can kick my legs. Others can offer encouragement, but I have to do the kicking, I have to do the laps, I have to do the practice. I have to be alone. Finally, we all are going to die alone.

That may be the ultimate demon, our deepest fear that we really don’t belong, we will be excluded, that we will die alone.  

Maybe the path to peace is to come to terms with our demons, with the tenuousness of our sense of belonging, our sense of security. 

The irony seems to be that the more successful we are in creating the illusion of security, the more frightening the demon becomes, the more tightly we cling to our illusion of belonging. 

 

  1. Meaning ‘company’ or ‘community’, referring to the monastic communities of monks and nuns across the Buddhist world.