Month: July 2018

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Learning to be silent and stand by: accompaniment training to support our immigrant friends

The word friends was included without quotes in the title of this post because the unadorned word properly reflects the core values of community, solidarity, advocacy, and recognition of humanity expressed at an accompaniment training held at New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith/nonfaith group fighting for immigrant rights, in midtown Manhattan this past Monday. Accompaniment as defined by the presenters is a form of “advocacy for others without confrontation,” a way community members can stand in solidarity with immigrants who are facing different kinds of hearings and check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Something I loved about the presentation was the emphasis on seeing this form of advocacy not as a savioristic enterprise – volunteers are not there to “save” or “speak for” the immigrants who are going through these difficult experiences. Attempting to do so is a means by which to silence, to pave over the extraordinary efforts that are already taking place in immigrant communities, where the battle has been taken up by families, houses of worship, schools, and other centers of strength and communion in the fight for the right to live with dignity. We are simply standing with them, with our friends and neighbors. According to the presenters, judges in the New York City immigration court system have said that the presence of accompaniment volunteers is “critical” to the decision-making process regarding whether an immigrant defendant will, for example, be issued a bond or given more time to find an attorney if they don’t have one. Essentially, the paradox emerges that judges are more likely to be fair if they see that an immigrant defendant is surrounded by community members, e.g., volunteers, especially older White women, like many of those in attendance with me tonight.


Source: Reuters / Kyle Grillot

I will be signing up to participate in various accompaniment days. We can’t take pictures inside the courthouses and of course cannot speak of specifics of the experience. That won’t matter, and in a way, the dignity involved in not trying to speak or get attention or command authority, which those of us with power in this country by nature of our skin or bank accounts or language or status unconsciously assume as a birthright, will be beautiful. I’ll be standing alongside my friends and neighbors, using my Spanish when I can, my Whiteness and my privilege as a grad student with a flexible schedule, and my anger, sorrow, and energy to do my part in helping save our entire community.

Crying us a river: the New York Times’ lament of the poor education of detained migrant children

The expression “cry someone a river” according to Wiktionary has two definitions:

  1. (idiomatic, often sarcastic) To weep profusely or excessively in the presence of another person.
  2. (idiomatic, usually sarcastic, by extension) To try to obtain the sympathy of another person by complaining or sniveling.

I’ll focus on the first definition. The New York Times published an article on July 6th entitled “In a Migrant Shelter Classroom, ‘It’s Always Like the First Day of School.'” The article discusses the ongoing challenges in the education of migrant youth being held in detention centers for days and weeks at a time, mostly from the perspective of their teachers and those who visit to monitor for human rights compliance and violations. According to the article, the teachers who attend to the education of these children are working with limited curriculum (educational programming), resources, and training (some are not certified to teach), and they lament this. The author of the article likewise laments this state of affairs, citing a troubling example of a human rights worker who visited one of these detention facilities:

At Berks County Residential Center, an ICE facility in Pennsylvania, there are two classrooms, one for children aged 2 to 11 and another for children 12 to 18, according to Eleanor Acer, of the nonprofit Human Rights First. Ms. Acer, who has visited the center several times, said that the wide age span left the older children in each group bored, and that much of the instruction was done through computers and worksheets.

She added that some teachers were unable to communicate effectively in Spanish, and that classes cycle through the curriculum every two weeks, meaning students who stay longer repeat the same material.

“The impression is that they are not really taught much of anything,” Ms. Acer said.

This of course is a terrible situation. The odds are stacked against the teachers and, much more importantly, the students in these classrooms, who have been struggling with trauma, abuse, stress, inappropriate medication with psychiatric drugs, and, of course, a senseless and inhuman incarceration experience that does not see any immediate resolution, in spite of a federal judge’s order that children be reunited with their parents (which apparently isn’t even possible for some children, whom the Trump administration has lost track of). All of us in education shake our heads at such insurmountable odds, at the injustice, at the loss of opportunity to learn and grow of these children, of the potential damage this may cause them in future educational contexts and, by implication, in future opportunities after school.


Source: https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/We-Protect-ICE-Trump-Tells-Rallying-Crowd-as-Thousands-of-Migrant-Children-Await-Reunification-20180708-0007.html

But here’s the thing: Those of us who work with immigrant youth in public schools, particularly in large urban centers like New York City, see a version of this same story in our public school system every damn day. It is an ongoing injustice that we do not have the resources (including classroom space, materials, support staff, etc.), the sort of dynamic, flexible curriculum that can support and include all of our diverse learners, including newcomers (recently arrived immigrant students) and students who are categorized as SLIFE (students with limited or interrupted formal education), or the consistent training and support that teachers working in our cities’ public schools require to educate fairly, justly, and appropriately.

The Times mentions that HHS requires that the schooling provided for detained migrant children “[take] into account their ‘linguistic ability’ as well as ‘cultural diversity and sensitivity.'” For god’s sake: Our education system doesn’t do this now. We do not support our Brown or Black or immigrant students in public schools now, preferring to focus on individualizing, psychology-based strategies like mindfulness and resilience/grit which make children responsible for “resolving” their challenges while ignoring the structural issues that non-White, lower-income children experience like poverty, unstable housing, disproportionate policing and punishments in and out of schools, and other issues derived from systemic racism, xenophobia, and marginalization. We do not recognize that the slashes our country’s leaders have made to the education budget at the federal level and policy mandates that maintain our myopic, maniacal focus on testing punish our public schools, their teachers, and our students, all the while justifying moves to privatize and militarize. The following quote rings so hollow when we consider the state of affairs most children of color, immigrant children, and poor children experience in the day-to-day now in our public schools:

“You can only imagine the children surrounding them, how that impacts their education.”

Cry me a river. Yes, these migrant children are facing bald myriad injustices, but the reality is that their situation, lamentable though it absolutely is, is an extreme version of the same story of heartlessness, blindness, exclusion, and marginalization that millions of children in U.S. public schools face right now. We who are U.S.-born, and especially those of us who are White, should recognize that while these are not crocodile tears per se, the professing of ignorance will not do.

I’ve made my point, but I have to mention the last kick in the pants that shows up in the paternalistic final quote included in the article, taken from Ms. Baez, one of the teachers who work with the young people:

“The kids are very responsive, very glad to be in school learning and very eager to learn English.”

Well, what the hell else would they do? These children are prisoners. They are desperate for stability, for human contact, for stimulation, for any hope that correct and obedient behavior will get them out. And we can’t forget that our public outcries for this to stop, forceful and beautiful though they are, have many more lives awaiting their calls for justice.

The threat of blindness: the problems with merging education and labor

Something that has gotten little attention in the news lately is the fact that under discussion is the merging of the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Education at the federal level, a conversation that was apparently inspired by businesswoman and First Daughter Ivanka Trump. The fact that this momentous change is under consideration is understandably obscured by current news about the separation of asylum-seeking migrant parents and their children at the Mexican-U.S. border, which results in illegal incarceration, trauma, and the destruction of family units. Important to our thinking is the consciousness that this seemingly recent stage of of politics which is drawing our attention (and, perhaps, morbidly creating an opportunity for broad, ecumenical, supra-political unity on what amounts to violence and abuse) is in reality part of a much longer history of dehumanization of immigrants coming to this country seeking work, succor, or opportunity.

According to CNN, the proposed merger is part of a major government overhaul, which Secretary of Education Betsy Devos claims to be a means by which to “reduce the federal footprint in education and to make the federal government more efficient and effective.” As Devos has argued publicly since her appointment in early 2017, states and individual municipalities should have control over what happens in their schools, overlooking the fact that the federal government continues to exert influence through funding policies as well as constitutional protections of student’s civil rights, including protection against discrimination (see here, herehere , and here for more information about this ongoing tension).


By Lexicon, Vikrum [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney stated that this merger “makes tremendous sense. Because what are [these departments] both doing? They’re doing the same thing. They’re trying to get people ready for the workforce. Sometimes it’s education. Sometimes it’s vocational training.” Essentially, Mulvaney is articulating a shift that has been taking place in educational thinking in our country over the last several decades, a progression which included Ronald Reagan’s pledge in 1981 to eliminate the Department of Education in a time when “big government” received increasing criticism. Reagan’s pledge, unfulfilled though it remained, referenced his and other conservatives’ ongoing push to make education a process of job training, a position illustrated in his public speeches in the 1960s in which he argued that “taxpayers shouldn’t be subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” (That Reagan was a mediocre student and didn’t seem to care about his own schooling is perhaps a separate conversation.)

Two questions to address are these: how are we defining schooling, and how are we defining education? What is the purpose? Yes, schooling prepares us to emerge into and participate in the adult world, but this is so much more than work. True, we have moved through different eras of educational approach and philosophy, ranging from Taylorism (a.k.a. industrial education or a factory model of education) to John Dewey’s view of education as a laboratory for democratic thought and exploration. We have employed schooling to serve political as well as economic purposes, as a buttress against perceived threats of nuclear war and a preemptive strike against losing our place as a world superpower. There has never been a single unified vision of what schools should do,  how teachers should teach, or how children best learn. I would suggest that healthy and impassioned debate about this should continue on as long as schools exist.

Instead, I hold and hope that education itself – not schooling, that embattled and ever-changing space where children adopt ways of thinking that adults approve of (yes, this is a radical stance, but not necessarily a leftist one!) – can survive the neoliberal, market-friendly restructuring that threatens from the highest office. Education is the means by which we encounter – note, not “become” – our thinking selves, our feeling and knowing selves. We explore abilities, take chances, find heroes, start fires, and trip and swing and, damn it, learn. Grow. I take a radical view in stating that I believe that education takes place in many places and spaces: at home, in religious centers, with siblings and grandparents, on playgrounds, when we travel, when we suffer loss. Schools may purport to act as a locus for such experiences, which urge excitement of the mind into spaces of new becomings, but it is education itself that accompanies all of us as we become our human selves and grow into possibilities.

These possibilities may include ways of participating in work, but they also include ways of participating in society as democratic subjects and human beings living together in a shared political community. If we reduce education to job training, they we lose the opportunity to explore and understand so much about our reality. We begin to accept our current state of affairs as what is “right,” “normal,” and “unavoidable.” We begin to lose sight of the fact that this time is only one of many shimmering off the back of collective humanity. And in a time of great pain, anger, fear, and abandonment, we cannot afford to go blind.