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#iSTANDfor: BEARING WITNESS

 

By Anya Kamenetz

It’s very difficult for me to write about what I stand for. I spend a lot more of my time oriented toward the things I question.  But here are some of my personal experiences that help shape those questions. 

I grew up in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana attending public schools. I was a straight-A student, always happiest when reading a book hidden under my desk. Although I grew up Jewish and was sometimes bullied for it, I was ignorant of the region’s legacy of racial segregation, which continued to leave its mark on the classrooms primarily filled with my white and Asian peers who were designated “gifted and talented” and given the best teachers and resources available within schools that were predominantly African-American.  

On my 25th birthday, I drove into National Guard-occupied New Orleans with a press pass, two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. The storm’s aftermath, which I witnessed as a reporter, opened my eyes. I saw the deep betrayal of the city’s people by government and institutions at all levels, echoing betrayals repeated through many generations, and equally, the resilience of communities acting in mutual aid and lifted up by the culture and traditions that are recognized all over the world.  

The destruction and rebuilding of New Orleans’ school system has been at the center of the city’s story for the last decade. The saga raises many hard questions. Who is worthy of being upheld as a model for a community’s youth? How do you measure success in learning? How much can schools be expected to do to rebuild communities suffering for lack of jobs and basic services? Can you respect and celebrate a child’s culture while also asking them to cross boundaries and conform to dominant-culture ways of thinking and speaking?  Should we judge a school system by the success stories or the young people who are put out of class and end up in the courts or worse? 

New Orleans is just one example of how cities are fundamentally shaped by the relationship between schools and the racial, ethnic, and economic dynamics of settlement. I stand for the idea that education is core to the most important questions that face us as a society. 

In this country there are more than 50 million public school children; they speak more than 100 languages at home; most are not white and just over half live near the poverty line.

And let’s think about the basic fact that in an age of declining investment in public infrastructure, free government-funded health clinics or childcare centers are rare; but there are a hundred thousand free government-funded school buildings anchoring rich and poor communities across the country, places where children can find refuge for seven hours a day, 180 days a year, get a free meal or two, perhaps some access to health and mental health counseling, and, if they’re lucky, learn enough to transform their lives. 

We can’t erase history or redress every loss; there is no going back, but we can resolve to make things right in the future. My role in that effort is as a witness, to tell stories about the process of change, to help people see the possibilities.