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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On the '92 Riots, the Achievement Gap, and Women and People of Color in Leadership

(Also posted on April 10, 2012, as part of Leadership for Educational Equity's "Teach for America Alumni of Los Angeles" blog: http://blog.educationalequity.org/blog/story/2012/4/10/4568/54320).

“A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos Or Community?

“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue… whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.” President John F. Kennedy, June 11, 1963, Radio Broadcast (Response to “race riots” in Alabama)

“The best way to solve any problem is to remove its cause.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Stride Towards Freedom

The 1992 Los Angeles riots, a.k.a. the Civil Unrest, the L.A. Uprising, or the Rodney King riots, began twenty years ago after a jury, in which 10 of the 12 jurors were white, cleared four cops of charges that they committed wrongdoing when they kicked, stomped, and clubbed, motorist, Rodney G. King, with metal batons for several minutes, following a routine traffic stop. Throughout the year before the verdict, an amateur videotape of this incident, (originally occurring on March 19, 1991) taken by witness, George Holliday, made the rounds throughout every major and local media outlet. Before YouTube and the Internet, before Facebook/Twitter and social media, the footage of an unarmed, unaccompanied, African American man, being savagely beaten, by four men in uniform, went viral. The impact this video, the acquittal of Los Angeles Police Department’s Stacey C. Koon, Laurence M. Powell, Timothy E. Wind, and Theodore J. Briseno, and the events of April 29—May 4, had on the history of Southern California and the United States, as well as in communities of color and popular culture in the 1990s throughout the globe, cannot be overstated.

For me, this meant, far more than knowing all of the lyrics of Who Got The Camera?, or Free Your Mind, it meant going from watching smoke on a distant horizon to living conflicts on campus that ultimately led to shootings, the destruction of fast food restaurants and other commercial property near my high school, through arson and vandalism, as well as years of frustration, as high fences (reminiscent of prison yards and immigration detention facilities) went up around overcrowded public schools like mine, brimming with interracial tension and anti-immigrant hostility. Student lockers were removed. Metal detectors, K-9 Unit searches, and daily patrols focused on policing students, (not the adults around them) replaced them. Ironically, my parents moved our family to a quiet community in the Inland Empire in order to get away from the life of drive-by shootings, home robberies, gang-related assaults, and petty thefts we witnessed upon arrival in urban Southern California, in 1987. Once we moved to Redlands, I stopped believing I would get jumped for wearing the Nike Air Jordans I worked, did chores, and saved up months, and months, and months for. I never believed I would witness white supremacist skinheads recruiting socioeconomically poor white students, or find myself trapped in the tensions dividing Latino, Asian, and African American students, Mexicans and Central Americans, immigrants and citizens. Yet there I was. And it frightened me.

I was heartbroken by what happened to Rodney King, Reginald Denny, and Fidel Lopez; that 43 human beings died in the streets of Los Angeles. But I was also outraged by the sentiments many of my peers expressed in reaction to these tragedies. Students who weren’t black told me Rodney King deserved the beating he got, and described Reginald Denny as the victim of devolved, subhuman attackers. African American students saw Reginald Denny and Fidel Lopez’s beatings, as justified reactions to wrongdoing by third world immigrants, and continual mistreatment by whites, and a racist law enforcement and court system. Initially Mexicans showed no concern for Fidel Lopez because he was Guatemalan, and most everyone who wasn’t Latino didn’t seem to recognize his name, or know his story. Then, in the face of increased hostility between African American and Latino students, the divisions between Mexicans and Central Americans became less important than the black-brown divide. My teachers would not address what was going on. Neither would the vice-principals, guidance counselors, coaches, principal, school district, or board of education. But I found other students and community members who were equally concerned and we created a multicultural alliance to take on the tensions, hostilities, and divisions. Our successes on and off campus, in public spaces, and places of worship, earned me a scholarship and recognition from San Bernardino County’s Bahá’í faith community—a fact that still causes me to feel tremendous gratitude and humility. But more importantly, they proved that egalitarian pluralism was possible.

My family arrived in Southern California many years after we had been deported to Mexico. If the Immigration and Naturalization Service had not forced us to leave the United States, I would have grown up in the geographic and demographic reality I knew as a child, one in which the vast majority of my classmates and community members were African American. There are numerous photos of me running around with a mushroom cloud of hair on my head, trying to recreate the Jimmy Castor hairstyle several of my friends’ rocked. I saw myself in the young people with Power Movement Afros on my Urban League t-shirt. I say this not to superficially focus on, or in any way trivialize, the importance of African American history and culture in my life. Quite the contrary: Because my parents were Mexican immigrants who did not go to elementary school, middle school, high school, or college in this country, and we lived in an enclave where we were the only Latinos, my only real direct contact with and connection to this country’s history and culture, came from the African Americans, young and old, who befriended me and taught me in class, welcomed me into their homes and churches, and provided me extraordinary nourishment and care, as though I were an exceptionally beloved family member. I knew I wasn’t black. I knew that my skin color and hair texture were different from those around me. But I also knew that I felt at home. My parents wanted to belong to the United States of America. I felt that I already did. And for me, as clearly as I can remember anything about my childhood this was because being American meant belonging to the African American community. And I belonged.

In 1992, this fundamental building block of my identity clashed with the sheer-faced interracial chasm all around me. I became obsessed with re-instilling black-brown unity. I worked to build diverse coalitions in college. And I became a teacher because I wanted to make sure that no student in an under-resourced school would ever again feel as though his peers, and potential partners in social change, were his enemies. I left the classroom to challenge educational and socioeconomic injustice through the political process. I gave speeches, protested, marched; wrote letters and editorials. But best of all I helped facilitate the acquisition of the skills/knowledge individuals, and communities, needed in order to effectuate change. Besides best practices for registering, educating, and mobilizing voters, I’ve learned how to apply my understanding of what it takes to become an effective instructor, capable of eliminating achievement gaps in linguistically and culturally diverse classrooms, toward the success of candidates, elected/appointed officials, and mission-driven campaigns. Based on my early experiences with the multicultural alliance I co-founded in 1992, and the pivotal events that have shaped my life, Southern California, the United States, and/or the world, in the 20 years since, I am determined to make sure that as many women and people of color as possible run for political office, and pursue executive leadership positions (across all sectors) as possible.

In anticipation of the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, KPCC, an NPR-affiliate based in Pasadena, began convening a series of focus groups for the various communities directly impacted by the events of April 29—May 4, 1992. On March 20, 2012, I attended the focus group convened for “Latino-Americans.” The email invitation those attending received read, “In all the talk about the ’92 Riots and race, what’s missing? This series aims to spur more and deeper conversation among Southern Californians about a piece of our local history that carries a very complex legacy—in the present and the future.” Upon arrival we were welcomed, and then counted off into three groups. Over the course of the subsequent hour, we were asked a series of questions by our host, and moderator, Wendy Carrillo: 1. What do you call the series of events that took place 20 years ago in the City of Los Angeles? Has that name changed—if so, why? Does it depend on the context of the conversation? 2. What is the official story of that which took place—does it differ or align with your memory? 3. What are the words, people, and images you associate with the events? 4. When and where have you referred to them in day-to-day conversations since? 5. To whom do the events seem most significant today? Do they mater from a practical citizen’s point of view? 6. What is the role of race in all of this—from the story of what took place, to how we remember it, to how we talk about it today?

As you might imagine, our discussions were dynamic, engaging, passionate, and memorable. We were then reconvened as one body, asked to share out some of the most salient points that emerged from our breakout sessions, and answer two more questions: Where were you in your life then? (Where were you living? How old were you? What defined your quotidian existence?) And why did you come tonight? (Why was it important for you to listen to the experiences of others, and share yours, when this was 20 years ago, and so much has happened since? Do you see parallels with something taking place today?) We talked and talked until nine o’clock at night. I stressed my belief that Latinos were largely excluded from the official narratives. The English-language media talked about Rodney King and Reginald Denny, but not Fidel Lopez. The NRA co-opted the images of Korean store-owners brandishing firearms in an attempt to dissuade would-be vandals, thieves, and arsonists from stepping foot on their properties. Like they did years later, following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, politicians, law enforcement spokespersons, and major-market media figures, focused on images of black Americans, living in poverty and chaos, and called them looters; criminals. Latinos constituted 50% of arrests. Latinos were among the 43 human beings who lost their lives. And countless Latinos were victimized by LAPD Chief Daryl Gates’ “Operation Hammer” sweeps in the late 1980s and early 1990s that led to over 25,000 arrests, and a torrent of convictions, injunctions, evictions, and deportations. Yet despite historic invisibility, Latinos, especially Latino immigrants, were squarely blamed by those who sought/accepted a scapegoat. There is a straight path from April 29, 1992 to the November 8, 1994, passage of Proposition 187 by a majority of Asian, black, and white California voters. It is hard not to see parallels between this past, and the present of virulent persecution that the residents of Arizona, Utah, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and all other states with anti-immigrant public officials are forced to endure.

Could what happened in 1992 happen today? Consider the following: On February 28, 1991, President George H.W. Bush, declared a ceasefire officially ending the Persian Gulf War, and US troops came home to a struggling economy, still grappling with the Savings and Loans Crisis that required massive taxpayer funded federal bailouts, and a xenophobic, racially polarized environment, embodied by a xerographic folk cartoon, (transmitted by FAX machine throughout the US within a week of the initial attack) featuring a stereotypical depiction of an Arabic man, striking a camel in the genitals, bearing a sign reading, “Mobile/Iraqi SCUD Missile Launcher.” On December 14, 2011, President Barack Obama, officially declared an end to the Iraq War, and US troops began returning home to a struggling economy, still grappling with the Global Financial Crisis that required massive taxpayer funded bailouts and stimuli, and a xenophobic, racially polarized environment, embodied by the flood of slogans and campaign materials that use President Obama’s mixed racial heritage, and anti-Islamic sentiments invoked by the inflammatory use of his middle and last names, both as a means of criticism, and in an attempt to energize and unify those who seek to defeat him in the 2012 election. On March 16, 1991, Latasha Harlins, a 15 year-old African American girl, was shot and killed by Soon Ja Du, a 51 year-old Korean store owner. Du stated that she acted in self-defense, that her life was in danger, but her words were contradicted by two witnesses, present at the time of the shooting, and security camera footage that showed her shooting Harlins in the back of the head. On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old African American boy, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a 28 year-old half Latino, self-appointed captain of an unregistered Neighborhood Watch. Zimmerman, who has amassed a 47 page long, 911 call log of disturbances, break-ins, and other incidents since moving to the area, (comprised of 46 separate calls) and has yet to be arrested or charged as of March 24, 2012, claims that he acted in self-defense, but the 911 call he made on the night Martin was shot and killed, prove he defied dispatcher instructions not to follow Martin, and the Neighborhood Watch manual Zimmerman should have been following, clearly states members do not possess police powers, and therefore cannot carry weapons or engage in pursuits. The 16 year-old girl Martin was on the phone with during the pursuit, stated that Martin began walking quickly because he was being followed. And at least one of the 911 calls placed by neighbors feature one voice screaming—with the desperation of someone being threatened, not someone making threats—before the sound of two gunshots being discharged.

When expressing these pessimistic sentiments to others, I am cautioned to not ignore the steady progress that has been made toward egalitarian pluralism. One in twelve marriages in the United States unites an interracial couple. The current total of 4.8 million interracial marriages is expected to grow exponentially as the Asian and Latino populations continue to expand, and younger generations of blacks and whites possess far more progressive attitudes that their parents and grandparents. The multiracial population comprised 8% of the 2010 Census. Along with Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and African Americans, multiracial Americans will comprise a majority that will forever change this nation’s face by the time the 21st Century is halfway through. That a non-white family, headed by a biracial father, and an African American mother, currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a remarkable fact, not a trivial one. A number of the most prominent and influential figures in pop culture are persons of color, Oprah Winfrey, and Will Smith, among them. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas, announced in the NY Times that he is an immigrant without legal work status, and also championed the Drop the I-Word campaign, seeking to alter the anachronistic guidelines, journalists and the publications they work for follow, that demand the labeling of undocumented or unauthorized residents as “illegal”—a hateful, polarizing, and dehumanizing descriptive. Comic book giant, Marvel, placed the future of Spiderman, arguably its most successful franchise, in the hands of Miles Morales, the African American and Latino character created to fill Peter Parker’s superhero sized shoes, and the talent of a young, female illustrator, Sara Pichelli, charged with redefining the aesthetic sensibilities of both a domestic and worldwide audience. And although the intensity of his superstardom may have dissipated since his debut, Jeremy Lin’s headline capturing performances with the New York Knicks, engendered a series of national discussions on the Asian American community, writ large—much more than just a day of reckoning for long held stereotypes in the world of sports. In 1995, there was not a single Fortune 500 CEO of color, and as late as 2000, only 3 women had served at the helm of any of these powerful and influential multinational corporations. By 2011, over 70 women, African Americans, Latinos, and Asians were included among the elite cadre to have held the Fortune 500 CEO title. And by the time of the 2010 midterm Congressional election, there were 17 women, 13 Jews, 1 Latino, 1 Native Hawaiian, and 1 African American in the Senate, and 75 women, 31 Jews, 2 Muslims, 1 atheist, 27 Latinos, 1 Native American, 42 African Americans, 6 Asian Americans, and 3 openly gay Representatives in the House.

Yet, even assuming the most positive interpretation of all of the evidence of progress toward egalitarian pluralism, it is impossible to hold an optimistic outlook when it comes to the strength of our democracy and economy, without eliminating the achievement gap plaguing African American and Latino students, particularly those living in socioeconomically poor communities. By 2050 the Latino population will grow to 102.6 million, or 24.4% of the United States as a whole, and the African American population will grow to 61.4 million, or 14.6 % of the total. Blacks and Latinos have national high school completion rates of between 53% and 57%. Graduation rates for students who attended racially segregated, high poverty, urban school districts, are 15 - 18% behind their peers. 47% of African American male students and 59% of African American female students graduate from high school. Of those who make it to college, 36% of black men, and 47% of black women graduate, an overall college completion rate of 43%. 58% of Latinas, and 49% of Latinos graduate from high school. Of those who make it to college 51% of Latinos, men and women, complete a bachelor’s degree in six years, 33% of Latinas complete an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 16% of Latinos. According to McKinsey & Company, taking international factors into account, comparing the United States versus other developed nations, as well as emerging nations, the achievement gap fails not only poor children in failing schools, but most children, in most schools, thus harming our economic wellbeing as a whole. Stated more bluntly, the achievement gap imposes the economic equivalent of a permanent national recession.

Stacey Childress, leader of the Next Generation Learning group at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, makes a case for “Rethinking School” in the Harvard Business Review, urging government officials to support a vision of a more effective and practical education by allowing students to earn credit on the basis of skills mastery instead of attendance, resisting the temptation to lock in teacher’s roles when drafting teacher-effectiveness policies, and using the bully pulpit to focus attention on opportunities for personalization and the encouragement of innovation. But will these suggestions fall on deaf ears? After all, what do the people making and enforcing our laws at the local, state, and federal level really know about what it is like to promise and deliver transformative education in communities of need year after year? Teach for America is not a temp agency. Its growth over the last 21 years has not come from a consistent shortage of traditional and non-traditional programs for preparing undergraduate and graduate students for classroom certification. TFA’s influence over the education sector, and its expansion to 35 regions across the United States, and 25 countries around the world, is the direct result of the passion and unrelenting energy of 8,000 Teach for All teachers, 7,000 Corps Members, and nearly 20,000 TFA and TFAll alumni, who all agree that big goals, high expectations, data driven planning and implementation, sustainable teams and networks, as well as valuing and investing in diversity are essential to our movement to ensure educational equity.

We all believe, in one more thing… Leadership.

Teach for America offers the following four sentences in describing leadership as a core value:

We strive to develop and become the leaders necessary to realize educational excellence and equity. We establish bold visions and invest others in working towards them. We work in purposeful, strategic, and resourceful ways, define broadly what is within our control to solve, and learn and improve constantly. We operate with a sense of possibility, persevere in the face of challenges, ensure alignment between our actions and beliefs, and assume personal responsibility for results.

It would be safe to wager that a healthy percentage of TFA/TFAll educators and alumni would describe themselves as leaders. Yet how many of us have pursued an executive role in a social justice organization, helped lead a campaign, or run for elected office? Particularly to this last point, it is frustrating that despite Bill Ferguson’s run for Maryland State Senate, Kira Orange Jones’ run for Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Brian C. Johnson’s run for California State Assembly, Sekou Biddle’s run for D.C. Council, Michael Bennet’s run for US Senate in Colorado, Steve Zimmer’s run for School Board in Los Angeles, etc., there are remarkably few LEE Members that I have met that have their eye on a high profile elected office. Joining TFA and stepping foot in a classroom serving a community of need, required a willingness to risk complete failure—even the best of us would confess to the possibility that if one more unforeseen thing had gone wrong, it could have ended for any of us in abject disaster. But we were willing to take that unprecedented risk, willing to take that Kierkegaardian leap, because the stakes were so high. Making “One day…” a reality, and keeping the promise of a guaranteeing an excellent public school education for all, is at the very heart of the civil rights movement that began when the Supreme Court affirmed that “separate but equal” was a virus that needed to be eradicated from this land. Quite simply, too much is at stake; inaction is not an option. Seeking an executive role in a social justice organization, helping to lead a campaign, and running for elected office, are not ambitions we can afford to put on a shelf. In fact, for women and people of color, an unwillingness to assume the discomfort of the limelight may very well prove to be a disservice, not only to one’s self, but to all of us, especially the youth trapped on the wrong side of the achievement gap.

Women rate higher as effective leaders. According to the NY Times, they avoid “bossy” behaviors, are more inclusive in reaching decisions in complex and changing situations, are more likely to remain persistently high performers, and tend to display a transformational leadership style. During the “Women in the World Summit,” Anne Kornblut, Deputy Political Editor of the Washington Post, made a pivotal point quite plainly, “A guy is at a law firm or he owns his own business, and someone says to him, ‘Hey, you should really think about running for state legislature.’ And he goes and looks in the mirror and says, ‘Yes I should.’ Women will hear that same—if they even have that same conversation, which they don’t as often—and will look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, but I don’t know that much about foreign policy,’ or, ‘Oh, I haven’t been doing my job long enough.’ Women may need to get a little bit of the phony self-confidence that it takes to run for office.” Add this to the fact that when women run, they win at the same rate as men, the problem, as Julie Daniels, Political Programs Manager at the Women’s Campaign Forum, and The Brookings Institution argue, is that not enough women think about running. For African Americans and Latinos pursuing elected office, winning the support of white voters remains challenging, as a general rule. Even in the historic 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama won the support of only 43% of white voters overall. However, young white voters supported him at a much higher rate, 54%, a significant and undeniable reminder that young Americans largely embrace tolerance and increasing diversity. Based on this, and the demographic shift toward a black, Latino, Asian, Native American, and multiracial majority, it follows that the same talented leaders focused on the elimination of the achievement gap, would make ideal public figures—capable of eliminating the structural obstacles, and limited support African American and Latino candidates for elected office face.

Getting started is easy:

1). Contact Raul Hernandez, , and tell him that you are interested in getting more involved in what LEE has to offer in L.A.—from trainings like the one that will be held on March 31 for potential candidates and campaign staff, to organizing, advocacy, policy, fundraising, donation, and volunteer opportunities, LEE has it all!
2). Visit educationalequity.org, and please look through all of the good stuff found under the “Educational Landscape,” “Build Skills & Experience,” as well as “Choose Your Path,” headings, and then take yourself step-by-step through the Me Inc. business plan that won Oprah Winfrey’s highly coveted seal of approval.
3). Take advantage of what’s out there! Here are the resources, in addition to those found at educationalequity.org, that I am most familiar with: candidateproject.org, leadershipinstitute.org, thewhitehouseproject.org, progressivemajority.org, victoryfund.org, wellstone.org, latinas.org, emilyslist.org, americanselect.org, lp.org/run-for-office, cagreens.org/elections/run-partisan-office-green, bethechangeinc.org