Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reflections on Ferguson, BVP, and Our Path to the Mountaintop

I would like to start this post by commenting on how optimistic I am regarding America’s future. There is no doubt in my mind that it is an honor and a privilege to be an American. If I had to choose a country to live in from behind a “veil of ignorance” not knowing who/what/how I’d be born, the United States of America would be my number one draft pick. Today, we are appreciably different from the hotbed of racial, gender, and sexual discrimination that our country was 100, 50, and even 25 years ago. In a relatively short amount of time, we've made a lot of progress but admittedly our work is not done. I mention this because I think it’s important to keep these thoughts in the back of our minds when we discuss America’s vast shortcomings. There is always room for growth and America, like the people it’s comprised of, will never be perfect. Perfection is itself impossible, but the pursuit of it is essential.


I think it’s important that this event has sparked such outrage, but the truth is that murders like this have persisted throughout our country’s history. I sometimes feel disconnected from my humanity because the sad reality is that when tragedies such as this occur I’m usually not surprised. I fear that becoming numb to these events is a dangerous byproduct of their frequency and our lack of meaningful action. In my contemplation of the recent riots and militarization of the local police in Ferguson I can’t help but wonder what we could do differently when responding to events such as these. Killing the police officer from Missouri, the officer from New York, or George Zimmerman won’t bring back Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Trayvon Martin. In reacting with violence we risk two of the things we should value most: human lives and our humanity. I frequently look to history to ponder what great people who have walked this earth might think of our times, and I realize that their sage advice should guide us:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” – Dr. King

Anger and frustration are powerful emotions, so what we need to do is channel these into meaningful action beginning with conversations about why this tragedy matters. It is unacceptable to hear people in our country say that race was not an issue in this shooting. It seems to me that these people have never felt persecuted or threatened, but there is a profound danger in this type of lack in empathy and sympathy. For those of us who have a short term memory I implore you to consider the classic holocaust poem by Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It is in our best mutual interests as human beings and Americans to recognize the evidence of our collective prejudices and shortcomings in Ferguson, New York, Sanford, and elsewhere so that we may adjust our policies and behaviors so as to conserve human life and preserve our humanity.

Education and Our Role

I can say wholeheartedly that getting an education has irrevocably changed my life for the better. It has allowed me in many ways to transcend, albeit not necessarily escape, the narrow confines typically placed over people from my socio economic and racial/ethnic station. With an Ivy League college degree I can confidently say that I will never be homeless or low income again. This assurance relies not just on the degree, but also on the experience attained through its pursuit and the introduction to various social networks in the process. Being in college challenged my preconceived notions of other people and vice versa. There were many instances in which I was approached with what some people would consider a compliment: “Whoa, I appreciate what you said in class. I didn't expect you to be so articulate!” To the untrained ear this should’ve been pleasant, but I knew that there was veiled prejudice in those statements. There were also the days when the girls in the lunch line would clutch their backpacks tighter when they saw me approaching (and I don’t even look good in Ferragamo).

These instances aside, I truly feel that the people around me and I grew in our humanity because of the diversity we lived in. For many of us it was the first time around people who didn't look like, talk like, or come from a background like us. I know that if tough times were to come, I could pick up the phone and call various people for emotional or financial support. I also know that my resume will stand out just a little bit more because of the school name bolded in the education section. It was these immeasurable benefits that drive my mission of ensuring that all kids have a chance to go to college. While this inspires and drives me to create the same opportunity for others, I am well aware that under the current education paradigm most kids growing up like me are slated to fail.

Recently, I watched a documentary on Miami about its growing music scene and its position as one of the few viable options for legitimate success in my city. A man in the video offered that kids in our neighborhoods aren't getting the education they require to be successful and so they are forced to rely on alternative paths for economic solvency. As a former teacher for Miami Dade County Public Schools that taught several of the kids featured in the video I must admit that the man is right. At a psychological level I understand that we naturally fear the “unknown.” The schools we serve in Miami are hyper segregated by both race and class, which only serves to exacerbate an existing societal structure akin to life in the “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson (the irony here is unavoidable) days. Frankly it is obnoxious that we have been unable to realize today what we realized in 1954; there is nothing “equal” about living or being treated as “separates.”  

Blackstone Valley Prep is one of few education organizations that actively values, pursues, and attempts to promote intentional diversity. If we want any shot at living in a society where we want people to see and treat each other equally then we first need to make sure we raise a generation of people who are comfortable around each other. At its most basic level, that is what we are doing at BVP. Intentionally educating kids from diverse economic and racial backgrounds is one of the first steps in deconstructing preconceived notions of people. It shows that we can in fact learn, play, grow, and eat together on our paths to success. In this way, I feel that BVP is a microcosm for one of the long term solutions to many of our social issues.

The generation of people who lived through and promulgated inequality is still alive today. The remnants of the past are not gone and have in fact passed down many of their prejudices and hatred to their children and followers. It is our responsibility as educators, parents, citizens and human beings to nurture and raise the generation of kids that continues the path towards Dr. King’s mountain top. He acknowledged, as many of us will inevitably have to, that we may not be there to see America’s dream fulfilled but it is our duty as Americans and human beings to do our best to contribute to it.

About Jonathon Acosta:

Mr. Acosta is the Dean of Culture at the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy Middle School. Prior to his role as a Dean, he served as a 2011 Teach for America Corps Member in his hometown of Miami before relocating to Rhode Island to teach 8th grade math at BVP. He is a graduate of Brown University with a degree in Political Theory and Ethnic Studies. His passions and intellectual interests revolve around a fight against racial and class inequality. 

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