The Community Teacher Knows Her People

The following testimony is from a political activist/educator from Dorchester, MA.

I call Dorchester ‘the Brooklyn of Boston,’ because it is literally like the United Nations; there are people from hundreds of different nationalities, and there are literally thousands of people from each of dozens of different nations and peoples from five continents.

In the summer of 2000, I worked for the U.S. Census to make some extra money. [i] The jobs were given out based on resume credentials, what kind of degree you had. Based on the paper I have I could have taken the manager position, stayed in the Allston headquarters all day and given people orders. But “field worker,” the people who go door-to-door, were paid by the volume of census forms that you got filled out. It was like piece work in a factory — the more you got filled out, the more you got paid. First of all, I knew I would make more money. Secondly, it would be much more fun.

I started on page three of the census form when I got to each door (of my neighborhood). This is where they have the questions on “race.” The United States has totally racist ways of categorizing the peoples of the world. The concept “race” is a racist concept. Well, I know that the peoples feel good about being respected for who they are. So, I started on page three and inquired, guessed, posited, or started a conversation about “what is your nationality?”

I’ve lived in this neighborhood — Boston’s African America (Boston’s Dominican community, Boston’s Puerto Rican community, Boston’s Haitian community, Boston’s Cape Verde community, Boston’s Caribbean community, and so on, depending upon who your people are) for 35 years, and, therefore, longer than most people to whose doors I am ascending. In this context, I have the body language of the people of my neighborhood. I know enough of the lingo of most of the peoples here, so I know how to word my entrée to them. I know how to hold my arms, I know what tone of voice to use, I know when to make eye contact and when not to….

I immediately get on the subject of “What is your nationality?” In every case I show interest in their people, either through my inquiry or through my own knowledge of the struggle of their people. I especially focus on the present day struggle if I know anything about it.

For starters, the fact that they are here from El Salvador, Somalia, Liberia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cape Verde, or wherever automatically means they are coming from some kind of struggle (war, for example). In most cases I will know something about their struggle. People like this. They feel respected. I move from there, to let them tell me more. In this way we filled out the section on “race,” always filling in “other” with the name of the nation these people come from.

White people are not the only people on the planet who come from nations. All people today identify with one nation or another, and some go beyond that to internationalism to identify with all the struggling peoples of the world, fighting to get our heads above the suffocating embrace of U.S. imperialism.

Anyway, I got a whole lot of forms filled out this way. I was turned away from one door in the entire two weeks. I apparently interrupted a session at the crack table, when the entire group of five or six people came out of the house, popeyed, and surrounded me. Then one of them declared, “She’s from the government!” This guy who made the announcement had two small holes in his face, one in each of his cheeks; it looked as if a bullet went through one side and came out the other… At this declaration the entire group screwed up their faces menacingly. I thought I was in an old time movie about the Hatfields and the McCoys. I told them that I was “all set,” and got back on my bicycle and road off, figuring I’d get to the other doors on the block tomorrow.

I do not fear that I may be exaggerating when I say that there were not too many people in the city who had as easy a time as I did filling out these census surveys because: I know the people of my community, and I know how to respect them.

It is now in vogue from Harvard School of Ed., as one of their recommended “best practices,” that teachers be “culturally responsive” to their students, and this means that the teachers are aware of and respectful of things like Soul Food, Salsa and Tae Kwan Do. Not to denigrate this effort, but to get at its socio-political purport, it must be established that the reasons why this effort is not working are: (1) it’s objective remains to prepare our youth to get entry level data entry jobs in high tech information factories; (2) (this is saying the same thing from a different angle) it is surface connection, and does not appropriate the peoples in their motion, in the living reality of their people’s struggle; and, (3) the effort does not meet the needs of the people’s liberation movements.

From the perspective of Liberation Pedagogy, when we get to these people’s doors, that is, when we face these young people in our classrooms, the central thing we are looking for is this: what is this people or nation you belong to doing today to secure its liberation, to establish its dignity, to create a loving and caring society for itself, to gain independence from other dominating, oppressor societies? To the extent that this is about “culture,” the community teacher wants to know what are the ways of these people, ways which they have adhered to in order to preserve their peoplehood, in order to maintain and develop their identity?These are the ways which distinguish the unique contribution that each of these peoples (all peoples) make to humankind.

Genocide has endeavored to take certain peoples off of the planet, and thereby erase their unique contribution to the family of humanity. However, as the history of all peoples proves, even genocide can never completely succeed at wiping people out, because the spirit of these peoples is indelible and remains for the living to appropriate.

There are still thousands of White people living in the neighborhoods (of Dorchester), that are now a majority Folks — a majority People of Color. I call these people “indigenous White people,” in that they are the ones who have stayed while the population has become a majority folks. The vast majority of these White people are poor, working class. And of this group some have stayed for purely economic reasons; they could not afford to leave. But others, and also some from the latter group, have made a social/political commitment to this “new” community. This is part of the internationalism inherent in working class culture. Many of these “indigenous White People” have made a commitment to connect with, and make a better world with the waves of folks who have come to occupy this urban community.

I treat these people the same way that I approached everyone else at their doors. With the Irish folks, for example, whether recent immigrants or many generations removed, I bring up the struggle of Northern Ireland. I slip in a comment about Bobby Sands. This style got me dinner at some of the homes I stopped at. No lie. I got dinner on at least three occasions in the ten days of filling out these surveys.

A lot of the “White people” in Dorchester today are refugees from the war in the Balkans. In other words, they were not “white enough” in the context of the genocide being committed against Muslims and others in the area. In Dorchester, these people have “white” skin (sic) but their life experience, and why they fled their homeland, is identical to the circumstances of most of the People of Color living in Dorchester. This circumstance exposes the racist categories even further. I started on page three with these folks, and we filled in “Other.”

The other day we went to the Curley Middle School to plan a workshop for the students, and a teacher introduced herself to me as Ms. Shatakhian. I said, “Oh, you’re Armenian.” She was surprised. I went on to tell her that my sister, Gabrielle, was named after an Armenian, and I was able to get in some back-and-forth about the right-wing effort to take the Armenian genocide out of the history books.

One of my students is Guatemalan. I gave him a book called The CIA in Guatemala. His family left Guatemala eight years ago for reasons that he described in specific and personal terms. He needs to know and feel comfortable disclosing the political reasons, that is, the mass reasons, why thousands of Guatemalans have fled their country.

The community teacher knows her people, and “her people” must be the people of the world — her people come from all continents, and have fled wars that the United States has initiated or that U.S. corporations have had a hand in all over the world. Do not forget that while Clinton claimed to be helping to put an end to the genocidal “ethnic cleansing” perpetrated by the Serbian military ruling clique in the Balkans, the bombing from the U.S. Air Force ended up killing more civilians in Muslim neighborhoods than any combatants during this “intervention.” (This “intervention” also resulted in the “accidental” leveling of the Chinese Embassy by U.S. missiles! With “helpers” like these….)

To the extent that the community teacher is engaging the children in her classroom in their “culture,” it is to that degree that she is trying to connect to some tradition or community practice which is enabling this people to survive and thrive. To that extent is she validating the children’s identities. This validation is at the very heart of creating a learning environment, one in which the students experience their ability to be agents of the learning process in concert with the rest of the learning community in the classroom, facilitated by the teacher.

To the extent that the student’s national identity is appropriated and honored in its present day motion (not static), in its living reality, that is, in the survival and freedom movement of her/his people, to that degree is this student actually engaged as a co-facilitator of the learning process of the classroom circle. It is in this context that Peter Murrell’s dictum — Education is the practice of assisting people to find agency in, and take responsibility for the struggle for freedom — is at the very heart of the culturally responsive pedagogical practice.

[i] I did this Census work for three decades until the Patriot Act banned me in 2010. I was placed on its Anti-Terrorism Task Force list. People on this list are precluded from federal employment. I was told that I got on the list for the crime of being arrested in a demonstration protesting the US war of aggression against the people of Vietnam in 1973. The provisions of the Patriot Act are retroactive.