Thursday, August 6, 2020

Pods, Privatization and Pandemic Wages of Whiteness

By Sikivu Hutchinson

The bright-eyed bushy tailed, white Atlanta-area elementary school kids featured frolicking, reading, and doing math problems in suburban “Pods” on a recent CNN morning show were Exhibit A for everything that is wrong with Covid-era education. Pods are the latest trend in elite learning for privileged, mostly white families who can afford to provide their kids with protected academic enclaves beyond the Covid storm. Decried for their exclusivity, pods simply crystallize the disparities that already exist in hyper-privatized, segregated K-12 American schools. One widely touted K-4 pod run by New York’s elite Hudson Lab school will run parents $125,000 for the academic year, or $68,750 for a five-month commitment.

As districts across the nation pushback against Trump’s fascist demand to reopen, pod learning underscores how the neoliberal crisis of public education has accelerated. Trump and Education Secretary DeVos have exhibited near sadistic glee in threatening to withhold federal funding from districts that don’t comply. Over the past several months, DeVos has moved even more aggressively to siphon funding from public schools to private religious schools. Meanwhile, some charter schools unscrupulously double dipped to  receive PPP funds designated for struggling small businesses, following the “greed-is-not-enough” model of multinational corporations who got PPP loans. According to the Washington Post, “Well-funded charters with ample funding were applying for and receiving large PPP awards. California charters alone sucked up approximately half a billion dollars in forgivable loans. L.A. area charters accounted for $201 million of these funds.

Pods, and the relentless privatization of public education, are symptoms of deep multigenerational wealth gaps. White children get to be children in single family homes in homogeneous community networks with high homeownership rates and home equity. Propped up by generations of white affirmative action and the wages of whiteness, white children’s care systems are already built in, subsidized, and largely invisible as socioeconomic entitlements. The divide between this reality and that of children of color has been re-exposed by Covid and the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s a clear through line between the corporate greed/graft exhibited by charter operators (of all ethnicities), the Trump/DeVos regime, and systemic divestment from Black public schools. Although it’s tempting to see recent activism to defund school police and reinvest in Black student capital as novel, the groundswell in Los Angeles, Portland, Oakland, and other cities is the outcome of generations of national grassroots, abolitionist activism against the school-to-prison pipeline and racially disproportionate discipline.  In June, the BLMLA and Students Deserve-led coalition of over 50 community organizations successfully pushed the LAUSD school board to cut $25 million from the force’s budget. The coalition (which I have been proud to participate in as an educator, mentor, and parent) has pressed to redirect this funding to culturally responsive programming, resources, and initiatives for Black students.

The landscape is bleak. Across the district, only 2 in 10 African American students are proficient in math, while only 3 in 10 are proficient in the language arts. Math educator Dr. Michael Batie has meticulously documented Black students’ math outcomes in every LAUSD school with a significant African American population. Commenting on the potentially disastrous impact of the pandemic, he notes, “We were at an 85% failure rate in 2019. By 2021 we may be looking at a 100% failure rate in math.” Over the past twenty years, the district has passed resolution after resolution after resolution to “redress” inequitable academic conditions for Black students. Millions of dollars have flowed into programs, trainings, and consultancies with little long term impact. Hence, for Batie and some Black parents, working within the corrupt district is a dead end. In their view, breaking away from the district is the only viable solution for Black student success.

Despite years of community organizing and resistance against racist teaching practices, deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes about Black student aptitude continue to play an insidious role in African American academic outcomes. As I wrote in the 2011 article “LAUSD’s Apartheid Hall of Shame,” “From South L.A. to the Westside to the Valley the implication is the same—Black students… need to be controlled, neutralized, and heavily policed to maintain the institutional ‘sanity’ of ‘chaotic’ urban schools. In a recent discussion about adult perceptions, one of my students commented that some teachers appear to be ‘scared’ of Black students. If Black students are taught by faculty and administrators who believe that “scary” Black youth aren’t as intellectually capable in STEM disciplines as Asian, white or Latinx students, then they will continue to be shut out of gifted and talented programs, honors classes, AP classes and IB (International Baccalaureate) classes. AP and IB classes are especially segregated by race.  As one former Black AP and IB student noted, “Because tracking had started in elementary school, my public education had also included the following lesson: the more rigorous the class, the fewer students who looked like me. Even when I was only 17, I was painfully aware of the fact that few black and brown students made it into AP/IB courses.”

Pods are Covid-era vehicles for the kind of pipelining that facilitates placement in AP and IB classes. These disparities, along with nationwide racial gaps in access to technology, rigorous instruction, and social welfare resources will only widen the divide between Black students and non-black students as they prepare for college and careers. Although the LAUSD has proposed a reconfigured 2020-2021 school schedule that requires up structured daily virtual instruction, tutoring, boosted outreach to students with disabilities and specials needs, as well as limited childcare for K-8 students, they are pale substitutes for hands-on engagement and social support.

Against this backdrop, Black parents disproportionately juggle homeschooling, work responsibilities, and higher rates of Covid contraction and death. According to the “Color of Coronavirus” report, African Americans represent approximately 74 out of 100,000 victims who have died from Covid—the highest in the nation (By contrast, whites comprise 32.4 out of 100,000 victims). Clearly, the pandemic has the potential to be the single greatest catalyst for the collapse of public education. Ensuring that it doesn’t is now the “essential work” of every conscious parent, educator, and community stakeholder who doesn’t have the luxury of a wages of whiteness “pod”.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the co-facilitator of the Black LGBTQIA+ Parent and Caregiver Support group and the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project. Her latest book is Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical (Pitchstone).

An Average Day in the Life of a Black Girl Student: Un-Housed in L.A.

A majority of unhoused young Women of Color in Los Angeles have experienced sexual abuse, domestic abuse, and intimate partner violence. WLP's forthcoming mini-doc and curriculum centers the voices of South L.A. Black girls and feminist activist Suzette Shaw #MeToo

Monday, July 13, 2020

White Nights, Black Paradise, The Play: August 29th @ Museum of the African Diaspora Zoom

A Virtual Performance spotlighting the Social Histories of Black Women and the African American Community in Peoples Temple and Jonestown

The historical stage play, “White Nights, Black Paradise”, by Sikivu Hutchinson, is based on the arc of the predominantly African American female Peoples Temple church and the November 1978 Jonestown, Guyana massacre. It is the first literary, theatrical production to foreground the lived experiences and social history of African American women members of Jonestown and Peoples Temple through interlocking, multi-generational characters from all walks of life. Hosted by the Museum of the African Diaspora, actors from the “White Nights, Black Paradise” cast will do a virtual Zoom performance of the play, followed by a panel discussion with San Francisco community scholars. The panel will contextualize Peoples Temple and Jonestown vis-à-vis the Great Migration, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, Black Power, and the LGBTQ movement, toward a deeper understanding of Jonestown’s implications for contemporary Black San Francisco and beyond.

This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Visit Additional support was generously provided by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Tickets @ Museum of the African Diaspora

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Black Queer Youth and the Family Divide

By Sikivu Hutchinson

    A parent repeated the right wing slur that greater media representation of LGBTQ lifestyles is “turning youth out” and encouraging them to become gay. A South L.A. school employee said she had a problem with the use of the Black Power fist by a Black and Latinx GSA Network campus group during last November’s global Transgender Day of Remembrance. A Black father told his eleven year-old daughter not to display her Pride flag because it will cause conflict within the family. And, at a March LGBTQIA+ Youth of Color Institute with South L.A. students at King-Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, virtually every young person in attendance expressed anxiety about their family’s religious-based homophobia and non-acceptance.

These exchanges occurred before the pandemic shutdown, the lynchings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter uprisings, and the massive educational upheavals that have forever changed the lives of Black and youth of color. When I completed this article in March at the beginning of the pandemic, I had a hard time finding a publisher for it. Some of those rejections were no doubt due to the demand for COVID coverage. But most were undoubtedly due to the usual erasure of Black queer youth and family issues in the dominant culture when it isn’t Pride Month.

As the number of openly-identified Generation Z LGBTQIA+ youth increase, the exchanges that I reflected on above have become more commonplace in African American schools, homes, and families. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, African American youth in L.A. are more likely to identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual than non-black youth. As a result, they comprise a significant portion of all youth who identify as LGBT in L.A. Nationwide, LGBT African Americans are more likely to be raising children than are white LGBT individuals. And over fifty percent of queer families are headed by Black women, bucking mainstream depictions that privilege white gay and lesbian parenthood.

Although intersectional approaches to mental health and wellness are widely touted in social justice circles, educational and family support platforms that specifically meet the needs of Black queer K-12 youth are few and far between. As the parent of a non-binary, queer child I am acutely aware of this vacuum. My child and their LGBT peers have experienced bullying and harassment at their LAUSD middle school. Despite the national prominence of the PFLAG LGBTQIA+ family advocacy organization, when I searched for a local African descent group with the same emphasis I couldn’t find one. Similarly, Ariel*, an African American friend and parent, said that she was “shocked to learn that there are very few spaces in North Carolina and throughout the nation where my Black transgender son and for other Black LGBTQIA+ youth can meet. Because I want my son and other Black youth to be safe and supported, I want to see gatherings forming around the nation for Black LGBTQIA+ youth and families. It is imperative that African American families support our LGBTQIA+ children.”

After meeting at a Pride event last summer, Cynthia Ruffin (director of community relations at Colors LGBTQ Youth Counseling services) and I started a Black LGBTQIA+ Family and Caregiver support group in South L.A. The group meets monthly at AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) in Baldwin Hills and is designed to provide safe space and advocacy resources for parents and caregivers of Black LGBTQIA+ youth, especially as they navigate K-12 school culture, mental health needs, and challenges with peers. As a new group, we have struggled to attract and retain more members. These struggles are not unique; the first local, South L.A. PFLAG group disbanded due to waning membership. Family groups that focus on queer youth of color can be difficult to sustain in the face of intersectional community challenges such as poverty, job commitments, lack of childcare, and fear about homophobic non-acceptance. At our monthly meetings, we discuss parenting and caregiving strategies, as well as how to deal with faculty, administrators and other school officials who range from hostile to ignorant of the culturally specific needs of African descent queer students. We also unpack the diverse coping mechanisms that our children use in their school lives and relationships. One of the most pervasive issues that members grapple with is the veneer of liberalism in predominantly white educational settings. White school officials may pay lip service to LGBTQIA+ inclusivity but fail to consider how the experiences of Black queer youth disrupt their colorblind ethos. In our first public event earlier this year, we showed up to support queer and trans youth at a Westboro Baptist Church hate protest in front of Manual Arts High School in South L.A. We are currently planning a PSA with members, tabling at future Pride events and parent trainings at local school districts.

According to the Human Rights Campaign’s 2017 “Black and African American LGBT Youth” report, seventy seven percent of African American youth have heard their family members say negative things about the LGBTQIA+ community. Only twenty six percent say their family members are involved in pro-LGBTQIA+ activities or resourcing. The gap in family and social safety net support for Black queer, trans, and nonbinary youth is a major factor in their high rates of sexual abuse, homelessness, depression, and suicide. Couple this with high levels of religiosity among African Americans, and many Black queer youth are forced to remain closeted in their communities for basic survival.  

Still, queer Generation Z youth are at the forefront of movement change and resistance. And it is not a coincidence that the increase in LGBTQIA+ identification is also paralleled by increasing numbers of youth who are not religiously identified or affiliated. Greater numbers of Gen Z youth say that they’re dubious of religious dogma precisely because of the bigotry organized religions have historically displayed toward the LGBTQI community.

In predominantly Black and Latinx South L.A. schools, training and professional development on creating safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ youth are minimal. Often, these initiatives are taken up by the Genders and Sexualities Network or GSA Network, a nationwide support network for LGBTQIA+ students. According to a new study by the Gay/Lesbian Student Education Network and the National Black Justice League, Black students who were at a school with a GSA were more likely to stay in school and feel safe in school. At one school where I advise GSA youth, students reported that there were few identifiable adult allies on campus who were openly supportive of LGBTQIA+ students. At another school, youth reported that there were vocal adult allies but their peers used homophobic and transphobic slurs that went unchecked all the time. Indeed, at this very same school, conservative religious Black faculty had once taken down a LGBTQ affirming flag and replaced it with a Christian “flag”.

In January, our GSA students at Gardena High School presented the findings of a campus survey that they conducted on LGBTQI school climate issues. The presentation was part of year long peer education and outreach using the GLSEN’s school climate survey tool. Conquering performance anxiety, the youth stood bravely before eighty faculty, staff and administrators, educating the adults in the room about gender pronouns, LGBTQIA+ youth of color demographics, and queer inclusive California legislation like the 2011 Fair Education Act. Prior to the faculty training, my students presented to their peers on queer identities, representation of queer social history in text books, and the role adult allies played on campus. We met with the principal about our outreach plan, then connected with ally English, social studies and health teachers on campus in advance and provided them with prompts on pronouns, key terms, and definitions about gender and sexuality. Students established ground rules for maintaining respectful communication, equitable dialogue, and confidentiality. During one classroom presentation, a student leader named Taj* asked if there were any students who would feel comfortable coming out to their parents. “My mother’s Black”, a ninth grade student said flatly, implying that coming out would be a deal breaker in most African American families. Again, her sentiments were shared by other Black and Latinx youth who indicated that their family’s Christian religious beliefs were a barrier to acceptance and support.

While these youth consistently show up to demonstrate leadership, the missing link is visible family, networks that affirm and reinforce their activism. Acknowledging the cultural barriers that exist for Black family advocacy, Ariel argues, “There is no decree, doctrine, or belief that would prevent me from fully supporting my children. I follow my personal motto closely, to find spaces that reflect them, that bolster their growing selves. If I cannot find those spaces, I join with like-minded people to create them.” Similarly, the parent of a Black trans young man, noted that, “The group is important for me. I need support to continue to be there for him. It helps me to not feel alone or judged. So it frees me up to say exactly how I feel or to question. The triple burden of being Black, male and trans in the world is heavy. A heaviness I can’t ever fully understand. And I feel we are somewhat pioneers. We’re charting new territory for (families and our children).”

As calls to defund school police gain traction, investing in the mental health and wellness of Black queer youth must be a key policy demand. At the same time, African American parents and caregivers have a duty and an obligation to demonstrate that there are loving, proactive Black families who are ready, willing and able to go to bat for them. Doing so will save lives and advance justice for Black queer youth in our polarized schools and communities.

Sikivu Hutchinson is an educator, writer and founder of the Women’s Leadership Project Black feminist mentoring and civic engagement program for high school girls of color in South L.A. Her new book, Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical was published in April. The L.A. Black LGBTQIA+ Parent, Family and Caregiver group can be contacted here. Twitter @sikivuhutch

*Names changed

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Focus on Black Girls, Mental Health, Radical Self-Acceptance and Anti-Racist Uprising

Building on last week's Future of Feminism youth of conference:
Focus on Mental Health, “Radical Self-Acceptance” and Anti-racist uprising for Black Lives
Thursday, June 4th @ 1:00
How do we develop a Girls of Color and Women of Color-centered wellness that acknowledges the trauma and grief we experience dealing with racism/sexism/homophobia and abuse in our everyday lives?

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Trauma, Anti-Blackness and Going Insane with Rage

By Sikivu Hutchinson

“I can’t breathe”. These words, now reverberating across the world in gruesome playback, were among the last uttered by George Floyd, a devoted son, friend, and father, as he lay dying under the knee of a killer cop this week in Minneapolis.

According to his friends, Floyd was a “quiet personality and (a) beautiful spirit” who had moved to Minneapolis in search of a “new life”.

I began writing this piece prior to his death. It began as a reflection on the fragile state of Black girls’ mental health in the pandemic. I kept thinking about the irony of May being Mental Health Awareness month in an era when many of us might feel we are drowning, slowly going insane with rage.

For at least the third time in a month, Black people have heard and seen another Black person repeatedly executed on camera. We have grieved collectively with the families of the victims, written, protested in the streets, called for the prosecution and jailing of killer cops, and wondered if it will take armed resistance to change this seemingly endless death regime. These atrocities are unique to Breathing while Black in America, where the 24/7 corporate news cycle and state violence intersect in a toxic anti-blackness that inflicts deep psychic and emotional wounds.

Covid-fueled increases in surveillance, suppression, and lynching have become indelible signs of the rise of a twenty first century Confederacy. Over the past few weeks alone, Black folks have been treated to the spectacle of whites storming state capitols demanding re-openings; whites  refusing to wear masks; whites refusing to socially distance, and whites saying a collective ‘fuck you’ to public health, screaming about having their rights violated by the government as police stand idly by. These “don’t tread on me” outbursts stand in stark contrast to the escalation in targeting of African Americans in public by the NYPD and LAPD, as well as with the recent terrorist murders of Breeona Taylor in Kentucky, Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and George Floyd.  Taylor was killed while asleep in her bed. Arbery was gunned down in broad daylight on a jog. Floyd was slain face down on the ground while telling the officer who killed him that he was going to die. The family of Eric Garner, who was murdered in 2014 under similar circumstances by killer cops in Staten Island, New York, have had to relive painful memories of his death.

These violent assaults on Black bodies and Black communities have heightened the mental health trauma that many African Americans, especially youth, are experiencing in Covid times. The constant replay of videotaped arrests, beatings, and killings of Black folks elicit fear, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness in Black youth who may feel that the burden of everyday living has become too much to bear. Couple this with the closure of schools, and the elimination of the vital support services they provide, and there is virtually no quarter for youth who are suffering from the PTSD elicited by unrelenting anti-blackness.

The mental health toll of COVID suppression has also exacerbated the academic, emotional, and caregiving burdens that Black girls and girls of color have always had to shoulder. Sexism and misogynoir are intimately related in the politics of the pandemic, as Black women essential workers are simultaneously put on the line to die for their jobs and take care of their children. The U.S. is one of the few post-industrial nations without universal childcare, and its absence has had a devastating impact on the everyday lives of Black women and girls. As COVID-modified school schedules and continued “distance learning” become the norm, the childcare deficit will be even more pronounced.

Disparities in caregiving, and experiences with sexual and domestic violence, have long been unifying factors among Black and Latinx girls in South L.A. schools. Many of my students take care of younger siblings and older relatives while grappling with unaddressed trauma. During a Black feminism workshop I taught at Diego Rivera Learning Center before the COVID shutdowns, a majority of the one hundred girls who attended raised their hands when I asked whether they were expected to do caregiving duties that their male relatives were not tasked with. They rattled off babysitting and household chores as the most exhausting, time-consuming tasks they had to do.  As a result, they feel stressed out from being at home, juggling schoolwork, domestic chores, babysitting, and adult care.  In the midst of the pandemic, many of them have experienced the daily trauma of seeing their loved ones succumb to the virus and hearing 24/7 coverage of pandemic-related deaths. Many of them are also anxiety-ridden about predictions that their lives may never go back to what they knew before. And many of them must grapple with parents or caregivers who are incarcerated in a jail where they’re more likely to contract the virus, on the frontlines as essential workers, or out of work, facing food insecurity and the constant threat of becoming unhoused.

These stressors are set against the backdrop of looming state and local budget cuts to education and social services. Over the past two months since the LAUSD shut down, the activist group Students Deserve has fought to protect the rights of criminalized students of color disenfranchised by the district’s transition to distant learning.  In the City of L.A., Mayor Garcetti is angling to increase the LAPD’s budget by 7.1% for the new fiscal year. This move has been slammed by Black Lives Matter, Ground Game L.A. and K-town, who argue that Garcetti’s budget plan, which also proposes furloughing city workers and slash social services, will further devastate communities of color hardest hit by COVID. Kowtowing to a contract agreement that the City Council negotiated last year with the L.A. Police Protective League, Garcetti wants to dramatically increase LAPD overtime pay, as well as provide bonuses for officers with college degrees. Garcetti’s office has defended the increases as necessary for allowing police to transition into social welfare-oriented duties such as “homeless outreach, COVID testing and working assignments at emergency shelters”. However, any increase in police presence in L.A.’s communities automatically translates into more suppression, surveillance, and targeting of black and brown folks. Garcetti’s police state boondoggle is especially unconscionable given the multiple social welfare crises that the city’s poorest neighborhoods are facing in a city where housing is only affordable for an elite few. BLM and other community groups have spearheaded an alternative “People’s Budget” process that encourages L.A. city residents to challenge the City’s budget in an online survey and through public comment to councilmembers.

The U.S. police state is one of the most dangerous public health threats to Black wellness and mental health. Being able to breathe, to be mentally whole and healthy, in a violence and suppression free environment, has historically been a white supremacist luxury. Our children should not have to live in a nightmare America where breathing while black carries a death sentence