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Sunday, March 29, 2020
Saturday, March 28, 2020
By Sikivu Hutchinson
Over the past two turbulent weeks, empty public schools and barren playgrounds have become stark symbols of how COVID-19 has exacerbated structural inequality. Massive layoffs, food insecurity, and lethal gaps in sick leave, healthcare, childcare provision, housing, and transportation have always been a way of life for people of color, but the pandemic has further exposed this Rubicon as a neoliberal nightmare—the spectral chickens of Reaganomics come to roost. The recent wave of district-wide school closures highlights their importance as some of the few remaining public “sheltering” spaces where vulnerable children can receive wraparound social welfare services. The shutdowns not only impact classroom instruction, but the mental health care provided by scores of psychiatric social workers, nurses, healthy start coordinators, speech therapists, and other support staff who do their work on the precipice of budget cuts and Orwellian government bureaucracy. For this reason, the COVID breakdown has already proven to be disastrous for children with disabilities. These youth are criminally underserved when it comes to quality classroom instruction in real time. Although they are confronted with a huge technology gap in the COVID age, the gap in instructional time and support services remains a primary issue because special needs students are even more prone to being isolated and pushed out when school schedules are disrupted.
Nationwide, approximately 67% of students with disabilities graduate from high school, versus 84% of students without disabilities. Due to deeply ingrained racist cultural expectations, poverty, and “lower” high stakes test scores, African American students are more likely to be identified as having learning disabilities. However, they typically do not receive the wraparound services that they need to support their learning and social-emotional development (there is recent data, contested by researchers at the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, that suggests that white students are actually more likely to be assigned to special education, while reaping the most benefit from coordinated support, resources, and therapy). Couple this with higher rates of policing and discipline on K-12 campuses, and Black students are at ground zero when it comes to the nexus of disability, criminalization, and school segregation. According to the 2018 “Disabling Punishment” report, “on average, students with disabilities lose over 56 days of instruction for every 100 students with disabilities enrolled” due to discipline. The majority of suspensions are “for minor misbehaviors”, with African American students being the most heavily penalized. Nevada, Nebraska, Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri were the worst offenders. Under the corrupt leadership of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Department of Education has challenged Obama administration-era guidelines protecting students with disabilities and students of color from disproportionately harsh discipline.
In its egregious response to the pandemic, the DOE issued guidelines that relieve schools of providing in- person educational assistance to students with disabilities if there are no in-person instructional services being offered to the general student population. This directive has been criticized by the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, which represents special education attorneys. The directive further disadvantages disabled students and their families because they are now solely responsible for providing the critical support they’d relied on from schools. Many of my students—from foster care, undocumented, homeless, LGBTQIA+, and special needs backgrounds—do regular check-ins with counselors and specialists to ensure their wellbeing as well facilitate their academic progress. Without this support, they might languish. As one special education instructor noted in the L.A. Times, “There’s stress about them losing skills…a lot of our students really thrive with a high level of structure and routine, especially our students on the autism spectrum.”
These concerns have been echoed by providers I’ve spoken to in South L.A. high schools, who point to a lack of clear coordination for students with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) by the LAUSD. In my work as a resource provider and mentor at LAUSD schools, the relationships I’ve forged with restorative justice coordinators, Healthy Start providers, counselors, and psychiatric social workers have been invaluable. These dedicated caregivers are a lifeline for African American students (across the ability and needs spectrum), especially when it comes to bridging academics, social-emotional needs, and mental health.
At the end of the day, COVID has further underscored how the LAUSD’s diversion of state funding to school police over counselors and mental health practitioners harms African American students and other students of color (According to UCLA’s 2018 “Policing Our Students” report, Black students represented 25% of students arrested by LAUSD school police, despite comprising only 9% of the district). In a District where these practitioners often fight year in and year out at the school board to save their jobs, the next few months will strain fragile therapeutic networks to the brink. Ultimately, pressure must be kept on school districts nationwide to ensure that students are provided with speech pathology tele-therapy, daily assistance with IEPs through video conferencing, unrestricted access to culturally responsive distance learning platforms designed for disabled students, and mental health support services for parents and caregivers forced to navigate this new terrain while juggling work, childcare, and economic challenges. Creating schools based on a culture of justice and caregiving, rather than pushout, is one of the best remedies for a pandemic that has the lives of children of color hanging in the balance.
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Sunday, February 9, 2020
Thursday, February 6, 2020
By Sikivu Hutchinson
“I’m Black and I grew up in Los Angeles.” Without a hint of irony, embattled two term District Attorney Jackie Lacey uttered these defiant, fighting words midway through last week’s D.A. debate. Moderated by KPCC and the L.A. Times, Lacey squared off against challengers former San Francisco D.A. George Gascon and former public defender Rachel Rossi. In the runup to the March 3rd race, Lacey has faced a firestorm of community pressure and criticism about her authoritarian law and order reign. The litany of misconduct allegations against Lacey are long, deep, and well-documented: During her tenure, she has sent twenty two individuals to death row, all of whom were people of color. She has failed to prosecute killer cops while cowering behind the code of legal authority and ducking the community’s calls for accountability. She refused to support the realignment Proposition 47 on the grounds that African American and Latinx folks in L.A. County were more likely to be victims of violent crime. She has refused to prosecute big name sexual predators (Ed Buck, Harvey Weinstein, Bikram Choudhury) and opposed cash bail and marijuana sentencing reforms. Faced with two strong challengers, she has scrambled to paint herself as a criminal justice reformer while presiding over a ballooning police state bureaucracy and the mass incarceration of the mentally ill.
Lacey’s attempt to play the Black authenticity card is significant because Black folks have been her staunchest critics. Black Lives Matter L.A. has denounced Lacey’s refusal to bring charges against police guilty of using deadly force, confronting Lacey with the families of victims slain by the LAPD and LASD. Over the past eight years, community groups such as the Youth Justice Coalition, ACLU, Community Coalition and the L.A. Urban Policy Roundtable have blasted Lacey's inaction and called for her removal. Lacey has also been challenged by deputy D.A.s in her own office who charge that she has further institutionalized Black and Latinx criminalization.
Last Wednesday, Lacey attempted to silence her many critics by smacking down her opponents’ records on crime, mass incarceration, mental health diversion, and police shootings. Lacey assailed Gascon for being hypocritical in his failure to charge killer cops. She dismissed Rossi as an out of her depth neophyte. Her lies, smears, and deflections were met with deafening pushback from BLM and other audience members. Yet, Lacey also had her own amen corner of sycophants who fawned over her Robo Cop tough-on-crime posturing.
Neither Gascon nor Rachel Rossi support the death penalty, and both oppose the use of gang enhancements to increase the sentences of Black and Latinx defendants ensnared in the CalGang database. They support removing police misconduct investigations and oversight from the D.A.’s office through the creation of an independent prosecutor’s office or “Civil Rights Division”. In 2014, Gascon co-authored Proposition 47, which was designed to reduce the number of individuals who were sent to prison for non-violent offenses and mitigate the odious impact of Three Strikes mandatory minimum sentencing. Lacey vehemently opposed Prop 47.
Thus, while progressive reform prosecutors are rising in D.A. offices across the nation, Lacey remains steadfast in her support of killer cops and serial abusers in law enforcement. In a boost to her election bid, the corrupt Police Protective League has poured over a million dollars into an anti-Gascon PAC. Other establishment Lacey endorsers include most of the L.A. County supervisors and a good chunk of L.A. City Council, State Assembly, and U.S. Congress members.
During the evening, Lacey touted the advances she’s allegedly made in diverting mentally ill individuals into treatment facilities and away from prison. However, according to a recent report from the Rand Corporation, the Office of Diversion and Reentry (created in 2015) has only transitioned 4,305 “diversion-eligible people” to community mental health programs and facilities. The report recommended that approximately sixty eight percent of current county inmates should qualify for mental health diversion. In response to Lacey’s reform claim, Gascon blasted Lacey’s mental health division as a “joke”, citing an 86% increase in the incarceration of the mentally ill during Lacey’s tenure.
Indeed, while the D.A.’s office claims to be leading reform on mental health, a third of LAPD shooting victims have been mentally ill. Moreover, police criminalization of unhoused mentally ill folks has been a major point of contention with activist groups pushing back against city and county-initiated sweeps of homeless encampments. At the debate, Rossi was critical of the high rates of street criminalization, emphatically stating that she would not prosecute the unhoused simply for being unhoused and vulnerable. She also stressed that she would not criminalize sex workers, noting that the majority of those who are prosecuted, convicted, and jailed for sex work are women of color. Rossi’s attention to this issue is important, because of the systemic pipelining of Black sexual abuse victims into juvenile facilities and adult prisons.
According to The Appeal, Lacey’s surrogates have been busy vilifying Gascon for his record on street crime in San Francisco. They allege that he presided over a surge in property crimes and petty theft, bucking the statewide trend of declining crime rates. San Francisco Mayor London Breed and City Attorney Dennis Herrera have criticized Gascon for dropping the ball on street crime, citing it as one of the ostensible reasons they’re backing Lacey. Gascon has pinned the blame for the spike on the SFPD’s refusal to arrest offenders.
Gascon’s record in San Francisco has not been perfect, and Lacey made repeated reference to his failure to prosecute the SFPD officers who shot and killed residents Mario Woods and Luis Gongora Pat in 2015 and 2016. In both cases, Gascon cited his inability to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the officers’ use of deadly force wasn’t justified as his rationale for not prosecuting. If he defeats Lacey, his complicity with the status quo in San Francisco bears scrutiny. On the flip side, his pursuit of decriminalization, reduced sentencing rates, ending cash bail, and support for the original version of last year’s AB392 bill ( which revised the standards for police use of deadly force), demonstrate that he would be an antidote to Lacey’s destructive police state tenure. Ultimately, the election of either Gascon or Rossi will put an end to Lacey’s reign of terror. On March 3rd, voters will have the rare opportunity to right historic wrongs and send turncoat Lacey packing.
Wednesday, February 5, 2020
|Malina Moye @ 2018 Future of Feminism|
By Sikivu Hutchinson
Picture this. A blond white woman in a sleeveless tank with an electric guitar graces Music Radar’s recent article shouting out the ten leading blues guitar players in the world. No Black women merited inclusion on the list. Not blues powerhouse Ruthie Foster; not mega talent shredder Malina Moye. Only three Black men scored. In this universe, the blues long ago left the building as a uniquely African American art form steeped in the poetry of secular lamentation, Black struggle, and irreverence.
It’s no revelation that “eating the other”(to use bell hooks’ term) is as Amerikkkan as apple pie and mass deportations. In the funhouse mirror of twenty first century minstrelsy, white folks rule blues and rock, white rap hipsters have become yawningly pro forma, and white women hawking border chic in flavor of the month novels like American Dirt are anointed to speak for the brown downtrodden.
Like many women of color writers, I was outraged when I heard about the gushing adulation, Oprah Book Club endorsement, and obscene payday that American Dirt writer Jeanine Cummins received for her fetishized portrait of Mexican immigrant life. Shutting down the Cummins’ hype machine, Latinx writers Myriam Gurba and Esmeralda Bermudez dubbed the book an empty narco-thriller that trotted out racist, sexist stereotypes about Mexican immigrant communities for the white gaze. The organized backlash against Cummins’ gringa brownface ghost abduction of Mexican bodies was a rare instance when the longstanding grievances of women of color about white supremacy in the literary establishment had swift, national repercussions. Cummins’ book tour was cancelled, and Latinx writers from the #DignidadLiteraria group reportedly got her publisher to commit to increasing Latinx staff representation as well as book acquisitions. After the cancelation, some in the media attempted to portray Cummins as the victim of angry Latinas with pitchforks. Her wounded chagrin was reminiscent of the white fragility sweepstakes which arose after author Kathryn Stockett was slammed by Black writers about her Mammy-splaining novel The Help. In that instance, white gatekeepers wasted no time securing film rights and bankrolling a movie that showcased the pride of Miss Ann’s Hollywood lording over noble Negroes in a deep Jim Crow South notably devoid of civil rights activists.
When Black, Latinx, indigenous, and Asian novelists and fiction writers scrape to get by, shrug off rejection after rejection, and see white folks get outsized acclaim for writing about communities of color it confirms that nothing has changed in literary plantation politics. It’s estimated that nearly 80% of publishers are white, and that the majority of acquisitions editors are white women (most of whom probably fall all over themselves to denounce Trump). This divide between liberal window dressing and the reality of plantation lit politics is underscored by publishing’s neoliberal bottom line. As poet Shivana Sookdeo notes, “Without support for the marginalised already within publishing, from living wages to protection from backlash, you can’t attract more. Without that growth of the workforce, you can’t effectively safeguard against exploitative works. Without those safeguards, you make it even more inhospitable for diverse talent. Then you’re back at square one, publishing establishment, safe, whiter voices because the entire chain has been neglected.”
So who shells out crazy ducats for the Black gaze on white America?
Picture this. Decades after her death at twenty seven from a drug overdose in 1970, the legacy of Janis Joplin still looms Godzilla-large over women’s history in rock music. Joplin was the first white woman musical colonist to ride her ear-bleeding, angsty rip-offs of Black blues standards to big bucks stardom and notoriety. Post crash and burn, Joplin has been the subject of umpteen biopics, documentaries, books (a new biography just dropped in October), musicals, and gushing odes to her own peculiar brand of parasitic white woman alchemy. While Joplin’s cottage industry rolls on, it’s been only recently that the queer Black women rock and blues pioneers Joplin stole from—musicians like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Rosetta Tharpe—have received mainstream recognition for their trailblazing impact on American music.
I started writing my long delayed (!), forthcoming novel Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe out of my lifelong, ride or die love for all types of rock music (from Son House to Tharpe to Memphis Minnie to Band of Gypsys to Sonic Youth to Neil to Jimi to Love to PJ Harvey to Parliament/Funkadelic to King Crimson to Malina Moye to Brittany Howard), as well as the desire to explore the theft of Black creativity in a genre whose Black origins were hijacked by corporate America. One of the novel’s central themes is the artistic travails of Black women rendered invisible by the genre’s association with Alpha male whiteness in the post-British invasion era. The lived experience of working, Black women musicians are rarely captured in fiction. Thus, I wanted to explore the everyday challenges, failures, and quiet triumphs of being a Black woman guitarist on the road playing dive bars and middling concert halls in the day-to-day grind of trying to keep a band together and the bills paid. Loosely based on Rosetta Tharpe—a gospel guitar titan criticized for embracing secular rock, blues, and country music—my protagonist grapples with the PTSD of sexual abuse, sexist/racist discrimination by record labels, promoters, and managers, and getting old in a youth-driven 1970s pop music culture. Fronting a band of men, she navigates a cutthroat record industry that chews up and spits out Black musicians who don’t fit neatly into accepted radio formats and hyper-feminized marketing images that appeal to white consumers. Like Rosetta Tharpe, Rory is a queer musician in a notoriously homophobic, testosterone-driven world. She’s also losing faith in god amidst a wave of prosperity gospel Black evangelicalism. While her “star” is waning, she comes into conflict with a Joplin-esque white artist who tries to capitalize on her outlier status to add street cred “spice” to her own career.
The novel allowed me to pose a number of central questions about female creativity within the context of extreme generational and religious trauma. For example, how do Black women musicians self-determine in shark infested professional waters? What role does women’s ambivalent desires play in forging complicated, often toxic artistic relationships? How did older Black women resist in a multi-billion dollar industry that sucked up Black ingenuity while deifying white male rock “gods”? And, finally, how do Black women artists navigate depression, as well as persistent thoughts of death and dying, when they’re expected to buck up and be self-sacrificing superwomen?
Many women of color fiction writers know this syndrome all too well. Writing outlier fiction—often in a snarling void, often pushing up a Sisyphean hill of preconceived, reductive notions about the Black imagination—is a tightrope walk. After years of rejections, deflections, games, and crickets from the publishing industry (e.g., being told things like, “[your short story] was among the finest pieces we received. [but] it did not exactly suit our needs at this time”) I self-publish most of my books. I can’t wait for the literary gatekeepers to give my voice “permission” or validation. As Alice Walker once said, “I write not only what I want to read, but I write the things that I should have been able to read”. I write for Black girls on a mad wanderlust quest for signs of themselves in the heart of dirty Americana.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars and the forthcoming Humanists in the Hood: Unapologetically Black, Feminist, and Heretical, Due April 2020, as well as Rock ‘N’ RollHeretic: The Life and Times of Rory Tharpe (Infidel Books, 2020). @sikivuhutch
Wednesday, January 22, 2020
A sci fi, speculative and political surrealist fiction podcast By Sikivu Hutchinson
Rule of the Jungle, Episode 2:
Somewhere in white Middle America, a special beast bonds with its master.
"I was a special animal. Gifted with supersonic hearing. Smooth skin. High cranial capacity. They’d never seen the likes of me.
When the gas company came to cut the heat off, my master marched in the courtyard, rebel yelling to the moon and stars about how he’d defend the fort against interlopers."
Written and narrated by Sikivu Hutchinson, with guitar theme music by S.H., produced at Maurock Music Studios.
Follow @ Podbean, Spotify and Apple Podcasts
Monday, January 6, 2020
By Sikivu Hutchinson
If African American students in the Los Angeles Unified School District were a single district, that district would be the eleventh largest in California. This stat comes from a recent analysis of LAUSD test results that unsurprisingly confirms the district’s systemic failure of Black students. Over half of South L.A. schools with the largest concentration of Black students were rated “poor” in academic achievement. These schools received a red rating. By contrast, only fifteen schools were rated red for white students. Districtwide, only two out of ten African American students are proficient or on grade level in math, while only three out of ten are proficient in English. For Black students transitioning to college, the implications are dire.
Yet, where is the outrage??
Although African American high school graduation rates have increased, only half of Black LAUSD graduates have the grades and A-G (or college preparation) classes required for admission to UCs and CSUs. This combination of low access to college readiness resources, minimal access to college and guidance counselors, as well as high quality instruction, after school enrichment and tutoring programs, is informed by the systemic criminalization of African American students. While the LAUSD phased out willful defiance as an “offense” that students can be suspended for, Black students continue to be suspended at higher rates than non-black students. Moreover, widespread district practices such as random searches (which the board voted to phase out in July after community organizing by student activist coalitions like Students Deserve and the Students Not Suspects campaign) and over-policing by school resource officers further undermine student learning, safety, and engagement. The dwindling number of Black students at traditionally African American campuses is another factor. For the most part, faculty of all ethnicities are not trained to be culturally responsive to the needs and communities of Black students. Despite the millions poured into professional development training, faculty and administrators are not versed on how structures of segregation, institutional racism, state violence, sexual violence, and economic insecurity impact the psychological, emotional, and academic wellbeing of Black students.
In addition, Black “Generation Z” youth are more likely to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender, making them more vulnerable to bullying, harassment, and emotional abuse. Higher levels of LGBTQIA+ identification among Black youth defies mainstream, Eurocentric stereotypes about queer identity. It also dovetails with the rising number of queer Black parents who are raising children in communities where they are “invisibilized” by anti-queer public policies, conservative religious traditions, economic inequality, and minimal to nonexistent social services. While the district has developed some programming and outreach for high school age LGBTQIA+ students, there is little to no culturally responsive programming or professional development that addresses the lived experiences of queer, trans, and nonbinary African American students in grades K-8. Students in these grades are even more underserved because teachers and administrators may not have been trained to be conscious about or attentive to addressing homophobia and transphobia on their campuses.
Why is this relevant to achievement? Because it represents the many challenges confronting a district that is ill-equipped to address a changing student body and the intersectional issues it faces. As greater numbers of elementary and middle school African American students grapple with gender identity and sexuality in homophobic, transphobic school communities, it will have a profound impact on their academic outcomes.
In a district that is still steeped in rote learning and tracking, the social-emotional wellbeing of African American LAUSD students has always been given short shrift. Only a handful of elementary and middle schools have a fifty percent or higher rate of English proficiency for African American students. They include Open Charter Middle School, WISH Community Charter, 156th Street School, Kentwood Elementary, Palms Middle School, Open Charter Middle School, Cowan Magnet, Loyola Village Magnet, and Broadacres Magnet. This small handful of schools (with the exception of Palms) are the only ones in the district with a fifty percent or more math proficiency rate for Black students.
At the high school level, only King Drew Magnet High School, TEACH Tech Charter, USC Hybrid College Prep, Palisades High, Hollywood High, University High and CATCH Charter High have at least a fifty percent or higher rate of English proficiency for Black students. According to the data, no high school has an African American student math proficiency rate of 50% or higher. Astoundingly, some Black “leaders” within the LAUSD say that increasing Black math proficiency to 5% per year is an acceptable goal.
What is the district’s response to these gross disparities? In April, the LAUSD School Board sponsored a resolution entitled “Closing the Opportunity and Achievement Gap for African American Students”. The resolution is the umpteenth district measure over a fifteen-year period that is designed to address “systemic inequities” faced by Black students. It calls for a “five-year plan” to increase the numbers of Black students in gifted and talented programs, honors classes, advanced placement classes, and early education programs. As with all of the previous resolutions that were passed to supposedly improve conditions in LAUSD for Black students, this plan is big on ambition and short on accountability to the community for how it will be implemented and evaluated (backers of the resolution have floated the creation of “African American Family” groups to participate in its implementation, but the district has provided no specifics on how this would play out).
The district’s cluelessness on redressing math literacy is especially egregious. Veteran math educator Dr. Michael Batie analyzed math proficiency for a fifteen-year period in his publication the “Black Zero Index”. Dr. Batie views the district’s piecemeal efforts as akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. He has proposed creating a school district within Board District One, which has the largest Black student population in the LAUSD. Rather than emphasizing “how poorly Black students are doing”, these dismal performance stats should be a call to action and catalyst for forward-looking initiatives.
Of course, starting a breakaway district is no easy or overnight task. It requires a petition to the L.A. County Office of Education School District Reorganization Committee and the collection of fifteen thousand signatures. In the meantime, improving math achievement for Black students requires the kind of bold restructuring that George McKenna, the board’s sole African American member (who is running unopposed for reelection in March after challenger Tunette Powell was disqualified for allegedly not having enough signatures to qualify for the ballot), has steadfastly refused to pursue. Under McKenna’s watch, Black students have stagnated, victim of his empty bluster, bravado, and fiddling-while-Rome-burns posturing.
Batie believes the district should prioritize providing schools with math specialists at every level in order to improve math literacy and competency among elementary and middle school instructors who may be assigned to teach math with no math background. Connecting math to real world practice and application—instead of emphasizing rote instruction that simply has students look at numbers on the page without seeing patterns or context—incorporating games and practical exercises, contests, manipulatives, and building exercises encourages students to stay mentally focused and internalize basic math skills as a foundation for higher math in high school and college.
For Batie, providing parents with strategies that empower them to assist their child in math literacy is a top priority. These skills are critical for equipping parents with the tools from birth through high school to help youth develop the rigor required to achieve math proficiency.
Ultimately, the district’s failure of African American students in math and English has national implications for Black economic self-determination. If Black students continue to be cheated out of educational justice in public schools, more parents will retreat into independent charters and private schools, hastening a vicious cycle of divestment. And if Black students remain underserved in math, science, and English, they will be unable to develop critical thinking and analysis skills, successfully complete college, or compete in STEM fields that have few Black faces. In a political climate where public education has been gutted by neoliberal forces of privatization and corporate control, the miseducation of Black students is a criminal enterprise that demands accountability from district “leaders” who continue to be asleep at the switch.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the founder of the Women’s Leadership Project program for South L.A. girls of color and co-facilitator of the Black LGBTQIA+ Parent and Family Group