Darkness, until 2016
4 weeks until Election Day
What is the purpose of rest?
Is it to reenergize ourselves for the struggles ahead? Neuroscience suggests that during sleep, our brains reorganize our neural pathways and remove toxins. We process our emotions through dreams and file away memories and learning. Our bodies heal and our muscles recover for the exertions of the following day.
Is the purpose of rest to recognize our own value and the value of those around us? In the relentless pace of consumer capitalism, we focus on production. Our value becomes tied to what we can produce, rather than who we are. Rest can be a means to detach from that relentless culture.
Both of these uses of rest can be beneficial for us. But we can also use rest to ignore our problems. When we are depressed or struggling, we sleep to avoid the tremendous negative feelings that we hold in our bodies. When we want to circumvent a challenging situation or person, we will often step away in the guise of rest.
I was asleep for 40 years. I know that the purpose of that sleep was not to reenergize myself or to recognize my value — it was to avoid reality. I should have known better the kind of country I lived in. But I didn’t. I was raised in an environment that willfully obscured the truth. That was not the fault of my parents or any one individual person. It was the fault of the system — of whiteness. This system prevented me from seeing and understanding the centrality of race in our nation’s history and its present. It prevented me from seeing the great tragedies of the past that continue into today. And it prevented me from acting to directly address the inequities that race has created and continues to create.
That’s not to say that I was disconnected from the idea of service. On the contrary, my parents very directly taught me about the importance of acting for others. Raised as a Catholic, the social justice teachings of the Church informed my conscience and morality. My parents taught me often about the importance of helping others. We lived in the suburbs, but when we would go into Milwaukee and I would see someone who was homeless, I felt a huge amount of guilt. Who was I to live comfortably as I was while this person had no home? As an adolescent, I attended a Jesuit Catholic high school, which emphasized service for the greater glory of God. In high school, I volunteered at a Milwaukee homeless shelter because I wanted to help people who had less than I did.
I continued serving after college, joining Americorps to engage in national service. First, I volunteered for City Year to help students with service projects in their high schools. Then, I joined Teach for America, teaching Algebra at South Shore High School in Chicago to classrooms full of Black students. Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing at the start. I was a truly awful teacher, and I knew it, but I rationalized my position by saying that I was better than the string of substitute teachers my students would have if I left, as the school would be unlikely to find another math teacher to fill the spot in the middle of the year. I taught for two years there, learning through trial and error, and improving my teaching with practice.
In my third year of teaching, I got the opportunity to join a team of teachers who were founding a new school, the Al Raby School for Community & Environment. Named after a Black Chicago activist, the school opened on the West Side, in the West Garfield Park neighborhood. We focused our school on community and environmental activism, but I didn’t see myself as an activist. Again, I taught math to classes that were almost entirely filled with Black students. After two years, I became the school’s assistant principal and two years after that, in 2008, I had the opportunity to become the principal.
At the same time that I was taking on this new role, Barack Obama was running his unlikely campaign for the office of President. On Election Night, when it looked as if he would pull off his victory, I went down to the Loop to celebrate. I didn’t have a ticket for the Grant Park victory party, but I loved walking through the streets, rejoicing in this moment, seeing and hearing people of so many races and backgrounds singing and laughing and rejoicing together. In January 2019, I watched the Inauguration of our nation’s first Black president in our school auditorium with our almost entirely Black student body. It was a joyous day.
And then I returned to the work of leading a school. I turned my focus back away from politics. I had always been someone who only looked at politics every four years, figuring that it would all get sorted out. I bought into many elements of the post-racial lie that our country was being told. I didn’t see myself as political and I didn’t see myself as racial, and those two blind spots overlapped and reinforced one another. And I didn’t see how both of those focuses — the political and the racial — should be connected to what I thought of as my focus — the educational. And I certainly didn’t see how education, politics, and race should have intersected at a Black school on the West Side of Chicago.
I thought that I could stay in service, in the mindset of helping others who needed that help. The problem is that service works within the system as it is. Volunteering at the homeless shelter, working with Latinx high schoolers on their service projects, teaching Black students — the desire to serve came from a well-intentioned place, but my impact was to enact those things as a white man helping people of color. And I was a white man who had not processed what it meant for me to be white, serving Black and Latinx people whose cultures I didn’t really understand. Service accepts racism and white supremacy and whittles around the edges. It allows us to stay asleep to the reality of the system as it is. It allows us to believe that the United States of America is a fundamentally just place that needs to better work towards its principles.
I was still asleep. My service, though well-intentioned, allowed me to stay asleep, to avoid the challenging reality of my nation. But the morning — my sudden moment of awakening on matters of race, politics, service, and activism — was coming.
Please check out the next part of this piece.
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