"Inviting NYC Students onto the Scene of School Integration,"by Sarah Camiscoli November/December 2015 issue of Poverty & Race
A Snapshot of IntegrateNYC4me’s First Year on the GroundLast year, as I sat with my 10th grade advisory, I listened to students vent about poor free-lunch quality, excessive test prep, unfair discipline, and an overall resignation with school. I had heard this kind of venting before, but I was no longer interested in responding to it as if it were typical teenage angst. With the UCLA’s report on New York’s Extreme Segregation in nearly every major newspaper in New York, I felt it was time to invite them to be part of a new conversation. I knew I did not enter into the field of education to pacify young people’s resistance, nor did I enter into education to be compliant with a system of unequal access and distribution of resources. I entered education to fulfill my commitment to create racial and socioeconomic justice and to facilitate an experience of liberation for young people. My students needed to know that. And they needed to know that thousands of people around the country were talking about the unconstitutional nature of the complaints they were sharing. Up until that point, I had been listening to their concerns through a filter of what I saw as possible at the school level. I feared I could not deliver if I opened up a new realm of possibilities. I feared I would offend colleagues or disrupt systems that so many of us had created to remedy structural inequities. I feared I might put my job or my school at risk for scrutiny. But mostly, I feared students wouldn’t buy it. I was afraid they wouldn’t believe in the possibility that brought me to them each day. But I let that go, and IntegrateNYC4me was born.
Through our conversations, I realized how the divide between my response to their complaints and my activism around systemic inequality was a dishonor to their experience, to their power, and to myself as an activist and an educator. IntegrateNYC4me was created out of this moment. It was created out of the choice to be actively engaged in conversation and action around the inequities experienced in racially and socioeconomically segregated schools. It was born out of the choice to believe in the curiosity, power and brilliance of students to transform the realities of segregation and to create the possibility of integration in and outside of our community.
At first, our advocacy efforts centered around social media. Students wanted to share their voice. We began surveying students, parents and teachers about their vision for public schools in The Bronx. “Better lunch!” “More sports!” “After school clubs!” And with just a few dozen tweets and several conversations, the project took off. Students, teachers and activists around the city resonated with our concerns and shared our vision. We were encouraged to speak at City Council hearings, received a request from other schools to collaborate, and noticed an outpouring of support from other activists who were inspired by our energy and pizazz. Our resignation about segregation and inequality had been transformed into a new conversation about integration: How could we integrate people and resources in a place like the South Bronx? After discovering a re-tweet from Councilmembers Danny Dromm and Brad Lander, Francisco, a student activist, said, “One day, when I’m older, and I see a bunch of kids like me with a bunch of kids who aren’t like me, I’m going to remember this. I’m going to remember I was part of this.”
Within two months, our efforts moved towards building relationships. The students requested doing a school exchange with a predominantly white school. They wanted to explore what different worlds there were in K-12 public schools around the city and meet young people who they had never had the opportunity to interact with before. Several months after that, they met with advocates and lobbyists around the city who had been in the work for decades, accomplished amazing feats in districts throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, who wanted to support our organizing. Leslie, one student activist from The Bronx, said, “Before I started this work, I knew something wasn’t right but I didn’t have language for it and didn’t think anyone would listen to us as kids. Now I know about segregation and that it's illegal and that people will listen to us.” Organizing around integration became the means by which students were able to build connections with people from around New York City, to articulate the severity of the structural racism they had experienced in their lives, to explore the resource allocation throughout NYC public schools, and to use their power to take action to create a new world of possibilities.
By the Spring, students took political action. District 7 and District 2 students engaged in an unprecedented school-to-school exchange that transformed their perceptions of race, class and access forever. With two days in each school exploring classes, lunchtime, recess and activities, students were able to explore a community they had never been exposed to, investigate the impact of segregation, and collaborate with inspiring young people who they were missing out on as a result of segregation. After completing the exchange, Sam, a rising 11th grader, stated, “I feel that it is essential for New York State to change how students are accepted into schools with an abundance of resources and guidance because certain kids are rejected, and in the end, all children should have proper resources and guidance.” Cate, a rising 12th grader from the Upper East Side, stated, “During the exchange, I also saw how segregation affects us socially. My [exchange] partner from The Bronx wrote me notes and whispered to me things he wished he could’ve contributed to the class conversation. He kept his head down and avoided eye contact in the hallways. It was odd to me; how did he feel so uncomfortable in a place that felt to me like a second home? We’d been segregated for so long that it was almost impossible for him to feel like he belonged.” Students were moved, and they wanted to continue to share their vision with NYC.
To take their advocacy to the next level, students, together with teachers and the talented muralist Sophia Dawson, compiled these reflections, created a design and worked together to paint a collaborative mural project on a wall between the two schools in East Harlem. At the mural’s unveiling, students shared about their experience with community members from The Bronx, Manhattan, Columbia University, and gave thanks to supporters such as NYC Appleseed. This work lead to IntegrateNYC4me’s invitation to become a member of the National Coalition on School Diversity—an opportunity that created the possibility of sharing student voice and vision with advocates around the country.
It was only a matter of time before this zeitgeist of student organizing in The Bronx and Manhattan spread to student activists in other NYC boroughs. In the Spring of last year, Park Slope Collegiate students, parents and principal collaborated to investigate the history of segregation, possibility of integration and the significance of the existence of a scanner (metal detector) in the front of their building. Through their political education and design workshops, students designed a public mural to show the connection between segregation and the existence of scanners in schools and to illustrate their vision for scanner-free, diverse public schools for their community. This work caught the eye of Council Member Brad Lander, who was moved by the resonance between student activism and his own commitments to making integration a priority for the New York City Council and the Department of Education.
After an exciting year of creation, transformation and vision, Integrate NYC4me has been able to establish an elective course in one of its member schools, take on 22 new student activists in District 7, and inspire other NYC public schools to create youth-led student initiatives around school integration. Through these new initiatives, students will explore not only the areas in which segregated schools are affected, but also the mechanisms through which they can make their voices heard by local authorities. With the power and commitment of resilient, visionary young people, and the support of school communities committed to integration and anti-racist organizing, IntegrateNYC4me plans to change hearts, minds and systems in the 2015-2016 school year.
Sarah Camiscoli is the founder and director of IntegrateNYC4me. She is also a high-school teacher in District 7 of the South Bronx and an organizing council member of Teachers Unite. She is committed to making public school communities the site of organizing around integration and engaging youth across race and class to transform community initiatives, policy and research for desegregation efforts.
To learn more about the work of integrateNYC4me and the possibilities of integration, visit www.integrate nyc4me.com firstname.lastname@example.org
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