Monday, February 20, 2017


Lessons from a water crisis, an eight-year-old boy and a bunch of high school students

Tackling Racism in My Classroom and My Home

Sitting at the kitchen table this morning with my laptop open, my eight-year-old son Kavaun looked up from his plate of pancakes and asked, “What are you doing?”

This drawing by high school student Cam Hartley depicts poisoned 
water from a hand labeled, "Land of the Free."
Normally, we don’t allow screen time during meals, but today I was camped out in the kitchen before the kids rolled out of bed.

I closed my laptop and glanced over at his syrup-covered face and told him I was learning more about the water crisis in Flint. I was finishing my first read of the recently published report, The Flint Water Crisis: Systematic Racism Through the Lens of Flint by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (Click to see the report).

After about ten seconds of silence, Kavaun responded with a quizzical expression and asked,


“They still don’t have water?”

My son has some understanding of the crisis because we attend church in Flint and signs remind us every Sunday not to drink the water. There was also that time about a year ago when we were stuck in traffic on MLK as people scrambled to get water from Flint Fire Station # 3. It was a snowy day and cars were stopping in the middle of the street to load their trunks with bottled water. Kavaun was puzzled by the spectacle of people lugging water up and down the street in the freezing temperatures.

Flint, Michigan. By Nick Gregory            
By the time we turned around in a vacant lot that had been turned into a makeshift loading zone for vehicles, my son had a glimpse into the suffering of others that he had gone his short life never knowing existed. The suffering was not confined to only African Americans or only white people. Poor people and middle class people of every shade lined up for water. Kavaun had a lot of questions and my incomplete answers did not satisfy his curiosity. How do you explain to a child that we let this happen and there's no confidence it will be corrected anytime soon?  

I felt like we were gawking at an accident scene as we tried to get out of there. Instead of a dead body or mangled car, we were looking in on a different kind of anguish - slow and methodical, like when an ill grandparent is placed in a nursing home waiting to die. The humiliation was indescribable. The pain raw. The agony that was put on display for the world to witness through news reports was even more uncomfortable up close.

Flint distribution site by Nick Gregory 
Our experience brought the angry and tired faces from our living room TV into closer view through our car windows. As huge snowflakes fell to the ground, children followed in tow as adults loaded their sleds and their wagons with cases of bottled water. There were no snow ball fights or children laughing.

Trying to describe the situation to my son left me angrier about a system that allows this to happen. Flint is about 60% Black and more than 40% of its residents live in poverty according tot he US Census Bureau. It would be far too simple to claim the Flint Water Crisis is all about race or all about poverty, but those statistics remain a big part of the story. I told Kavaun that this should never happen to anyone, anywhere. He agreed and we drove fifteen miles home trying to make sense of what we had just witnessed.

I was relieved he interrupted me this morning because I was struggling to map out this blog entry. Trying to connect classroom conversations about privilege, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission Flint report and our recent high school production of To Kill a Mockingbird was difficult. Trying to come up with creative ways to bring the lessons identified in the report into my classroom is challenging enough and blogging about the topic of racism is messy.

Teachers Should Influence the Conversation about Racism

How can anyone dismiss the role of poverty and race in a long history of environmental injustice in the United States? The Michigan Civil Rights Commission report is full of historical references that help us understand how systemic racism works. Fact-based sourcing we rarely find in textbooks and analysis that news reports do not deliver make the report a valuable tool for teaching. Among the report’s conclusions, there’s this:

“It is not sufficient to view the pumping of contaminated water into the homes of Flint families as an engineering failure.”

That statement alone is a great start to a classroom discussion that will encourage questions about several topics we see in the news on a regular basis. Prior knowledge about lessons from history and fresh ideas about how to solve these problems will give students a voice on relevant issues.

A water bottle floats down the Flint River. This was one of the images from 
my photo essay project about Flint titled, "Why Can't Us" that is linked here. 
The 130-page report is full of facts about Flint and Genesee County. It is a must-read for educators in Michigan and educators all over who care about social justice, the environment and lessons from American history.

This report has pushed me to learn about more social studies and humanities topics in Detroit (See my photo-essay about Detroit and racism titled, Split by clicking here). We could even look to the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy and the lessons playing out there to apply modern day events to the study of prejudice and racism.

Bigotry is as much a part of the American story as the Declaration of Independence and World War II. We need to go there.
Most of my students have never had to live through acts of hatred like the one from the Flint Water Crisis Report described below. This will be one of the examples I will use in my classroom so we can explore racism in a more meaningful way.

“Perhaps the clearest message of how Flint viewed black people’s 'position' was the one sent by the Bernston Field House public swimming pool. Six days per week the pool was for the use of whites only, while black children were relegated to sprinklers the city would set up across the street.

Blacks were allowed to use the pool only on Wednesdays. Every Wednesday night the pool was completely drained and everything was cleaned, so the facility would again be ready for those who were allowed entry on Thursday morning. The 'necessity' to empty and clean a swimming pool based on the skin color of the previous users was an outright symbol of racism.”

Going there to get there

Protestors at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Mich. 
By Nick Gregory
Kavaun’s simple questions remind me not to complicate what is plainly obvious: It is never too early or too late to go there.

My son is curious about how an entire city was poisoned and he has provided several openings to talk about big topics like promoting the common good, poverty and human rights. Sure, he’s eight years old but his questions make more sense to me than the finger-pointing and excuses we've grown used to hearing through press conferences and criminal indictments of lower-level Flint city employees.

Following the discovery of lead contamination in Flint water, people have been forced to endure the blame game, disputes over federal money for relief and short-sighted solutions that ignore historical context. We are familiar with the story, but like most people who do not live in Flint, we can only imagine the challenges. I want my son to continue to imagine the challenges faced by others and put himself in their situation, at least for a few minutes.

This morning, Kavaun left the table and played nerf basketball for a while before coming back into the kitchen to ask me, “How can they trust anymore?”  

That is a damn good question. How can the residents of Flint trust anymore?

Fortunately, several students in my high school were asking the same question about trust, but there question was about more than Flint. With incredible precision, our talented students brought hundreds of people along with them on a journey to explore racisms grip on our nation.  

How can they trust?

I was profoundly moved by the Fenton High School performance of Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird a couple of weeks ago. Our high school actors, under the direction of Lori Thompson, delivered a performance and talk-back session afterward that left audience members inspired.

Their mantra, “Sometimes you have to go there to get there” was a shared commitment for the cast and crew as they researched, interviewed class guests and visited Flint to try and understand the deep-rooted challenges of racism. They brought their audience along on their journey through a story set more than eighty years ago in the deep South. In a unique twist, they set the stage so that we could examine racism and prejudice in the modern world.

Waiting & the Flint River. The man on top is walking away, out of the frame, 
as the man sitting by the water waits. By Nick Gregory
Mockingbird was performed in a small theatre with 360-degree seating for about 200 people. The intimate setting allowed about a thousand people take in seven separate performances.

I imagine that many audience members contemplated the dual roles of trust and justice as Tom Robinson faced his accuser. Kavaun's question, "How can they trust anymore?" has a legacy stretching back centuries in the United States.

We practically joined the actors on stage, making the story one that belonged to everyone. Many questions about injustice and the racism that we’ve been witnessing in Flint and Detroit and Saginaw and Benton Harbor and Fenton and Ionia where I grew up  - well, you get it - it all played out on that stage. We all know that racism is not confined by geography or a specific time period and it inspires me that young people are willing to go there.

We need young people to help the adults on this one because going there can be more difficult as people get older. Talking about the reality of racism is the best way to start advancing progress. We have to find ways to constructively solve our problems by trying to understand others experiences.

Modern day struggles like the ones in Flint, Ferguson, Mo. , Detroit, Charleston, SC and Baltimore were included in the performance along with moving musical selections. Black Lives Matter, law enforcement, mass incarceration and modern political struggles revolving around Muslims and refugees were part of the conversation with Mockingbird. The nasty wounds of racism and prejudice were put on display for everyone in the theatre.

Without prompting, my son is analyzing many of the same questions in relation to the Flint Water Crisis. Questioning ow something like this could happen in Flint point out the inequity that exists in our world. These questions have gone unanswered in our nation since well before To Kill a Mockingbird was set in the 1930’s and we have largely failed to go there in public education.

Flint in crisis, by Nick Gregory
The questions Kavaun and my students are asking about trust need to be addressed in our classrooms. We cannot afford to have these questions looming over our children for the next eighty years because we lacked the courage to acknowledge the tough stuff.

My high school students remind me that they have the courage to address tough topics in hopes of making progress. I am inspired by their performance, our conversations in class and their expressions through art. When we get right down to it, we are addressing the importance of empathy, justice and opportunity. Those values should have a safe place in every classroom and school.

In the recent Flint Water Crisis Report, the conclusion was drawn that the people of Flint,

"... have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes, for generations."

I accept that finding. I am encouraged because I think young people are more likely to fight for progress than dispute facts like I have grown used to seeing on cable news networks lately. Big ideas and a willingness to listen matters more than being right.

Many of us will spend a lifetime trying to move the needle on progress in meaningful ways. While some of us will occasionally succeed, it is quite another thing to influence a thousand people over the course of five days. Our high school students did just that and it gives me some optimism.

The power of great teaching lies in building relationships based on trust - the type of trust that encourages students to address their own flaws and embrace the vulnerability that comes with taking risks. Great teachers model risk-taking with skill and they embrace vulnerability in order to advance learning. Lori Thompson and the students she leads taught their audience about the value of self-examination.

In your own community, there are people who help us see the possibility in the world and I hope you will take a minute to reach out to them and join their efforts if you haven’t already done so. Fighting for progress is tiring. The people working hard need a hand and some encouragement.

Help racists get on the road to recovery

The Mockingbird performance and the honesty with which our students delivered it revealed the complicated layers that make confronting bigotry and racism challenging. More importantly, our student actors will continue to fight for good ideas and so will many of the people who shared this learning experience with them. Their lesson:
Never underestimate the power of ideas. Human beings have incredible capacity to grow.

We can never have too many reminders about the importance of “walking in another’s flip-flops” and opening our hearts to the experiences of others. Empathy is much greater than a set of actions and it can be modeled and learned.

We can all learn from the lesson’s our young people seem to be grasping quicker than many adults do.

The racism and hate others have learned is not their burden alone. The hate and baggage others carry is my burden too. It is also your burden. It is the burden our nation has been living with for centuries and acknowledging that truth is an important first step.

A wall built in Detroit to segregate black and white neighbors. This wall was
featured in my photo-essay titled, "Split" that is linked here. 
We have to ensure our children to not get programmed to fight the reality that racism exists. The hatred cannot be denied, nor can it be justified. Students and adults who believe a colorblind society exists today need to learn from others.

Empathy can be modeled. I have learned from people in my life that that there is such a thing as a “recovering racist” and that people can change. People are willing to change and ultimately, some people really do change.

We learn how to change - some slower than others - but we learn with experiences and we learn with practice. The student performance of Mockingbird was a testament to that practice. The work does not end with one act or an epiphany. Commitment to helping people through a struggle doesn’t really end,  it just changes as we grow. My students and my son have reminded me of that truth.

Ugly truths came to life in that theatre.  The collective effort of the cast, focused study and their exhausting rehearsals demonstrated respect for their audience and belief in something bigger than the “show” itself. A bunch of talented students helped people think and feel the tough stuff and their work is only beginning in this arena of creating positive change in our world. It is inspiring to me and makes me want to keep reaching for more.

We should be encouraged when young people are examining these topics now when they will have the energy to fight for change. I am grateful I work in a profession where I can experience this first-hand. Hopefully the feelings about diversity and honestly tackling our differences that I see from my students is reflective of a generational shift toward more open-mindedness. We, the adults, need help navigating these things as we have a long way yet to go.

Good ideas will always be worth fighting for, even when it appears that those good ideas are losing. We only lose when people give up. The cast and crew of To Kill a Mockingbird put on display a quote attributed to of Eleanor Roosevelt: “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

It is important for us to keep our candles lit, especially when the nasty winds of hatred are swirling all around us. Be inspired by young people, activists and people from all walks of life who are providing the light we need so badly in our nation right now.

(More PHOTOS included below)
The Water Crisis Through the Eyes of a Child - Flint street art.
By Nick Gregory
Detroit message. By Nick Gregory
A message expressed in street art, Detroit.                                                             
By Nick Gregory 

1 comment:

  1. Amazing ... Being conscientious is so underrated! Kudos