Meditations on Equity and Advocacy: Part 1

Article by Joanna Burke, 
 a graduate student in the MAAA program at SPEA. A second-year MAAA-MM student, she works as a Graduate Assistant at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

First, a disclaimer: this is an essay about SPEA’s recent Arts Administration Symposium, but it starts with a long story about my personal failure as an advocate for social equity.  So, if you like, you can skip to the second blog post and get just the bits about Symposium.  But if you want to hear all the juicy details, keep reading.

My Story

I had my first real brush with systemic inequity my first year out of college.  As a senior in my last semester of undergraduate study, I found myself struggling to line up employment prospects with my Bachelor’s degree in Vocal Performance (surprise, surprise), so I signed up for an advising session in the career development office.  “We think we have an organization that would be a good fit for you.  It’s a competitive selection process, but your grades are strong, it’s for a good cause, and it looks great on a resume.” And that’s how I got recruited for Teach for America.

(I know that’s a whole lot of naiveté to pack into the opening paragraph, but bear with me. It gets worse before it gets better.)

In case you don’t know, Teach for America is a national nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to “enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence.”  Sounds pretty good, right? In practice, what this looks like is that they recruit high-performing college students and graduates to teach in under-resourced public schools after an accelerated training program that lasts about six weeks.  I was excited–I had always loved school, and prior to studying music I thought I might want to be a teacher.  Upon my acceptance to the Corps, I began designing my Language Arts curriculum with fervor, throwing out the traditional eighth-grade reading list in favor of selections that I was sure would be game-changers for my students.  I was going to be teaching in Warrenton, NC, one of the South’s many collapsed agricultural towns, so I made a syllabus and packed it full of readings across all genres, organized into interdisciplinary units on global, contemporary topics.  I was feeling really good about all of it, but it wasn’t until I got into my classroom and met my students that I realized exactly how privileged my experiences and conceptions about education had been.

I had 86 students, the vast majority of whom are black.  Many of them came from single-parent homes, or had parents who didn’t go to college, or were living below the poverty line, or all of the above.  They were used to seeing Teach for America Corps members come and go, in a stark contrast to the veteran teachers who had grown up in Warren County and taught for 30 years or more.  They were not nearly as excited to see me as I was to see them, and they had no reason to be–the system had failed them utterly.  I had two students reading on grade level.  Across the four classes that I taught, I’d say about 65% of the kids were reading at a 3rd or 4th grade reading level, and there were one or two that could barely write. And yet, the administration, having just adopted the Common Core model of standards, was constantly telling us how important it was for them to be high-school and college- ready, while simultaneously setting them up for failure.

During the training institute, they tell you that these things might happen.  They tell you that the kids sometimes come from broken homes, that they might have trouble trusting you as a stranger, and that part of your job is to give them the space to express themselves and be heard.  But somehow, nothing prepares you to bear witness to the heartbreaking truth in person.

In a nutshell, it was a disaster.  Completely unequipped to serve the needs of my students and unsure of how to proceed, I scraped by from week to week, gradually descending into what can only be described as a physical, mental, and emotional breakdown.  When I finally quit, I had come to the firm conclusion that I was not the person my students needed in their classroom, but I was also angry.  Angry at myself, ashamed of my failure, and uncertain that I would ever be capable of managing that kind of responsibility.  Over time, the sharpness of that pain has mellowed, but my experiences in Warrenton are ever-present in my mind, and if I’m being honest, I still don’t think I’ve forgiven myself for leaving.

—Part 2 to be released on Wednesday 10.18.17—

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