Monday, June 29, 2009

Don't Expect Us to Thank You

So I just got back from a one-week training for the arts camp I work at during the summer. The camp is for more or less the same kids I teach (same background - poverty, abuse, etc.), so we do some heavy training for staff to help them best serve our kids (at this point, I am involved in leading some of that training).

Each year, as part of this training, we have a discussion about "difference" (usually focusing on race and ethnicity, but not tied to that alone) with new staff.* This is an opportunity for these folks to have a real conversation about their experiences of race (with some guidance and facilitation, of course) to better understand where everyone is coming from. It's also a chance for our staff to become a little more comfortable with this conversation, as it is one that very much affects the kids we work with (whether they are kids of color or otherwise).

And I always love it. Just watching people get real and say what they've always actually thought, but in a respectful way. People really listening to each other, whether or not they fully understand or agree with each other.

We started at 7pm and just kept it going until 1am - because it needed to go that long. And now, because we gave it that time, it can keep going - which is the whole point (because even 6 hours of conversation doesn't even skim the surface).

And, this year, we got to a point where some of the white youth workers got hung up: the lack of appreciation they get for the work they put in with youth of color. As best as I can summarize it, it goes like this:

People of color, in general, have a lot of assumptions about white folks and their level of being able to be allies, and their true willingness to do so (as well as their intentions behind doing so). We assume that white youth workers don't get the kids, aren't willing to put in the work, and aren't as able to successfully work with kids of color as an adult of color might be able to.

Okay - a lot of assumptions. Not always there, but I would agree that they are there pretty often.

So the issue was for these white youth workers who have done the work. Their experience was that they have busted their asses for kids of color, only to watch the kids' parents dismiss them as "rich white men/ladies" even though they had crappier cars than the parents. They worked their asses off in schools, at camps, in any number of ways for kids of color - and yet they still run into social workers of color who dismiss their level of competency or caring.

And it chafes. It frustrates. It even leads to some resentment and bitterness aimed at the very families and people of color that they are trying to help.

"I'm putting in the work, so why can't they see that!?? Why can't they appreciate that!??"

All very valid frustrations. Totally understandable. Unfair, even.

And yet.

And yet, my response is: don't expect us (people of color) to thank you. Because we shouldn't have to.

Let me be clear here: when I mentioned the kids I serve at the beginning of this post, I very intentionally made no reference to race. And yet - I bet the majority of readers assumed that "the kids we serve" are largely kids of color. It's inherent in the work I do that it involves working with racial and ethnic minorities. And yet - 50% (or more) of our kids are white. With many of the same family and social issues as the kids of color.

But that often gets left out of the picture. Because, in youth (and social work), there's this unstated sense that the kids you work with don't really need help unless they are kids of color. That the "roughest" kids are kids of color. That "urban" youth are kids of color. It's like a youth worker badge of honor to talk about all the black kids, or Latino kids, or brown kids they work with. It shows that they are a "real" youth worker. That they're doing the "hard" work.

The implications behind that? That people of color can't help themselves. That people of color are helpless victims. That they are exactly as the media says they are: lazy, criminals, drug abusers, and unable to take care of their own children.

And this frustration with a lack of acknowledgement for their work by white youth workers plays into all of that. I don't hear these youth workers sighing, "why don't the white parents thank me for working with their kids?" When race is mentioned in that context, it's the parents of color - or else it's just "all parents." There is the implication that these white youth workers are "helping" the kids of color in spite of the adults of color in their community. That it's the white folks who are better able to supply that support - so "why can't they appreciate that!?"

More importantly, this line of thinking is completely counter-productive in terms of what should be the mission of these workers: to help redress wrongs; to help empower kids born with less systemic power; no matter their background (racially, or otherwise). Because that mission is simple - it's just doing the right thing. And so - if that's all this work is really about, why should anybody be thanking you for doing it?

When did this world get so fucked up that we get frustrated when we're not applauded for doing the right thing?! When did things get so flipped that we want to quit because the kids we're working with don't validate us? When did it become okay for us to resent a group of people for their ingrained distrust of a system that we are actively working to change because we don't believe in it!??

Folks of color in this country do not get to opt out. It's not an option to quit dealing with race, or to quit battling the system. It's not an option. They are in it for life. So maybe one year, or two, or even ten years of working side-by-side with us isn't enough for us to fully trust that you're not going to quit on us. Because we've watched so many before you come in with fire and passion, only to get frustrated and quit a few years later (often blaming us for the difficulty).

That frustration you feel when things aren't changing, and we're not giving you medals of honor for being in the fight with us? Just a taste of a lifetime of disappointment. Just a taste of the permanent frustration of watching young, idealistic, white social guerillas bail out a couple years in when they start running out of money or get beat down by the impossibility of the situation. From watching the government "apologize" for stealing Native land without reparations. For "apologizing" for slavery without actively doing anything about it. For being the "land of the free" while we target Mexican immigrants and Arabs. Knowing that we're not so far removed from the government passing laws to specifically exclude rights to people of color.

Nobody thanks me for working with white kids. Nobody thanks me for always having white bosses. Nobody thanks me for living in the U.S. as a person of color and not giving up.

And I'm not so naive as to think anybody should - or would. I would never expect it. Sure - it would be nice. And validation to some degree is important. But I still continue to do what I do in spite of all that.

So here's my final message to white youth workers: don't expect us to thank you. Don't condemn us and judge us and blame us for the difficulties of changing the system, and then expect us to excuse you of your white privilege or to trust your intentions. If you're doing the right thing, then be satisfied with that - and don't have us doubt that you really are by demanding accolades for it.

Join us in the trenches. Work with us, side by side. Better your understanding. Feel how f-ing hard it is. And don't you ever quit on us. Don't you ever give up on the fight to do the right thing. And realize that we don't have that choice.

And you will receive our respect. And our trust. Maybe.

But we've been burned before. We've seen a million people just like you come and go. Maybe it will take ten years for us to believe you won't enact your privilege and quit on us. Maybe twenty. Maybe a whole lifetime. We've been burned so many times before - by people that looked and acted and spoke just like you.

So don't expect us to thank you. Ever. It might happen. It might not. It's not your right. We don't expect you to thank us for working with you, do we? No. So don't demand the reverse.

Finally, though - to any white youth workers that made it through this whole post: thank you for reading. Now - go do something with it.

* For more information on the diversity of the staff, read my post from last year, "On Real Diversity."

Friday, June 19, 2009

No Goodbyes

It's been a full few weeks. Wrapping up the school year. 8th grade promotion. Getting ready for my summer job. And leaving this job behind.

This week has been my "close-out" week, meaning: no kids (more or less, I've actually spent some kid time this week, but no classes). It's just adults cleaning up and organizing our classrooms, closing out student files, running inventory, and preparing our spaces for next school year.

Of course, for me - there is no "next school year." I'm out. Going to China in the Fall, and so I'm not part of this school's future plan. Which is all sorts of crazy.

And so the process has been a slow one for me. I should have been finished yesterday - but it's going to be a push to even be finished by the end of today. So I'm alone in the school, packing up my things, saving the taking-down of kid artwork from my walls for last . . .

And, in the end, it's perfect. Because this job has been all about loose ends and a lack of closure. Kid after kid comes in here, becomes part of my life (and I their's), and we form a relationship. Then - suddenly - they just disappear.

Maybe their family moved to try to get work. Maybe they can't afford to live in town, anymore. Maybe the parents shipped them out to another family member in a different state. Maybe Mom is back, or relapsing, and she drags the kid back down, and they stop showing up. Maybe it's got to do with gang activity. Who knows?

It's literally - one day, the kid is smiling and talking about how they are "finally getting it," and then the next day they're just gone. No goodbye. No warning. Nothing.

And I've learned to get used to that. And so it only seems reasonable that that's how I'm going out (in some respects).

For my goodbye present from my co-workers, I got a piece of artwork (framed) from one of my kids (one who I - obviously - had a close relationship with). It just so happens that he's the same kid that got in a fight outside during our 8th grade promotion ceremony. So - the last time I saw him? As I watched him walk away from our school, pissed off about the fight. No goodbye. Not even close.

The last thing I said to another kid (a girl who never fails to crack me up) was telling her she couldn't come back the next day (because I had just broken up a fight with her and another student). That's how our kids go out. No goodbyes.

They knew I was leaving the last two weeks of school, of course - so I did get to close with a number of kids, but it's the loose ends that stand out right now.

Other staff members? I'm not leaving until September (from Portland), so I've left them with the "I'll see you before I leave for real" knowing it's not true. Maybe I learned that from the kids. Maybe they have taught me that goodbyes are over-rated. People leave. People walk out of our lives. We move on.

Because - for the kids I work with - that's just how it is. And making a big deal out of every loose end is a good way to go crazy. And - let's be honest - we do move on. Every time. Nobody has such an impact on our lives that we literally can't survive without them.

And so I take another lesson from the kids. I'll clean out my room, lock the door, and just turn my back and walk away. No awkward September visit. No lingering. Clean cut. Turn. Walk.

Because where I work - there are no goodbyes. We move on.

And so - for now, at least - I'm not a teacher, anymore.

And that's that.