Stuck in trafficking… (originally titled: If you reach just one)

This past week during Open House at the Hawk, I helped to organize a community safety meeting that was to take place in our parent and family resource center. Like many initiatives and programs, this was an idea that was thought of and organized rather last minute, not fully leveraging our means to contact or parents and community members. This unfortunate reality of extreme multitasking that is not uncommon for many educators did not stop the event from being held. It did however drastically impact the number of parents that attended the evening’s presentation. As our community partners from Inner City Vision and I sat waiting to see what that number would be, a lone grandmother entered. She sat down and asked with nervous laughter if she could add someone to the list.

These words were written on March 26th of last year. I was going to continue to tell the amazing story of the one person who came to seek out information about child sexual exploitation and commercial trafficking, a very unfortunate reality that impacts the area along the Figueroa corridor that borders Hawkins High. I never got to complete this post before I left Hawkins.

The short of it was, on this night, that lone grandmother came to realize that her granddaughter, a former student of ours, had indeed exhibited every single tell sign of a victim of human sexual trafficking. She shared that her granddaughter had just been home after a year missing. She had come home weary, looking to rest. When grandmother noticed her tattoos, they were covered up and quickly concealed. When the questions of her “significant other” began, this young woman quickly put those lines of inquiry to an end. She was careful not to reveal what we would come to realize a week later in the Parent Center that night… a few days too late. The young woman disappeared again, leaving grandmother and family to wonder one more time.

Earlier this week I received a follow up email to an initial one I had never received. It was a request to assist in identifying and soliciting the participation of career and industry experts who may be available to see student presentations about human trafficking and homelessness, providing them feedback on a panel. This is an annual interdisciplinary project where 9th grade students in the Community Health Advocacy School choose a relevant and timely problem to explore and identify solutions to. This participatory action research project is aptly titled Rebuild Healthy LA. Pause and let that sink in for a minute. Today’s education, in order for it to be “relevant” and “hands on” (buzz terms often bandied about in the educational discourse) needs to ask youth to think through the most heinous of societal problems, how they came to be, and offer real viable solutions. It’s no small feat to dream of a world where a city’s residents can afford basic housing and shelter or where young girls and women can grow up and live safe, not having to fear that their bodies will become a mere object of a gratuitous and violent transactional underground economies.

This is both simultaneously hopeful and tragic, as often is much of the work of educators in inner cities across this country. Despite my not working in South Central Los Angeles any longer, I can never not invest in the hopeful side of the equation. So I reached out to my contacts I had cultivated around these tragic realities. Folks who had helped me think through appropriate interventions for young people caught up in gang life and consequential violence and trafficking. The same folks who helped organize my open house workshop a year ago. They responded immediately, more than willing to take another opportunity to engage young people in this most important work. It warmed my heart very much to see the unwavering commitment to the community these professionals have, and how they volunteered without hesitation to help cultivate the same in our young hawks.

A day later, yesterday I received a text from one of these professionals who had personally taken on the case of our young woman. The same woman who had helped me reach this grandmother that night at the school. We had kept in touch about the progress on her case. At one point she had been found and rescued. Awaiting programming for counseling and recovery, she had left again… reentering the trafficking world, were the cycle of violence is incredibly hard to escape. Yesterday’s text messages further helped me to know how this student’s story had developed. Below is an edited version of the text exchange with pertinent information redacted to ensure the safety and future recovery of said student.

This exchange continued and reminded me again that the world works in mysterious but often very encouraging ways. In meeting one person on one night, and connecting them with another, a path has opened up for one young girl to try and work towards hope. If there is such a thing as salvation, in my mind the closest thing we can do to achieve true understanding of it is to work together relentlessly in the name of hope.

In East Salinas, where I currently teach, human trafficking of young people and girls in particular, is indeed a problem. It is this reality that I am cautious about educating my young middle school students about, for fear of ending the last phase of childhood innocence. Yet it is the same reality that concerns me when students, like the one I wrote about in my last post, choose paths that increase the possibilities of tragedies like this. And yet we must remind ourselves at all costs that there is hope. Always.

A letter to my little graduate…

This post has been incomplete and in draft form since July 5th, 2016… Thought I would complete my thoughts and now seemed as good a time as any.

I’ve been to a lot of graduations in my time. I’ve been moved by many a speech, affected  by many a pupil. And yet of course, none other has broken me down as fundamentally as my daughter’s recent ceremony commemorating her transition from preschool and into kindergarten this coming August.  It didn’t break me down in the way one might expect. I didn’t weep because of the actual program, though it was one to remember and as such I took copious amounts of video footage of everything from a play written, directed, and starring the children, the final circle time which included a rendition of “Happy Trails” and some pretty funny gift giving. All of this was pretty heart wrenchingly cute.

What really got to me was what it meant for my child’s future… the prospects of an education by and in a system, designed for conformity and lacking empathy. A system where play is limited at best and completely forgotten at worst. One where a unique identity as a learner is often a liability. And where children get lost… sometimes forever.

What I know now after having seen my daughter survive kindergarten in her first public school experience in the second largest school district in the nation, is what I knew at that moment when she closed out her time at Neighborhood Nursery School (NNS)… that she will be alright. As long as we, her parents are vigilant and strive to build community within her schooling, relationships with her teachers, her peers and their families. This fortunately happened at Elysian Heights Elementary where she attended. And despite moving out of Los Angeles and having to home school her this past year in Monterey, she still talks about her teacher and her classmates with love and fond overwhelmingly fond memories.

I often write on this site about education from my vantage point as a teacher. But what I have been more keenly aware of lately is my experience as a parent of school aged children. I have had to complicate my thinking on many things, my notions of where different institutions and policies fit into the theoretical and practical landscapes of education, in my head and in my children’s lives. Since that day in July of 2016 (again, when I first typed the beginnings of this post) I have had my second daughter leave the beautiful community of NNS. We have transitioned out of LA into the communities of Seaside, Monterey, and Salinas. My focus and the majority of my attention and energy has rightfully been diverted to my own kids and my role as a parent. I anticipate writing from this head and heart space more and more as time moves on as well as I expect my identities of educator and parent to merge more holistically as one better understood entity.

Crisis and Response

The last 24 hours have been difficult for a lot of our Hawks, myself included. I hope tomorrow is better. Rest in peace, Elijah

“I know this has happened before and will happen again. 

I know this triggers thoughts of losing my childhood friend. 

I know that I have to comfort our young women and men. 

I know I want the guns and violence to end. 

I know I just had a conversation with him. 

I know I was hopeful at last week’s end. 

I know I don’t know a lot about why or when. 

I know it takes us all to heal and to mend.”

Convergence of Crises…


Fresh off the high of last week’s exploratory symposium that afforded me new perspectives on everything from language use, poetry, genetic diversity preservation, hypnotherapy, meditation, serious play, podcasting and a whole host of other realms of the human experience… as well as leaving me energized by the work of so many creative people in different but intersecting fields, I have returned to Los Angeles inspired only to find a convergence of challenges that have the potential to radically define my professional sphere this upcoming academic year.

The realization that our campus, a combination of 3 small innovative and progressive public schools, for the first time in its 4 years of existence has to contend with a massive turn over of teachers was underscored for me today as I sat in back to back to back teacher interviews of many highly qualified candidates that we may not be able to hire regardless of our desire. The cause? An incessantly reoccurring hiring freeze, a sick annual tradition that the nation’s second largest school district has been engaged in since the first round of recession layoffs in 2008, the same that I wrote about here. Like some sick and twisted sacrificial dance who’s cultural logic and value has long since been put into question by the light of future and reasoning, but remains tradition nonetheless… this unfortunate economic and political reality has made it near impossible to hire new qualified teaching candidates into the district because of a pool of displaced teachers who cannot or do not want a permanent home at a school site. Seniority rules designed to protect teacher tenure rights from vindictive administrations (a real thing to be sure) in recent years have continual handicapped schools from staffing with any sense of stability, many campuses having to just accept randomly placed teachers who may very well not want to be at the site of forced placement and in turn create much disruption upon their placement.

I guess that it is a better record than could be expected when one looks at our neighboring schools and how often they’ve had to deal with this chronic problem of inner city schools. And yet the instability this level of turnover creates is unsettling to say the least.

To add to a long day of interviews of folks we may not be able to hire at all anyway, I was informed by a former colleague via a text message of declared 100 days of violence in South Central LA. As these Los Angeles Times pieces document (here and here) the recent events in the community surrounding my school. Regardless of the media coverage, which may or may not be downplaying the significance of such real and dramatic events (aside: every time someone loses their life due to violence is a cause for real concern despite and even in spite of past or current statistical patterns and trends) which some have speculated to be a non-alarmist stance aimed at protecting the image of the city’s first ever special olympics… the events of the past weekend are cause for serious concern for folks in the educational sphere. The concern is enough to warrant an informational meeting for principals of the surrounding schools to be brought up to speed by the LAPD and school police departments. And wouldn’t you know it… Intervention Coordinators.

As I try and synthesize all of the ideas from summer readings, interactions and planning meetings with colleagues brainstorming how to have the best year yet at Hawkins, I am encouraged to pace myself in this new role, challenged more than ever to take a more global perspective on the many going ons of a school, its students, and their surrounding community. I know that in this new role I will have try my best to manage not only my hopes and visions for transformational education… but also my knowledge of the societal and institutional structures that keep unfortunate realities from remaining. And yet simultaneously I will have to remain committed to a practice of building personal relationships with individual students so that I may indeed support them in what may prove to be their times of greatest need. How do you divide and help students make sense of 100 days of violence/180 days of instruction? How do you prevent one from becoming the other? Questions I bring into the upcoming school year…

4 years without a contract and no work stoppage…. Yet

Last week the long shore men and dock workers reached a tentative agreement that will put an end to the work stoppage at the Long beach ports. The long shore men had been working without a contract for 9 months. What is the problem with that? Uncertainty. For hours. For job site rights. If it’s not in contractual language, it’s left up to the overseers. It’s an equation that ends in the disenfranchisement of large groups of people, workers. Bosses have the upper hand.

What’s wrong with that you say? Well, nothing if your boss is one who’s principles would never allow them to prioritize profit over people. If you have bosses who value true collaboration and want to empower their employees to be creative, innovative, and happier.

But what if this is not your reality? What if your bosses balance their budgets in non transparent ways that leave their clients (the folks you actually provide services for) more burdened and disenfranchised? What if your bosses ignore the actual communities they are charged with serving, opting instead to privilege the perspectives of outside “experts” in the name of reform? What if your bosses managed in ways that continually left your organization cash strapped, insolvent, and unstable (even in times of economic rebound driven by voter supported increases in taxes to fund your industry) … In a top down style of management that killed any research based or proven best practices, or insights from the skilled laborers closest to the work?

Unfortunately these are not what if scenarios for Los Angeles teachers. We have been working without a contract since 2011. In that time, schools have seen counselors and nurses virtually disappear (the ratio at our campus for counselors is 520 to 1 and for nurses its 1500 to 1). Buildings and grounds crews are skeleton status. Librarians are rarely full time if even staffed. Class sizes at many sites have remained large, while teacher wages have remained low (when I tell my friends who much I truly make I have to be ready to remember my EMT training in order to revive them from the shock… Or utilize multiple tactics to avoid a pity party).

When the dock workers go without a contract for months, they strike. And they are supported. Perhaps it’s the billion dollars a day the port and its workers help feed into the economy…. But I wonder if you measured the long range earning and spending potential of the 920,000 LAUSD students… Would that be enough to garner the outrage and support of the public?

These are the reasons that teachers around LA are up in arms. These are the reasons that our union is standing firm in our demands for policies that bring the schools San education that students deserve.

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Photo cred: Jay Davis / Hawkins HS Art Teacher & CHAS Vice Chair

Changing the narrative

This past week saw a lot of extreme highs and lows for me. As a father, I got the blessed opportunity to celebrate my daughter’s 4th year of life in this world. An amazing gift. As a citizen of the most powerful country the world has ever known, I got to watch in horror as we as a society continue to tolerate, even condone the blatant killing of black and brown lives, at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve us. I also got to see people’s perspectives emerge, friends, family, acquaintances and strangers… Here and here (see #8).

Realizing this has EVERYTHING to do with the narratives we consume and proliferate, it is all the more significant when things like this happen, work done to try and change the stories we feed our minds and souls about people and places of color.

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Granted I missed this iteration of one of my favorite events is Los Angeles, celebrating a golden birthday with my loved ones at the beach… But then again…

I ride my bike most days to work, passing through many places in this city that I used to only traverse in my car. I teach students in South Central the importance of recognizing and appreciating the beauty all around them, within themselves. We work hard everyday to live our truths, lives with dignity. We live and learn life’s lessons together.

The day after the Another grand jury’s mistake to not indict the officer who unjustly took the life of yet another black man in Eric Garner, I paused the previous day’s lesson on the intersection of the industrial revolution, social movements and design to dialogue with students around the connections they see between the past and the present, in the hopes of changing the future.

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As a school community we then honored the work some of our students are doing around science and gaming.

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Everyday we try to help steer the narratives away from the dominant ones of fear, skepticism, dismissive inhumanity… Towards ones more reflective of the reality I know to be true. Black and brown youth are not what our country’s made them out to be. Places like South Central Los Angeles are not the places you think. Seeking out the stories and sharing them are of the utmost importance to any movement towards social justice and change.

A letter to America

Dear America,

I’ve grown up in your midst the past 35 years. I grew up in a place named after a native tribe, long since gone from their lands, where kids teased each other openly about losing wrestling matches to the nigger. Placed where students named Janel White of all names made fun of other students’ lips and neck rolls, visible after a fresh hair cut, because they were too black.

I came of age in the care of babysitters who hailed from the Midwest. Who would openly use racial terms like nigger to communicate their disgust for a people they thought less of, people who looked like my grandfather, mi Abuelito.

The only time he came to this country, he never returned to his home. He died not too far away from the Hamilton sign, a billboard off interstate 5 where the Hamilton family exercised their 1st amendment rights to put political perspectives for commuter consumption next to a caricature of you, America… As if Uncle Sam himself had a parting thought for you as you passed through this typical small rural town.

Welcome to America. Now speak English

This message would later be one of the thoughts for the day, years after my grandfather died here. I still use the poster of this particular iteration of the sign my friends had made for me as a teaching tool in my Language Acquisition class at Antioch University.

My upbringing took me from the rural parts of Southwest Washington to the suburban Southern California. Los Angeles was in the midst of an uprising after the police officers whine were tried for beating Rodney King were also acquitted of the charges. Before I left for California, I caught a glimpse into the power of internalized racial oppression when one of the only other Latino kids in the school told me to call him if I needed help when I got to Los Angeles. He said, “I’ll come down with my shotgun and show them niggers.” And so I left.

It was there, in one of the most wealthy parts of Southern California that I learned about the frightening intersection of class and race. The only black students were teammates of mine on the football team, not acknowledged for much else. I became the dirty Puerto Rican, a token Latino minority. I must admit that I internalized a part of this racial stereotyping too, for I was not strong enough to speak out and rise above it, my voice had yet to be found.

It was here that I also learned about the complicity of our law enforcement with upholding the relations and subsequent treatment that highlight our ethnic differences rather than our common humanity. Scared to speak back at police officers who berated me in front of my friends for “talking shit while I was arrestable,” for being too scared to remember to give the officer my last name when asked, even though I could see my house and it was 5 minutes past curfew.

And one of the most powerful life lessons I carried from this place was from the classroom. One an honor roll and gifted student, I was confused at the time, not fully comprehending my lack of academic success, almost not graduating high school. I couldn’t understand why a student like me could not do well at a supposed nationally recognized blue ribbon school, just as much as I could not understand why my history teacher was adamant that the American Civil War was not fought to abolish slavery, but was fought over states versus federal rights… TO OWN AND EXPLOIT HUMAN SLAVES!!!

It is here still, to this day, where schools still struggle to educate minority students in a safe and dignified manner, free from any racial prejudice or oppression.

My journey has now brought me to this place. I have had the blessed fortune to start and raise s family in one of the most segregated urban centers in America: Los Angeles. I have the privilege of commuting only 10 miles into the inner parts of South Central to work with some of the most creative, intelligent, hard working, and inspiring communities. I have held this privilege for the last decade. Teaching and learning from black and brown youth. Mis estudiantes.

I have found my voice. And I want to use that voice today, on Thanksgiving, – often referred to Thankstaking by those unimpressed with the often unacknowledged and misrepresented history of this holiday – to truly give thanks for what I’ve been able to accomplish in this life, here in this land.

I am thankful that this land is full of people willing to lend a hand, work hard for themselves and others. I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect privately and publicly, exercising my first amendment right. I am thankful for the spirit of a people that truly believe by putting into daily action, the ideals that gave birth to you America;

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

I am thankful for those brave enough to resist the system that subjugates their very existence, knowing that to be American is to settle for nothing less than justice. America, on this day know that as much as we love you… The people demand that you change, that you continue to grow and mature, and that you evolve into a better iteration… One that truly lives out your founding ideals. Rest assured we will help you. Because we love you.

Sincerely,

Citizen number (whatever)

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Photo credit: Mear One

world history by design?!?!? bring it on!

design can be hard work. anyone who has ever wrestled at any length with their “perfect idea” can testify that at some point, your creative will is tested by the juggernaut that your ingenious idea may have become. creating this world history by design course feels this way right about now… there are so many possibilities… that they somehow place newly realized constraints.

the main design challenge i am having as a history teacher by trade, without real world graphic design experience… how to teach a rigorous course that applies this rigor to both principles of DESIGN and historical content???

i have of course been thinking about this ever since i agreed to teach the course a couple months ago. talks with industry professionals, designers, teacher colleagues, community organizations and others have generated many possible solutions to this challenge. anything from online collaborations, guest teaching opportunities, further development for myself the instructor. this particular presentation also struck me.

knowing that lecture/slide based presentation of information is not always the most helpful to my students, embedded in this solution is its own design challenge. how do you create authentic learning experiences that are integrated and rigorous across such seemingly different content? this is the challenge of the week. hopefully our UCCI institute combined with our Linked Learning work will continue to push my own design solutions as a teacher in this regard. and they say teachers have the summer off… HA!

now you get it?

this past week i had a very enlightening exchange with a student on my campus. our interactions are quite frequent, and usually predictable. i observe this student out in the hallway during class. i inquire about her frequent wanderings. she responds politely with a big smile, usually, and produces a hall pass. the importance of not missing instructional time is usually brushed aside by her admittance that her grades are fine and that the social reason that drew her out of class is more important and timely. she is not a student who is enrolled in my particular school, yet our exchanges never involve a question of my authority as an adult and a teacher… most students know me as a teacher who is going to say something.

the enlightenment began we i noticed this student sitting and talking on the phone as the last of the crowd of students were being encouraged towards the morning advisory class. i approached her and gave her the look and a shoulder shrug to communicate a, “hey? what’s the deal? walk and talk it to class.” she didn’t really acknowledge my suggestion… i approached the table where she was calmly sitting.

me: who are you talking to?
her: so and so mr. gomez.
me: why are you talking to her? you BOTH are gonna be late.
her: she’s not even here yet mr. g. she still on the bus. she by herself and i gotta make sure she get her safe.
me: why?
her: com’n mr. she all the way down by the 90’s.
me: she has to cross through some neighborhood sets?
her: (smiling) she gotta walk through the 60s…

at this point i started to walk away, satisfied that she would eventually make her way to class… and then i looked back, realizing exactly what this student was doing. she had stayed behind, risking a tardy, a possible unpleasant exchange with multiple authority figures. she had consciously made a decision to ensure the safe arrival of her friend, no matter what. i instantly thought of how our students implore their navigational and social capital to find their own way in the world… one i often don’t understand.

this student looked backed at me and smiled… “now you get it mr.?”

i think so… though i am always learning.

summer break… not so much

contrary to popular belief (or desire) not all teachers have three months off to become the working class version of a corona vacation… the current economic imperative to cut public education from every angle has necessitated that a lot of teachers trade in the sand for the blackboard to make ends meet… which is to say that those teachers are blessed to have the option to do so in such difficult times (myself included)…

apart from what the national dialogue would have you believe about teachers being one of the last hold outs of public employees who are over paid and under-qualified, others are continually pushing to make the educational opportunities they can provide for their students in the coming fall that much more wonderful, innovative, creative, and effective (count me in this column too)

to those ends i have been pushing through many exciting projects with my fellow teachers, and i feel the need to share/reflect on these here:

i was fortunate enough to have a colleague recommend me to become part of the adjunct faculty at Antioch University’s Master of Arts in Education program… in teaching a small cohort of 8 graduate level students who are training to become educators, i have rediscovered why my job as a public middle and high school teacher is so important. i have also rediscovered certain educational theories that have helped inform my pedagogy. the class i teach is language acquisition and development… crucial for every teacher to have a strong theoretical and practical understanding of yet i am finding that the subject is increasingly relevant in my personal life as a new father. i am pleased to be joining the Antioch faculty.

a small team of colleagues and i have also just wrapped up an intensive 10 day training centered around GIS and how to incorporate this technical knowledge in our classrooms and in the community. through our UCLA TIIP grant proposal (scroll down to manual arts) we are lucky enough to fund our instructional inquiries throughout this summer and next. although intensive, this work has inspired me to continue to dream of the possibilities public education can accomplish despite the challenges we face.

the most daunting and inspiring task i have found myself working on these past few months has been designing a new public high school. it is daunting for the mere fact that the less than perfect LAUSD school board proposed process of public school choice is more political in nature than it is student or community centered. a continuing mix of privatized special interest lobbying, community swooning, and just plan old district disorganization has created a situation that has resulted in many heated exchanges including this one at a school board meeting earlier this year… it is in this, the 3rd round of public school choice that i find myself neck deep in… yet i am not alone. a trusted team of teachers, students, and community members have all come together under a unifying vision… Schools for Community Action. it is in this work where most of my idealizing and dreaming around educational possibility is taking place. but its more than that… it is a true dialogue with the community, with a basic premise driving it. in order to provide for the community you have to ask them what they need, what they would like to see, what do they deserve. our team is tirelessly organizing every thing we do around this premise… and hopefully at the end of the summer we will be that much closer to submitting a proposal that will usher in a new standard in k-12 education for the community of South Central Los Angeles…

although i am definitely feeling the need to just sit on a beach and relax (soon to come) i cannot feel luckier to be part of such amazing work, with so many amazing people. summer, i do love you…