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.

Sites of Encounter…


As I prepare to end the year with my 7th graders and embark on yet another leg of my professional journey in a new role outside of the classroom, I have been thinking a lot about the space of the classroom. A week long schedule of online testing definitely opens up space to reflect and do a little bit of my own online writing.

I was first introduced to the concept of “sites of encounter” by one of my mentors in the profession, the wonderful Emma Hipolito (who is now the awesome director of UCLA’s TEP program… so proud!) She helped to walk me through the new history framework in order to prepare my return to the 7th grade classroom. Sites of encounter was a different way to think about historical events and interactions between different peoples that departs from the more traditional culture hopping one tends to do when teaching medieval world history. But in this post I want to use the conceptual framework to try and reflect and understand more my own historical journey this past year.

The site largely driving most of my professional encounters has been La Paz middle school. I have written before about the initial feelings I had about arriving in this new space, feeling like an outsider but not really. But I have not focused on the immense kindness and generosity I was welcomed with upon arriving here (as evidenced today by the heaping plate of homemade chilaquiles I was so graciously offered this morning.)

And yet within this overwhelming kindness from every single individual on campus, from custodial and grounds crews, to office and clerical staff, to teachers (both in and out of the classroom) and yes… EVEN the administrators (I purposefully stress this group of folks on campuses, as I know they often get a bad wrap from the teachers they support and “manage” even though their jobs are just as thankless, often times even more), I have come to understand some of the particular complexities and inner workings – collaborative and contentious – of this site. It is these complex encounters that have really occupied my mind of late, for they often defy traditional or conventional ways of thinking about concepts like professionalism, effectiveness, struggle and progress. We often hear people talk about the “soft skills” and how things like communication and reflection are more central drivers to the work we do than other professional capacities. In any case, this site – like any other I have ever worked at – has its productive and nonconstructive modes of approaching the sometimes seemingly impossible task of teaching adolescent youth…

Which brings me to the focus of what has been on my mind for the last couple of days: the classroom AND students. Every teacher, even those who burn out of the field long before their due time, has had students that they struggled to reach, let alone teach. I finally learned long ago to not take it so personally when I come across a student who for whatever reason under the sun, I just cannot “get through” to… they are not interested in further developing a necessary relationship with me to predicate the remainder of our work on basic things like respect. This is particularly possible when teaching middle school, that tumultuous time of life in the same type of system that often produces unintended and unforeseen consequences (positive or negative) but always changes a kid and often us adults who interact with these students.

Every year I have had students who fall into this category and this year has proven to be no exception. And of the handful of students whom I struggle with this year, there has been one who has confused and frustrated me just a little more than others. That one student you wish and tried to connect with more to achieve some breakthrough… but it was not to be. Some of the details are familiar; challenging homelife, instability, lack of parental involvement, economic hardship, propensity for violent outbursts, defiant… brilliant, charismatic, and young. Despite these common traits that many of these young people share, I am always intrigued how each individual materializes their own destinies, exercising both agency and free will, while simultaneously succumbing to the institutional realities that often dictate the availability of these choices. And in reflecting on this, I have been thinking about the classroom as the site of encounter for these students.

In the case of this student in question, she began the year challenging my authority in the classroom. It was clear that this would be a continual event throughout the year. It was also evident that she was very bright and that if I could help direct her propensity to create problems in our classroom towards actually solving problems, she could become quite the student. I must also state a couple of things at this point. One, I definitely held back this year in terms of cultivating the types of relationships with students that I am used to building. And I think I did this intentionally, recognizing the time and space I needed to take to begin to process and heal from some of the trauma I had been experiencing in my out of classroom role at Hawkins. Two: she did not present an existential challenge for my teaching practice, in other words she was not the most difficult student I have worked with in the classroom. For instance, my student this year quickly proved to be challenging, but nothing that ground the development of the class culture to a complete halt. I did suggest that she switch into another section of mine halfway through the year as to get away from a peer group that was serving more to distract her from achieving academically.

And yet despite the level of “offenses” being minimal to mild (yet on the daily) she was not able to engage in a productive manner in our classroom space. This was not the central problem for this student however. The social drama of middle school, in the end proved too much for her to handle. Overwhelmed by negative peer relationships and an inability to resolve conflicts without escalating to the point of violence outside the classroom helped to create a deeper disconnect within the classroom space which was irreversible. At least in the sense that she was not allowed to remain in my social studies class.

I did not have a say in this. In fact, I worked hard in the last few weeks to avoid this seemingly inevitable fate. You see, in our district and at our school site we have am option for students who continue to face difficulty in the classroom or on campus and it is called modified scheduling, which in essence reduces the course load and time spent on campus effectively by a third. Students thus identified are given “opportunity” to focus on a limited amount of classes and are sent home after 4th period. In my two years of intervention work in Los Angeles I had never come across this method of “intervening” and remained unconvinced of its merits in helping move a student like mine from beyond the margins and into a space where they can begin to re-engage with school and the classroom. Nonetheless it is a real intervention here, and one that this student in the end was purposefully trying to achieve. So much so that she would come into class and purposefully try to get removed, as to end up in the counselor’s office just one more time, thus triggering this “opportunity.” I refused to comply in this game. But I was not, in effect teaching her anymore, despite her presence in my classroom space. Our relationship had reached its low.

Until yesterday… when she attempted to sneak back into my class after morning testing had concluded. Despite doing this in a very nonchalant way, I pulled her aside and naively questioned what the deal was, knowing that she had been removed from my class administratively and was no longer on my roster. She momentarily played coi, revealing a bright smile that simultaneously communicated that she had been caught but that we were “cool” enough to have a cordial conversation. I let her know that she was no longer on my role sheet and then she relented on her efforts to enter the class with her friend, the sole reason for her wanting to gain access to our classroom space I suspect. And that essentially, would be the last time I encountered her in my classroom as her teacher, so it would seem.

And then I ran into her in the office, in her usual spot.. waiting outside the counselor’s office, even though her favorite counselor was on maternity leave. This site of encounter, often very different from the classroom space, has the potential to invite different interactions with students. I know this from many firsthand experiences with students in offices these last few years. This juxtaposition is rather fascinating when you come to think of it as I did. For this interaction was markedly different. Although we only exchanged a few words and a cookie, the feeling of formal authority and traditional scripts of interaction was waived for a less tense and common understanding. I told her that I wanted for her to figure things out and “get it together” so I could eventually see her at her high school graduation.

I plan to stay in this district as long as that would take but I also realize that even if that were true, the chances of her and I being in a classroom together as student and teacher were very slim. And I believe she realized that in a different way. And it is this the thing – long wait I know – but this shift in context and space drove a completely new interaction. Animosity ceased to exist in that moment. For there was nothing left for her to fight towards, as she had expressed her desire to be on this modified schedule and not be in my class any longer. She had “won” and I was left with yet another student whom I could not, for my part “reach.”

We passed each other on the way home at dismissal. I again made a simple joke. “Stop following me.” And she played along and laughed, “YOU stop following me.” We parted ways. Our last site of encounter… for a little while anyway. Whatever happens, I know that I will remember this particular student and all of our encounters, no matter how ineffective they may have been retrospectively rendered in a traditional sense as ineffective. And like all my students, even those I personally could not reach, I wish them nothing but the best until our next encounter no matter where it may be. And as I prepare to depart the classroom setting once again, I look forward to seeing from a different vantage point the successes and learning opportunities of my colleagues and our students that lie ahead.

Writing as Healing, Finding Inspiration from NWP annual conference

  
the last two weeks, scratch that month, well… the entire academic year so far has been a whirlwind… so many highs and lows, often in such rapid juxtaposition throughout the course of a single day that there isn’t adequate time given to written reflection. as such, i decided to take on some inspiration from this morning’s sessions and key notes from the annual National Writing Project conference in Minneapolis. as we often suggest to our students and colleagues, engaging in the reflective and therapeutic power of writing can often help us heal. repositioning ourselves as “producers” of ideas and content rather than mere consumers is an empowering practice in and of itself… and yet too many conferences are laden with workshops, panels, and breakout sessions structured with passivity and consumption in mind, as our colleagues and partners try to “report back” and “share out” the amazing work we have all been “consumed” by since last we conferenced.

i am happy to report that this year’s NWP conference (not that i would be able to tell the difference as it is my first ever) is seeking to change all that. as a participant and presenter in this morning’s No Bells, No Walls session on sharing out the work done at several school sites and informalized learning spaces around the country per the LRNG and Educator Innovator grants, passivity was not the case. nor was it the theme of my colleague’s Cliff Lee’s keynote presentation on the great work that organizations like Youth Radio out of Oakland are doing. nor will it be the modus operandi of tonight’s game jam co-hosted by my nemesis and frequent collaborator Antero Garcia. and yet i still had to step away from the sessions to gather myself and take our own advice as critical educators… i needed to create time and space for my own personal reflection, to help sort out all the things that have been going on around me so that i may process how they are affecting me.

in a sense this is a continuation of a dialogue i have been having internally and with others as of late. shortly after this last conversation with Antero, another round of violence struck our community and school. 3 young people were shot right outside of the middle school i first began teaching at. in this most recent outburst, 1 Hawkins student was shot in the arm, another former student in the back, and 1 other current student narrowly dodged being hit. they were all sitting in a parked car after school. fortunately the two students who were hit are alive, though one may be paralyzed from the waist down and the other returned to school just this morning, with both arms in a sling, with parts of his arm and shoulder bones shattered, visibly in pain. the third student came back this past Monday, and returned home shortly after, realizing he was not in the mental space to remain in class. beyond the violence, the normalization of such occurrences, in particular gun violence, has caused many including myself to have lamented at length over the real challenges it presents when working with young people. these two students and their parents have also been impacted by the normalization, which presents as a cultural phenomenon of dismissing and disregarding truly traumatic events as trivial. this creates a unique set of challenges for me as an intervention and support coordinator. how do you intervene in the face of denial? how do you support someone who refuses to or can’t acknowledge the significance of a traumatic situation? what can you do when a parent refuses counseling for their child and themselves after their child has been a victim of gun violence?

these questions are the ones that dance around my head but are often pushed aside throughout the course of the day, because another mini or major crisis presents itself. these are the questions that i fear i will never find the time to fully examine and attempt to answer. and yet when i come to spaces like this NWP conference, i am reminded of the power of learning and teaching thru the lens of true experiences. i am re-inspired to hear and see the work of educators and students who collaborate together to respond to narratives of dominance by telling their own stories, learning valuable and transformative skills in the process; building critical media, literacy, and civic skills that offer them agency in a world filled with systems designed to take voice away from our young people.

luckily i work at a school site with a critical mass of educators who understand this approach and have a ton of experience teaching and learning from this framework. i am also part of a very capable and supportive out of classroom leadership team that continues to help cultivate this philosophy on our campus. and yet, our team is struggling greatly at the moment, trying to forge a sustainable model of authentically democratic and distributive leadership in a highly hierarchical structure… the usual suspects of personality, communication, and exhaustion brought on by overworking have complicated our efficiency as a team. but real issues of equity, transparency, and voice complicate the dynamics of highly capable individuals collectively trying to work and be adaptive leaders for our schools, which often are already going against the grain of the nation’s second largest district, a district being entertained by the plans of privatizing philanthropists. how does a team truly and effectively work through professional dynamics and interactions that inadvertently cause some members harm? how does a group of leaders learn and systematize inspiration and capacity building that empowers all stakeholders to be resilient through current states of reality and hopeful enough to keep working towards that desired state? how does a leadership team communicate and internalize the mission and vision of the work? how does a team repair harm to members and address real human emotions and concerns? at our school site, restorative practices such as engaging in courageous conversations in harm and community building circles is what we are trying to build into our toolbox. and yet after a 3 1/2 hour circle with our leadership team this past Monday evening after a full day of work, we left with many of these questions still unanswered for our team.

not all of the last two weeks have been a struggle. last weekend i was elated to work with some of our Hawkins students, our seniors who have been with us since the beginning, since the doors opened. 7 students from RISE, CHAS, and C:\DAGS collaborated with UC professors and graduate students from the UCLA REMAP department and Digital Cultures Lab to host the later’s first ever community event. my workshop was brought to life by the reflections of students poised to leave the high school space, looking back on their journey and articulating the lessons learned on the way. they helped to illuminate the power and impact of internalizing concepts like “designer”, “entrepreneur”, and “advocate.” they were able to collaborate on a 3D interactive mural that visualized their profound thoughts on the nature of the education they have been a part of and what the possibilities are for such expereinces. even more so they were able to share the lasting impression our young but emerging educational insitution had on their individual identities, in turn further validating the collective identity we are trying to create at Augusutus Hawkins Schools for Community Action.

as i sit and try to create a space of reflection and restoration for my own sake (a version of R & R in the educational sense) i realize that the all to real series of highs and lows may take on a tone that has me sounding depleted. and it is true that i am tired. tired enough to sit out of important sessions like my colleague Nicole Mirra and guests discussing why #blacklivesmatter in all of our classrooms. but it is the type of tired that makes me want to keep sharing out the good work our students and schools are doing. a tired that makes me want to keep on sleeping, so that i may continue to dream with those around me in building towards a more just, empathetic, equitable, and sustainable society.

Normalizing Crisis…

Almost everyone new each other at the meeting. Long time friends from intersecting careers that led them to their current titles; lieutenants, detectives, directors of different types, principals… I was the lone intervention coordinator, and probably the youngest. The tone was oddly light given the context of why the meeting was called in the first place. At least at the beginning. Folks were hugging and laughing and catching up. And a certain sense of familiarity enveloped the whole meeting. As if many of them had been here before, with each other. Time would prove this sentiment correct. 

South LA’s 14 shootings in the last week had prompted officials from LAPD, our school police department, and the District to convene a meeting of local school personal in the immediate and affected area. Folks in charge of earl childhood education centers, elementary, middle, and high schools congregated into the library at historic Washington Prep High school, familiar to many as the setting for the George McKenna story, a 1986 made for television movie. After we all introduced ourselves, our main director (there were so many) outlined that we were here to separate fact from fiction, a work around to the sensationalist media portrayal of realities on the ground. This of course was provided mainly by the police representatives. 

Although none of this was surprising, what was somewhat unexpected was the way in which the gang violence was normalized. Take for instance the LAPD officer who began addressing us, essentially saying it’s been worse. Now of course media sensationalizing glorifying violence is a problem that I’m fine calling out.  But normalizing violence in communities because the cycles rise and fall doesn’t do a lot to help us understand the current situation and how to mitigate the trauma many of our young people will bring to school in a couple weeks. That’s what quotes like this do. (All quotes are approximated and not verbatim… Central meaning intact)

14 shootings may seem like a lot but we’ve had more before. It’s not as bad as the media and social media are making it out to be. – LAPD officer 

Don’t get me wrong. There were many people who raised concerns and questions that pointed to a critically reflective examination of the appropriate level of response. Educators and law enforcement shared their experiences and faith that in coming together we could rise to the unfortunate challenge of continuing our work in these beloved communities. Yet dialogue in this vain takes understandable steps back when statements like this are made. 

You know it’s hard. When you deal with a kid who’s breaking into houses and then they get out and you put them away, and you put their cousins away, we fix the problem and then they let them out again. – same LAPD officer 

Not everyone expressed such entrenched views from the status quo. Voices from all stakeholders were hopefully progressive, signaling their own experiences within shifting paradigms of policing and educational policies. Success stories about Restorative Justice programs in schools and Arresting Diversion programs on the streets were shared. 

But by far the most critical and inspiring for me were the Impassioned share outs from community members. Folks who lived throughout these “common spikes” of gang violence. Former gang members themselves. Parents of the younger impacted generations. One such brother, Kevin “Twin” Orange, a former gang member turned intervention specialist for Soledad Enrichment  Action, brought the focus back to addressing some of the root causes rather than symptoms. 

We know these kids. And we need to be making sure they don’t remain “invisible” in our schools. Teachers need to understand where these kids are coming from and who they are actually listening too, looking up to. – Kevin Orange

Another sister spoke very directly about our need to disrupt the school to prison pipeline. 

I’m not ashamed to admit, I’m one of those parents who has a son in prison because I didn’t know back then what I do now because it wasn’t taught to me. We need classes for our kids IN the schools during the day that help them understand the cycle of trauma and violence. – Sandra Gladney

These folks were directly calling for a more transparent and effective partnership with community organizations and schools to serve the youth. Pointing out that a “masters degree in social work didn’t always guarantee understanding what a masters in life did.” They hadn’t stopped living this reality. And they passionately wanted to change it. And yet what was so frustrating was our district representatives continual reminder of protocols and processes on LAUSD’s end that must be considered or “worked around” to ensure these types of collaborations and partnerships are possible. It harkened me back to Robert Moses’s concept of Earned Insurgency. We keep getting knocked down but so many of us don’t get back up. 

What really wasn’t intended to be a dialogue but more of presentation, did end up turning into the former. And this was hopeful. Our main director immediately seized the opportunity after the meeting to talk with representatives from these community organizations, as did others. And some serious questions were asked. How do we identify kids dealing with trauma? How do we communicate the severity of the situation to staff and community without causing paralyzingly panic? How do we begin to listen to folks who know the reality beyond information sharing, because they live it? How do we to build with our communities?

But I couldn’t help shake the feeling that for some, and really for all of us to a degree, it was a return to a business as usual state of mind. One in which the realities of others could be put on pause for awhile. That all out crisis could be averted for a little longer. 
I also can’t help making connections back to the global climate crisis we are all facing. The mechanisms and narratives of normalizing the “cycle” of violence causing that crisis, in command of our day to day lives. We are left unable to shake past the spellbinding we tell ourselves, unable to wake up from the dream that someone else will come and save us. No one is coming to save us. We have to do it ourselves. We have to do it now.