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.

Our damned children

I cannot describe how angry I am that our country, supposedly the “greatest on Earth” does not have the courage to stare into the depths of our individual and collective identities and sort out between the two where our obsession with gun culture will end and our real committment to nurturing our future generations will begin.  To come home yesterday, after teaching and learning with 140 plus young bright minds, and listen on the drive home yet another narrative of horror, tragedy and loss really just eats at one’s spirit.  Feeling simultaneously fearful and blessed that I had the opportunity to embrace my children upon arriving home from my place of work, a school… is something that I can never let myself take for granted.

After the last school shooting that was covered in the media, (at a school site where three of my friends and former colleagues worked) I had the opportunity to attend “live shooter” training.  This training was conducted by ALICE.  And although I can understand and even appreciate to a certain level the intent and ideas behind having such a training, a question still persists like a question in my mind. Why must there be professional training for educators on how to survive mass shootings at school sites?  Those who would answer with the response that these are just the times we live in, while correct in this assertion should know better.  This is not an adequate response.  Everyone should know better.  We are the nation that pats ourselves on the back for so many things, putting humankind into outer space, advancing democracy and freedom around the globe, and yet for all of our “achievements” however based in reality they may or may not be, we can’t figure out how to have a real conversation about how to protect the sanctity of real children in sacred spaces of learning? Or is there nowhere and nothing that is scared anymore?  We unfortunately know the answer to this.

Nevermind protecting the sanctity of unborn life… for God’s sake!  What are we doing to cherish and protect the lives of our children as we teach them how to build a better future?  We are normalizing trainings for the adults who care for them in these spaces that teach folks like me how to barricade doors with belts and desks, how to engage in potential counter measures to an active shooter, and how to evacuate without getting shot… if possible.

And while I appreciate a training in research based survival tactics… I am not at all ok with the notion that just because this is a reality, that this is in any way, shape, or form… right.  We can do better. We have to do better.  For our damned children.  My heart and thoughts go out to all those who have ever been affected by the violence of a mass shooting. I pray that we will have the common sense, courage, and strength to begin to envision a better world where this does not happen with the frequency that delegates tragedy to normalcy.

Seeing Red… 

Where was I when I heard about my young man? When I heard he was gunned down? 

3108. Rolfe Hall… Teaching a group of young, bright eyed future educators… with plans to change the world. 

Why am I empty inside? Because another young person who’s light brightened my days of late, despite his struggles and circumstances is now gone. 

 Light extinguished. 

Tears and blood flowing in the neighborhoods where we work, play, live, learn, and love. 

 How do we stop the flow of these? How do we turn off the violence? 

How do we get our young people to stop seeing red… see past the red… and orange… and blue or any other color or hue that condemns people to death…?

how do we see our last breath as something much more sacred? measured up against our first breath and every one in between… a life measured out in mistakes and learning… 

a light flickered out before his time. 

But not if we let his light grow within ourselves. If we choose to shine even brighter because we have to in his absence. 

We have no choice. For it is our duty. He is our Duty. 

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. 

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…