“LIVE for LIFE, but let live everybody.” — Marvin Gaye
My Grandmother taught me to “stand up for what you believe. Don’t be afraid to ask, and sometimes fight, for what you believe is right.” Her point was that we all should act consciously and deliberately to create the society in which we want to live.
I remember the anxiety I had the first-day teaching. I showed up early to the classroom to upload the assignment, class rules, and homework on the smartboard. It took an hour to learn how to input data in the system and another 30 minutes to add the bells and whistles. Before this day, I had spent a year getting ready for this moment, so I knew this was going to be my best training ever. The lesson plan was simple; I wanted to teach on the racial divide in America today, linking slavery, reconstruction, and other historical markers to the present state of students of color. Lastly, I was going to do what I always did when I was training staff as a campaign manager — add a few “stern reminders about their performance” to keep their attention. Well, that was the plan.
I guess the adage is true “it’s a plan until you get punched in the mouth.”
The second the bell rang, the students entered the classroom demanding a snack. The problem was that I didn’t know where the food was kept in the room, how to administer the water break protocol, or how long to allow students to eat. I wasn’t even sure feeding them was appropriate. So, I ask a trusted student in the class (my son) if this was a routine request, and he assured me that it was. Students who are “in need” are allowed to have morning snacks in the classroom on days when the cafeteria closes early. Today the cafeteria had an emergency, but I felt passionate about their performance on the upcoming test, so I pushed through. I jumped right in with my “drill, kill, education dump” style lesson plan. As a result, my son and his classmates sat through an entire lesson and did not learn anything. Was that the correct decision?
No. While I didn’t listen to the students, and didn’t continue to advocate for their right to have a snack, we both suffered. I look back at that moment and realize that the lesson plan was more about me than my students. I wanted to cover the content for the test, but I wasn’t thinking about the issues facing these students. Even worse, I failed to connect how their current problems relate to the lesson I was attempting to teach. Sure, for scholars with exceptional concentration, interest, and memory, it worked out. For most of the students who live in financially insecure households, it was hard for them to learn while hungry.
- People of Color and women make up over 61% of the financially insecure community — about 48% are white non-Hispanic.
- Unmarried women represent over 42% of the community.
Just under 53% of this community is unemployed — 20% employed part-time before the pandemic.
Thanks to my Grandmother’s wisdom, leadership development training, and lots of hard work, I learned to listen to my students and promote self-advocacy. First, I talk far less while teaching and never go longer than twenty minutes without hearing from them. Also, I see my job as preparing students for real-life experiences, so I have incorporated that in my approach — education, civic, and financial independence.
For example, today, I would help them analyze the institutions addressing wealth inequality during the “pandemic economy” and the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction. I would ask if the failure to enact “40 acres and a mule” is responsible for the increase in America’s financially insecure communities today? I would encourage them to envision what our neighborhoods would look like today without the compromise of 1877. Would the economic inequality of people of color be less if we all voted?
Then I would push them to take action using an active learning model — integrating evidence-based data while making associations to the correlations applicable to their lives. As a teacher, I now know that making a connection between income inequality and voting increases their attention and memory and makes the lesson relevant.
Elections are an excellent place to make a connection:
- While wealthier, older men who are less racially diverse make up a large portion of the electorate, in the 2014 midterm, only 20% of the least financially secure citizens voted.
- Over 93% of the economically prosperous community said they were registered to vote – compared to less than 55% of the least financially stable.
- Less than 31% of the least financially secure cast a ballot in the 2010 midterm elections – compared to more than 68% of the financially well-off.
- Over 33% of the least financially stable community articulated “no choice” in candidates regardless of party affiliation – a clear sign of apathy.
Voting is the most effective way of addressing critical issues that impact financially insecure communities–minimum wage, access to quality education, housing, healthcare, and food security. However, people living on the margins of society and grasping for a ladder of hope and opportunity find it hard to invest time in voting.
My students understood what I overlooked. We must first address their educational, civic, and financial “needs and wants” first to participate in the transactional experience of learning thoroughly. I do this now, but I wish I could go back to that classroom and teach those students that they must stand up for what they believe. Don’t be afraid to ask and fight for what you know is right. It’s important to remember that your ultimate objective is to create a nation where everyone in need of assistance receives it and leads a life of respect, dignity, and opportunity.
To be continued …
Kirk Clay is the President of Capitol View Advisors — a collaborative acting on its values in creative and strategic ways to connect communities with the information and resources they need to support and further their aspirations.