It’s 1912. Francie Nolan is coming of age in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. If you’ve never read Betty Smith’s 1945 best seller, here’s the 10-second short: Francie, the oldest child of a hard-luck family plagued by poverty, faces income and gender inequality. She buckles down. Hard work, perseverance, and a judicious match rescue her from the fate of her mother & aunt.

It’s 1912. William Howard Taft is campaigning for a second term. If you’ve never read your history, here’s the 10-second bit: Taft, the sitting president, runs for a second term. Income inequality is the key issue. Taft takes a hit when he has no answers. Good connections and privilege land him a seat as Chief Justice in stead.

Over a century later, life has moved on, Williamsburg has gentrified, but income inequality in the U.S. is greater than it was in 1912. If you haven’t read Pikkety, or seen the infographics and videos, you might want to. It’s eye-opening.

This summer when LeadLocal was on tour, we were in Brownsville, Brooklyn—a little further down the line than Williamsburg. In Brownsville, income inequality is a little easier to believe, because it’s in your face.

If you aren’t familiar with the area (and we weren’t), Brownsville has the highest concentration of public housing in the country. Of the approximately 88,000 residents in Brownsville, nearly 44% of working age individuals are out of the workforce. There aren’t many options. Thirty-six percent of the population in Brownsville lives below the federal poverty line.[1]

The problem is overwhelming. One 3-hour CareerCafe in Brownsville with Starbucks and the Brownsville Partnership? Not much impact.

Sure, every touch point matters. And, yes, it’s little actions, over time, which yield lasting change. But that’s if kids already have basic human needs met, like adequate food and shelter. When there isn’t equal access (at any level), the system needs to change.

Even in 1912, campaign rhetoric recognized the systemic issues around inequality. This is from one of Taft’s stump speeches: inequality of condition can be lessened and equality of opportunity can be promoted by improvement of our educational systems [and] the betterment of the laws to ensure the quick administration of justice.[2]

In our nation’s defense, things did get slowly and steadily more equal in this country until the mid 1970s (mostly because we got lucky). But since the 1980s, inequality has been trickling down pretty hard. And we’ve made systematic changes to “our educational systems” and “betterment of the laws to ensure the quick administration of justice.” Our country has been all about school reform for quite a spell now, and we’ve managed to create a booming market around the prison system. Sadly, most efforts since the 1980s only increase inequality and create a racial caste system.

You don’t have to wade far into controversial waters of mass incarceration to get slapped with the evidence. Even the Huffington Post publishes articles citing that blacks are arrested for drug possession three times as often as whites, and whites use more drugs. Go figure.

More than ½ of black men in any urban center are under the control of the criminal justice system and can trace their involvement back to the school-to-prison pipeline and the juvenile justice system.[3] And according to The Atlantic, Civil Rights Data Collection studies gathered since 1968 show that African-American students are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended and that over 50% of students who were involved in school- related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African- American.[4]

 At the same time we are locking up people of color (primarily, but not exclusively, the most impoverished ones), other education policies have made equal educational opportunities nearly impossible to achieve even if you don’t get kicked out of school or locked up. School choice and resegregation (yes, resegregation) has increased inequity in education. It is happening in your community, and it’s most certainly happening in ours. In Arizona, school choice didn’t create unequal schools, but it certainly has amplified the problem.

Just for kicks, we compared the global report card of Tucson Unified District and Catalina Foothills District (see below). Guess which district hovers at less than 15% of the students on free & reduced, with a student population that is about 60% Anglo? Now, guess which has a student population that’s 60+% Hispanic & averages about 70% free and reduced lunch qualification?

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So, we keep asking ourselves–in every project we take on, every engagement we have:

  • How can we affect systemic change to make the world more just and equal?

We know the answer isn’t to “scale” solutions, throw technology or investor capital at the problem. That’s been done. (Read The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools) We know the answer is adaptable practices and collaborative solutions. We know that lasting change happens one person at a time, starting in our own backyards. We know the answer is to begin to call it what it is when we see it: Racism. Sexism. Discrimination.

And to keep working…

This fall we are privileged to work with about a dozen principals from Tucson Unified who are asking themselves tough questions about discipline, leadership, and equality in their schools. We look forward to the journey.

Perhaps the principals insight, along with that of the teachers & students in the schools they lead, can provide all of us…and maybe the current crop of presidential hopefuls… with a few more answers or ideas than Taft could muster in 1912. Maybe like Francie, with a little hard work and perseverance, we might stumble upon lasting change…in Brooklyn, or better yet, our own backyard.

[3] Alexander, Michelle (2012-01-16). The New Jim Crow (p. 16). The New Press.

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