Below are two stories, one about taking action for social change (like really taking action—not just liking something on Facebook) and the other story is about how media can perpetuate negative stereotypes (and how important it is to see something firsthand before passing judgment.)
Both stories are interwoven here because 1.) The stories converge, albeit momentarily at the new Montessori School of Englewood, in Chicago, which will officially open on August 22 and 2.) The stories share a common theme: Most parents just want the best for their child.
In story one, my friend Thom has spent the last three years and surely a gazillion dollars founding a Montessori school in a church in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. The school officially opens (currently 76 registered students toward the school’s 90 seat capacity) on August 22.
He said it hit him when he served on the Board of his daughter’s school on the north side of Chicago, at how privileged he was. As he gave time and resources to his daughter’s school, it struck him. “Every parent just wants what’s best for their child. Just not everyone has the same access to resources.” He had to do something about it.
Tired and harried, working full-time at his own business, finding time for family, attending to the many other demands of day-to-day life, Thom’s also managing contractors, raising funds, hiring administrators, building a board, engaging community, starting a school.
As I told my son, and repeated to Thom, who has long been committed to social justice, “Well, at least you won’t be sitting there at age 70 thinking ‘I wish I would have actually done something about it.’”
Okay, what I actually said to my 11 year old son on the morning we set out to volunteer at the school was “Let’s go see how crazy Thom is.”
And here’s where the second story begins, Lucca’s story. I had figured it’s two weeks before the school opens, we offered ourselves for a few hours to clean or set up classrooms, make welcome signs, do whatever was needed.)
Lucca was initially excited to go with me to volunteer. But as the day neared, he admitted he was scared to go to Englewood, referring to the many news stories he constantly read and heard about gangs and shootings in Englewood. Case in point, he showed me that morning’s newspaper, with a story about two 12 year olds who had been shot and killed, accidentally, when they found and played with a gun that had been discarded in their own yard, after a robbery at their neighbor’s house the night before.
I remembered the words of a gentleman I had met a number of years ago via the Chicago Dinners (a program set to by the former Jane Addams Hull House organization, the dinners purposely put together people of different racial backgrounds for a facilitated conversation about race.) On the subject of Caucasians or media who portray “black neighborhoods” as “bad neighborhoods,” he (who was African American) had said “do you know how it feels for someone to say that about my neighborhood? This is my home. It’s where I live.”
Those words rang true, as Lucca and I drove down 71st Street, on the South Side of Chicago. I talked to Lucca about looking at the character of the neighborhood—well groomed yards, moms walking their kids to school. At a particularly exuberant boy with a backpack, on his way to the first day of school, mom close behind, I commented “don’t you think that mom wants the same thing we all do, for our children to get to school safely, to grow up strong and safe?”
So, I would love to now say that everyone lived happily ever after, but of course the work is just beginning, all around.
For me and Lucca? On the way home, Lucca said “Englewood surprised me. I expected to see mostly guys with guns on the street.” That was the visual image he had conjured from the stories presented in the media. And I won’t lie; this was a carefully planned trip into a neighborhood that we didn’t know.
But for Lucca it was a mind shift that put a face and humanity onto a community that, while indeed, does have a too large share of tragedy and pain, also is made of real people, trying to build meaningful lives, just like us. As a parent who is white, it’s one itty-bitty step to try to raise my son to be conscious of social constructs of race in the media, how that drives overt and/or unconscious bias and of disparities in terms of access to resources.
And for Thom and the Montessori School of Englewood? Thom, along with two of the school administrators he hired early on, was initially received warily by the community. All are white, setting up a school in neighborhood of residents who are 100% black. As, by plan, he continued to diversify the board, administration, faculty and staff, demonstrated a long-term vision and commitment, people are warming up. But opening a free Montessori school (officially a Chicago Public School charter school), is a new concept, it will take time and individual stories of success to build trust and ongoing support.
Asked (by Lucca) why Englewood. Thom said because the schools in this neighborhood have records of underperformance. “It may not make a difference in the big picture at all,” he said, “but maybe at least in the lives of the students who go here.”
“I had to do something,” he said.
You can to, but following your own dream of social change, or supporting the actions of others (you can donate to the Montessori School of Englewood here).
How will you make the world a better place for all?