Sunday, October 14, 2007

Recap for October 7, 2007

One Conversation member is starting an amputee support group, and will be telling us more about it at the project develops—which appears to be imminent. She told us about a chance meeting with a person who has resources and a desire to do exactly that. Big round of applause at the story.

Another member read a draft letter addressed to the chair of the Tacoma School Board. The letter emphasized the need for a superintendent search that emphasized the right skills and experience at meeting the District goals to real ALL students, to involve the public in the process. We discussed the perceptions of people attending the last Board meeting, and several reported an unease at the lack of critical Board questions about important issues raised. Someone raised the possibility that the Board is moving slowly toward a search process, and that a safe option would be to retain the current acting superintendent. Remember a previous acting superintendent was invited in to pour oil upon the waters, and stayed for most of a decade. We discussed the importance of being active on this.

Conversation members are reminded that the schools group has published a website that keeps track of some of their conversations, at

It might be a good idea, said one Conversation member, to have the Conversation devote a session to keeping us all informed of the various projects members are working on. Projects that have a community impact may need to consciously build political coalitions—with unions, with community groups, and so on—and to self-consciously build a public information campaign to get the word out and put pressure on the institutions that need to change. At later points in the Conversation others referred to this as a model worth emphasizing—perhaps we should devote a session to it—perhaps next week.

One member observed “this school board is weak, and we should not let it rebuild things on the same shaky foundation,” suggesting there is a real danger that Board members should be pushed in the direction of action. We heard another report from someone in the study session before the last Board meeting who said it was apparent the Board considered the current acting superintendent as here for the long haul. Oh, oh. It appears there are plenty of reasons to be concerned that the Board will back off from its search for a new superintendent.

We also discussed the tone and content of a letter passed around to the Board. Several Conversation members expressed a desire to sign a stronger letter, and the group that composed the letter reported on their discussions of the issue.

One observation, coming off the self-described state of the school board group connected to the Conversation as a group of people who care about schools, or words to that effect: the Board should be aware that something is up, should be concerned with power emerging in the community, and should from time to time be shocked out of its complacency. For example, the actions that contributed to the departure of the previous superintendent were one phase, and many of the people who took part in that let others know they are in for the long haul. Key people involved in that are currently working on school board issues. It was recommended that we allow ourselves to be comfortable with the occasional chaos that might come from a demonstration, and also keep up the work of political organization.

One Conversation member talked to us about disproportionate minority confinement (DMC)—“a condition that exists when a racial/ethnic group representation in confinement exceeds the representation in the general population.” [At times our conversation also used DMC to refer to disproportionate minority contact, since the issue is wider than confinement.] For example, African-Americans age 10-17 yrs old make up 11% of Pierce County residents of similar age, but they are 30-35% of those in detention, and they stay in jail longer than others. All children should be treated equally in the juvenile justice system, disparities in detention is in part the result of processes that are widely considered to be neutral—and so the group described in this talk is working to draw attention to policies that produce DMC. The group understands the need to generate accurate and reliable data, and the need to get people involved who can be effective in affecting decisions in institutions (prosecutors, judges, police, mental health officials, school officials, counselors, and so on).

African Americans in high school get expelled from the Tacoma schools at three times the rate of whites, suspended at two and a half times the rate of whites, and for junior high school the disproportionate rages are two and a half times the expulsion rate, and over twice the suspension rate. In the juvenile justice system in Pierce County sees African Americans get rearrested at three times the rate as for whites.

This is obviously a call for looking at DMC. We heard the ways the group works on these problems. One thing they worked on was alternatives to detention—so found and came up with ideas that police, prosecutors and courts could buy into. They were able to get the state legislature to fund some projects, mostly for the kids who need help and are not accused of crimes against others.

Conversation members might be interested in an article in today’s New York Times, Week in Review section, on this very issue. The article describes the problem, asks when DMC becomes a constitutional issue—but unfortunately is not very critical. It suggests, at the end, that many of the actions that lead to DMC are “unintentional,” by which the article means the officials are not aware of how their actions produce DMC. The article also places the discussion in the context of the present federal court system—where judges increasingly do not recognize racial segregation, even segregation by law, as being a constitutional problem.

Conversation members talked about some of the details of policies that contribute to DMC, such as the need for telephones in the home for certain alternatives to detention to be applied, another example of how many rules treat poor people differently. (Newer technology for at-home monitoring alternative to detention relies on cell phone technology, which has kept lots of kids out of detention. This requires that governments spend money on such technologies.) We heard many examples of the way programs unintentionally lead to DMC. Each program needs to be tested, tested, tested, pay attention to outcomes, and assemble the evidence & bring it to the attention of the group that can do something about it (recall the mention above of the committee that involved prosecutors, judges, police, mental health officials, school officials, counselors). One member emphasized that the agencies that are represented at such inclusive tables may not themselves have paid much attention to disproportionate representation. One example was glaring. Best-practices inventories emphasize the importance and different outcomes that emerge from all-white vs. relatively diverse organizations. Cultural competency is not automatic.

One member observed that a group of assembled policymakers, administrators that are responsible for state programs dealing with juvenile justice, are overwhelmingly white. Other members of the Conversation shared that this is common.

We heard several examples of how the laws have become more punitive, and the default presumption on kids that don’t go to school, or kids that are mentally ill and disruptive, is to lock them up as irresponsible—yet this strongly contributes to DMC. One institutional feature we heard about was the October surge in expulsions—so the school district gets budget credit for the kid, but then the kid is expelled, and state money does not follow the kid to help finance needed services. And such kids fall far behind in the accumulation of credits, in preparation for the WASL, and the increased likelihood that such kids will run into the police. One member described working with such kids, and made the point that there are almost no services for them right now. The other side of the laws becoming more punitive is that money for services is drying up—for example, there is a dire need for a full-time halfway house for school-aged kids on the street, but the barriers to funding, licensing, and getting a site for such a facility are so high. IT IS DISCOURAGING. There sure is a lot of work to do. Several members present described the discouraging experiences they have had. No easy answers, but one member encouraged them to ‘set their face like flint’ and be present, and speak up, at these institutions where policies are made. Members were encouraged to join the group,

One member described the school system as being designed to cull out 30% of the students. It is designed this way, it produces this outcome. The leader of this discussion is part of an organization works precisely with those 30%. Several members emphasized that this is unacceptable, and that we need to hear that from the School Board.

What is it that we need? What if the Governor of the State of Washington was here. What would you tell her? Ideas from various members
• the people assembled at the table have to have experience that enables them to connect to the kids, to understand the situation that produced the situation kids find themselves in.
• Bring parents in
• Equity
• restorative justice involves kids and parents
• full time counselors, nursing, full time safe place for kids and parents also open evenings
• legislation to support small schools
• timing of schools ---adolescents not awake til 9:00
• no kicking kids out for no reason
• deinstitutionalize the racism in the schools, we kick out 30% and feed them into the prison system.
• I think we need fabulous breakfast served, so many kids need it.
• We need two adults in each classroom.
• Make things smaller, stop having 6 periods where teachers have 150 kids they deal with, have more block times…. make 6th grade elementary again.
• Accountability—teachers, administrators, schools are allowed to continue worst practices. And coupled with that we need a support system to help those who change those outcomes.
• Several people mentioned the importance of having parents and families involved in the ways we address this.
• One person asked, Who is making money off of the poor?

There is a list of things people want. OK, how do we get there?
• Parents need to be involved, but we organize the world of work to make that difficult for some people—especially those who have low income jobs and often more than one job. This is a tough one—at least, the agencies that officials DO have control over can change and make flexible hours possible.
• More money needs to be spent on serious job training programs, to give more folks chances to earn the incomes that are associated with more political participation.
• Make it easier to vote—reinstate the vote of people who have been in jailed, and make registration easier or automatic (half of the people who did not vote, but could have, in the last two presidential elections had moved in the previous 18 months).
• Individuals can examine their values, there is so much to do, we can each clarify our values and decide what piece we can take on to be spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy—and show up ready to work on the piece you have chosen as important.
• We could give parents some kind of tax break for involvement in after-school programs, and perhaps a voucher system for supporting after-school programs.
• Every classroom can have an adult assistant, and make sure there sufficiently diverse people there.
• It is possible to have the adult assistants be decently paid, select many from the students who are precisely the people who have not succeeded, have them in a work-study as part of a college program. Get them on the road to a degree while they can be helping in the classrooms.
• small class sizes, and have teacher pay linked to results in this regard.
• Foreign languages taught from the first grade.
• Teach citizenship and civic education, and problem-solving/negotiation skills.
• No school should have more students than it was designed to have.
• Teachers need to have cultural diversity classes.

Now, what you willing to do?
• work with a group that has picked one of these issues.
• Go to the league of Women Voters, and the ACLU, to help pay the debt of released felons.
• Work through my music to advocate, and also through a community group that does this.
• I’m going to make the group I’m part of more powerful, figure out what it is we can do to be more effective.

This simple exercise suggests we need to push our thinking on this—before you get to the roadblocks, there are commitments you can make.

The Conversation wants to support these commitments to action. They are important. We also want to celebrate the life of the mind, too, and not let action discourage us from taking hard looks at the world. We need to nourish ourselves, and feed whatever it is that keeps us engaged.

Dexter said “We need the activist arm to be pushing us, but I would like an activist arm that is not a blunt instrument, an activist arm that is not easily dismissed.” Alton McDonald has done some work—he is a non-attorney who shows up to be a voice for African Americans arrested for various things. He found a place for himself, he takes action. Good example for us. Let us not buy into the all-too-common duality between theory and practice. It is not one or the other, we need to have a balance between our Conversation and our actions.

We heard from So Just, they got some publicity, they are calling in the pledges, and if there are others who can contribute or want their business cards put into the paid advertisement, now is the time. They could really use $500. They are applying for Grant funding next year. Most important, bring people, show up yourself. It is important to have 100 people here Saturday, at 11. Be there.

Redeeming the Vision this year will be Saturday, January 20, 2008, at Urban Grace, probably at 2 pm.. Tuesday, Oct. 9, and every two weeks thereafter, 6pm @ UPS, is the planning committee schedule. All are invited to be part of the planning group.

Emails will remind you of the upcoming fundraiser for United for Peace of Pierce County.
We are planning a February forum, perhaps at Kings Books, on the possibilities for partnerships in the civil rights communities. That program is in the process of being planned, stay tuned for more.

Pierce College Nov. 29 will have Michael Eric Dyson speaking. Call the Student programs office at Pierce, charge will be $15.

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