A Gift from Refugee Children

 

Story Summary:

 Charlotte Blake Alston and colleague, Steve Tunick, chaperone 12 African and Jewish American teenagers who seek common ground through a cultural immersion abroad in Senegal in Africa. An unanticipated diversion led the group to an encampment of recently expelled or escaped indigenous Mauritanians. Were Charlotte and Steve making a big mistake allowing the students to witness and be among poor, desperate people at such a low and vulnerable moment of their lives? Would the presence of Americans in the refugee camp contribute to increasing tensions between Senegal and its slave-holding northern neighbor, Mauritania? Adults and students alike receive a profound lesson about our common humanity from a group of children whom they had perceived to be the least likely to offer insight.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  A-Gift-From-Refugee-Children

Discussion Questions:

  1. What lessons have you learned in unexpected places from those you considered the least likely teachers?
  2. What encounter or experience resulted in a complete shift in your perspective or caused you to let go of long and firmly held assumptions, beliefs, ideologies, and their accompanying behaviors?
  3. In what ways do you consistently manifest your deepest understandings about life and humanity in your life, your work, your activism, your one-on-one interactions with all whom you encounter?
  4. How do you think you’d survive if you suddenly had to leave your home? What would you try to take with you? Who would you most rely on?

Resources:

  • The Ignored Cries of Pain and Injustice from Mauritania by Sidi Sene
  • Mauritania (Cultures of the World) by Ettagale Blauer

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Charlotte Blake Alston. Do you ever notice that sometimes you can really struggle to get to the essence of something? And the lesson comes from, like, the least of these. For me, often it comes from children and this is one of those times.

In 1988 in response to increasing tension between the African-American and Jewish communities in Philadelphia, two prominent individuals, one from each community. Reverend William H. Gray, who was then Majority Whip of Congress at that time, and George M. Ross, who was chairman of the American Jewish Committee Chapter Philadelphia, came together to see if they could address these issues and come up with some kind of a way to diminish the tension. What they created was a program for young people with an international component that, I think, they probably thought they would institute for a year or two. The summer of 2012 will mark the 27th year.

Students from both communities, after, uh, an application and interview process, get an opportunity to come together. They live very closely together. Some have never spent that much time with someone from the other community and had the opportunity to ask the questions that were on their minds and on their hearts and deal with some of the difficult issues that even adults have difficulty wrestling with.

They travel together to Senegal and Gambia in West Africa. They learn about the history, the culture, the traditions of the people. They are taught basic greetings in the indigenous language of Wolof. So, when they greet people, they’re greeting them in their own languages. We eat in people’s homes; they have interactions with young people there. They also travel to Israel and learn about the history, the culture, the traditions and all of the complexities of the problems that are so difficult to resolve.

I had the good fortune of accompanying a group for two consecutive years. So, my chaperone and I, along with the students who are taking this trip the summer before their senior years of high school, walk through the cramped spirit-filled dirt floor rooms of the slave castles on Goree Island, just off the coast of Dakar, Senegal, where people saw their last glimpse of African soil before they were placed into the holds of ships and shipped off to Europe and the Americas. In Jerusalem, we go to the museum, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, where we really get immersed in a visceral experience of the depths of human (in)cruelty taken to its worst possible extreme.

When we were in Israel, we were met by two young Israeli students who were going to be our junior guides. When they found out that on our itinerary was a trip to the Arab village of Dobariya, they got really apprehensive. One of them said, “My mother does not want me to go. She is afraid.”

Well, I sensed that the fear was not just her mother but Dalia’s as well. She fidgeted nervously every time she spoke about it. So, the very next morning, as we boarded the bus, there she came. She showed up at the hotel, boarded the bus. I said, “Are you sure?”

She said, “Yes, if this is what your group stands for. I want to give it a try.”

So, we arrived in the village of Dobariya. We were met by some village elders, some, uh, politicians, and some young people, some teenagers as well. We were taken to a private home where we were served tea and sweets and listened to the experiences of Arab-Israeli citizens and what it was like for them to live in Israel. Dalia struck up a conversation with one of the Arab teenagers and after a few moments, we heard both of them giggling. Dalia was just surprised; she was really excited. It turned out that both girls had attended the same school and had gone to a special camp together and had much in common. They chatted away for the rest of the day. And she joined with us when we joined hands with men, women, and children in Dobariya. And we formed our own sort of hands across Dobariya line and sang, “We are the World.”

When we got back to the hotel, she said, “I’m so glad that I came.”

Well, one of the visits that we had to Senegal, we took a departure from our normal itinerary and went to a refugee camp in Senegal’s northern area, right near the border of Mauritania. For a number of years, it’s b… it’s been a system of slavery in Mauritania. And in 1988, large numbers of people were kicked out of the country and crossed the border into Senegal. They were being housed in these structures that normally housed grain. And we were told that there were many children there. So, the woman who put together our itinerary had taken some money from her organization to purchase some bread and other supplies. And she thought that this might be a good experience for our students. I wasn’t so sure about this. It was not on the itinerary and an Operation Understanding itinerary was anything but typical under normal circumstances. But we went to a store and we bought, uh, wiffle balls and wiffle bats (little plastic bats), and nerf frisbees, and nerf footballs, and bags and bags of candy. And the van took us as far as it could. We got off the van and we began to walk.

And I don’t know what my students were thinking but their faces, the expressions on them, seemed to reflect what I was feeling. I just had my head down and was just focusing on the sound of our shoes as it hit the sand on the dusty road and the clouds of dust billowing up. And after a moment, in the distance, we noticed another dust cloud kinda… kind of coming towards us. And then we heard singing coming from the dust cloud. The dust cleared and it was children. Children from the refugee camp had come to greet us. They were clapping and they were singing. And they took our hands and they walked us into an area where there were hundreds more children seated on the ground. They left us and went and sat down to join those children. Well, a man, who seemed to be in charge, motioned us to an area opposite the children, facing them and I thought that he was telling us to sit down. We didn’t quite understand what he was saying so I motioned for my students to sit. And then some women came over and motioned for us to stand up and some of them left the area. So, I motioned for the students to stand up. We stood up once again. And then finally our guide, our translator, Boule, came and said, “Ah, the children have a gift for you. They want to present you with a piece of theater; you are their guests.”

The women who had left the area came back and spread fabric on the ground. He said, “They didn’t want you to sit down on the dirt.”

Well, the children presented a wonderfully funny and inventive stiff skit. It was not in English but it was clear to understand. A ch… a young chief had gone to the French school in the vi… city to learn how to rule his people. And he returned to the village with piles of textbooks. And, one after another, people would come to him with problems. And he would sort through the textbook to find the page and the chapter that he could tell them what they should do from the textbook. And a series of funny mishaps occurred until the marabout, the spiritual man came and reconnected him with his ancestors and the ancestral traditional ways of doing things.

We had come clear across the ocean to uncover our cultural, ethnic, religious roots to peel back the layers of assumption, myth, misunderstanding. To get to the essence of our commonalities and the struggle to claim and retain an identity here on American soil, these children, in our western way of thinking, had nothing – less than nothing. What they gave us was the greatest gift of all mankind and that was themselves, joyfully and s…, apparently, with the understanding that we are all undeniably human. They brought home to us once again that we can, at any moment, make the choice to use the gifts that we have been given to lift and transform mankind.

We didn’t drop our supplies and leave. We just couldn’t do that. We owed them so much more than that. I stood in the midst of several hundred children separated from their families. No, uh,  nati… national identity and led with the help of my translator, several call and response songs including Ella Jenkins, “Did You Feed My Cow? Yes, Ma’am.” We stayed far into the night. Our students played wiffle ball and threw frisbees and showed them how to run bases. Girls kept coming up playing handclapping games. And we listened to, uh, elders tell their stories, translated by our guide. Helped them prepare food, all while children kept running up to me tapping me and singing out, “Yessa, Ma’am.” The song was as treasured a gift as the candy, which was now… all… gone.

School of Invisibility

 

Story Summary:

 When Charlotte Blake Alston accepts a teaching position at a private Quaker school, she expects she’ll finally become part of an educational institution committed to respect and equality for all members of the school community. But true equity comes with awareness, sensitivity and diligence. The School of Invisibility illustrates how cultural conditioning can creep into even the most “inclusive” school environment.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-School-of-Invisibility

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do Quakers believe and what is their history in the United States?
  2. We can have good intentions yet have a very different impact on others. When have you unconsciously discriminated against others? When have you felt left out or treated as if you weren’t as good as someone else?
  3. How do you show respect and create a sense of equality with others?

Resources:

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Charlotte Blake Alston. I’m wondering if you might be one of the many people who often have to pick and choose your battles when it comes to gender or ethnic experiences in America. And you get to that place where, mmm, you’re going to have to make a decision, finally, to take a stand and make a challenge. This is one such experience.

It was the spring of 1980 when I first walked through the doors of the prestigious K-12 Philadelphia Friends School where I would spend the final years of my teaching career. The Religious Society of Friends, a community, an organization, as I had learned it, with a commitment to human equity. One that had acknowledged and fought for the humanity of my American ancestors.

This could be a place, I thought, where I might be seen as I saw myself: a person… a teacher… not a black teacher. As I entered the school and walked into the foyer, I was met by the receptionist, a light-complexioned African-American woman. I sighed! Relief! As I walked down the long corridor towards the lower school, I looked about, as we often do, to see if there was anyone else in the building who looked like me. There was. She had on a blue uniform; she was pushing a cleaning cart. “Good morning!” I said.

“Oh, good morning!” Her entire face lit up into a smile.

Over the two days of interviews, going from department to department, I considered, not only my own comfort level in this environment, but that of my son, who, if I accepted the position, would enter second grade. The last day, I headed towards the door and then stopped, turned around and decided I would go back and see if I could find the cleaning woman I had spoken to the day before. I decided that I would base my decision on what she had to say about working in that environment.

“Oh, I just love it!” she said. “The people here are just so nice.”

So, when the formal offer came, I accepted. I settled really easily into the rhythm of school life, uh, attending my first meeting for worship with five to 10-year-olds, uh, being addressed as teacher and my first name, bus duty, lunch duty, parent conferences and then came the faculty trustees’ dinner, a formal annual event to which every faculty member was required to attend.

This was a formal sit-down dinner in the school cafeteria and members of the faculty and members of the board of trustees were assigned tables together, where we would share a meal and awkward conversation. Well, I scanned the room and it hit me. All of the people sitting down, being served, except three, were white. All of the people doing the serving, except for two work study students, were members of the maintenance and the cafeteria staff, all of whom were black. There was something wrong with this picture.

Here I was, at a Quaker school, a community under the auspices of the Religious Society of Friends, an organization committed to human equity, an organization that prided itself on creating what they considered to be a microcosm of the ideal society. So, here in this microcosm of the ideal society, my place in it was articulated with crystal clarity. Nearly all of the people of color in this environment, at this event, were here to serve. I could not, would not participate in making that statement. The following morning. I went to the headmaster and expressed my concerns. “Does it have to be a formal sit-down dinner?” I asked.

His response was that removing that would take the job away from the two work study students and I would have to come up with a replacement job for the work study students.

“Well,” I said. “Couldn’t it be buffet where people might, oh, I don’t know, serve themselves? Uh, you would still need someone to prepare the food, place it in the trays, keep it hot, replenish it if it was empty and clean up afterwards.”

“I’ll give it some thought,” he said.

“Okay,” I thought. “I stated it as clearly as I think I can. And we have a year for you to make some decision about a different option.” I did let him know that I did understand that this was mandatory for faculty and I would not buck that rule. But if the following year, the format had not changed, I would attend but I would take my place as I saw it dictated in that circumstance. I would put on an apron and I would serve.

Well, a year went by and the day of the faculty trustee dinner, I popped into the headmaster’s office and said, “Hey, just checking to see about the dinner tonight. Just to see if the format has changed.”

“No, it hasn’t.” he said. But he added, “You can choose whether to come or not.”

Well, for the remainder of the day I would pass faculty members in the hall, or people would pop into my classroom and say, “See ya tonight.”

I’d say, “No, you won’t! I’m not going to be coming.”

“What! How did you get out of this?” people wanted to know. And when I told them, “I never thought of that. I never noticed it.” was the most oft-repeated reply.

Well, the buzz from the faculty continued into the next day. And at the end of the day, two lower school faculty members came to me and said, “We’re very upset. We’re upset that a member of our community is upset and is offended and we want to do something about it.”

An ad hoc committee was formed by my lower school colleagues and they wanted to look at our community like, “What else are we missing?” They wanted to know, “What else are we not seeing?”

Oh, one thing stuck out to me in my mind, immediately, and that was the way that African-American adults in the community were addressed by children. White children in the school were addressing them as kindergarten or fourth grade peers. All faculty members had a title of respect. Teacher and your first name. But the people who were in uniform, who drove the buses, who served lunch in the cafeteria, who ensure that every nook and cranny of the school’s exterior and interior was spotless, sanitary and presentable were addressed by children as Larry or Loretta. From the time we have set foot on the soil in our country, referring to African-American adults as children has been the ultimate expression of disrespect. It’s demeaning. It’s dehumanizing. It’s dismissive. In our community, you do not address an adult by their first name unless they have given you permission to do so. And even then, it’s preceded by a title. It’s Miss Susan or it’s Mr. Jeff.

Well, this committee decided that they would go to the board of trustees and talk about some of these issues. And see if they might get the board to understand the potential negative impact that this had, not only on the adults in the community, but also on the children, as well. And to see if they might be willing to at least talk about this and begin to address some of our concerns.

Well, one trustee asked me what my credentials were. He wanted to know, “How long have you been teaching. Uh, uh, you know, what is your experience in these sorts of issues? Uh, what qualifications do… you know… I bring to discussions of racial equity and parity and respect?”

Well, I recounted for him my pre-Friends school teaching experience and then pointed out, because, clearly, he hadn’t noticed, that I was, indeed, black.

“Well,” he said. “This is like one of those things that you don’t think about ‘til somebody brings it up and you really don’t think about it ‘til somebody brings it up again.”

“Well, that’s interesting.” I thought, “Well, my contract was just renewed. So, I’ll be here again to bring it up.”

Well, it’s one of those, you know, if we don’t see it, then it doesn’t exist kind of sensibilities. It’s like we are not credible enough witnesses for our own experience. Well, evidence of the absolute destructive impact of that sensibility was brought home to me when my second-grade son happened to come into my classroom and he asked me a question about the older white adult, my assistant, who was in my classroom. “The teacher, as he put it.”

And I said, “Oh, no! I’m the teacher in the classroom. She’s my assistant.”

Uh, uh! And then out of his little second grader mouth came the words, “You couldn’t be!”

Both of us had come to this school from the multi-ethnic Children’s Center at the University of Pennsylvania where I was Educational Director, had an office with a name plate on my door.

But somehow, in this environment, the message to him was loud and clear. Here a black person could not be in a position of authority. I needed no other supporting evidence to make my case. What a painful, wrenching contrast!

“Well, nobody really thinks about it.”

“You couldn’t be!”

Well, I continued to be the one to bring it up. But the wonderful colleagues who are members of this ad hoc committee were really persistent in what they were doing and decided they wanted to take a complete look at the kind of community that we were. They wanted to make sure that they raised the difficult questions. That we had the awkward conversation that we’re really beginning to see and remove the cloak of invisibility. And begin to acknowledge what was actually going on in our environment.

This particular school eventually began to host an annual job fair for people of color, created a multicultural committee that took a look at every aspect of our school community, created racial awareness seminars. And, really, began to focus on the importance of every person in that community being acknowledged, recognized, heard, and respected. That effort, I hope, continues.

The nine years that I spent in that environment were some of the most growth full, memorable experiences of my life: teaching, coaching, working with incredibly creative colleagues, working on getting the school to be the kind of community it really wanted to be.

And a year after I left, I went back to go to a girls’ basketball game and as I entered the school, I saw the head of maintenance. And I went to, uh, address him; I went to wave and call his name when I saw a little kid running towards him. And as that child opened her mouth to greet him, I could feel my teeth clench. And then I heard her say, “Hi, Mr. Maurice!” Huuuh!