Monday, September 22, 2014

Where the heck is this school?

 Reflections by Jon DeGraff from Brooklyn Friends School
Jon attended the Nobis World - Dominican Republic program this summer where we worked with the Mariposa DR Foundation in a small Caribbean village situated on the rural, hilly north coast of the Dominican Republic (DR). Cabarete is home to two distinct and interdependent cultures. Cabarete’s breathtaking beaches and coastal sports attract a plethora of international visitors year-round.  And yet Cabarete is also home to a community of over 8,000 Dominican and Haitian men, women, and children who live in abject and extreme poverty.  These families struggle daily with hunger, lack of adequate health care, and inadequate education.  Mariposa DR Foundation works to unite these two seemingly divergent communities. Teachers in the Nobis World program worked with Mariposa DR Foundation and met with Cabarete community members including visits to a number of schools and visited with teachers and principals.

A group of us, all teachers from the States, visited a private school that Tuesday morning, and later in another part of town, we were in the barrio, Calle 6, on another school visit.
As we walked down a dirt road it led me to think that if it rains for too long here, these folks would be walking around ankle deep, more like sloshing around, for days in mud, dirt, and sewage. Yeah, it must really suck living here.

We went into a few homes of girls from Mariposa Foundation; all the while I was wondering: where the heck is this school that we've come to visit? The last home we stopped in, a home so dilapidated and deplorable that it questioned if our collective humanity made it to the modern era to allow people to live like this, stood at the end of a path. Inside, the roof and walls were so riddled with holes, polka dots of sunlight shining through, that it reminded me of a purposeful design pattern rather than reflecting the pervasive abject poverty of the barrio.

Behind us, at the opening of this short path, some volunteers from the Mariposa Foundation were setting up plastic chairs and one of them had 3 x 2 sized makeshift blackboard. Elementary school-aged children started to gather, congesting the alley and positioning the chairs. There was a buzz of what I soon recognized as anticipation.

Standing in the center of the setup of chairs and spirited souls stood Alva Rosa. Wearing a red tank top and pink skirt, she stood there in her bare feet, directing the unsettled little ones into chairs and then she took attendance. Behind her, propped into one of the chairs was the blackboard, with socks for erasers.

Hence, I found the school.

As chairs, and students and a chalkboard do not a school make, it took awhile for me to truly understand what I was witnessing. But when I finally did, it hit me to the core. Alva Rosa had taken it upon herself to take the lessons that she learned from Mariposa and teach them to the less privileged ones in her neighborhood. Without the support of adults, apparently disinterested adults, that were seated no more than 30 feet from her, it was fascinating to watch her command the moment, with such an authoritative presence, as it was clearly her school.

And oh, the punch line: Alva Rosa is only 11 years old!

Three bets!

This open-air school was not part of an initiative on the part of the Foundation. However, Alva Rosa was the fruit of the idea of Mariposa that laid fertile ground to nurture her “it,” her oomph, that special grit to create her own dynamic path in taking a stand to improve her community. I bet that she would hardly articulate what she does as playing an inspiring role in developing her community, or even comprehend the much bigger metaphor and potential that her actions represent. I would also bet that this impoverished, shoeless, “bossy” girl simply sees herself as someone who wants to be in charge of others and she created an attractive way to so. But lastly, I would bet that in a very short time, this little girl with her freckles, and her golden pigtails will understand her potential in an even more remarkable way than she does now. And then, watch out!

I shouldn’t have found it ironic that the mission of the Mariposa Foundation, mariposa, in incorporating the theme of the Girl Effect, an international movement to empower girls in poverty, should produce its own marvelous personification of the Butterfly Effect* in Alva Rosa.

*mariposa is butterfly in Spanish

Monday, September 8, 2014

Nobis World - Creating a Safe Place for Educators to Share Stories and Discuss Difficult Issues

by Debbie Bandy

                                                                        "Largest Slave Sale in Georgia History"

The Nobis World program, Savannah Ga & The Lowcountry: Preserving African-American & Gullah-Geechee Culture, created a safe place for educators from around the country to share our stories and discuss difficult issues. I want to remember these lessons in my own teaching.

One of the videos we watched before our trip was Slavery By Another Name, a PBS documentary.
“Slavery by Another Name is a 90-minute documentary that challenges one of Americans’ most cherished assumptions: the belief that slavery in this country ended with the Emancipation Proclamation. The film tells how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century.”

Before watching this video, I thought that slavery (though not prejudice and injustices) ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, and I was shocked by the brutality faced by black citizens, especially black men. This coercive system had a monetary incentive. No white landowner now wanted to pay wages to people that used to be property. That financial reason faded over time, but the practice of injustice towards black men became institutionalized, and most American (if they ever knew) forgot its origin. Black men were targeted for incarceration without cause, and the result continues to be disproportionate numbers of black men behind bars.

Modern targeting of black men by law enforcement was given a voice by one of the participants in the Nobis program in Savannah this summer. This man holds an administrative position in an elite Northern private school. As we were talking about power and privilege, he shared his discussion with his sons about how to interact with the police. I have had the same talk with my sons: always be respectful and tell the truth. His talk, however, included telling his sons to put their hands where they are clearly visible and make no sudden moves.

Then came the murder of Michael Brown this summer in Ferguson, MO. The police response could have been filmed in black and white; their methods were straight out of 1963 Birmingham. Some of the responses by white residents were, too. The brutality against black men seems to have no end point.

My experience with the Nobis World program challenged me to think differently when I watch the evening news. And I now ask myself, “What can I do as a white teacher in a predominately white, private school in Charleston, SC?” I have made two decisions at this point.  I joined the NAACP and have put a bumper sticker of my support for this organization on my car and will attend meetings to see what part I can play in the work in Charleston. I also want my 8th graders to work with the Avery Research Center ( in writing a guidebook for some of the many antebellum houses within a mile of our campus. Their research will include information about the builders of these houses: enslaved people with specific skills such as carpenters, ironworkers, and builders. We will also include research about the white plantation owners and merchants who financed these homes, but I hope my students will gain a fuller and deeper history of the area than they typically receive. It is only when we start having these discussions about power, history and relationships that we can begin to move forward in creating the change we wish to see.