on zip codes, neighborhoods, and villages

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Last week I had the privilege of participating in a house meeting. That phrase, “house meeting,” mostly makes me think of a group of roommates sitting down to figure out, really, WHO is leaving those gross dishes in the sink. This was different. Mississippi First hosted the meeting in Jackson with the purpose of pulling together a diverse group of community members to talk about education in our metro area. We talked about what we love, what we would change, what keeps us up at night. We talked with urgency in our voices, because public education matters. And the achievement gap is real.. Arne Duncan says that education is the civil rights issue of our generation.  And I think that’s true (within the American context, anyway). Across the nation kids are tracked based on their zip code, their income, the color of their skin… before they’re even born.

So many smart people have so many different ideas of how to “fix” all this. We talked about a lot of those ideas at the house meeting: funding, leadership, teacher quality, testing, Common Core, curriculum, etc. But in the end, we spent a lot more time talking about community. Because deep down in the heart of this messy, ugly problem is the fact that we’ve lost the village. We’ve created a system–through feeder patterns, private schools, suburbs, and carefully drawn geographical boundaries–where one set of kids can go to successful schools and those kids and their parents never really have to think about what’s happening to the children of people who don’t have that privilege.The real answer to the education crisis isn’t longer school days, better funding, teacher recruitment or grants. The answer here is the same as the answer to the water crisis in Africa, peace in the Middle East, or sex slavery in SE Asia. The answer is, as Auden would say, “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.” This sounds esoteric and vague. But I believe that on a base level loving our neighbors will be what God uses to wipe out ugly things like racism, poverty and inequality. That sounds like a really big statement, but just like Victor Hugo and the apostle John say: when we love others, this unseen God dwells with us.

And if we love our neighbors’ kids like we love our kids, we can’t sit there and let them drop out of schools that were failing them before they even hopped off the bus for the first time. If we love our city like we love ourselves, we can’t turn a blind eye and let it be blighted by racism and apathy. We don’t need fewer people making it worse. We need more people making it better. This answer is simple but not easy. It’s not a bill that needs to be passed by the House, it doesn’t require seventeen different budget strings. There are exactly zero pieces of red tape that need to be cut through. But it’s also gut-wrenchingly difficult, as dying to yourself usually is.

All month as I’ve geared up for school to start, I’ve been thinking a lot about how big the problem is. I’ve been thinking about kids all over our country who are getting off the bus every day with fear and dread in their hearts. I’ve been thinking about moms and dads who are putting them on the bus, wishing so fiercely that there was a better option. I’ve been thinking about teachers who are trying hard and feeling like it’s never enough. I’ve been thinking about our very own neighborhood that feeds into three low-preforming public schools.

But when I think about how big the problem is, I’m also dazzled by how big the answer is. By how beautiful the answer is. By the fact that this answer takes all of us. Not just teachers, principals, and curriculum writers. When a problem is this big, the solution can’t be thrust only upon a certain subgroup. The answer takes book buddies. It takes mentors. It takes people who tutor for a hour after work once a week. It takes lawyers, neighbors, doctors, musicians, bus drivers, policy makers, soccer moms, donors, and granddads. It takes hearts and minds and skill sets and wallets. We are all connected; we all belong to each other. We have to believe that this fact is a privilege and a joy, not a trial or inconvenience.

If this sounds a little bit emotional, it’s because it probably is. School started back today. I pulled up, parked, and got out of my car. As I turned to face the school, I saw a stream of parents and children, hand in hand walking up the steps. And just like last year, my eyes filled up with tears, thinking about how much rides on these next 180 days. Hoping that the village comes through. Reflecting on how blessed I am to be right here, in the middle of it all.

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2 Responses to on zip codes, neighborhoods, and villages

  1. Kathie Broom says:

    Great post! I love you!

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