I taught the 8th grade girls for a third time, choosing to discuss with them the Pyramid of Violence, since the week prior it became evident (while discussing characteristics of healthy relationships) that controlling behavior, like yelling, was common. Wanting to broach the subject broadly at first, I started by saying, “We all know this city of Camden is a pretty violent place.” BIG MISTAKE. It took me five minutes to regain control of the discussion, as this comment was met with: “There is nothing wrong with where I live!” And “Everyone thinks Camden is bad. They don’t know what it’s like.” And other comments that aren’t kosher for print. Oops. Once I regained control and we actually got to the meat of the discussion there was sharing of examples of violence from some individuals, and reflecting afterward I wondered what went wrong. Didn’t some students write about violence in Camden in their MLK essays? Was it just because I am an outsider that I can’t go there?
This subject resurfaced at our leadership meeting this past Wednesday. Bruce always starts with a devotion (for those readers who are familiar with my love of Credo conferences, it feels weekly a little like this). He shared a story of local high school students who spent time with students at UrbanPromise Academy (UPA). They were moved by the challenges faced by their peers and so decorated a whole hallway with messages about poverty and the challenges of growing up in Camden, with the goal of raising awareness. Another group of students at the same high school, who had origins in Camden, were offended and there ensued a great deal of tension between the two groups, which was not resolved even after the teacher mediated a discussion between them. The teacher had written to UPA principal, Mr. Marlowe, asking for guidance, and he and Bruce Main, in turn, brought it to the leadership table for discussion. Bruce’s approach has been to let the children’s stories speak the truths of growing up in Camden, and this, obviously, has been very effective. Jodina, went right to referencing Paulo Freire, a Brazilian author who wrote a seminal work entitled, Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the 1970s. It remains relevant today – now that I am brave enough to read something with such a daunting title, I can say things like this!
What I am coming to terms with is that making any kind of general statement to a specific group of people is dehumanizing. It works against what Freire calls our vocation, which is to become more fully human…humanization. Making generalizations, passing judgement, however unintentionally, on any group of people – for me specifically judging Camden as a whole – only adds to the oppression so which is so evident. I need to see each student – and each Camden resident – as an individual with a unique story. I have written before of the wisdom that the students possess at UrbanPromise – now I have to partner with them so that they come up with the questions that need to be asked, and then the answers. As Freire writes, I need to partner with them in solidarity, rather than be generous to them, giving them what I think they need. Here’s a quote that has really moved me –
“This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only the power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both.”
Now that’s some deep stuff.