Enroll in Integrated Schools

Opening the front page of the paper or scrolling through Twitter right now is so panic inducing. Looting, police station in flames, mobs. Protests amidst a pandemic; risking death to protest death. No trust in the police, no trust in the government. It truly feels like our institutions are breaking down.

I’m reading James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” this week, finally. Something is happening — the combination of the Amy Cooper mess and the brutality of George Floyd’s death is really making it sink in that there is no safe way to be a black person in America, that the path is so narrow that it doesn’t exist. So I’m trying to understand.

I’m also thinking a lot about my oral history project.

As I collected the stories last year, a major theme that emerged was the tension of living in an integrated neighborhood. The experiences were on a spectrum: some people were essentially living a segregated life within an integrated neighborhood, and some people had intimate friends of all races. Most people had grown up in homogenous neighborhoods, either black or white, and this was their first time living next to people of different races; how they dealt with that differed widely.

Right now, we do have integrated spaces and institutions. Storytime at the Shaw library, attended by white, black, latinx and asian families. Florida Avenue park, where white gentrifers bring their kids to play, older black men sit at the tables listening to music and playing dice, and young men of all races play pick-up basketball. Shaw Main Streets, whose Executive Board is full of people of color and who created “Art All Night,” an event that attracts white people in droves. The ANC (Advisory Neighborhood Commission), where people of all races debate new developments.

There is also an incredible amount of tension. Black people felt pushed out, they felt disrespected. Dog walkers let their dogs relieve themselves on public spaces, or even on lawns: the ultimate insult. White people called the police on black people who are smoking pot outdoors — would they do that if it was another white person? A wealthy newcomer asked the homeless-serving non-profit when they were going to move away from the neighborhood. Distrust, tension, suspicion on all sides.

Trust was such a huge topic: could black people trust white people to respect their humanity in this neighborhood, and to hold space for them? Could white people overcome their racism to trust black people?

And, the schools.

D.C.’s school system is very segregated. This neighborhood and other gentrifying neighborhoods have some of the only integrated schools in the city.

My own kid attends at an elementary school that is 90% POC. His class has white, Asian, Latino and black students; the kids have friendships across races, they play together, and they are innocent. The teachers challenge each kid at their level, the environment is peaceful and loving. All year long, he and an African American friend have competed to be the best in the class at math and reading — they take turns at the top and they push each other. In short, it is everything a parent could dream of for their child.

But, a lot of ugliness exists in regards to the schools in the neighborhood. Words like colonization get thrown around in relation to mostly-white PTOs. Gentrifiers say things like “the schools will improve when “people” start to send their kids there” — “people” are rich white people, and it is as though the whiteness is more important than the teachers, the principal and the curriculum. I struggled to host events at the school that felt welcoming to all the parents, regardless of their race, native language and class. Socializing across class and race and language *is* a challenge, and many of us had no prior experience with it.

It is harder for the parents than for the children.

Being in a mixed-race, mixed-class environment is so new to so many people. Some white parents whispered to me about their concerns for their kids, they are very worried about the lack of other white people, even as their kids were happy, learning and thriving.

(I’ve also seen white parents at ease in integrated schools, anti-racism in action: they are parents who trust their children, trust their neighbors, and trust their schools.)

But many white people decamp to the neighborhoods in D.C. that have homogenously white schools, and I can’t help but see how all these individual decisions keep contributing to segregation. And I wonder what the kids think — do they wonder why they are now mostly amongst white people? How does that affect them? What are they missing out on by not being in a more diverse community?

It is a tricky decision. Lots of good people have taken their kids out of our school to move to these better resourced schools, where parents donate money that can be used to hire aides and hold fancy after-school classes, and where the elementary schools feed into high schools with AP classes and science labs.

But what would happen if all the schools were integrated, and the money and power were more distributed across schools? What would happen if children grew up with close friendships across race, and had experiences where they all felt like equals? What would all those people be like, would they shake off some of the systemic racism poisoning our culture?

But then I wonder how possible it is for a community to remain diverse. Are Shaw and Bloomingdale on their way to being more uniformly white? Is school integration even possible — is housing integration?

Is integration always a temporary state?

I keep thinking about something one of my interviewees, an African American man who has lived here since the 80s, said:

“Let me ask you a question — you name one healthy integrated neighborhood. When you say ‘oh, the diversity’ the diversity is a code word for ‘white people are moving into black neighborhoods.’

‘Oh, it’s diverse!’ It’s diverse because white folks are coming in. When black people try to move into white neighborhoods, white people move out. That’s just the way the country is.”

Is it crazy to think that we may be able to change? I feel something in the air right now — white people talking about anti-racism, trying to learn, and trying to shake off Amy Cooper-esque liberal racism. Acknowledging it. Covid crisis time could be a huge opportunity to reflect on personal decisions that lead to a more unequal society. What if everyone stopped segregating? What if we all enrolled our kids in integrated schools, and figured out how to be a community? Could it be possible?

Week Eight

Hugo’s invertebrate pet store in the backyard has, so far, banana slugs, worms, and ants. He has no disgust, he is very gentle with the invertebrates, he improves the structure that he built for them every day (today it is bigger, and made out of firewood). The pets will all be free, he says.

Today he dressed in a button-down shirt, nice pants, a Mr. Rogers-style cardigan, and spy shades (with mirrors so he can see behind himself). The quarantine is really not having any impact on his spirit, which is, as always, resourceful, positive, impeccable, and ready to turn anything into a new opportunity.

Leo sings songs to us, he uses the piano and ukelele, the lyrics are narrations of his life (“it’s a nice day and we’re going outside to play a new song.”) When we bike, he makes observations like “look at those beautiful roses!” I love his songs and observations so much I feel like fainting. So much sweetness.

A raven has staked us out, and visits our porch all day long. He eats the kids’ snacks, he tries to drink my water, and he tries to communicate. He tries to come inside. You can look into his eyes and see him thinking. Yesterday, he grabbed a snack-sized bag of goldfish crackers and tried to make off with them, but he grabbed it upside down and all the crackers fell out. He looked super embarrassed.

I take short walks, I get chubbier, I don’t do enough yoga. When I can sneak away, I go to my office downstairs and sink into the daybed, which I have layered with two mattresses and two memory-foam mattress covers (it expands to be a king). It is comically tall, and feels like the bed from the Princess and the Pea. I read Studs Terkel’s “Hard Times” to learn about life after the last Depression and about Oral History.

I read articles about caregiving, and about social reproduction theory and about the unpaid labor of childcare and housework, and how that undervaluing is at odds with the need for a capitalist society to produce more workers and more consumers.

It’s bad for a business when a female worker gets pregnant BUT it’s also bad for business when women stop having children and eventually there are no consumers. So who does that calculation?

The articles talk about the need to completely restructure society, but few go into specifics, aside from listing what the Nordics do.

Is now the time to do make big changes, now that people are being forced to care for their children and know better how to do it? And jobs are disappearing, and people are less connected to their job identities? And the tenuousness of our old system is being made clear as people just break under the pressure of having to do all things at once, to see how little resilience is built into our lives?

Leo turns 3 on Monday. We’ll celebrate him. And, I did it — I got both my kids from 0-3. I taught them, I loved them, I did 90% of it myself. Some kind of a rite of passage is in order.

the memory mining phase

Our kind neighbor dropped off a tray of sticky buns yesterday, which sent Matt on a Proust-ish memory daydream of being a 10-year-old immigrant in Denver with a map of all the Cinn-a-bons. Cinn-a-bon, a wonder of American decadence to a Polish boy.

i think we have reached the deep-dive memory stage of quarantine. If we can’t make any memorable new experiences right now, why not? The NYTimes travel section was full of memories this week… even the Sunday Review was.

What do I want to remember? Feeling free in Italy last fall, having a magical meandering conversation about life with my cousin, with no distractions, with the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain in the background? Riding the train to NYC, to be kid-free for more than 24 hours for the first time in 6 years, and not even knowing what to do with freedom?

Why did it take me that long?

Before Covid, I was making my way through a stack of books by liberated women: “Stories of the Sahara,” the five diaries of Anais Nin, essays from Gloria Steinem and Rebecca Solnit. I was inputing vast amounts of liberation data. I was starting to understand that how narrow the scope of your life is has everything to do with your lack of freedom, especially as a woman. And that making a broader life for yourself is so brave, and for a mother requires a very careful wrenching open of limitations.

And now I can’t bear to read any of it. Our lives have to be narrow.

The one thing that makes me want to continue our quiet, narrow existense is the amazing drop in emissions, the clean air and the healthier creatures. Would I be willing to have a quiet, narrow life for two years if it meant that the world could start to heal itself? Definitely yes.

An oral history of the pandemic?

My biggest pandemic coping mechanism/stress response has been ordering books, and I just recieved Studs Terkel’s oral history of the Great Depression: “Hard Times.” It is sitting on my desk staring at me, and I’m wondering, again, if I should think about collecting OH’s from residents, small business owners, and health care workers during this crisis, and follow the same output plan as my current project (podcast, and transcripts + portraits in book form).

Is it overdone? I see long interviews everywhere I look, in all publications, on the radio. If I narrow the geographic scope to my neighborhood, will that be worth publishing? Should I think of another way to narrow the scope? Should I wait until social distancing is over? Should I focus on finishing my current project and continue just thinking about this one? Will I miss the moment if I do that?

Many questions.

Thinking like an oral historian rather than a reporter has changed my relationship with time and urgency, though. It all feels a bit less urgent. There is always time to have those conversations, and the reflections benefit from time.

Matt and I continue to try and adjust our schedules to make room for each other to think and work. When we can invite a babysitter into our bubble of safety, our lives will breathe again. Until then, childcare is a zero sum game.

My curiosity about the future is intense. Will we drive less, fly less? Will the world be less polluted? If this goes on for two years, will the earth actually begin to heal? Will we have a different relationship with nature? Will our economy move more towards sustainability, rather than endless growth through consumption? Will more parents chose to homeschool? Will kids have more independence, will they ride their bikes around town on their own like we did? Will our society value childcare differently? Will more parents do more of it, or will childcare workers be more valued? Will this trauma make everyone be more resilient? Will lots of people jump onto a new life path? Will the break in day-to-day inertia and brush with mortality make it easier for people to make major life changes? Who will make those changes, and what will they be?

I keep sifting through the internet, trying to figure this out. I know the answers actually aren’t there. The uncertainty is thrilling.

I walked downtown the other night, to have a walk and to see what is there: boarded-up storefronts, homeless people on guitars, non-helmeted bikers looking around in wonder, sparseness. I read that five hotels in D.C. have offered to house the homeless, and I do see fewer people on the streets. Non-residential neighborhoods in D.C. feel eerie now, too quiet, too lawless. A few people started following me, calling out, and I felt more theatened than usual without the crowds to disappear into.

I miss so much now: swimming (in pools, in the ocean, in the sea), feeding friends, inviting kids to our garden, sitting at the cafe, walking miles around the city, chatting with people I run into. All the unpredictability that city life usually entails.

During these strange times of lockdown, I think I’m going to start blogging again. (Having a flashback from sitting in my Chapel Hill apartment with Megan, Daniel and Kristina in 2003, firing up a LiveJournal!)

I’m home with the kids most of the time now, planting a vegetable garden, letting them learn from each other, building whatever they want, and reading lots of books. Their happiness and contentedness contrasts sharply with what is usually found on Twitter.

I’m managing my existential fears (for myself and society) by reading The Plague. Wow, the plague is SO MUCH WORSE than what we are experiencing now (the buboes! the high mortality rate!)! But, many of the feelings are the same, and it’s really helping me. Right now, it is a guide for how to deal with the infinite present — how do people deal when planning for the future is impossible? One option is to go into a bit of a dormant state, to expect that emotions are going to be dulled for a while with nothing to look forward to. The other is to find a way to help — there is so much heroism in The Plague (Dr. Rieux, who is a model of “right action” and the necessity of keeping a dispassionate emotional distance, and Tarrou, who cannot stop collecting observations, has no fear of death, and created a team of workers to help.)

Can I help somehow? Keeping my kids safe is so consuming — is it enough? Can I make something? Can I bring someone groceries? Can I collect oral histories of what our neighbors are going through right now?

As far as my habits and activities, I have a knack for doing something right before it is closed up/shut down: getting a few books via Politics and Prose’s curbside pickup, taking the kids for a bike ride at the playground, wandering around the Arboretum. All those options are gone now. We spend hours in the backyard: the kids created a clubhouse, I water and sweep and weed. We play in the alley. We field calls. Matt and I go downstairs when we need to work and think, have the enormous priviledge of having this extra apartment.

Right now, I need to rush upstairs to facilitate Hugo’s call with his teacher. For a few hours a day, I am Hugo’s secretary — I set his agenda, set up calls, bring him his work. He’s a boss of a 6 year old.

An Oral History of Life in DC’s Most Gentrified Neighborhood

In Februrary, right before the pandemic drove us all inside, the DC Oral History Collaborative reached out with amazing news: they are funding my project!

In 2019, I collected oral histories from residents of D.C.’s most gentrified area: the adjecent neighborhoods of Shaw and Bloomingdale. Residents who moved in at every decade over the last 70 years are represented, ranging fom those born there in the 1940s to those who bought a home in 2017.

The oral histories capture their experiences, expectations and impressions of the neighborhood through that time.

Through a grant was funded by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, I’ll be creating a podcast series to bring all these voices to the public.

The DC Oral History Collaborative is a project of HumanitiesDC and the DC Public Library, and they funded a number of projects this year. I’m so excited to work with a cohort of other oral historians, and with the guidance of the experts in the office.