Monday, July 28, 2008

What Have You Done Today?

By Caitlin Watt, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Viewing the world from a systems perspective can be a daunting task indeed. Systems thinking demands that one see the world holistically. (footnote #1) Cause and effect, in a linear sense, are abandoned in favor of events as a product of indirect and delayed effects as well as the nature and structures of systems. In this sense, creating solutions to problems like racial injustice or economic inequality is to confront a staggering task of not only looking for the multiple, cumulative, and possibly hidden factors on which injustice and inequality depend, but also confronting and imagining the possible consequences any one solution will have. For obvious reasons, the systems approach can leave a person paralyzed by the sheer vastness of social complexity or running for the fabled “simpler times.”

But complexity does not mean intractability. Interconnectedness, while certainly fostering complexity, also inheres simple beauty. Because we are all connected – whether by place, status, or simply by the way one action far from us can affect all of us – because we are all part of the system, our simple actions can have far reaching consequences. Small changes can produce large results. A drop in the pond becomes a ripple that pushes water down a hill and into a stream that, with time, can become a river that creates a canyon. The foreclosed home a few blocks away reduces the property value in our home, which affects property taxes, school funds, and ultimately, the educational futures of neighborhood children. We are not islands; we are all connected. As the system changes and adapts, so do we change and adapt.

As we live and make choices, we need to be aware of this interconnectedness. We cannot afford to pretend that we are solely responsible for our position in life, and others are responsible for theirs. Our positions, made possible by the positions of others before us and contemporary to us, are given importance and meaning because of others. Law professor Robert A. Williams, Jr. tells a story from his youth, when Lumbee elders asked him, "what have you done for your people today?" (footnote #2) He explains that this question is meant to convey that all he does, achieves, and learns should be for the purpose of helping the community. He is essentially asked to use his interconnectedness to create a societal evolution, where his gain is the gain of his people and the gain of his people is the gain of all people. As interconnected beings in this large and complex system we call a city, a country, or a world, we too need to ask what we have done for all people today.

#1. For information on systems thinking, the following references are suggested: Robert Jervis, Complexity and the Analysis of Political and Social Life, Political Science Quarterly, Volume 112, No 4, 1997-1998; Joanna Macy, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory: The Dharma of Natural System, 1991; Rebecca Blank, Tracing the Economic Impact of Cumulative Discrimination, American Economic Association, December 2004.
#2. Robert A. Williams, Vampires Anonymous and Critical Race Practice, 95 Mich. L. Rev. 741 (1997).

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

One year after Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, No. 1

By Treisa Martin, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

June 28, 2008 marked the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that thwarted many school districts’ efforts toward integration, particularly the school districts in Seattle and Jefferson County. In Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, No. 1, the plurality opinion declared that race as a direct factor in student assignment plans is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the controlling opinion came from Justice Kennedy, who said that avoiding racial isolation is a compelling interest and that school districts may indirectly consider race to achieve integration. Thus, the opinion left school districts with the perplexing task of achieving a pedagogically beneficial mix of students using their own creativity.
The two districts in the case reacted quite disparately. Jefferson County has adopted a new plan that emphasizes integration by geographic areas. Under the plan, the school district is divided into six clusters, each of which was drawn to be economically and racially diverse. The district designates geographic areas as either “Geographic Area A,” in which the residents are below average median income and educational attainment, but above average minority population, or “Geographic Area B,” in which the residents are poor or middle-class white and middle-class minority. All children are assigned based on their neighborhood demographics, rather than individual characteristics.
On the other hand, in Seattle, district leaders have abandoned their efforts toward integration and accepted the resegregation that has occurred. Nearly one-third of Seattle’s schools are racially imbalanced, and twenty schools are comprised of student populations that are over 90% non-white. However, the district would rather focus on high-quality schools rather than desegregation. Although the district considered set-aside seats for children from outside neighborhoods, it is not likely this proposal would achieve significant integration.
Pat Todd, the district’s executive director for school assignment, said that Seattle is reflective of the national attitude toward integration. This trend reinforces the need for public awareness as to the benefits of integration. Additionally, the public awareness may explain the different outcomes in these two districts. Over the past year, Jefferson County’s strategy involved soliciting community feedback in the development of their new student assignment plan. A recent University of Kentucky survey indicates that nearly nine out of ten parents support continued efforts to maintain racially diverse learning environments. Perhaps the community involvement prompted the requisite foundation for the plan’s success. Increasing effective communication may yield community support and encourage school districts to maintain their efforts toward inclusion.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

College Access: A Case for K-12 Encouragement

By Uchechi C. Amadi, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

The look on her face as she flurried around the house was exceptional. She was used to throwing parties, but this one was different; this one was special. As she busied herself in the kitchen, she took a moment to rest her hand on the table marking our accomplishments. There sat two graduation caps, two Kente cloths marking our heritage, and two college diplomas—one adorned with the Wright State University emblem and the other dressed in Scarlet and Gray. In the same month, the football star and the bookworm, two of her babies, had become college graduates. She couldn’t be prouder.

She retained the glow of a mother seeing her kids graduate, but a glint in her eye suggested a greater satisfaction. Perhaps she realized that the odds had been against us. The statistics say nearly one-half of all college-qualified, low- and moderate-income high school graduates prepared to attend a four-year college are unable to do so. This is largely due to the rising cost of higher education and community messages that question the necessity of obtaining degrees. The statistics could have applied to us, but thankfully, we had developed a system over the years wherein we learned to cling to each other for support.

It is not a big secret that many from disadvantaged backgrounds lack the resources, support systems and encouragement necessary to pursue higher education. No single solution exists, but by planting the seed in grades K-6 and intensifying encouragement to attend in grades 7-12, progress can be made. Arguably, there is no greater inequality than the loss of opportunity. University and non-profit led programs that target those from disadvantaged backgrounds and allow them to see that college graduation is achievable should be promoted, for they help students stay connected to their dreams even in the midst of failing schools, jaded guidance counselors and over-worked teachers. OSU’s Economic Access Initiative is already doing its part. In late May, the Columbus Dispatch wrote about Blueprint: College, a program that provides higher education information to Columbus Public School kids and their families years before they have to apply. At the back end, the Kirwan Institute is also helping. The Democratic Merit Initiative and Middle College Multicultural Educational Exchange Program encourage integration in schools and help ensure that there is some place for students to attend after high school graduation.

These both are effective organizational initiatives, but individuals can help as well. Discuss college with a neighbor, mention it to a younger relative, perhaps even serve as mentor; once you plant the seed, the idea will have years to grow.

Economic Access Initiative:
College Access Statistic:
Columbus Dispatch Article:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is Green the New White?

By Sarah Kozel Silverman, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

Last week, environment and climate change were second only to the world economy on the G8 Summit agenda. As I considered the implications of this focal attention to the environment, I wondered how the United States' shift from the not-so-distant rejection of the Kyoto Protocol to environmental fanaticism came about. Maybe it was Al Gore. Maybe the will of the people finally influenced democratic leaders. But this wholesale embrace of environmentalism merits some thoughtful reflection. Environmentalism sure seems like an innocuous sort of cause--the kind that makes everyone feel good and induces the otherwise oblivious to contribute $5 toward saving baby polar bears. But it has also taken on an implicit agenda often either overlooked or ignored. The truth is, many people of color are left out of the dialogue on environmentalism. The work of saving the environment is left to those who can afford bamboo floors and hybrid cars--not to mention organic foods and high efficiency heaters. As a result, low-income families in particular are silenced.

It is certainly no secret that issues of environment, race and social class are deeply intertwined. Environmental reports have consistently demonstrated that air and water quality are lower in neighborhoods where residents are predominately poor or people of color than in comparable middle or upper-class, white neighborhoods. But the new movement toward sustainable living and alternative energy sources (known as 'the green movement') widens the gap between social groups in new ways. Consider the implications of high-priced, eco-friendly materials over 'eco-unfriendly' goods. As the prices of fossil fuels continue to rise, those who cannot afford more efficient vehicles, homes and appliances will be forced to find ways to make up the cost differences. The increasing availability of certified organic goods does not decrease the cost of producing and certifying such goods, so healthy foods may be more difficult to access. Even a well-intentioned movement is faced with the challenge of overcoming bias. But there is some promise in environmentalism.

Attention to global warming has grown at an astounding rate over the past few years. It seems people suddenly realized their habits were bringing about an uninhabitable future world of flooding and pollution. Yet I am troubled this sort of energy is not devoted to the equally concerning inequitable existence among social groups. The incredible force of the green movement is one that can provide some insight into how we might go about gathering momentum for a different type of change in habits, processes and structures. Clearly there continue to exist inequalities--even within the green movement itself. But consider the possibilities of pursuing social justice with our tenacity for environmentalism.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Racial Justice as a Moral Value: Rallying the Religious Left and Right

By Marguerite L. Spencer, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

Exit polling from the 2004 presidential election found that “moral values” stood out as the most important consideration for voters. In this election cycle, campaign strategists are focusing more than ever on how to appeal to an array of voters on a myriad of moral issues.

In his July 6th editorial in the New York Times, Stephen Carter (Yale Law School) argues that from the early years of our nation’s founding through the mid-70s, racial injustice was the fundamental moral concern of American politics. Emancipation, voting rights, school desegregation, and affirmative action made great strides toward increasing life opportunities for nonwhites. But by the late 80s, the nation’s attention had slipped to other “more pressing” moral questions, which today include abortion and same-sex marriage.

There may be some hope, however, of rekindling the nation’s concern for racial justice as a moral issue that moves beyond a celebration of a viable African American presidential candidate. Indeed, there is danger in leaving our discourse there, as if we are now a post-racial nation in which any lingering inequalities represent a lack of personal responsibility.

Rather, we can talk about two movements, one from the religious left and one from the religious right, that are of great significance to those who seek to address common moral concerns. Stephen Mansfield, the pro-life conservative and author of The Faith of George W. Bush, and the forthcoming The Faith of Barack Obama (to be released August 5th), argues that the religious right has been an effective force since Ronald Reagan, but the religious left is in the process of finding its voice, with Obama as one of its heralds.

Of course, there has always been a religious left; we need only look to Martin Luther King Jr. In opposition to many of his critics, King called the faith community to challenge government and transform the unjust laws and moral codes of society, as did the Hebrew prophets of old. Shaun Casey, Obama’s religious advisor, argues that since the religious right praises King as a model of religious involvement in public affairs, it must allow Obama to play a similar, albeit modest, role.

Concurrently, there is a movement from the religious right that shares many of the moral and social justice concerns of the left. Some conservative Christians, under a new generation of leadership, involve themselves with issues of climate change, genocide, AIDS, and global poverty. Last week, pastors from largely White, conservative, evangelical Christian churches were among the 20 signatories to a letter urging Arizona’s top officials to consider immigration laws that preserve human dignity, a position most often shepherded by Latino and left-leaning pastors.

Obama plans to attract these conservatives and bring together voters motivated by their faith to engage in politics. Perhaps he can fashion a unified front against durable racial and economic arrangements that limit life opportunities. This can only benefit our nation’s conscience, as well as our struggle toward becoming a more just, multi-racial democracy.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Our Inter-Connected World: Ethanol, Corn, Sprawl and Urban Inequality

By Jason Reece, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

One of the side effects of the recent oil price increase is a surge in ethanol production in the US. As a biomass based fuel, ethanol is developed with agricultural products, primarily corn, in the US.
So, why would I be talking about ethanol production on the Kirwan Institute blog? What does ethanol have to do with racial and ethnic groups or marginalized populations?
The answers to those questions are powerful illustrations of the complexity of interconnection and systems, and the story begins with corn. Corn is grown on agricultural land and is one of the primary crops produced in the Midwest. The renewed interest in ethanol has elevated the price of corn, thus encouraging more farmers to plant more corn (leading to shortages of other non-staple crops like Barley) and has increased the productive value of farmland.
Cheap agricultural land and cheap gasoline are the two principal elements needed to fuel urban sprawl in areas with little population growth like the Midwest. New subdivisions rely on easy and cheap auto transportation and inexpensive farmland to be profitable and sustainable. The increase in the potential productive value of farmland (for corn to be used in ethanol) paired with an increase in fuel costs has weakened two of the principal pillars supporting our nation’s seemingly inexhaustible thirst for new sprawling development.
As ample research has shown, urban sprawl is one of the primary factors contributing to disinvestment and marginalization in urban communities of color. Racial and economic segregation in schools and neighborhoods, declining infrastructure, concentrated poverty, the spatial mismatch between workers of color and jobs are all attributable to the role urban sprawl plays in draining resources and people out of urban communities.
Thus in this scenario, as the production of ethanol increases in the US, a decline in suburban and exurban development could follow, restricting the flow of resources and people out of urban communities of color and reducing the racial and opportunity isolation inflicted on these communities.
It is hard to predict if this trend will continue (or if all the factors listed above will remain static). But, it is a powerful example of the way all things are interconnected in our world and the complexity of social justice challenges.