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Together but separate

18 Jun

Earlier this year Philadelphia suffered an unnecessary punch to the gut when a local magazine decided to publish An Article About Race. Regardless of how well-intentioned some of the parties may have been,* the resulting piece set off a firestorm.

*Emphasize either the “some” or the “may” in this sentence, as you prefer.

I won’t use up your time recapping the events here; there is plenty written elsewhere. I mention it only because one of the outcomes was this: Several (well, at least two) African-American writers are now working as bloggers for the Philly Post.

Sandy Smith is one of those bloggers, and one of his recent columns caught my eye:

Recently, a white friend of mine who lives up my way wanted to bend my ear about personal stuff and invited me to meet him at a popular Mt. Airy bar.

When I walked into McMenamin’s, I recognized a scene that was very Mt. Airy: About half the patrons in the bar were black and half were white, and everyone was enjoying themselves.

My friend recognized something else. He pointed out to me that the two groups of patrons, while in the same space, weren’t really interacting with the other.

Rather, they were enjoying themselves separately together. Ours was the only interracial dialogue in the room….

And that’s a shame.

How much better would this city be, how much safer, how much more pleasant, if we regularly crossed those dividing lines with others around us?

I like that Smith includes safer. It always amazes me how fearful many Philadelphians are about traveling outside their comfort zones, either geographically or figuratively.

Of course, some people have good reason to be fearful: If they’ve been assaulted or harassed for being where they “don’t belong,” it can feel safer and easier to stay away from those spaces.

But for many people, the big fear seems simply to be — well, for lack of a better word, awkwardness. They don’t want to feel out of place; they don’t want to be noticeable.

And — especially among white people — they don’t want their race/ethnicity to be marked. They’re accustomed to the luxury of not having their race be noted, and they feel weird when it is.

Smith continues:

I’m particularly sensitive to this subject because I’ve straddled those dividing lines all my life as part of the first generation of African-Americans who could truly grow up integrated if they—or their families—so chose….

I’ve since learned that this sort of straddling, while perhaps common in the world of work, remains rare in the social sphere. And those who try, find it a challenge to achieve.

I suspect part of the reason it’s a challenge is that it takes more than a single person to do it. And our society can be pretty serious about policing the boundaries when anyone tries to step outside — even in as minimal a way as having a drink at your local watering hole.

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Telling the story of Latino Philadelphia

4 May

The newspaper Al Día has long been a leader in improving our city, often by spotlighting people who are doing good work, and by stubbornly advocating for change when needed.200 Years of Latino History in Philadelphia - book cover

Erika Almiron headshot

Erika Almiron, Juntos

Recently the paper published a beautiful coffee table book with photos showing the history of Latinos in Philadelphia. It is available for $39.95 from Temple University Press (and less from Amazon).

See photos from the book in this slideshow.

Then check out this fascinating WHYY Radio Times interview featuring:

  • Erika Almiron, executive director of the South Philadelphia immigrant advocacy group Juntos (“Together”).

Here are some things I learned from the interview:

  • Latin American revolutionary leaders embraced Philadelphia during the 18th and 19th centuries due to the city’s Quakerly tolerance of religious and political diversity.
  • During World War II, Mexican “braceros*” came to Philadelphia on a guest worker program to work for the railroads. After the war, they returned to Mexico.
  • The church La Miligrosa, in the Spring Garden section of the city, is affectionately known as “the Plymouth Rock of Latino Catholics in Philadelphia.”
  • Voting-rights advocacy by Latino Philadelphians has had national implications for other groups working to get full access to the polls.

Listen to the WHYY radio show.

*Bracero translates approximately as “strong arms,” and is the informal name for a US government program to bring manual laborers and other workers from Mexico to the United States on temporary visas. The program lasted from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Am I my brother’s teacher?

29 Apr

That’s the title of a fascinating new article from researcher Dr. Shaun Harper.

Dr. Shaun Harper headshot

Dr. Shaun Harper

The focus: How young, successful black students mentor each other in the often-unwelcoming environment of predominantly white colleges.

Harper is well-positioned to study the issue: He heads the Center for the Study of Race & Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

From his article’s abstract:

Introduced in this article is the term “peer pedagogies,” which are methods students of color use to teach each other about the racial realities of predominantly white colleges and universities, as well as how to respond most effectively to racism, stereotypes, and racial microaggressions they are likely to encounter in classrooms and elsewhere on campus.

The article synthesizes an extensive body of research that focuses almost exclusively on racial problems Black students face at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), and provides insights into how they manage to productively navigate racist college and university environments.

As Harper notes: Hardly anything has been published about the latter. While there is an avalanche of material about deficits and difficulties faced by black students, there is far less on their assets and successful strategies for navigating those difficulties.

Harper’s research is particularly germane in Philadelphia, a city in which barely half of African-American students graduate from high school in four years.

I took particular note of Harper’s concept of “Onlyness,” in which a black student is the only representative of his or her race in a class or other setting.  This is not an uncommon experience for many students of color at predominantly white institutions; for example, at Penn just 7% of undergraduates (and 2.8% of faculty) are African-American.

Harper emphasizes that successful students nurture each other through formal and informal advising, often focused on how to handle being the “only.”

As I read, I kept thinking of young people (and parents) with whom I wanted to share Harper’s research. As this WHYY/NewsWorks.org article on “Men’s Day” at Germantown High School makes clear, there is a deep hunger for practical examples and models of achievement.

Hello, City

14 Apr

Maple treeLike most Pennsylvanians, I’ve lived here all my life. There’s a lot to love about our city (and region).

Deciduous trees are high on my list, maybe because I grew up with a 200-year-old maple in my backyard. In the months to come I’m sure I will be sharing more about my Philadelphia favorites.

At the same time, I’m not blind to my city’s flaws. There is a lot that we can improve. Note the pronoun there. This is a can-do blog about people who are actively working to support the city. If I draw attention to something I think is lousy or even outrageous, it’s because I think it needs and deserves fixing.

I’m not interested in tearing things down for the sake of it. I can be a harsh critic, but in service to a goal that is dear to my heart: a better Philadelphia.

I hope you’ll join me.

Photo credit: Flickr user mmwm. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.