Mind the Gap

An inner-city schoolteacher laments a lack of understanding between our two Americas. About a month ago, I polled my students...

An inner-city schoolteacher laments a lack of understanding between our two Americas.
About a month ago, I polled my students about what topics they thought I should write about for this blog.

"Tell them we're not so bad," said one student.

Her comment resonated with me-her awareness of the negative stereotypes that exist about her community, my role as a liaison between these two worlds. My students are not so bad-they're actually quite remarkable-but a lack of genuine interaction with middle America has sullied the pool of public opinion to the point where my student felt compelled to ask me to vouch for her peers' decency.

I thought again about her comment recently as I stood in Washington D.C., watching protests against health-care reform and listening to Republican Congressional leaders lambaste the legislation. The vitriol spewed by the protesters alarmed me, both the acridity of its content and also the basic disregard for the uninsured.

I supported health care reform on the basis of a main tenet-basic health care is a right, not a privilege. Furthermore, I trusted the Congressional Budget Office's analysis and President Obama's judgment. Most powerfully, however, this job has given me a front-row seat to the deleterious impact impact that not having health care has on a family-missed days of school, hours spent waiting in hospital emergency rooms, elaborate costs and procedures.

Opponents of the legislation mostly grounded their arguments in economic or ideological terms. I firmly believe there were two other issues at play for many of these people-their discomfort with an African-American president pushing for change and their limited understanding of or concern for people in different socio-economic classes. In many cases, this lack of empathy can be traced back to a lack of familiarity or interaction.

With his chief domestic initiative in peril, President Obama had to put my student's suggestion into action by telling Americans that people without insurance are not so bad. To make his point, he introduced us to Natoma Canfield, a cancer patient who had to drop her health insurance because of rising premiums. She promptly got leukemia. He referenced her in multiple speeches and her sister came to the bill-signing ceremony. Some political commentators attributed her inclusion in his stump speech to an upswing in public opinion about the bill.

I've witnessed the same evolution in some of my family and friends. The most common reaction to my announcement last year that I would be teaching in the South Bronx was clear and direct-be careful. A friend suggested wearing Kevlar under my shirt and tie. A relative advised going around in a bubble to ensure immunity from all potential ills. I kid you not.

After relaying stories and experiences throughout my first year, these people's opinions softened. I'd humanized the South Bronx -an area older folks associated with the fires of the 1970s and younger folks associated with the crack epidemic and related violence. Friends and family have since visited my school and met my students; many have contributed money to our upcoming service-learning project in New Orleans.

My position with Teach for America allowed me to act as a bridge between the largely white, affluent community I grew up in and the mostly Latino, low-income community where I now spend my days. Perhaps Teach for America's most unqualified success is bringing people like me-despite sincere efforts to recruit applicants from the communities in which it serves, corps members are largely middle- to upper-class-into communities like the South Bronx. The resulting expansion of empathy and social capital is mutually beneficial.

So interaction breeds understanding. Great. What can be done to increase interactions between what John Edwards accurately termed the two Americas? As I grew up in the suburbs, many of my neighbors were unwilling to step foot in Camden. Now I work in the inner city, and many of my students are reluctant to explore new areas, even a short subway ride away to Manhattan.

Teach for America is one facet of the solution, but the scope of the program is not (yet) broad enough to produce the necessary changes to impact the national mindset. Having a president who has served as a community organizer is helpful-you can rest assured that Obama would respond much differently to a Katrina-like disaster than his isolated and aristocratic predecessor.

Evan Bayh, who is leaving the Senate in part because of its acrimonious environment, has suggested members of both parties get together for a monthly lunch. "Listening to one another, absent the posturing and public talking points, could only promote greater understanding, which is necessary to real progress."

What is the community equivalent of a Senate luncheon? What role can schools play to decease the dangerous disconnect between our experiences?

Brainstorming sessions between common groups like student government or student newspaper could be a start. Joint service-learning projects like our New Orleans trip are a possibility-a group of students from an Upper East Side private school are heading there for the same purpose, and if we had known earlier we could have coordinated our trips. School visits and post-game meals between athletic teams could also help promote awareness and encourage understanding on the school level.

What else can we do to bridge this divide? Am eager to read your suggestions in the comments section below.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays. Last week's essay can be gotten here.

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less