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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.

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