Opening Doors, Closing the Opportunity Gap

On September 14, UUCA welcomed the community and hosted four African American scholars Dr. Summer Carrol (Lenoir-Rhyne University), Dr. Brandi Hinnant-Crawford (Western Carolina University), Dr. Tiece Ruffin (UNCA) and Dr. Darrius Stanley (WCU) who spoke to an audience of over 100 about best practices to close the opportunity gap for Black youth in our public schools. I sat in the audience, grateful that UUCA opened its doors to such a diverse group of community members and that some of our members ensured that all were welcome, fed (lunch was provided) and children taken care of in our beautiful RE spaces. Thank you, to members of Recommitting to Black Lives Matter who shared of their time, talent and treasure to support this gathering.

The presenters began with an overview of the history of slavery and discrimination that ignored the richness and resilience of Black culture and resistance. They explained how the system of white supremacy at the root of the American project made it difficult for black children to integrate in the 1960s. Prof. Stanley quoted Rev. Martin Luther King’s analysis that black children were being integrated into a “burning house.” So what can be done in a culture that is still “on fire” with racism and white nationalist fervor?

The speakers provided examples of how teacher training can shape classroom practices that provide culturally relevant instruction that disrupts white supremacy culture. Culturally relevant instruction validates the identity of black children who are often seen as deficient and expected to conform to white middle class norms. The speakers also emphasized the importance of critically conscious educational leaders who disrupt the systemic practices and policies that disproportionately impact black children. We learned about black history and educational possibilities for supporting positive academic outcomes for black youth. Two youth shared their experiences navigating a system that is often hostile to them. They asked: Can you see us? Why don’t you know us? I wonder, how do we get to know the youth in our community?

Most importantly, Dr Carrol spoke about the need for a revolutionary love that treats all youth like human beings, loves them and is radical enough to bring about change. Her message spoke to that doctrine of love we embrace as UUs. What does that love look like in practice when black youth in our community are being left behind? What can our community do so that the differential funding and wealth gap that favor white over black students are diminished? To reduce the prison-to-school pipeline? The challenge of closing the opportunity gap is a challenge for ALL of us.

With that in mind, the second part of the presentation challenged the audience to explore how to leverage community assets to affect change. The audience counted off to form ten groups. Each group discussed and recorded ideas for how to leverage resources from: churches; libraries & research; community organizations, universities & community colleges; common/shared school spaces; elders; businesses & professionals; neighborhood associations, community centers & parks; food access organizations and community gardens; and community organizers and activists. Just hearing the list of all the assets in our community gave me tremendous hope. Wow! I wondered what would happen if these assets were vigorously engaged in closing the opportunity gap for black children?

I don’t know the plans are for next steps are after these engaging presentations and group conversations. I hope to hear from the organizers soon. Until then, I share the ideas from two groups about how churches and elders can be involved. Let me know what you think. Contact me at faithdev@uuasheville.org if you want to explore possibilities. As you read over these suggestions, I invite you to reflect on how these can be carried out with input from those they are intended to uplift. The challenge in justice work is to be allies of those marginalized versus doing for them and seeing ourselves as saviors. We were reminded that “nothing about us (i.e. our black siblings) without us if for us.”

Things churches can do:

  • Offer summer camps
  • Tutor
  • Increase leader visibility and advocacy in community e.g. PTA/PTO meetings
  • Use of space on non-Sundays for forums and lectures (black history, community racial history, state of education, arts, etc.)
  • Members can be reading buddies or lunch buddies in schools
  • Adopt a school or classroom
  • Provide scholarships for educational programs, enrichment activities
  • Offer career readiness/Counseling offered at church
  • Provide space and activities during school suspension for nurture/healing/justice
  • Provide after school homework support/participate in existing after school programs
  • Run food pantries
  • Provide transportation using church vans (to parent/teacher meetings, arts events, etc.)
  • Build relationship with the Latinx community /provide a safe zone/ language justice
  • Create and participate in interfaith projects

Things elders can do:

  • Receive training in reading and math strategies
  • Share living history
  • Connect elders with parents for support
  • Provide revolutionary love…engage children & families at church, in neighborhood
  • Disrupt complacency…speak up
  • Alumnae of Stevens Lee can share historical & institutional knowledge
  • Tap into Olli elders that may want to be involved in closing the gap
  • Engage with the schools through conversations, mentoring

Rev. Claudia Jiménez, Minister of Faith Development