A week ago, I attended a screening and panel discussion of American Promise at St. Joseph’s Prepartory School in Philadelphia. American Promise is a film about two young African American males, Idris and Seun, on their journey at the Dalton School – located in Upper East Side Manhattan. We get an intimate look at the dichotomy of their academic and personal lives. Idris and Seun’s (who come from two entirely different families) parents are highly involved in their student’s lives and both students experience significant hardships during the course of their education. You’ll have to watch the documentary to see what happens. The event was sponsored by a myriad of organizations and moderated by Brandon Brown (Adjunct Instructor). The panelist included Chris Rupertus (Teacher), Russell D. Morris (School/Clinical Psychologist), and Ross Hamilton (Teacher).
At one point in the film, a school administrator mentioned that one of the film’s protagonists may have experienced the hardships he did at the Dalton School due to a cultural disconnect. Shortly after the film ended, a St. Joseph’s prep student asked if there was a way to close the cultural disconnection gap he was experiencing during his time in high school. Someone from the audience suggested the student spend time with individuals from other cultural groups more often. Chris Rupertus suggested all students take one of his classes on African American history. The audience laughed, and Rupertus added that African American history is everyone’s history. I figured the same was true for Irish American history, Indian American history and so forth. We have more cultural connect than disconnect beneath the surface.
We are not working with a generation of students who walks around with their hands in their pockets and their noses pointed up.
Many of our students are curious about their neighbors sitting near them in the cafeteria, and just need language and framing to engage in conversations about differences. Today, one of our challenges is finding ways to spark conversations about solidarity, and make diversity more than just a buzz word. The student who spoke up during the panel discussion is not alone. I experienced a cultural disconnect when I moved to Portland, Oregon a few years ago. The only way I was able to appreciate the richness of the culture there was by genuinely being interested in the people around me and talking to them about things we had in common and things I had never heard of before. Our conversations about diversity can certainly extend beyond race, but appreciation for our own student’s cultures and getting them excited about others cultures is a great place to begin.
At one point in the discussion, Russel D. Morris told us about how he pulled his son, who is African American, out of one school where his counterparts are predominately White, and put him into a school environment where his peers are African American. One of Morris’s intentions was for his son to stand out out academically. A student in the audience challenged Morris and asked if Morris was considering what his son really wanted. Without blinking, Morris responded that his son had excellent grades and was now on track to graduate at the top of his class. Then, Morris invited the student to discuss more at the conclusion of the panel. This situation made me think about my own undergraduate experience and how I was reluctant to transfer from a small private and highly diverse institution to a larger and predominately white institution for fear of being swallowed up and lost in a sea of smarter more capable students of the majority. I had the support I needed at my small private school and felt I had mentors who were backing me in my progress and goals. But, what about our students of color who do attend institutions where their peers don’t look like them? How do we make efforts to have them live up to their potential and lessen the cultural disconnect they and their peers experience daily?
The Fine Line
At several points in American Promise we see both Seun and Idris’s parents engaging in Sanford’s theory of challenge and support. They clearly want their children to succeed, but at several points I asked myself, “What is the line between pushing and shoving?” When do we as administrators, mentors, and professors find ourselves pushing our students to succeed harder than others because of their ethic or cultural backgrounds? Many times in my own life, I’ve been told I’d have to be two steps ahead of everyone else for the mere fact that I was as minority.
While I understand the intention behind this, there is room for us to positively affirm our students and remember to celebrate the small wins they have along the way, so they are not completely caught up on the end goal.
Our Job as Institutions
A question which was not asked or addressed during the panel was: What is the job of institutions in helping to close the cultural disconnect gap?
Well, what do you think?