Education and Class Identities: Who am I in relation to those I am fighting for?

Last week, I went to dinner with a friend from the program. She is Iranian, was born in the U.S., raised in Dubai, finished high school in a U.S. boarding school, and now goes to a small, elite liberal arts school on the east coast. With refreshing bluntness, she said she’d never really met anyone who either wasn’t going to or hadn’t gone to college. She asked if anyone from my high school didn’t go to university.

“Yes, probably more than half,” I responded.

She gasped – “Was it because they didn’t want to go?”

“No – it’s because they neither had the money nor grades to apply.”

Finally, she asked, “Did you know any of them?”

I paused for a minute, mentally combing through my facebook friends. Ashamed, I said no, not really. I may have chatted with them on occasion in the few mixed classes we had. But that’s about all.

I went to Garfield High School in the Central District (CD) in Seattle. This school, much as I love it, is a microcosm of so much that is wrong in society. I didn’t quite get it back then. Garfield is in the middle of a historically black, low-income neighborhood. In the late 1980s or so (not sure), the school district decides it’s the ideal place to track “gifted” or “high-achieving” students. Thus, suddenly a proud symbol of the surrounding black community (the only place in Seattle where Martin Luther King came to speak) is overrun by high-income whites and a handful of Asians. They enroll in AP classes in droves, while most black students remain in “regular” classes, and the focus largely shifts to catering towards the elite students (including myself).

The idea of putting the program in the CD, instead of a neighborhood closer to where all the high-income students live (like Wallingford) – or even having such a program at all – is essentially based on the same theory as Reaganomics. If you cater to the high achieving students, somehow this knowledge will trickle down to the rest. I’m not an education expert by any means. But I don’t see how – without mixing us “gifted” students into normal classes with the “rest” – we would actually pass on any knowledge at all. Instead, we generally (important exceptions existed) stayed in our classes and social circles and they stayed in theirs, they being completely intimidated by us, and us completely intimidated by them.

How can it be that I didn’t really know anyone from that half of my own high school? How is it that I honestly don’t really know anyone from that half of society?

Even in other countries that I go to, the friends I’ve made – aside from some of the Bolivian villagers (but I wasn’t that good at Spanish at the time) – have generally been college-educated like me. Our society is kind of severed like that. I may have met many people from that half of society. I may have even heard their life story volunteering as a Spanish interpreter at NWIRP. But have I ever really got to know them? Have I ever genuinely befriended them?

No. I can’t even really fathom it. What would we do if we couldn’t just throw down $10 for lunch? What would we talk about, if not what we were doing in our careers, or what the new Daft Punk record was like? (Basically run down the list of Stuff White People Like and cross those off conversation topics.)

Ironically, the closest I’ve come – aside from co-workers at a summer job in high school – is with my own relatives. My parents (and Aunt) are far and away the most conventionally “successful” of their family trees – they got scholarships to study abroad, and have good white-collar jobs in the U.S. Yet the majority of my male relatives work or have worked as taxi drivers (yes, the stereotypes have some basis), even if they may have been college-educated in Afghanistan.

When I went to Washington, D.C. for the ARNOVA conference to present my paper on Nicaragua, I stayed with my mother’s cousin. Her husband was – you guessed it – a taxi driver. She doesn’t work, and they have three young kids. Trying to explain to her husband – in broken Dari – why on earth I’d flown across the country for four days to talk for 12 minutes about what I saw in a country I went to for two months was, well….excruciatingly difficult and strangely embarrassing. It was like I was flaunting my class difference. Here, my mother’s cousin’s family is barely scraping by, while I get $500 free from my university to talk about a country I barely understand.

Ironically, in the research paper I presented there that came out of my work in Nicaragua, I cite a prominent Nicaraguan scholar, Andres Baltodano’s critique of the non-governmental organization (NGO) elite in Nicaragua:

In Nicaragua, the staff of modern NGOs rarely from the same class, ethnicity, or region as their constituents. Instead, they often form what Mattson (2007) terms an “NGO elite” of educated middle-class, mestizo, urban professionals enmeshed in international development discourse, often via international conferences (CC, 2009)….Baltodano (2006) notes that NGO leaders “almost never share the same ‘life opportunities’ and existential urgencies of those they represent.” Therefore, he argues that the policies they present “with excellent intentions lacks the incentive, sense of urgency and even the rage and need for change that in the past provided the force behind social transformation and collective action” (p. 27). Thus even those NGO staff who can leap over substantial class, ethnic, and cultural divides to become incredibly in tune with the needs and beliefs of their marginalized constituents may never be able to summon the urgent force of will required to make structural changes.

That last sentence is my own. And it’s now come back to bite me. It has remarkable resonance for anyone working for social change, whether in NGOs or not. We are often far removed from those we advocate on behalf of.

Is Baltodano right? Am I right? If so – what should my role be in promoting progressive social change? How can I be an activist fighting for those who I’ve never even met, and can never fully understand?

The counter-argument I’ve been consoled with by an activist from Nicaragua is that we – as the sympathetic elite – must act in solidarity with those people since they may not (yet) be able to fight for themselves, due to the very oppression and poverty we are fighting to lift them out of.

But that doesn’t mean we get to stay in the lead. I think we may have to be humble enough to realize that we can’t stay in the vanguard forever – our college degrees only mean so much when we don’t understand what it’s like to live on $2 a day.

It’s wonderful – and easier – to build on the theories of previous philosophers and social scientists. But perhaps our imagination about alternative developments and ways of organizing society and economies may also be constrained by the very education that gives us our credibility?*

*This reminds me a bit of the marshmallow challenge – kindergarten students often do better than anyone else simply because they let their imagination run free – they don’t try to plan and go by rules of what they’ve seen before.

Further Reading

Paul Kivel’s incredible piece, Social Service or Social Change?

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3 thoughts on “Education and Class Identities: Who am I in relation to those I am fighting for?

  1. It’s so true how being in an educated community makes you so naive and stupid. Next time I sit down with a non-college background fellow, I will be sure to bring my copy of Stuff White People Like as a conversation determiner. 😉 Nice words, Dean. Keep it up!

  2. […] like Yacoub – or the many others I have met like him – in the U.S. I describe this irony a bit here. But as I travel, I consciously – some might even say obsessively – seek out those people and […]

  3. astoryferguson says:

    This is wonderful, Dean. It is so strange how I feel like I’ve connected with more people from different economic classes abroad than in my own home. Though, I am very appreciative for the economic diversity of my own family … how is it that I’ve created such a bubble here in Seattle or in my hometown in California? Social mobility may have improved over the last century but there are still such astounding barriers.

    Stay safe! I hope you enjoyed West Africa!

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