Thursday, March 20, 2014

1 The Injustice of Grit: Being Twice as Good and Teach for America

Every region in Teach for America adopts its own motto that is meant to describe the region’s “Core Values”. For Houston, we have “Justice. Leadership. 100%.” While I have some issues with one of those values, I have greater issue with a value that seems to have covertly found unofficial membership with the rest: grit.

Grit, as I have understood it, is a certain mental toughness – an aversion to quitting. Grit means that when the going gets tough, you get tougher, so to speak. YES Prep has adopted grit as a central cornerstone of its charter model and I have seen it arrive in the Teach for America Office with greater and greater frequency since joining as a Corps Member. We have to teach our students to be “gritty” because that will help them overcome what they face. I want to foster a sense of “grit” in my students, Corps Members will say.

Though seemingly innocuous, I object to the use of grit as we frame conversations about our students because grit stands in direct opposition to the core value of “justice” in several ways. In particular though, “grit” focuses on overcoming one’s current circumstance; it focuses upon what is and tells those in want of “grit” that they should rise up and overcome. Although you may not have all the advantages, grit would say, you should still push through.

As a mindset for young kids to internalize, I can understand its utility. All students need to have a level of personal accountability and toughness because life is hard. That being said, I wonder if “grit” is something that we should be adopting as an organization, as adults within Teach for America, as folks who are supposed to keep “justice” a top priority as we serve. I wonder if grit aids us in achieving “transformational growth” or if grit binds us to the status quo.

Ultimately, something has to give – either our assessment of “grit” as something that our students do not possess or our commitment to “justice”. Let me explain.

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote a piece about Kim Novak at the Oscars. In it, he references our common discourse on Jackie Robinson. He writes,

“I’ve spent the past couple of years thinking about the ‘twice as good’ notion in the black community, and the bindings that we put on young black boys so that their country will not kill them. Of course ‘twice as good’ ultimately means half as many arrive, and those who do receive half as much. Let us dispense with self-congratulation and great men. The question is not, ‘What did Jackie Robinson achieve in spite of racism?’ It is, “How much more would he have achieved without it?’ “

Coates’s reframing of the conversation allows us to see America’s social landscape more honestly. While we celebrate heroes like Robinson for all that they were able to accomplish in the face of racism and poverty, we should also consider the countless other Jackie Robinsons who were not allowed to flourish because of racism and poverty; we should also consider how much more Robinson could have accomplished in a just world. Racism, poverty, marginalization, and all other oppressions are not the kinds of pressure that forge diamonds. Instead, they are fetters and handicaps that deny humans that opportunity to shine as they otherwise would.

“Grit” is the commentary we currently have about Robinson, but “justice” requires the question that Coates explains.

We can see the same misaligned focus in discussions of other icons.

Barack Obama, undoubtedly, should be celebrated for being America’s first African-American President. What he has achieved is laudable and his time as President should be honored – however, we have to also posit the question, “How much more could Barack Obama have accomplished without racism?” Or, better yet, “How many Barack Obamas has this country stifled through racism, through poverty?”

Hillary Clinton, who looks positioned to be the United States’ first female President, draws similar praise for all that she has accomplished as a woman (read: despite sexism). But in what ways could Hillary have thrived more, accomplished more, if she did not have to combat endemic sexism? What if she, like her male counterparts, could focus less on the cut of her pant-suit and could, instead, focus more on policy? What if showing political aggressiveness was touted as a virtue for her, as it is for men, instead of forcing her to combat chauvinistic depictions of her as a bitch?

Of course, this applies to the discourse that surrounds our students, too.

I remember one Saturday, I stopped at McDonald’s on my way home from a practice test for my teacher certification. I parked my car next to a pick-up truck that was covered in splotches of paint and had its truck bed filled with jagged scraps of metal. This car appeared to me more like something from a demolition derby or Grand Theft Auto than anything that should have been on the road.  Regardless, after parking I walked inside McDonald’s and noticed one of my students, Mauricio, was there with his mother.

I wasn’t entirely sure of the interaction Mauricio and I would have. In school, Mauricio had made his disdain for reading (and for me, by extension), painfully apparent.

After asking him to pick his head up one day, he and I had this exchange:

Me: Mauricio, you need to pick your head up and follow along.
Mauricio: Man, you know what mister, can I ask you a question?
Me: Yes.
Mauricio: You know what I really hate, mister? This class!
Me: Great. So we’re going to fo—
Mauricio: You know what I hate more than this class? You! Hahahaha

Recently, though, Mauricio had had a breakthrough. His schedule was changed and, consequently, he switched from my reading class to another teacher’s. He began receiving some mentoring from his math teacher and was beginning to enjoy being at school – even going so far as to seek me out one day so I could see his new haircut – one that flaunted a Texans logo etched into his hair

At McDonald’s, I said “Hi” to Mauricio and asked him what he was going to do on his Saturday. He said that he was going to help his mom at work. When I asked him what it was that he would do with his mom he explained that they were going to go, “pick-up metal and, like, find other metal and pick it up, you know?”

I thought about the car outside, realizing that it was Mauricio’s, and thought about the way other students were probably spending their Saturdays – specifically most of the students in my Vanguard (gifted and talented) classes. Although, for the most part, they were engaged in extracurricular activities and some type of recreational time, here was Mauricio spending his Saturday picking up scraps of metal and loading it into a pick-up truck.

I think it is incredible that Mauricio is making growth as a reader. I think that all of his accomplishments despite the poverty in which he lives are only greater reason to celebrate them. I think it is wonderful that Mauricio, now, asks his mom to let him stay at school on days when he might be picked up early because he, “figures that there are some things he should learn [at school].”

One thing I cannot say is that Mauricio lacks grit. He isn’t in want of toughness. He possesses much more than I did at that age. And when I think about this abstract concept of “grit,” what does it really mean in Mauricio’s case?

Is TFA actually helping students like Mauricio if our suggestions to him are simply that he toughen-up? And what, then, becomes our role as we enter Mauricio’s community? This conception of “grit” positions us as external saviors who are entering communities (largely poor and largely of-color) with this “virtue” that these communities lack. Grit, as we currently employ it, says that our students are internally deficient, that they are not rising-up as opposed to being held down. Grit, its implications, and the way it is employed indicate a project that is colonial, rather than compassionate, in nature.

Mauricio is not deficient. He is disadvantaged because of the privileges that his peers enjoy. He was born into a trajectory that would position him to struggle so that wealthier, whiter, and more advantaged students would be positioned to thrive. The child is not lacking grit. He is lacking opportunities, and the resources necessary to fully seize those opportunities.

So I would say, then, that any commitment to “justice” that Teach for America wants to maintain must consider more than simply instilling asense of “grit” in students who are already surviving conditions that most Corps Members never had to face.  As an organization, “grit” cannot be something we prioritize if actual justice is to exist. Grit tells students like Mauricio that they must be twice as good; grit treats systemic oppression as a constant that must be overcome rather than changed; grit perpetuates racism and classism and does little to actually change outcomes for disadvantaged communities.

Justice, conversely, calls upon Corps Members to be advocates for their students. And in being an “advocate,” this means that Corps Members within Teach for America, as well as the organization, must push to change the playing field. Advocacy means that Mauricio's teachers should not tell him simply to be tougher. Rather, advocacy means that we identify the injustice – that Mauricio is under-resourced, has to work on weekends, and is not being given ESL support at school – and leverage our privilege to change the outcomes for the community. As I have begun to say, our duty is to loosen the noose. We must loosen the noose of oppression.

As Coates points out, the notion of being “twice as good” has long existed in the black community. There are many lessons that black parents give their sons and daughters to indicate to them that American society has an added list of requirements for those within non-white bodies to be given access to various opportunities.

 Pray, do not mistake this as an argument against striving for excellence. Excellence, of course, is something that we should all seek to achieve. I simply posit that there is no justice in simply telling black and brown kids that they have to be twice as good as their white peers in order to reach the same markers of success.

As an organization, TFA should eschew grit. Instead of directing energy toward fostering this nebulous trait within students who, frankly, are already remarkably stalwart in the face of hardship, the organization should promote justice for the students it serves. TFA should come off its laurels and use its brand, lobbying power, and Corps Members to advocate for policy and changes that will benefit its students. Teach for America should be defending Affirmative Action. Teach for America should push for immigration reform. Teach for America and its Corps Members should be enfranchising voters – especially when our students’ communities are thosebeing left in the dark.

Ultimately, “grit” is unsuitable as a value that underpins Teach for America’s mission to deliver “transformational change” for its students. It is unsuitable in any conversation in which justice is central. Grit views the communities that Teach for America serves as lacking. Grit ignores the structural barriers that deny students access to higher education. Grit, in its well-intentioned goal to teach students to “rise up and overcome,” offers our students’ detractors a convenient excuse for our students’ plight: “Alas, it is not privilege or advantage that ultimately pushes wealthier, predominantly white, students to success! It is the lack of character that exists in the poor communities of color.” Grit, then, is the newest design in oppression’s collection, an attempt to portray the most disadvantaged as being responsible, in some way, for their own marginalization.

Justice, conversely, cannot co-exist with grit because justice understands that structural inequalities position people for different levels of success well before they have the agency necessary to make choices, to exhibit or not-exhibit “grit” in any sense.

Grit tells students to make a five-star meal with little more than a stone and a pot of water. Our students deserve better than stone soup. Justice, not grit, argues for these children to have a well-stocked pantry.

Grit directs attention toward the exceptional, the “rose that grew from concrete.” But even in honoring this one rose, could we reasonably blame the other flowers for not pressing through the pavement above them?

A grit-inclined perspective would simply appreciate the one flower for having toiled through the pavement. Justice, on the other hand, sees the one rose and asks, “How much taller could this have grown without the stone above?” Justice would begin breaking apart the concrete so that the whole garden could blossom.



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