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The Art of the Colonized Classrooms, or When Social Good isn’t Enough

Ever experienced colonization in real time?

Sure, we hear about how countries were colonized long ago, and we can see the artifacts of colonization everywhere you look. What I mean, though, is a person who commandeers your space, time, and people for their own needs — in front of your face. Like you spent all your time and effort knitting a quilt, and someone in good faith, sets the patchwork on fire?

I have. It involves urban greening, a rave, and gunshots. Come watch it burn in real time.

When I still lived in Oakland, I met one of the only black alumni of my graduate program at UC Berkeley. As it turns out, she runs a nonprofit in Oakland focused around the complex issues of urban ecology. They teach kids about the importance of urban ecology, and they advocate for direct action and policy changes which could help make Oakland streets a more environmentally sustainable space.

To find opportunities to collaborate, by developing a design-led short course for a high school in downtown Oakland which gave students the opportunity to co-design some urban greening projects they were implementing in the school. We inject student inclusion, they receive feedback on their greenery project — a win-win.

Students were already learning about the bioswale a landscape element designed to remove silt and pollution out of surface runoff water. After months of planning, we developed a curriculum where students would learn how to collect user data, observe their surroundings like designers, and add to topographical maps to contribute to the NGO’s design. Fortunately, we progressed through the first week without too many difficulties; the next week was another story.

Halfway through the discussion, a random white woman with her toddler on her hip gingerly wanders into the classroom. Is she supposed to be here? I look at my colleagues, and they don’t seem too concerned. While I’m controlling the students, she sits her child on the seat and starts to whisper to my colleagues. It’s not a big classroom, so it’s already affecting who’s paying attention. I don’t know much about what other organizers had planned; I just hope her contributions are useful.

Eventually, the students are about to round-robin brainstorm, one of the most important design tools of the day’s event: it teaches students to design, and the ideas get refined for the NGO to bring to life. Funny then, that my course comes to a screeching halt.

My colleague says to me, “Oh, actually, We don’t have time for this next part, because our guest is going to come in and spend about five minutes talking about her own class announcement.” Not much I can do at this point, because time is running out, and I no longer have the floor. So, I help get herself set up and sit down for her presentation.

Her presentation lasted twice as long as expected, and she told these middle-school students about completely separate Oakland development issue: coal shipping. Oakland developers have fought with activists for years about using Oakland’s ports as the main avenue to send coal to the world, and this woman urged everyone to be a part of the action which stops it in its tracks.

What was the direct action she suggested? A nighttime rave, on the Oakland developers’ front yard.

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I was stunned.

After her talk, the cohesion of the classroom fell apart. After everyone left, I asked my colleague what just happened. She said: “ I had no idea she was coming.”

Apparently, she wasn’t even invited to be there in the first place. She asked some planners last night if she could speak at the classroom, and agreed the schedules didn’t match. But, she showed up anyway. I was floored.

It took a couple of days before I could grapple with how much space she took up that day. Care to count?

For one, she took time and energy from the course we spent two months making. The workshop was supposed to accomplish two goals: to teach the kids about research, design, and green ecology principles, and to learn about the changes they want to see at their school. Her speech contributed zilch to those goals.

Second, the issues weren’t catered to her audience. Ever tried to hold the attention of preteens? It’s likely the hardest audience you’ve had. Getting them to pay attention takes immense emotional and logical planning. Instead, this woman squished an hour-long presentation for adults into ten minutes. These kids understood the problems — but they just didn’t care.

Finally — and most infuriating — she was asking the kids to put themselves in danger. She asked them to come to the house of Oakland developer who’s known for brandishing guns at Black Lives Matter protestors. How thick can you be to ask Black and Brown children, in our world, to rave on a doorstep?

I bet it was a sick rave, though.

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This happened years ago. I could out the activist by mentioning her name. Instead, by publishing the story, I hope we can learn how to turn the critique back on ourselves.

How was I a bit of a colonialist? From the students’ perspective, I’m a random design teacher, speaking to them for two weeks at a time about bioswales, maps, and prototyping.

These kids were going through real issues. One kid was in the back of the classroom sleeping because she was up until 3 AM looking for her sister. Last week, a friend of the kids was stabbed a block away from the school. How am I really help these kids if I don’t try to understand their complex lives? Can four hours total of teaching practice truly change their lives?

This woman, trying to keep Oakland sustainable, was a bull through a metaphorical china shop. As much as I wanted to cuss her out for being so happily ignorant and divisive, it was more useful to reflect on how little I wanted to be like her. Everything we do in the name of helping the most marginalized, must be viewed in this frame: are we supporting oppression, or subverting them? Maybe both? Only by being honest about our impact — both good and bad — can we actually do the good we intend to do.

When sparking fires to battle oppression, we can’t burn down the communities we leave behind.

How about you? Have you been a part of a project where someone, with good intentions, completely botched their work for the future? Tweet me @piercegordon1, so we can start the discussion.

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