Donald Trump’s recent remarks on the terrible state of our urban neighborhoods and how we need to “turn our inner-cities around” is part of a larger public discourse that perpetuates a deficit lens on our communities of color and particularly on our students.
Through that discourse, students of color are ultimately seen as lacking intelligence and incapable of success. As a result, we need to be saved through neoliberal policies, standardized testing and a common core curriculum to make our schools “better.”
Inside the classroom, there is typically a curriculum centered on Eurocentric knowledge, justifying the colonization of indigenous and Mestizos folks by omitting—or briefly mentioning—the real histories of genocide and displacement. Although many teachers have intentions of helping students succeed academically and pursue a better lifestyle, most teachers lack the adequate support to do so.
On a larger scale, we have educational policies, such as “No Child Left Behind” or Obama’s most recent “Race to the Top” fund, that further holds students and teachers accountable for academic failure and low test scores rather than the institutions and the education system as a whole. Overall, the negative rhetoric that says inner cities need to be fixed and saved serves as code for a white-savior complex.
So as a community, how do we counter these hegemonic ideologies inside and outside the classroom? We must start by recognizing that Boyle Heights has a history of political activism. From the East LA walkouts in 1968 to the recent protests against gentrification, our community bleeds activism.
Some outsiders just see our community as violent, uneducated and gang-infested. Others only see us as a goldmine full of rich foods and cultural art. While statistics point to the first perception as true (to a certain extent), and we definitely do make delicious food and produce incredible art to back up the second perception, we are more than that.
We also have what research scholar Tara J. Yosso calls Community Cultural Wealth. We all have aspirations and dreams to succeed academically and have a successful life; we have the abilities to communicate and/or understand in multiple languages; we have family knowledge that helps us survive out in the streets; we have social skills that allow us to build networks of support to help one another; we have knowledge on how to navigate the system because we’ve done it our whole lives; and lastly, we know how to resist.
These six types of cultural wealth capture the unique qualities that community members have that are often overlooked by mainstream society.
In order to end educational inequities, our society needs a systemic and ideological transformation. Unfortunately, this will be extremely difficult to attain in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we should stop pushing for it. As a community, we need to embrace the cultural wealth we possess and continue our legacy of resistance to fight for spaces in schools where we can have critical conversations regarding social issues that impact us.
An example would be allowing us to have a curriculum that centers around our experiences as students of color in the United States or that provides resources so that we can build stronger connections between schools and parents so that parents can actually have a voice. This effort would require teacher and administrative involvement and a commitment to social justice in our community. We would ask education leaders to continue to be our advocates and learn from us.
Since it’s really hard to reform a system that wasn’t built for us, we need to use our community resources and knowledge to assure that students are getting the education and opportunities we deserve. We don’t need white saviors to “fix us,” we don’t need rich folks investing in our communities through businesses and condos that cater to the middle- and upper-middle classes, and we don’t need outsiders speaking for us.
What we need is to take back the resources that were stripped from us and use them to build ourselves up from within so that we can succeed and teach ourselves that we are just as capable and intelligent as any other student when we are allowed these spaces, our spaces to live and thrive. As a community, only we know what’s best for us because we live and breathe in Boyle Heights.
Kevin Martínez is a Boyle Heights native, a 2012 graduate of Roosevelt High School and a former youth reporter at Boyle Heights Beat. He is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Education, Culture & Society at the University of Utah.
Photo above: Portion of “El Corrido de Boyle Heights” mural by East Los Streetscapers on Soto Street. Photo by Ángel Lizárraga.