Communication is Key

“Students across Pennsylvania deserve to have their schools fairly funded. Students in Philadelphia deserve to go to sufficiently funded schools. Just because the overwhelming majority of Philadelphia students are black, doesn’t mean they do not deserve equal access to resources. Just because most of Philadelphia’s students are poor, black and underachieving doesn’t mean they don’t deserve our investment. Schools in Philadelphia are not well funded because white patriarchy perpetuates the current system to feed the school-to-prison pipeline. By not investing in schools, WE are feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.” As each word leaps from my lips, another potential supporter of equitable education in Pennsylvania is lost at sea. With each prod, I have worn at the foundation of this all. Let’s start again, with something we can all agree on.

There’s no way to know how it feels to be a minority being followed in a store, unless you are a minority. Those anxious eyes that interrogate instead of inquiring are often dismissed as figments of paranoia. Implicit bias is a slippery concept for one with privilege to grasp, but numbers and chilling images do not lie. We can all agree that Philadelphia neighborhood schools are poorly funded and low performing; we cannot all agree that these schools are low performing largely as a result of being poorly funded. Admitting as much would discredit suburban education and, even worse, threaten the way things are. Similarly, PCCY knows that getting suburban politicians, and more importantly their constituents, to support legislation dismantling a funding system that benefits them is highly unlikely. What’s even more unlikely is for them to do so for the benefit of African American, Latino, and immigrant students alone. Using terms such as “equal”, “universal”, “fair”, and “equitable” is the only method by which these lofty goals seem reasonably attainable.

A few weeks back, I attended a small press conference in Delaware County to promote the PCCY-sponsored School Play. The script for this production is entirely made up of quotes from extensive interviews with teachers, principals, parents, and students from across the state concerning education. Aside from us, there were enough attendees to count on one hand and the sun was unrelenting. From this humble event, I learned one of the most vital, harsh lessons in advocacy. The Ridley School District’s superintendent delivered a speech advocating for universal access to high-quality Pre-K, her most memorable line being “we cannot ghettoize this issue. This is an issue faced by children across the state.” There it was, right in my face. It hit me like a belly flop from a mile high diving board. People do not care about issues that do not affect them.

It was an obvious truth, at face value, but it stung more as I pondered. Her statement, at its bare bones, translated to “look, I know the poor black kids are most affected by unfair funding, but it’s hurting us too.” The framework of PCCY’s message changes to “those people in the suburbs shouldn’t have more than you” when addressing Philadelphians. That’s a zero sum game for you. Generally, we cannot all agree on answers to why and how things are the way they are, but questions of what are less contentious. Values wrongfully associated with America, such as freedom and equality, are the minority, woman, LGBTQ, child, etc. advocates’ primary vehicle for driving gradual social change. American exceptionalism says that we are above inequity and corruption, but our culture trains us to be individualistic and to want more than others. This contradiction is embedded in our country’s framework, a force we are both confronting and evading. Advocates choose to confront it, expose it even. However, there are situations where surface level exposition is appropriate and others where it’s necessary to get to the root of issues. My impression is that local politics coincides with the former and state/national with the latter. How can we be sure of which to use in which situation? Well, that’s a tough call. That’s something we can all agree on.

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Post-Honeymoon: Growing Pains

Since my first check-in I have learned a great deal about what it means to work in a fairly typical small nonprofit, in terms of the work environment. Each morning I arrive to a nearly empty office, knowing the voice of a temperamental printer, the aroma of boldly brewed caffeine, and enough passion to change lives will soon follow. The impending decision on Pennsylvania’s education budget has affected everyone. We have gone from sprinting madly with work, to fidgeting in place like a third grader begging for his turn to use the bathroom. We’ve called constituents, met with state legislators, testified at City Council and tabled at events across Southeastern Pennsylvania. Now we must wait. I can see exactly how invested my colleagues are in this outcome. Many of them have not slept well in weeks and, understandably, are a bit more on edge as a result. However, I’ve also witnessed them go to each other’s desks not to work but to say things like “thank you” and “how’s your day going?” They care about each other as much as they care about the issues. Moments like these provide a stark distinction between working for a large corporation and a small nonprofit.

While both environments have their own benefits, and even seem equally suitable for me, I have experienced the benefits a small nonprofit has to offer. Working in such a place allows one to develop personal relationships with each member of the staff. It also makes each member of the team familiar with your quality of work and your work ethic. This allows them to be more helpful in suggesting future career paths and helping the intern pinpoint his or her specific interests and talents. Having just one person on the team specializing in each department at PCCY allows me to collaborate on projects from a variety of subject areas, when there’s substantive work to be done that is. Although a small environment can be more intimate and potentially provide a more individualized experience, an intern in this environment also runs the risk of getting buried in busy work.

For the few days leading up to the budget decision, I worked with various team members on a variety of projects. However, truly meaningful work has been hard to come by lately. Doing work that could likely be done by a machine of some sort has made my days take longer than usual. My manager has not worked as closely with me to find engaging, challenging projects to work on. The positive part about this, is that I have gained more autonomy and been allowed to take more initiative when choosing projects. Now, I have to manage my time more meticulously and pursue my interests more tenaciously. I’m not necessarily used to being rewarded this measure of independence in the work place, but I can see myself continue to grow each day in my new role. It’s time to remove the training wheels.