The Power of Books: The NNSTOY Social Justice Booklist

My current to read or re-read pile.

My current to read or re-read pile.

I should read more than I do. Everyone should. I think we’d be better off as a nation and a species if we all read more.

Teachers have a unique role in fostering a love of reading and engendering an appreciation for the power of books. As I think over my life, most of my philosophical evolution, the changes to my worldview, and pivots on important issues were driven by the written word. I was a College Republican, until I discovered Orwell. I hated scifi, until I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin. I thought environmentalism was hokey, until I discovered Derek Jensen. I only survived my fourth year of teaching, because I discovered Vicktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. More recently, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen changed how I deal with public acts of racial aggression (I groan--I don’t sigh).

This blog is called “A Teacher’s Evolving Mind.” I try to model in my professional practice and personal advocacy what it means to “learn publicly.” Two summers ago, I was traveling in Spain and read The Fire Next Time basically in one sitting. I turned to my wife, with tears in my eyes, and asked “why the hell didn’t someone put this in my hands when I was younger?” Last school year, following the election, we started a political bookclub for our students. Baldwin was one of the first selections we read. Many of my students had the same “scales falling from their eyes experience” that I had on that bus to Gijon. This is what we get to do as teachers. We get to introduce students to just the right book, at just the right moments in their lives.

#LincolnReaders aka the Bowling Bookclub

#LincolnReaders aka the Bowling Bookclub

This is a privilege, but at the same time can be daunting. Over the last year members of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year have curated a “Social Justice Booklist” with selections by grade band and subject matter, and including book recommendations for teachers. It’s a collective effort by some of the best teachers in the country and it’s a great place to start when looking for books for students.

Some of my favorites from the list:

Esperanza Rising, a middle grades book, shows the long, complicated relationship between the US and Mexican-Americans looking for a better life and opportunities.

War Against the Weak, a high school book, discusses the (often well-intended, but clearly misguided) history of the eugenics movement in the US and elsewhere. I read this book in college with my jaw in my lap.

This is Not a Test, a book for teachers, written by #Educolor Founder Jose Vilson. Vilson was one of the first folks I saw online describe my own frustration of being a teacher of color, unsatisfied with the status quo, and simultaneously feeling dissatisfaction with the reform movement.

And even though it’s not on the list, for me, put Baldwin in every kid’s hand you can. Don’t let the Nates in your class be thirty-five before they read The Fire Next Time.

Fam, I’m Not Here for your Millennial Shaming

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1946, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump were all born. The planet may never recover.

The Greatest Generation and the Silent Generation defeated fascism, built the interstate highway system, and most of our modern infrastructure. They electrified Appalachia, ended Southern Jim Crow de jure segregation, rebuilt a third of the planet via the Marshall Plan, and artfully avoided vaporizing the planet in a nuclear holocaust in the Cold War.

In contrast, the Boomers still can’t get over Vietnam.

I was born in 1979, the tail end of Generation X and Boomers have dominated American politics my entire adult life. They’ve waged a pointless, polarizing, five decade long culture war. Boomers wasted billions in a racist and classist war on drugs that has militarized local law enforcement, and fueled mass incarceration. They’ve delayed maintenance on the infrastructure they inherited to the point that bridges are literally falling down and our rail system falls somewhere between Poland and Morrocco’s. They have poisoned our politics through congressional gerrymandering, corporate media consolidation, and dumbed-down-cable news-soundbite politics. Most damaging, they killed the idea of “Americans as Citizens” -- people with a sense of shared obligation and ushered in the period of “Americans as Taxpayers” -- atomized, lone wolves with no appreciation of history, civics nor the common good.

The evidence of decline is all around us. Our most beautiful and important bridges and infrastructure were all built decades ago. I recently returned from a trip to Eastern Washington where I visited the Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph Dams. While standing in their respective visitors’ centers, I realized that they, like almost every Park Service or Interior Department facility that I’ve visited, are frozen in amber relics from the 1980s. This is about the time Congress started taking a hatchet to the non-defense discretionary budget in order to pay for endless waves of tax cuts for Boomers.

The Laffer Curve could only come from and could only work on this silly, selfish generation. They have lavished benefits on themselves: Medicare Part D, mortgage interest deductions, and decades of war abroad -- all while demanding tax cut, after tax cut, after tax cut. This is the essence of Boomer economics: after benefiting from more taxpayer subsidies than any US generation, they’ve hollowed out of the commons in order to provide tax breaks to themselves, and debt & deficits in perpetuity for us.

From Bakersfield Observed

From Bakersfield Observed

I am a part of the last generation of Americans who could feasibly work their way through college and graduate debt free. Somewhere in the late-aughts driven by stagnated wages and skyrocketing tuition costs, working your way through college became nearly impossible. In half a lifetime, college tuition costs have risen from under $500 per year to their current levels, where the typical graduate crosses the stage with +$37,000 in debt. Rising tuition costs are driven by declining state support for universities, which is driven by tax cuts. Boomers are the worst.

Boomers have waged inter-generational financial warfare on future generations, all the while calling them lazy, undisciplined, and impractical. How exactly do we build a future middle class if higher education is out of reach for those who need it most -- the working poor? This is a problem the Boomers lack the capacity, willingness, and empathy to solve, but it is one we must confront in the near future.

I’ve had my fill with Millennial shaming. The business press concern trolls debt-ladened Millennials (and soon Gen Z kids) with petty, hot-take articles about them destroying the diamond industry (good riddance to De Beers), bar soap (because it’s gross and unsanitary), Applebee’s (it won’t be missed), and my favorite -- the housing market (spoiler: they're delaying buying homes because of low wages and the aforementioned $37k average student loan debt).

I've met with and lobbied Boomer policymakers at every level of government. It’s an exhausting exercise. But, in my 9-5, I've spent the last eleven years teaching Millennials and now Generation Z kids. It's not even a contest. The kids are more empathetic, less judgmental, more collaborative, and more justice-oriented than the folks running our country today. They're less ideologically rigid and think the current era of partisan gridlock is dumb (which it surely is). The kids are alright. A future built by Millennials and Generation Z kids will be far brighter and egalitarian than the present. I pray I live long enough to see the world they'll create, if the Boomers don't destroy it all first.


Stop Police from Killing People or Admit You Don't Care

Charleena Lyles , photo provided to media by her family

Charleena Lyles, photo provided to media by her family

On June 16, in St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted on all counts in the shooting of Philando Castile. The dashcam footage of the shooting was released to the public yesterday and it is horrifying to watch. The most astute analysis of the incident came from @ChrisCJackson, who noted, “If the first instinct to a black man informing you that he's legally armed is fearing for your life, maybe you shouldn't be a cop.”

In the video, the officer is a panicky mess--swearing and screaming at Castile’s partner to remain calm and not move. He’s doing this (not calmly himself) after shooting her husband and still pointing a gun into the car. Yanez was terminated by his department the day of his acquittal. The man is not fit to wear a badge or serve in any capacity in law enforcement.

On Sunday morning, while I was talking to local columnist Matt Driscoll about the Castile verdict, Charleena Lyles, a pregnant 30 year-old black woman, was shot and killed by Seattle Police in front of her children. She was the 558th person killed by American law enforcement this year. There have been eight more since then (as of 7:30am on 6/21).

In 2016, that total was 1161. In 2015, it was 1216. I refuse to accept this. You should as well.

Sadly, many folks are actually quite okay with it. In the days since the Castile verdict and the Lyles shooting, I’ve seen more than the usual logical gymnastics and rhetorical contortion to justify the taking of Castile’s, Lyles’ and hundreds of other lives. People on the internet, particularly certain white males (every one of the following is a quote or paraphrase of a response from a white male) seem to able to justify or explain away an incredible amount of violence to black bodies:

I say stop killing black people, y’all say stop making it about race.

I say stop killing black people, y’all say I’m playing the race card.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say the officer feared for his life.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say all lives matter.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about black-on-black crime.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say he was smoking weed.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say she had a prior record.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say what about the violence in Baltimore & Chicago?

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about pulling our pants up.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about hoodies and dreads.

I say stop killing black people, y’all wanna talk about black unemployment.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about how there are too many single moms.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about the music our kids listen to.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about how the victim was no angel.

I say stop killing black people, y'all wanna talk about our kids having no discipline.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say we have to wait and hear both sides.

I say stop killing black people, y'all say we have to let the investigation play out.

I say stop killing black people, y’all call me a cop hating faggot.

I say stop killing black people, y'all excuse the officer’s panic, but expect perfection from their victim.

I say stop killing black people, y'all find every excuse you can to justify our deaths.

Fellas, next time I say "stop killing black people," just admit it, you really don't care.

We spend a fair amount of time in my classroom talking about encounters with law enforcement. I started after the Mike Brown shooting; it generates buy-in and is relevant for my students. I use the frame of police encounters to teach about the 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 14th Amendments. As a part of that teaching we do a workshop on dealing with police officers with three takeaways:

  • First, remain calm, always--even if the officer doesn’t.
  • Second, seek to disengage and end the encounter. Ask, “Am I being detained? Or am I free to go?”
  • Third, film the police.

None of this advice should be controversial, but it is--especially when coming from a black face. But, if getting called “divisive,” a “racebaiter”, an “idiot”, or a “cop hating faggot” are the price of doing business, I’m here for that work.  

Before this year is up, American police will kill another 500-600 people on our streets. We have the power to stop this: We can change use-of-force policies for local departments. We can end the capricious enforcement of petty traffic laws in order to generate municipal revenue. We can implement the common sense policy recommendations of Campaign Zero. We just have to care enough about the victims to do so.

And by we, I mean you.