Representative Democracy

TNAA friend who teaches 5th grade on Cape Cod told me about a student who sat next to him on the bus on a field trip in Boston, a little over an hour away.  As they shared excitement about the day ahead, my friend asked, “Do you get to Boston often?”  Amazingly the response was, “Mr. —-, I have never been to Boston before, in fact, I have never even been off Cape before.”  There are two bridges that take you from Cape Cod to the rest of Massachusetts and until then this 5th grader had never been over either one.

We all may recall similar conversations with students in our school who rarely if ever leave their immediate neighborhoods.  Some have never been downtown, or to the art museum, science museum or children’s museum, or to the stadium to root on their favorite team, and fewer have been outside of the city for more than hour radius.  (Granted that some of our students have travelled far to reach our city and perhaps have travelled home to see family and relatives at different times.)

As Director of the NativityMiguel Coalition, I have the opportunity to visit and be welcomed into communities in 18 states, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces. On one particular flight en route to Pittsburgh from Boston through Newark, I was taken by the views upon approach, the open spaces of the Northern New Jersey suburbs with schools, parks and golf courses melding with the more densely populated neighborhoods with the row houses and corner stores and schools and parks. From this viewpoint you see the roofs of all the building, viewpoints that you don’t see on a regular basis (though as one school leader said, the roof is a view that he has seen more than he’d like to). It is pure brilliance when you consider all the systems that needed to be constructed to make this work, and the minds that planned it and the hands that executed that plan.

Continuing on with fresh eyes, I was amazed as you come upon the entrance to the Hudson River with New York City in the background.  Massive ships are docked with stacked containers of goods coming from or going to another destination.  Large oil containers and refineries sit next to them ready to fuel the movement of people heading out in buses and cars to urgent appointments or casual fun.   When you arrive to the airport, the daily operations of our country is equally pronounced with flights heading out across the country filled with travelers, each with a story of something to do and someone to see.

The energy that is required to move forward each day is incredible; the minds that make the decisions that keep the systems running most days without incident, the sweat of those who work tirelessly on the ground, and the hearts that are required to do so with love and trust.   Perhaps we take all of this for granted as we age and mature.  Yet, as educators, perhaps we need to see again with the awesome eyes of a child to understand the critical role of our educational mission.

This is what our schools do.  Our students know absolutely that they belong and that they are valued. Our students are awakened to the opportunities that lie ahead within this grand, complex system and understand that with the right mindset and investment now they will be positioned to achieve and contribute in a positive way in the future.

On that trip to Pittsburgh, I was heading to visit The Neighborhood Academy.  The Rev. Thomas Johnson, Co-founder and Principal of the school, led Prayer and Worship that morning in the chapel.  The Rev., as the students call him, spoke to the students about the paradox of “I am Responsible” and “We are not Fully in Control.”  This is challenging for all of us to accept no matter what age or maturity and this tension exists in formation and development of our students.

It is because of this tension that prayer and community are so meaningful.   The Rev. recalled the words of CS Lewis in his reflection that morning: “Prayer does not change the situation, prayer changes me.”  This also refers to positive change in the community when voices are amplified in prayerful harmony.  Later, Tom will capture the value of the congregation in one succinct statement:  “I am because we are.”  The “I” can be read as the strength that an individual finds in community and also as the powerful presence of God that is revealed when we come together.  That afternoon, prior to the Orange-Blue Games, the entire school community gathered around a staff member to bless her new endeavors as she was departing for another position .   This image (above) is affirmation to the NativityMiguel Schools belief that each of us belongs and is vital to this world.

To advance the academic application of this spiritual foundation, The Rev. teaches a humanities course to sophomores at the school entitled Ethics, Origins of the Law, the Constitution & Capitalism.  The goal is to inform students of how society has organized itself and to confirm their place in a Representative Democracy. The aim is to give them the social capital, knowledge and skills to participate in our economic, political and judicial systems and to know the vision for a just society so they can speak out against injustice.  The class that I observed engaged students in thinking about the individual’s role in the circular system of lending and borrowing money.    Any homeowner with a mortgage likely understands the paradox “I am Responsible” yet “I am not Fully in Control.”

evictedDuring my visit, I was reading the book Evicted by Matthew Desmond that examines the downward spiral of eviction in our society.  I strongly recommend the read for any board member, leader, faculty or staff member in our schools.  Many of our families may likely have been evicted or know friends and families that have been in this situation.  Unfortunately the loss of home can negatively impact health, jobs and education which only increases the likelihood of further instability in the home.  While students living in poverty are more familiar with these systems and may be resigned that this is the world to which they belong, NativityMiguel Schools counter that view with a mindset, a lens, a voice and a heart that offers a more just and hopeful vision of their place in the world.

A very fitting, happy 4th of July!

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