Unleashing the Dreamers in Our Black and Brown Children: A Personal Retrospective
As a product of South Central LA, I think back constantly to the neighborhood I grew up in. South Central is a rough place. There’s no way around it. Good people were all over, but poverty has its way of affecting a community. The expectation was that you had to be cautious and guarded. You were often told to assume those around you did not have your best interest at heart. At least, that’s what our parents told us anyways.
Luckily for me, there was a strong sense of community on the specific block I grew up on. There had been 2 generations of families that lived together on our street dating back over 60 years. By the time I was a kid, the now parents and grandparents on the block were the gatekeepers. Everyone knew each other, and we were a very close-knit group of families. Despite the fact that we often fell asleep to the sounds of gunshots and sirens, the elders did everything they could to keep us out of harm’s way. They succeeded for the most part, and were able to make us feel safe.
I remember how my block — the only block in the entire neighborhood — would actually close off all entryways to our street and have a block party every 4th of July weekend. It was always lit. We took tremendous pride in that. I think we all knew that we had something special, and I feel tremendously blessed for that.
With that though, there was one rule in particular that you never broke: Never leave our block. If you even dared, odds were your parents weren’t going to let you play outside for the next week or two. I was scared of most things, so I believed my parents when they said that potential dangers existed on the horizon.
Exploration of any kind was strongly discouraged.
In no way can I blame my parents or any black and brown parents for holding these reservations. The risk was greater, and the danger was much more apparent during the eras of their youth (the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s)
Their response to this was the valuation of physical safety above all else. This mentality has been passed down generation to generation, and it is seen now in the parenting styles of many black and brown families. Respect and absolute compliance are nearly synonymous, and it perpetuates the idea that we must place obedience above truth. It further ingrains the idea that we must walk through every situation in life in as safely a manner as possible.
Despite the tremendous solidarity, strength, and resistance my parents’ and grandparents’ generations showed, what was left in many ways was a culture that is still largely based in compliance and control. It is no coincidence that the idea of control is a clear tactic oppressors have used systemically over time to maintain power [insert slavery, Jim Crow, housing segregation, economic disenfranchisement, War on Drugs, police brutality, etc.].
Unfortunately, I do believe our own community has internalized much of this. For as much as I believe Blacks have advanced in American society, this culture of safety and compliance is one I believe we have not examined closely enough. It has been (and in many ways unfortunately continues to be) a necessity to our survival, but it is also in a way becoming its own barrier.
I believe that the act of being physically bounded, confined, or caged — especially during crucial stages of development — often leads to a mental internalization of those same limitations.
My fear is that when you take away a child’s ability to explore — particularly in a physical sense — that you’re likely setting up that child to be less encouraged to explore the world intellectually, emotionally, and even socially. They are less likely to be willing to take risks, and to accept failure as a natural part of life. They are less likely to be validated and supported in their ideas and beliefs, or will have considerably less opportunities for those ideas and beliefs to grow and evolve. They are less likely to share their ideas with the world, or ultimately end up seeing their own ideas as stupid and/or meaningless. Self-rejection eventually becomes habitual. You could imagine some of the things that follow…
If we are to see a better day for our communities and children, we must remain true to the values of what exploration are all about: embracing the unknown, questioning everything, dreaming without bounds, and seeing where you are taken when you pursue those dreams relentlessly. We must build our communities in a way that encourages this.
Even our schools place a heightened importance upon compliance and control. Behavior is often prioritized more than inquiry and critical thinking. If a student speaks out of turn but makes a compelling point, our focus is more on the act itself rather than the point that is being made. I’m definitely not saying to remove all structure and order to our classrooms. What I am saying is that we need to find more effective ways of engaging our children. The beauty in their youth is that they are at an age where they are literally wired to explore the world around them, but we often don’t do enough to facilitate and foster this.
We have this idea that learning can only happen with students when they are sitting upright at a desk with their hands folded on top of one another, when in fact some of most important learning occurs when we give students some freedom and an opportunity to express themselves. (There are examples of this such as Montessori schools and others, but they are typically considered “non-traditional”. A term that I find problematic)
There is obviously a need for balance, but there seems to be more schools modeled after prisons and less like colleges, which are ironically supposed to ultimately be the place we want many of our young ones to end up at. Our current education system does more to stifle their creativity and originality, rather than foster it.
We need to empower our children to be courageous and inventive. We need them to dream bigger than we ever dreamed before, and we can only do this if we teach them that the world is their oyster — literally and figuratively.
Truth is, when you are deeply embedded in the hood, it is hard — sometimes seemingly impossible — to zoom out and make sense of everything that is happening around you. You are blinded by it (queue the ending monologue from To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar). This is why we must raise our children to be dreamers from day one. It begins in our homes and at our schools and in our communities. It starts with giving them the freedom to discover — so that they may understand the world around them, and work towards making it a better place. The type of place we truly want them to live in.
We must stress to our children to never be afraid to think outside of the box. Nearly all of the greatest innovators in our lives at some point thought their ideas were crazy. That in fact was probably one the things that allowed for them to become highly successful. Very few make it far in life without taking some level of risk. The key is embracing the notion that adjustment and adaptation will inevitably be a part of the process. That is, seeing failure as an opportunity to grow, rather than as a make-or-break moment. Exploration reinforces this.
I immediately think to my math and coding students who often shut down when they get a problem wrong. I try to teach them that mistakes are where we learn the most. In reality, those moments can be some of the most beautiful, insightful, and life-altering — but only if one has the mentality to see it as such. Our children have to embrace the idea of failing as a part of the path to success, and this can only happen if they are are willing to take risks.
The places where we are the most challenged are often where we can learn the most about ourselves. Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone is an absolute must for growth and self-discovery.
As I continue on my own journey, I find myself thinking about these things constantly:
Am I playing it safe in my current work/life situation? What do I find myself the most scared of and why? What’s the worst thing that could happen if I actually fail? How do I continue pushing myself to grow?
I would say my biggest fear has always been feeling that I’ve never been good enough to deserve (and failing to have made the most of all) the opportunities I’ve been given.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve had days where I completely doubted everything that I did; moments where I felt like I wasn’t good enough to do anything. I often times feel as though I have to do every single thing perfectly, and find myself doing nothing as a result — just like my students do from time to time.
I took a risk in pursuing a career in education. Most strongly advised me against it. “Why not play it safe and pursue a better paying, less stressful career?”, people said.
Truth is, becoming an educator has proven to be one of the most rewarding decisions of my life. Why? Because it has forced me to confront my own self-doubts.
After a bad day/week/month with your kids, you start asking yourself:
How do you expect to instill in others a mentality of confidence, love, and belief in oneself when you don’t even embody those very traits?
As with anything, you learn to grow, adapt, and make the most of the situation over time. It led me to realizing this:
Everyday, I am faced with the reality of instilling in my students the belief that the world is their oyster, knowing that this, in actuality, is so far from the truth.
It is one of those strange dichotomies though, in where things can only change if you have an impenetrable belief that things actually can change — even when reminders to the contrary are constantly around you.
If you pay close attention though, evidence of that change has already been taking form through the amazing work of countless community members. As things continue to move forward, a key part of that process will have to come from taking a look inward at ourselves (and our communities), and the norms we have established.
Am I (are we) doing everything in my (our) power to raise all of our kids to be dreamers?
Truthfully, I often times placed glass ceilings above myself, and it had a direct impact on my ability to be an effective educator. I did not hold high expectations for myself, and — consequently, did not hold high enough expectations of my students.
It shames me to admit this, but out of accepting this, I have began to also understand that if I truly want have the impact that I want, I myself have no choice but to start thinking bigger. Dreaming bigger. Believing bigger.
As I alluded to in the beginning though, dreaming big is not my first instinct. I was raised to believe that taking the safe route was always the right route. For so long, it was (and often remains) the way I have been wired to think. It is the easier option.
Still, it feels as though my most meaningful life experiences have come from taking the road less traveled.
When I listen to all the signs, everything points to me staying on this path I’ve made and continuing to explore. Continuing to embrace the unknown, and seeing where that takes me next — with a clear dream and vision in mind.
When I see the undiscovered brilliance in some of my students — and how reluctant they are to share their gifts with the world — I think of myself. I think of myself because I was once that child. In many ways, I still am that child — trying to break free.
I continue on in hope that this work reminds our children to never stop dreaming. To never give up on pursuing those dreams. To be bold and daring. To never let their hood, skin color, income, or gender dictate their worth or their futures, but to instead use those experiences in a way that helps them to work towards making the world the place they want it to be.
This must be our vision for the next generation, and we all must play our part in making that a reality. No matter how big or small the action, we must challenge and encourage them to dream to unimaginable heights.