Being Stuck Between Two Worlds: Creating a Place in Society
In honor of #BlackHistoryMonth, we spoke with Sarane James from the Bronx in New York about building her identity personally and professionally.
In honor of Black History Month, CSforALL and the community celebrates generations of remarkable achievements by African Americans and encourages the courage and determination to push for a better, more equal world. This month, we had the opportunity to speak with Sarane James, who we met at the “To Code and Beyond” conference, about balancing her passion for linguistics and creative writing and technical learning, and the need to prove how exceptional Black people could be while also feeling like no one in her neighborhood cared.
Read Sarane James’s Experience:
CSforALL: It was such a pleasure to meet you at the Cornell Tech “To Code and Beyond” gathering last month! As a first year student at Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, and from Bronx High School of Science, you mentioned your early experience with computer science through the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Through this you learned about CS topics and later helped to teach them. Can you tell me about that experience? Did you know you had an interest in CS before this program?
SJ: I’ve always had a broad range of interests, and my mother encouraged me to treat the whole world like a science experiment. I joined GOALS for Girls at the Intrepid, which exposes rising high school freshman girls to all manner of STEM fields. They care immensely about their alumnae and communicate opportunities like Code Together, which introduces algorithmic thinking, instruction specificity, coding, and applications such as drones and 3D printing to high school students and teachers. As a student alumna, I was invited to become an intern. It was my first job experience, and an incredible one. It refreshed my memory on the material, and I gained insights into keeping a classroom running smoothly and supporting learners in the moment. I also learned that as much work goes into debriefing after teaching as before. I’d never considered myself someone who could teach, but I made it out alive and confident I could do it again.
CSforALL: You were at To Code and Beyond because of your participation as an undergraduate researcher assisting with a translanguaging CS education research project. Can you talk a little about the work that you are contributing to that project, and what insights about yourself that you have gained from being engaged in that research?
SJ: Participating in Literacies and Computer Science (PiLa-CS) is a research project that aims to improve access to computer science education for bilingual NYC public middle school students. We help teachers develop lesson plans for their ENL students that are connected to their families, neighborhoods, and experiences, while also stressing the value of all of the languages the students know. I’m learning that lessons continue to evolve even as they are being taught, which was a huge surprise! I’ve also gained an even greater appreciation for teachers.
Finding out what it’s like to not speak the dominant language was especially striking. One of our classes is taught in Spanish, and I was the only person in the room who couldn’t understand it. Despite knowing the lesson plan beforehand, I felt completely lost as students began to work. I couldn’t understand the answers or jokes, and felt isolated from the class. Still, I didn’t want to burden others by asking what was happening. It was an important insight into how a student who doesn’t speak English well feels and I hope to help create a learning environment where that never happens.
CSforALL: Your passion for creative writing is so inspiring. What are your current thoughts about balancing your passion for linguistics and creative writing, technical learning like in Computer Science, and your new interest in teaching and education?
Writing has always been a part of who I am, so it hurts that people criticize my major so often. I’ve been told English majors are useless, I’ll never make any money, I’ll live out of my car, and I’m too smart to be wasting my brains, but I’m determined to keep writing. While I’ll always have some projects that are purely creative and others that are purely scientific, I’ve decided to find ways to use both at the same time. This article is an example of that.
As we glorify STEM, I think about the detriment that’s had on the humanities. The word human is there on purpose. Knowing which punctuation won’t crash your code is important, but it won’t help us understand each other. It won’t end systemic racism, sexism, or homophobia. I’m always surprised when I discover inherent bigotry in our healthcare, education, and other major systems, but they’re present partially because we lose sight of the human effect. I feel that as a minority — but also as a person — it’s important for me to participate in both the arts and sciences to make change in these areas.
CSforALL: We’re excited to follow your education and career, and all of the good you will do in the world. After hearing Dr. Kamau Bobb speak on “Unpacking Equity”, you stood up during the Q&A section to talk about your own experiences growing up in the Bronx, and then enrolling in Macaulay Honors College, and the many ways you have had to negotiate your identity in all of these settings. Could you share some of those headlines from your life so that leaders across the country who care about making CS and education equitable to all students can benefit from hearing about your lived experience.
SJ: Getting into Bronx Science was a huge accomplishment, but I was usually the resident Black student in my classes. There were only 25 of us in my class of 750 plus. That made talking about slavery, civil rights, and other injustices affecting African-Americans very, very uncomfortable. I was asked why Affirmative Action is still needed, had classmates imply the only safe part of the Bronx is Riverdale — which also happens to be the whitest — and plenty of other things. Yet people told me Bronx Science doesn’t have a race problem. I beg to differ.
I found myself internalizing these prejudices. I’d ask my school friends what colleges they were applying to, whereas I would protest when my mother asked the same about my neighborhood friends. I was stuck between two worlds, where I needed to prove how exceptional Black people could be while also feeling like no one in my neighborhood cared enough to show it. Unfortunately, a lot of people in my neighborhood really don’t care about education. When you’re a single parent working multiple jobs, you don’t have the time or energy to ensure your child gets a good education. Many people in the Black community also have such low expectations of ourselves and our “place in society” that striving for excellence is considered an affront. Part of what we need is an attitude change in our community. My biggest blessing is that I have a two-parent household and a stay-at-home mom that has always pushed me to do my best. I’m just glad I was taught that I can do anything I put my mind to.
About the Author: Sarane James is a student from the Bronx pursuing a degree in Creative Writing at the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College. She has been published four times in the Girls Write Now annual anthology and once in Newsweek Magazine. She was also a copy chief for her high school’s award-winning newspaper, The Science Survey. Sarane has a passion for writing and storytelling and is currently working on a novel in her spare time.