Thursday, August 8, 2013

Philly schools hostage crisis: countdown to Aug. 16

It gets sickening to constantly hear about how much we, as a society, should and do value children, but when it comes right down to it, children remain the nagging inconvenience and near accidents we typically ascribe them to be. Especially whenever and wherever money is concerned.

It is more than disgusting to see the repeated cycles and budget battles year in and year out, when people pontificate about values and priorities, but then we have the same conversations about education. It would seem that by this point we would just make a decision: either we’re going to allot the resources to fully educate every child in this city, this state, this nation, or we won’t. The half-measured attempts, with partial funding here, cuts there, programs today, gone tomorrow, are more than wearing.

And this is spoken as someone who has borne no children.


Today we heard from School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. that unless $50 million falls into the district’s bank accounts by Aug. 16, he will not – cannot – open the city’s 218 schools on time. At least not in the way that most people would think of fall school opening – with a full day of orientations or re-acquaintance with hallways, students, faculty, staff and routine.

Instead, some select schools might open and others remain closed.

Or, schools will open for a few hours, and then close, for some undetermined period of time.

Or perhaps no buildings will ring their proverbial bells to welcome kids back. It’ll be the luck of the draw.

Among communities already reeling from historic closures and clumsy communications that marked those decisions, there’s little expectation that either suspicion or hostility will be suspended in such cases.

Hite’s rationale is that there’s not enough guaranteed money on the books to start calling up the requisite personnel to staff these schools so that they’ll be manned with some measure of comfort for the average parent – and citizen. The memory of a 5-year-old being abducted from her school in broad daylight remains fresh for many – and that was at a fairly well-staffed school. Imagine the potential room for errors – and horrors – if adult-to-student ratios fall to simply a principal and a handful of teachers.

Certainly no high school principal even wants to contemplate it, not with attendance rolls sometimes numbering in the thousands. Not with cavernous turn-of-the-century buildings with enough nooks and corners to offer aid and comfort to gleeful mischief makers great and small, drug dealers to pedophiles.

It can all be dismissed as an extreme stakes game of chicken, with Hite pressing publicly, but with sly finesse, against stubborn union leaders as talks approach a climax. Critics charge there has been little reduction in salaries among those occupying the administrative offices of 440 N. Broad Street, or much other sacrifice, though the honest among them will admit staffing there has been cut since the last administration.  Hite’s pronouncement could be chalked up as a warning shot to area politicians that he’s willing to test his power and strike first, turning parental anger toward them, not him, when a lousy, budget-compromised school year seems imminent.

Regardless of heartfelt intentions or Machiavellian motivations, kids and families remain the absolute hostages in all of this, followed by those who directly serve them in the classrooms and hallways of the city’s schools. As adults squabble about finding money to ensure there are bodies in buildings – and we haven’t even gotten to the quality of said bodies –parents and guardians, the thoughtful and engaged ones anyway, hold their breath and await outcomes. On the other side are teachers, aides, counselors, nurses and other staff following the back and forth like a Wimbledon match. It is their lives that will be tossed into upheaval as “leadership” dances toward the fire, up to the absolute last minute.

No one is waiting for Superman. Lex Luthor must have smashed his GPS in their last battle or something.

What would be super is if parents started talking to each other. And their families. And their friends. And with their neighbors. And with their employers. And their faith leaders. And if they decided that they were tired of waiting for The Powers That Be to decide their children’s education is worth something. And definitely worth more than the seemingly unending multimillion dollar prison construction projects.

If change indeed begins with the man in the mirror, and the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, it is amazing that so many of us gnash our teeth as we watch this dance. It grows more intricate and inane with every passing year, like a black Greek step show run amok.

Maybe these are just the ramblings of a home-schooled kid, one whose parent early on said, “Enough,” because she valued her child’s education more than those charged with delivering it, and decided to put her effort where her heart was.

No, not everyone is as equipped to take that option, just like many cannot flee to tuition-based schools for relief. But exercising some other kind of option is a right every parent, every resident of this city, owns.

Then again, maybe in the main, we are innately enjoy, even are ultimately entertained by, the annual do-si-do that is the Philly public schools funding dance.

Circuses worked wonders for the Roman Empire. We see how that ended.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Feared and hunted: early reflections on the Zimmerman trial aftermath


If you are of a certain age, you probably got “The Talk” from your parents – or even your grandparents.

While my white friends had the luxury of just squirming through an awkward discussion about the mechanics of sex, I, and others who share my skin color, often received a different kind of lecture on the facts of life.

The Talk centered on how to behave in stores. How to act around police. How to respond in the streets.

One wrong slip, we were warned, could cost you dearly. Being at the wrong place, at the wrong time and always the wrong color, could be deadly.

Many of my friends, now parents themselves, wanted to free their children of the burdens and fears that come with The Talk. They sought to let it lapse, mothballing it as a part of a shameful history. 

After all, this is the “flattened” era, powered by digital know-how and technology. This is supposed to be a time when King’s “Dream” has finally come into view. This is the Age of Obama.

A sentiment born by many. Photo courtesy of Roberto Gonzalez/AP
With all of that, many reasoned and rationalized that The Talk is not only outmoded, but also inhibiting at a time when our children have to embrace their full power in order to compete effectively. We resented The Talk, this notion of having to act differently than our peers. After all, that’s what the marching and lobbying of the past was supposed to resolve, and in many of our minds, had resolved.

Except for those glaring reminders that still emerge, those mind-numbing, soul-crushing incidents whose steady presence belies the usual title of “aberrations.”  This time it was Trayvon Martin. Before him there was Oscar Grant. Before him, it was Amadou Diallo. And before him, Yusef Hawkins. You can go back as far as Emmett Till. The circumstances vary, but the theme remains the same – unarmed young black man seen as a threat to a jittery, if not angry, one who isn’t black. Slaying ensues.

And those are just the high-profile cases, where names are known. Countless others remain unknown, just words on a police blotter, a brief in a local paper – if they were lucky.

The verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial means many things to many people, but a distinct message sent is that it is open season on those deemed “threatening.” That the definition of self-defense now extends to tracking and killing said “threats.” For the record, that group historically has been darker in hue. Brown like me and mine and condemned to assumptions of criminality because of it.

Some have long advocated for such exterminations of “undesirables,” and still do, proven by perusing the web. This trial seems to have codified those notions.What played out in the national spotlight is the continuation of a meme that black male lives have little value and their presence always is suspect. 

Yet the mirror image of that assessment is the mounting body count in urban centers across the country, from Oakland to Chicago to New Orleans to Philadelphia, where black men gun down themselves with as much regard as George Zimmerman has. Beyond any chicken-egg, cause-effect debate, the result of the attitude prevails: maimed or dead black males. And justice in these cases frequently remains at an impasse, be it due to prosecutorial incompetence or a “no snitching” intransigence.

Human extermination, in Dachau, in Bosnia, in Sudan, in Sanford, Florida, in Philly, is morally bankrupt, no matter the color or gender bearing the weapon. But cheapened life makes that weight of conscience remarkably light. And social acceptance renders it lighter still. Those reminders keep repeating.

Yes, in Florida, there is a devastated mother and father whose 17-year-old son was slain for being black, and making someone who was not, afraid, just by his mere being. But in Philadelphia, there are scores of equally devastated parents grieving sons who are killed, when you boil it down, also for being black in the wrong space and time.

There are those willing to parse and qualify how one murder is totally illegitimate whereas others, though tragic, are somewhat expected, even accepted. Yet tolerance of the latter allows room for the former. They are all value judgments on the worth of black – and in many cases, brown – males. Anger at one outrageous incident does not negate the many others that are still happening, most of which occurring without the benefit of 24/7 cameras or pundits, markers of merit in this media-fed era.

In this nation of wealth and laws, most Americans find it difficult to wrap their minds around a reality that holds that a boy returning home from the store with snacks could be killed because he made someone “nervous.” Just as they don’t condone one boy killing another, before either of them sees 21.

Until you add race. Then somehow it all seems to make sense. Even when it doesn’t.

So for as much as my generation may want to put The Talk to rest, until something real changes, we’d be remiss not to offer that well-worn lecture, at least for a while longer. To do otherwise may just further endanger those we hold most dear, even today. In 2013.


Real change began after Emmett Till was slain. It must continue, beginning with us, if the slayings of Trayvon, Oscar, Amadou, Yusef and all the rest are ever to make sense. Not just to black people, but to the entire nation -- and world.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Shero defined: Malala Yousafzai

Her intelligence and insight captivated a global audience, even as a middle-schooler. It's what led to her early gig blogging for the BBC about life under Taliban rule for Pakistani girls living in the countryside.

Those same gifts frightened cowardly males (calling them men would offer those thugs too much credit) in her country. In fact, they were so scared of her, they attempted to murder her last year.

Largely because she was an insightful, intelligent girl. Left unchecked, she might be able to grow into an insightful, intelligent woman. And we know what kind of threat that is.

How noble these men were. Trying to assassinate a teenager.

Yet despite the evil that emanated from those certain Taliban quarters, Malala Yousafzai rose from near-certain death. What's more, she's more committed to ensuring all girls and boys in her country have access to an equitable education, so that they can grow into their full human measure. So they can resist hate.

Scarred, but not scared, this teenager could teach commitment and leadership to the masses. Certainly, she has inspired a great deal already -- of all ages.

Scripture says, "and a little child shall lead them." Malala remains an example of that prophecy, with her unyielding tenacity and courage.

She is the essence of a shero. And we don't have to wait until Women's History Month to recognize that.



Saturday, February 16, 2013

Coarsened culture: Lil Wayne desecrates the sacred

Open note to President Obama: now's a good time to scrub that iPod.

And if any Lil Wayne tracks are still present, or if iTunes was set on an automatic download and snatched up the web-released remixed version of "Karate Chop" by accident, just burn the thing.

In bragging how his virility would ravage his female partner, so much so that her organs would resemble Emmett Till, Lil Wayne aka Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., breached a new low.

All publicity is said to be good publicity, because controversy sells. In this case, though, that cha-ching you hear marked the sale of his soul to the devil. Some lines just aren't to be crossed.

Emmett Till was a chubby-faced 14-year-old when a band of white men attacked him, beat him savagely, shot him, tied barbed wire around his lifeless body and then sank it in the Tallahatchie River. The inspiration for this "justified" crime was an allegation that he whistled at a white woman, an act for which these Mississippi men served as judge, jury and executioner of the Chicago teen in 1955.

It was his open casket funeral, one his mother, Mamie, demanded for her baby, and photos of which Jet Magazine published. That landmark layout shocked a nation, stirred its conscience and fortified resolve to conquer the complete brutality and domestic terrorism being visited upon African Americans.

He was Trayvon Martin before Trayvon's parents were even born. He was an unwitting sacrificial lamb, a linchpin for what became a steeled and largely successful Civil Rights Movement.

For some, 1955 represents the Stone Age, like legal segregation, Women's Lib and the Reagan Revolution.

Emmett Till, before and after.
For others, like the surviving members of the Till family, it's only a blink of time and a history to never forget. Certainly not one to desecrate.

In an era where the proclaimed most powerful man in the world is black, there exists in tandem a level of unmitigated ignorance so crass and cruel among those who share his skin color that it makes you shudder. Then again, this is the age where glitz and bling dictate who's king. In such an arena, Mr. Cash Money Millionaire himself -- with his Billboard chart-busters, industry awards, personal rap sheet and assorted babymamas -- is royalty.

And for a minute, let's just overlook his glaring history of misogynist lyrics and the outrage they've inspired through the years -- even among the juicebox set. That a man from the South -- New Orleans, in fact -- with even a hint of knowledge of that unspeakable 1955 horror would string together such words under the veil of "entertainment" is perhaps saddest of all.


That deep sigh you just heard didn't come from Weezy fans-turned-critics like Stevie Wonder or the president. It's from Chuck D. Or maybe it was KRS-One. Or any hip hopper who turned to this music to speak truth to, and for, a disaffected generation -- not simply to peddle a poisoned path to perdition.

In that vein, Lil Wayne is an apt Pied Piper, spawned by a coarsened culture run amok.


Those without any sense of their history, what it means, even enough to be wary of signs that could indicate its repetition in some of the ugliest ways, truly represent the doomed. On that, George Santayana was on the money.

Cash money.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Black History blunder: More evidence of dropping the ball

February. What some call Black History Month. Others, Negro Employment Month -- especially those in the arts. After all, historically, it's been an annualized opportunity to create their own series of "Black Fridays" -- landing gigs singing, dancing, and otherwise sharing their cultural outlook as part of proclaimed attempts at multicultural inclusion, and buffering otherwise bleak bank accounts for the year in the process.

Increasingly there are debates as to whether this designated time is proper, needed or even respected. Certainly, what has arisen today isn't what Carter G. Woodson could have envisioned way black when, when his "radical" concept of "Negro History Week" helped kickstart the whole matter. Even he probably never foresaw a black man leading the most powerful nation of the world -- or the rates of self-inflicted mass murder, all existing in tandem.

Black History Month
Dr. Carter G. Woodson: scholar, journalist,
father of  black history study as a discipline
Yet, equally striking is an examination of the most recently announced list of Pennsylvania's lowest performing schools, released by the state department of education. There's the usual kerfuffle around the list, the hand-wringing, shoulder shrugging and bolstered furor on both sides of the school choice movement.

Peeling the list back further brings a sadder realization, though. It comes from not only examining the locations of those schools, but also their names.

There once was a notion that if people had a role model, an example of someone who started in similar, if not worse, circumstances and could rise above, it would be enough to inspire similar if not greater achievement. It was also an impetus to have buildings named after those who achieved great feats, a legacy that would continue to reap tangible benefits.

For African Americans, garnering such respect in society had been a hard-fought affair, as the name on a building represented a demanding permanence, a declaration of being through this edifice and its reminding namesake source that required respect from everyone who passed it. For centuries, that was a respect not so accorded. After the turbulent '60s and '70s and the burgeoning economic and political power amassed in the '80s and '90s, that sort of architectural reverence has become more commonplace. Perhaps it's because of that, the names on buildings -- particularly schools, places at one time most attributed to having the keys to a better future for a struggling people -- have a reduced sense of power. It's all so banal, apparently.

Or we've just completely fallen down on the job, as black folk.

As a youngster in class, it wasn't just the eyes and expectations of my teacher and my family I felt as I approached my lessons. It was the hopes of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Mary McLeod Bethune, Alain Locke, Leslie Pinckney Hill, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and even Dr. Ethel Allen that flowed through my fingers, that helped push me whenever a bout of laziness would strike. Thinking of the obstacles they overcame and the trails they blazed made me want to do as much, if not more, as not to let them down. It was as if I had my own academic council, generations removed, perhaps, but just as real -- and relevant. Never did I attend a school with any of their names, but walking by their buildings reinforced that presence in my mind.

Then again, my family took pains to constantly expose me to their stories, their legacy, to plant seeds of curiosity so that I would explore further and interpret more. That's what Black History meant for me, and no, it was not confined to one month or one class. It was part of our lifestyle, much like the pride of building a personal library or getting a museum membership card. That didn't make us special. We simply carried the torch others already had lit, and made it about more than just dates and factoids. It was applied learning.

Today, it's almost an accepted joke -- if not fact -- that places named for our heroes are run down and raggedy.

Indeed, there is a school named for each of those icons in Philadelphia. The children attending those schools primarily are African American. And each school shares in the distinction of producing the lowest academically performing students in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Mull that a minute.

You can point to money, declaring resources for "our" schools -- from better teachers to computer labs -- always are subpar in comparison to others. You can underscore socioeconomic realities -- that the families of these children make less money, thereby inadvertently deprive kids of everything from meals to enrichment opportunities. Yes, those things play a role. But it's past time to look inward and call it for what it is.

Last I checked, libraries are still free, as is PBS. And if the moves of Beyonce or the Real Housewives of Atlanta can trend on Twitter, Internet access isn't the problem it once may have been.

Our forebears weren't necessarily wealthy -- or even exposed to much. Yet many of them not only managed to function, they also defiantly produced some of the greatest minds the world has seen, then or since, often facing far more precarious circumstances. They had a fortitude, a belief, and a will to achieve greater, for themselves and for their progeny, direct or otherwise. Failing to acknowledge that we, as a people, no matter our "station," have abandoned that outlook in larger numbers than have cherished it, is a start. Much like taking the time to learn and share the stories of the people whose feats forced a less lenient society to speak their names, to declare them for generations. Except many of us have stopped listening, robbing our children in the process.

There is power in speaking the names of our ancestors. Maybe doing it more frequently could help re-focus us on the opportunities we simply squander. Because no matter how wretched, the fact that a child can walk into a building where knowledge exists in some form gives that child a leg up so many before never had. If those generations could scrabble and make glorious, it's hard to see why we can't.

That truth holds no matter whose name is on the building. We should take it to heart when those names are our own.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Latest TV appearance: 6ABC's Inside Story

It's been a busy week in the Greater Philadelphia region. There were federal indictments of traffic court judges, revelations of ethics charges against a popular city councilwoman, the return of a former (and disgraced) Philadelphia Housing Authority chief for his lawsuit of wrongful termination (hoo, boy) and much, much more.

Yours truly helped sort through it all as a panelist on the area's leading public affairs program, Inside Story. Catch the online rebroadcast of the Feb. 3 show. Remember: the link lasts for a limited time only. Don't delay!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A not so Super Sunday: the painful fast from football for a former fan


This Sunday feels hollow, barren. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. And it is my first in abstaining from this once cherished holiday, the culmination of a painful season devoid of a once favorite pastime. Football.

For the first time in more than 35 years, the season kicked off and rumbled forward without this browngirl on the bandwagon.  Despite it being a voluntary choice, I remain disgusted with myself for being unable to just make a clean break. Or at least find other converts with whom to commiserate.

Worse, it’s made me feel like a stereotypical girl. You know the ones that would always watch football fans with crossed arms, rolling their eyes and clucking about the distaste for cheering such violence.

Not only was I the anti-version of those Pretty-in-Pink chicks, I was an all out fan that scoffed at those who cast such aspersions. I was one who would prescribe and predict plays, shout down bad calls and roar louder than most dudes who ever saddled up to a football-filled weekend. That was then.

With story after story emerging about the increasing demands on and dangers for younger and younger athletes, the devastating effects on current and former players, even their premature and horrible deaths, I could no longer look at myself in the mirror and say I was just an innocent fan.

With my replica caps, jerseys and lustful cheers, I began feeling complicit in their pain, their deaths. It was like I was one of the bloodthirsty spectators in the Roman Coliseum screaming for gladiators to fight to the death.

It didn’t feel good. So I quit the game. Cold turkey.

My weekends have felt strange ever since. No games. No watching pre-game, halftime and post-game highlights. No recapping every catch, hit and fumble with fellow fans. While I’ve welcomed the extra time on my hands, I have been feeling like a woman without a country all season, a self-selected exile suddenly roused from the Matrix.  And I’ve been a little sad, for what was.

Many treasured memories include pigskin moments. Wishing I was that kid that Mean Joe Greene tossed his Terrible Towel to. Crying in front of the stereo (our TV was busted), decked head-to-toe in Eagles green, listening to my squad’s unmitigated defeat in Super Bowl XV, and then worse, the presser afterward when my beloved coach Dick Vermeil stepped down, also in tears. Pretending to be Dan Marino or Ronnie Lott – depending if I was on offense or D – during recess scrimmages. Screaming with joy because Doug Williams was the MVP of Super Bowl XXII, the first black quarterback in the big game, and going to Disney World. Those were good times.

Then there was the universal hatred of the Dallas Cowboys endemic to any true Philadelphia fan that I cherished, even though I held deep respect for Coach Landry and thought they did him dirty when they dumped him. It further fueled my disdain for “America’s Team,” as well as cemented a sense of community.

Gang Green - the fearsome Eagles defense of the '90s
Devotion to my hometown squad was greater than my street play, enduring the wilderness years of Rich Kotite to be revived with the highs of Buddy Ryan’s Gang Green. Plus there was the electrifying but erratic play of Randall Cunningham, one of the pioneers who proved that blacks could helm a squad, despite all the conventional wisdom to the contrary. The thrills of watching Cris Carter soar above a pile of defenders was only matched in later years by watching Wolverine, er, Brian Dawkins, demolish a receiver on the other side. I took Amtrak from Philly to his native Jacksonville to witness the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIV because all flights were sold out, a butt-endurance ride I hadn’t made since my undergrad days at Florida A&M. Regardless, it was bliss.

But as I think of BDawk now, I can’t help but wondering if his decades-long migraines may have been a signal to something else amiss, something for which no one wanted to see or be responsible. He’s just one of many players I watched and admired for their prowess, tenacity and focus that we’re now seeing hobbled if not fatally wounded after years of collisions on the gridiron. It’s a list that’s growing.

As we’re piecing together the scientific effects of those bone-rattling hits today, we’re recognizing those descriptions are more than literary flourish. They’re real, meaning the game has the potential equivalency of encounters with IED-laden enemies – just with the upfront and illusory perks of fame, money and women, perks that tend to dissipate as ailments worsen. And it’s fan-fueled destruction.

Acknowledging that is hard. It’s hard to admit to, let alone dispel, a delusion. Ask any domestic violence survivor, any recovering addict. Loving football is not as dire, but willfully ignoring the reality that this multibillion dollar industry has gotten faster and far more brutal than the charming days of Knute Rockne isn’t that far removed. Justifying that enjoyment with a “they-knew-what-they-signed-up-for” rationale isn’t acceptable. Not anymore. Not for me.

That doesn’t make it easy. It’s a struggle, trying to live by principle and do the right thing without sounding like a self-righteous Cassandra, or one of those annoying perky chirpy pink chicks. Super Bowl XLVII has the drama and trappings that elevate the moment – from the redemptive last grasp for the ring tale of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Lewis to the San Francisco 49ers quest to restore its dynasty.  

It’s why there aren’t too many Super Bowls that I’ve missed. It was never just about the chips and dip, the ads or the halftime extravaganzas that sometimes outshone the game in infamy (read: Janet Jackson and Nipple-tonia). It was the excitement and camaraderie of the Big Game, the last winter holiday. The Pro Bowl two weeks later served as a nibble, something to tide you over until the next NFL draft, training camps, pre-season, to repeat all the rituals.

I so miss it all, mad at myself for missing it, knowing all that I know. It’s a rift between head and heart.

So I’ve started calling my abstention a football fast. That leaves alive the hope that maybe, somehow, something can be introduced to reverse the game from its course, an eventual road to perdition.

Like I said, shaking delusions is tough business.