How Inner City Hough is Like Small Town Jefferson

Two years ago, we moved to my husband’s small town for two reasons: 1. As a family practice doctor, rural access to health care is a much more dire need than urban access. 2. His parents live here.

Unfortunately, thanks to the “city vs country mouse” trope, there’s a strong perception that people in small towns are clueless about “big city” life. When I talk to people about moving from inner city Cleveland to small town Ohio, many people just assume the two are worlds apart, possibly incompatible, especially when it comes to race.

But in my experience, living in Hough actually prepared me for small town life. What’s the connection?

I want to quote Doug from SNL’s “Black Jeopardy” to explain why the two cultures are not as different as they’d like to pretend…and that’s a good thing! Due to the contentious political climate, I think perhaps my last post was not self-explanatory. I don’t want to raise the political temperature, but I do want to contribute to the discussion.

Understanding the shared connections between urban & rural communities is absolutely critical– for those of you in adult literacy or anywhere else. The more you understand these details of daily living, the better you will be at connecting with your neighbors, and developing programs that will actually work in the cultures of these contexts.

And since I’m really putting out there what’s on my mind, I’m going full vernacular on this one. This is how I think in my brain. You’ve been warned!

“I don’t think so. That’s how they get you.”

This is Doug’s response to “They out here saying, the new iPhone wants your thumbprint ‘for your protection.'”

iphone_5s_touch_id_fingerprint_video_hero_4x3-850x637

Friends, look…we’re living in 1984.

Big brother is everywhere.

When my kid got in trouble in elementary school, the Principal showed him recorded video of his unsupervised actions in the hallway. My husband’s employer can GPS-track his location at any time via his cell phone. Personal privacy is not a guarantee unless you go off the grid.

The digital divide (i.e. lack of digital literacy in concentrated areas) is not always the consequence of a lack of money or skill. Many places share a cultural resistance to supposed technological “advancements.” This is rooted in the deeply realistic suspicion that the government is tracking the daily activities of innocent civilians. Not just the government, but also employers, corporations, and any random neighbor with moderate hacking skills.

This isn’t paranoia, friends. Every year or so I would have an adult literacy student tell me they were victims of identity theft, and they didn’t have the resources to either monitor or rectify the results. I’ve personally had my credit card information and even this WordPress blog hacked more than once. Thankfully, I know what to do about it now (turn on text alerts, change my password, use multi-step verification for all financial accounts).

How can this cultural competency help us, as students and educators, as neighbors and non-profit administrators?

Keep that suspicion in mind when designing data tracking and privacy interventions, for education or otherwise. Ask about privacy when evaluating technology devices and tools. At a recent EdSurge Meetup, a representative from Hobsons explained they have hired a Chief Privacy Officer. It’s a step in the right direction!

“C’mon, they decided who wins even before it happens.”

This is Doug’s response to “They out here saying that every vote counts.”

does-every-vote-count-unit-study-part-1-local-government-700x700

There’s a technical word for this attitude:

voter disenfranchisement.

Or maybe voter discouragement? Between the funding of political campaigns, and the influence of lobbyists on every level of government, it’s easy to say that the average voter doesn’t feel like they have a chance to be heard in our supposedly “representative democracy.”

So what’s the remedy? Many people decide to vote for people who they think “speak their language.” This is why colloquialism has become so popular. The logic goes like this: they talk like me, so therefore they’ll advocate for my best interests in policy. Unfortunately, this is faulty logic.

The checks and balances in our government are in part designed to make sure that the most robust and durable political solutions are a compromise between camps. Nobody is completely happy, and that’s the point. It’s based on the principle that our government has to represent diverse interests to be just.

I think the Black Jeopardy contestants are justified in believing that the two major parties don’t fully represent their interests nor understand their perspective.

The U.S. has become more like an oligarchy than a true democracy.

And don’t even get me started on capitalism. We don’t even bother pretending that our economic system caters to the interests of those who are low-income or geographically distant. When it comes to real estate, everything is “location, location, location,” right? More like “subjective, class, prejudice.”

So get out there and vote, but don’t believe that’s enough to be heard.

Voting is just the start of a conversation.

You still have to talk to your political representatives about specific issues, and educate yourself so you have something they can really do for you!

“If I can laugh and pray in 90 minutes, that is money well spent.”

This is Doug’s opinion of the Tyler Perry box set he bought a WalMart.

If class interests aren’t represented in politics, this is doubly true for mainstream media.

I don’t know about you, but I just can’t deal with straight up news any more. Most of the media I consume is some sort of parody, satire, fantasy, sci-fi, or just straight up comedy. Sure, I want to address the real issues of society, but when I relax, I want to be entertained for my money, too.

And Tyler Perry does this. His movies connect to millions of viewers. The topics often address real issues of gender, class, drug addiction, family dynamics, romance, and religion while cross dressing to lighten everything up. I mean, watch that Medea Halloween trailer and tell me if you don’t laugh.

Duck Dynasty is in this same category. And the Robertsons are as much a set of constructed characters as Medea. The Robertsons tried reality TV before Duck Dynasty, and it didn’t take off because they were middle class white folks hanging out with their families. Boring!

But when they grew beards and donned camo? Instant success.

Reality TV is not real. But the Robertson escapades connect with the lived experience of an un-represented swath of American viewers. Who wouldn’t cash in?

As my blackademic friends love to say:

“representation matters.”

This is as true for self-identified “rednecks” as it is for other marginal groups.

And really, who wants to be represented in a realistic way? No, we either want to see the idealized versions of ourselves, or something that will get our emotions going for 90 minutes, to step out of our daily life a little and move on refreshed.

You could place both Duck Dynasty and Tyler Perry into this escapist category, which would explain why they are not getting Oscars and Emmys. They’re designed to be light-hearted, and so they are taken as “light weight” by the critical establishment that gives awards.

But…is that really true? Or is there more going on here?

For example, somehow junk like “Snow White and the Huntsman” gets nominated for TWO Oscars? Okay, it was for costume design, maybe I’ll give you that. And those visual effects, sure, they were very well done. But still…the movie’s plot was so convoluted that I literally forgot I had watched it when we watched “The Huntsmen: Winter’s War.” Couldn’t recall a single detail. Completely forgettable.

But rich white people like Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron, so the movie got 13 wins and 33 nominations? Seriously?

I hope you get my point.

Rich white people’s escapism gets awards.

Everyone else? Just hope you make an income, because critical acclaim is not on your side. But as a neighbor, go out on a limb and watch something new. You might just be entertained!

“You better go down to that guy in Manever who’ll fix anything for $40.”

This is Doug’s response to “The mechanic says you owe $250 fr new brake lines.” Are you going to pay the licensed, certified, franchised mechanic…and her prices? (Yeah right… like Doug takes his car to a female mechanic! You know I’m just kidding.)

This Jeopardy question is about what I like to call…

“rich people mindset.”

In other words, rich people think a product’s not worth buying if it doesn’t have a big price tag, looks shiny, and has been recently renovated.

One thing I appreciate about both Hough and Jefferson is the opposite:

DIY mindset.

(Also punk culture is really DIY. Did I ever tell you I was really into punk and indie music in college? My first trips to Cleveland involved mosh pits at the Agora Ballroom.)

So anyway, the attitude among my neighbors for the past decade or so has been: “don’t pay for it if you don’t have to.”

Totally different from rich people mindset. DIY is part of a larger culture of “under the table” economic activity, where–out of ignorance or intentional tax evasion–people sell without licenses, permits or deeds. Tax evasion, in this worldview, is “smart.” Not stealing from your local schools, police and fire, and roads.

Now, Jimmy’s $40 car (or cat) repair may only keep you running for another 3-7 days, but at least you didn’t pay $250 for it! Or better yet, just head down to Auto Zone for the parts and try to fix it yourself first. Can you guess what the #1 most-popular reference database is at our rural library? Car repair!

So what does this have to do with educational policy?

If you mandate something, folks in DIY communities are going to find the cheapest, most minimal way to meet your requirements. Not the most evidence-based, not the licensed and certified vendor…it’s about finding the minimum ticket price to check your box.

Unless….and here’s the catch….unless you can make a convincing argument for the non-monetary value of something.

And I’m not talking about making the research-based, charts and percentages argument for the Return On Investment. I mean, you should have that. Your product should actually do what you say it’s going to do. But only a few people actual respond enthusiastically to those kinds of facts & figures…people with math degrees!

To convince the Dougs and Shanices of the world, I’m talking about evoking a gut response that you’re offering something worthwhile. I can’t tell you how many folks I have met who complain about how “broke” they are, but manage to afford some expensive sports or concert ticket. Halloween decorations. Giant flags, and ornate worship spaces.

The perception of non-monetary value, the “cultural factor,” or “coolness factor” is what makes the most convincing local argument for investment. If nothing else, folks will buy into what other people near them are excited about. Peer pressure works, too.

Another strategy to get “buy in” from local communities is to find a way to change the ticket price through collective purchasing, subsidies, etc.

Often making something really affordable and viral may generate an enthusiastic roll out a lot faster than an unfunded mandate. And it will be more sustainable because local leaders will want to talk about this “cool” opportunity. Just look at how many schools in Ohio built new buildings when state funds were available a decade ago!

“You people are fun. Is that okay? Can I say that?”

I think this is the crux of this skit, where you really hit the hard questions.

love-your-neighbor

Until this point, Doug–played so convincingly by the talented Tom Hanks–has had a really humanizing experience, where he’s connecting with the shared values and experiences of the other characters. This has given him enough social capital that the host quips, “We’ll give you a pass this time.” And it’s believable, because Doug is trying, in an awkward way, to express that a divide has been removed, and a genuine connection has been made.

(And can I talk for a minute about Kenan Thompson who plays Black Jeopardy host Darnell Hayes? I’ve been following his career since he was on Nickelodeon in the 90’s…LOVE him! I would’ve peed my pants with laughter during this skit, but he gives nothing away, is able to stay completely in character, in the moment. So fabulous! Such good comedy.)

Okay, back to my point here:

First, there is a genuine connection.

Everybody in the room starts to realize they have more in common than they were ever taught.

Then white guy starts to show his cards: being afraid of Darnell’s handshake, “othering” with the phrase “you people,” and then he finally breaks down completely over “Lives That Matter.”

And the host Darnell ends with, “It was fun while it lasted, Doug.”

Because let’s face it: despite their connection, Doug’s been trained too well. White men have been repeatedly taught that they know better than black people how to evaluate “what really happened.” They are the most viable judges of who deserves to live or die, and are not shy about “mansplaining” it to you.

So I’m not going to be shy either: It’s not whining to say that innocent people have “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It’s American.

And the pro-life movement supposedly goes a step further to say that all lives matter…including the innocent civilians seeking redress in the #blacklivesmatter movement.

And beyond innocent civilians, the pro-life movement includes those who have illegally crossed borders or defied authority.

The pro-life movement even wants to abolish the death penalty. They even defend those who are willing to harm others, who don’t believe that others “deserve” to live.

Violent criminals should be stopped, perhaps contained or rehabilitated (or “habilitated in the first place,” as one of my corrections educators said). Not given authority themselves.

But even convicted criminals don’t “deserve” to die, let alone innocent civilians attacked by the very security forces that should be guarding their safety. And most of my #bluelivesmatter friends would agree… a few bad apples shouldn’t tarnish the entire profession, but reform is necessary.

Gandhiji said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.

And another ancient wise man had a little more to say on the topic:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:38-39, 43-45)

But who is my neighbor? And who is my enemy?

That’s the real challenge of this Black Jeopardy skit:

What do I do when my neighbors are enemies with each other?

At another point, Jesus said, “Whatever you do the least of these brothers of mine you do to me.” But here’s the problem: Who is the least? Should I side with one over the other?

Popular media would tell you urban neighborhoods are the least when it comes to outcomes in areas like education and health. But in many areas, Doug is worse off.

That’s actually what motivated our move to the small town where my husband grew up: health care access is worse in almost every rural county than most urban neighborhoods in the U.S. The high school graduation rates here in Jefferson are much higher than they are in Cleveland, but the percentage of those with bachelor’s degrees is about the same (around 13%).

There’s a lot of room to work together…if Doug could suck up his pride and listen.

Problem is, Doug’s self-defense mechanism when the world says he is poor, unhealthy, or uneducated: a sense of superiority. At least I’m American, he tells himself. At least I’m a Christian. At least I’m white. Doug clings to the coat tails of American exceptionalism as a kind of psychological opiate to relieve the painful reality for a little while, and that high of superiority is addictive.

But it’s as constructed as Medea’s booty, or Willie Robertson’s beard. It’s a performance. And sooner or later, Doug’s got to come back down to earth.

The danger comes if too many Dougs become willing to harm others, to believe they deserve to die, or be contained and disenfranchised if they don’t agree with him. Then he’s truly lost touch of his neighbor, and endangered his own soul in the process.

So how do we find a way forward?

The hopeful possibility here is that if we can actually agree on some common ground of shared experiences, if we can keep making it good while it lasts, we can make progress on practical solutions to our shared educational and economic problems.

If we can sustain the connection, there is more to unite us than to divide us.

If we “look for the helpers,” as Mister Rogers taught us, then maybe we will find we have more neighbors than enemies. So let’s git ‘er done.

This is part of a series on being a white person living in Cleveland’s African American Hough neighborhood. Next up? What I teach my children about race.


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