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Learning in Public
Lessons for a Racially Divided America from My Daughter's School
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This "provocative and personally searching"memoir follows one mother's story of enrolling her daughter in a local public school (San Francisco Chronicle), and the surprising, necessary lessons she learned with her neighbors.From the time Courtney E. Martin strapped her daughter, Maya, to her chest for long walks, she was curious about Emerson Elementary, a public school down the street from her Oakland home. She learned that White families in their gentrifying neighborhood largely avoided the majority-Black, poorly-rated school. As she began asking why, a journey of a thousand moral miles began.
Learning in Public is the story, not just Courtney’s journey, but a whole country’s. Many of us are newly awakened to the continuing racial injustice all around us, but unsure of how to go beyond hashtags and yard signs to be a part of transforming the country. Courtney discovers that her public school, the foundation of our fragile democracy, is a powerful place to dig deeper.
Courtney E. Martin examines her own fears, assumptions, and conversations with other moms and dads as they navigate school choice. A vivid portrait of integration’s virtues and complexities, and yes, the palpable joy of trying to live differently in a country re-making itself. Learning in Public might also set your family’s life on a different course forever.
It is not a racial problem. It’s a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it.
That great western house I come from is one house, and I am one of the children of that house. Simply, I am the most despised child of that house. And it is because the American people are unable to face the fact that I am flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone, created by them. My blood, my father’s blood, is in that soil.
—James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
How exactly do you cure bad blood?
—Yaa Gyasi, “1932”
WHEN I WAS A little girl, I went around and asked my neighbors for donations for the homeless. They handed me their loose change, and I listened as the metal hit the glass bottom of the jar satisfyingly.
I didn’t actually know anyone who was experiencing homelessness. Or even anybody who was serving those who were. Where I live now, in Oakland, people who are unhoused are everywhere—under the highway a block away and even closer, under the stoop at the Glorious Kingdom Primitive Baptist Church across the street from our house. Once even in our black cherry Prius in our driveway, as happened when my husband, John, left it unlocked overnight.
John found an elderly Black man sleeping in the passenger seat, my daughter’s favorite book on CD—Man on the Moon—in his hand. John tried to wake him gently and asked him to get out. The guy looked up, clearly disoriented, and said, “Ah, sorry, man. Is this mine or yours?”
“Ours,” John said. “It’s ours, man.”
Even at seven and eight and nine, I was confused about why some things were ours—my family’s, my friend’s, my neighborhood’s—and some weren’t. Even in that far less unequal time, there were dramatic differences between what I’d heard called the haves and the have-nots. I was a have. I was born into a “have family”—not a trust-fund family, but a have family nonetheless.
I had a hunch that being a have had something to do with being White. And no one made much of an effort to explain it to me. We weren’t supposed to notice race—not others’ race, for sure, but not even our own. That would be racist.
I look back at that little White girl—frizzy hair, pile of friendship bracelets on her wrist, magenta high-top Chucks on her feet—and I feel love and outrage. She was overcoming her shyness, circling the block in a misguided attempt at redistribution. From whom and to whom, she wasn’t exactly sure. But she sensed something.
She needed truth. But she got loose change.
Unsure of what to do with the money, racked by guilt that she had asked for it but had no idea where to take it, she buried that jar of change in the dirt near her playhouse in the backyard.
This book is about the jar of good intentions that so many of us carry around these days. We set it on our bookshelves next to our copies of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Isabel Wilkerson. We put it by our tasteful succulent gardens next to our BLACK LIVES MATTER signs or on our nightstands. We stare at the ceiling in the dark, genuinely wondering why it feels so hard to be on the right side of history.
I left that sweet neighborhood in Colorado Springs when I was eighteen and went to Barnard College, in New York City. In new forms, I did lots of circling the block. I went to protest marches. I read slam poetry at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I made a short film about gentrification in Harlem. I joined the campus hip-hop club. I studied abroad in South Africa and lived in a township with a Black family. I graduated and moved to Brooklyn, as one does, and lived there for a decade. I wrote a book about activism.
The White moral life remained elusive. I was almost getting used to the idea that I would never have it, that it was a definitional impossibility. To have White skin and economic security in America was to be tangled up in the sin of what historian Aristotle Kallis calls the “hierarchy of human life.”1
And then I became a mother.
And it was as if the universe dared me both to give up altogether on this quest for the White moral life, which felt like frivolous intellectual bullshit in the face of my kid’s real needs, and simultaneously to double down. The gift of adulthood is not a mortgage, I realized, but the freedom to pursue a moral life on your own terms, even if you are White, especially if you are White, and to let your children witness you trying.
This is the story of that trying.
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A Note on the Making of This Book
I HAVE AGONIZED OVER the ethics of telling this particular story at this particular time.
Journalists claim that they are objective, that once you interview a person, you have every right to use anything they’ve said. That’s obviously bullshit.
Memoirists claim that they are subjective, that once you’ve witnessed or experienced something, you have every right to tell it your way. That’s obviously bullshit.
So here I am, somewhere in between, trying not to give you, my reader, or the people who got entangled in my decisions any bullshit.
I changed the names of all the kids except my own, and most adults, too. (Maya and Stella are already in the public record because the poor fools have a writer for a mom; don’t worry, I’m saving up for lots of therapy.) I kept the names of people who are public figures.
I showed sections of this manuscript to many of those described in these pages, which wasn’t always easy. I tried to write no angels or villains, which wasn’t always easy. I believe that our kids will do better when we, grown-ups, do the hard stuff of seeing one another’s humanity, even when we passionately disagree, and telling the truth about our own confusion and failures within education.
I’ve capitalized ethnic designations throughout the manuscript, including White. I’m following the lead of sociologist Eve L. Ewing, who writes that by not capitalizing White, we conspire with the myth that White people are “normal, neutral, or without any race at all, while the rest of us are saddled with this unpleasant business of being racialized.”1
This book is very much about racializing White people, myself included. I attempt to write with a “white double-consciousness,” as the philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff puts it, which is to say, I attempt to see myself “through both the dominant and nondominant lens, and recognize the latter as a critical corrective truth.”2
I got feedback from many friends, among whom are brilliant anti-racist organizers, professional editors, and experts in education. I learned so much from them. You will see footnotes throughout the book from one critical friend in particular: Dr. Dena Simmons. Dena, a Black woman, and I met a decade ago when I was reporting my book Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and have since developed a rich friendship. She supports schools, districts, and other organizations at the intersection of social and emotional health, racial justice, and healing with her organization, LiberatED. By including her feedback here, I’m essentially “showing my work” so you can learn from my mistakes and shortcomings. This thing, after all, is called Learning in Public.
I believe that writers, especially White and/or privileged writers, need to reach for more honest ways to think about our own power when crafting stories and about our own access to those who decide what stories get told. It is my experience that much of what we claim is journalistic convention is a way of skirting our own discomfort with hard conversations and our accountability to the people we write about.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “It is in deeds that man [person] becomes aware of what his life really is, of his power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of his ability to derive joy and to bestow it upon others; to relieve and to increase his own and other people’s tensions.…What he may not dare to think, he often utters in deeds. The heart is revealed in the deeds.”3
The process behind the making of this book, not just the thing itself, is my deed. I hope it reveals my heart.
LIKE MANY NEW PARENTS, I took wandering walks in our neighborhood when Maya, my first of two daughters, was a baby. I would listen to podcasts—So. Many. Podcasts.—and think about how my life had been obliterated, in both good ways and bad. In retrospect, I think I had postpartum anxiety—vigilance about her health that left me exhausted and unrecognizable to myself. I just couldn’t turn my physiological volume down. The walks didn’t solve the problem, but they helped. I walked by our neighborhood public school over and over again.
I first noticed the giant vine with sweet purple flowers covering the tall wrought-iron fence. It cascaded down in a pleasing V-shape, shielding the kids playing inside from view. But if I walked a little farther, I could see the blacktop, where mostly Black and Brown kids were running, jumping, screaming, doing what kids do when they are finally released from stuffy classrooms that contain their days. I would pull out an earbud so I could listen to the sound of their joy.
As the months wore on, I noticed more about the school. There were beautiful murals everywhere, a couple of playgrounds, a huge redwood in one corner of the campus. There was a neglected Little Free Library, often stuffed with books that kids would never pick up—Preston Bailey’s Design for Entertaining and Modern Architecture: A Critical History by Kenneth Frampton.
There were also, I noticed, a few White kids running, jumping, screaming, doing what kids do. Not many, but a few.
I was genuinely confused. Temescal, the neighborhood where I moved with my husband, John, when I was pregnant, was multiracial. My daily strolls left the impression that there were plenty of multigenerational Black families in the neighborhood but also lots of White newcomers, too. Where did most of the White children go to school?
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the 1980s, I went to my neighborhood school. Learn where you’re planted. No big fuss. I’d never heard the phrase school choice.
I’d come to find out that learning where you’re planted was never as innocent as it seemed and also was from an era long gone. Our neighborhood school with that towering redwood and the murals and the beautiful children shouting—Emerson Elementary—was “failing,” according to all the official weights and measures. Wondering where the White kids were on that playground was the start of a journey of a thousand moral miles.
LIKE A GOOD MILLENNIAL parent, I turn to the Internet. On GreatSchools.org, the go-to source for school rankings particularly among White affluent parents, Emerson gets a 1 out of 10. Maybe that’s why there aren’t many White kids on the playground. The rating, it turns out, is mostly based on standardized test scores.
A Scantron form filled with a seemingly infinite number of tiny bubbles from my own school days flashes through my head. I was mediocre at math. I scored well in English, but my dominant experience of those tests was thinking up the thirteen ways one could make an argument for how each answer could be the right one.
The text below Emerson’s ranking reads: “This school is rated below average in school quality compared to other schools in California. Students here perform below average on state tests, are making below average year-over-year academic improvement, and this school has below average results in how well it’s serving disadvantaged students.”
If I were a different kind of person, I probably would have looked this information up before we moved into our house. But I hadn’t. When we moved cross-country from Brooklyn to Oakland, I was a couple of months pregnant, and all I could think about was finding an obstetrician.
When John got what appeared to be his dream job in San Francisco, I agreed to move, but only on the condition that we land in Oakland, which reminded me of my beloved Brooklyn (where I’d lived for over a decade after college). San Francisco always struck me as too White and too self-satisfied. The East Bay has more of a ragtag feel that I liked—mom-and-pop bookstores and Rastafarian vegan eateries and hipster coffee shops. What sealed the deal was getting wind of an opening in a cohousing community in Temescal, a neighborhood we’d both loved after visiting frequently over the years. I’d always been intrigued by intentional living, and this was our chance to try it. We’d been so in awe of our luck at landing a space in a cohousing community and so freaked out by buying a home for almost $500,000 that we didn’t think about much else.
But here I am, four years later and all that mortgage paperwork behind me, with a new test: Getting my kid into the “right” school. She also has a two-year-old little sister, Stella, which means that getting Maya into the “right” school gets Stella into the “right” school; twice the pressure.
I return to that little phrase in Emerson’s ranking—“compared to other schools in California”—and decide to quickly look up the other two schools that I’ve heard neighbors and friends talk about. First, Chabot Elementary, a happy green circle with a 9 out of 10 inside. Second, Peralta Elementary: same, same. I guess this means Chabot and Peralta kids don’t struggle in the face of those damn Scantron forms (do kids even still take those tests?). What is happening at these two schools that isn’t happening at Emerson? And does it matter if my kid doesn’t get whatever that magical thing is?
I decide I’m not going to tell John about any of this. At least not yet. He’s all gut when it comes to big decisions like these. He’d see that “1” and run in the other direction, as I’m sure do most White parents in our neighborhood. He might even say, “So, which is the school with the highest ranking, and how do we get her in?” Which, again, is a logical, and I’m sure common, way to approach this whole thing.
But it’s not my way. I have a gut of my own, and it’s telling me that this is one of the most important decisions we’re going to make, not just as parents but as citizens.
LIKE MANY CITIES THAT have become hip, Oakland is attractive for the very reasons it is also plagued by inequity and hypocrisy, and the resentment born from both.
It has cultural cachet via its rich history (birthplace of the Black Panthers and Bruce Lee) and its contemporary treasures—great, relatively affordable food (including BBQ, Burmese, and Ethiopian), fantastic music venues, gorgeous beaches and hikes within a short distance of the city center, and so much else.
It’s the second most racially diverse city in the nation (nearby Stockton is the first).1 According to the Census Bureau, there are over 400,000 people living in Oakland, and 35.5 percent of them are White, 27 percent are Latinx, 23.8 percent are Black, and 15.5 percent are Asian. The median household income, despite being in proximity to all the tech money of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, is just $73,692, and 16.7 percent of people are living in poverty.2
Oakland is also known for being profoundly progressive. In Alameda County, only 10 percent of the population identifies as Republican, so pro-choice bumper stickers and billboards for weed-delivery services abound, and Pride marches are packed. There’s a general consensus, so widely held that it’s rarely articulated explicitly, that its residents are anti-Trump, anti-yuppie, and anti-racist.
Oakland, like so many cities, is also deeply segregated—not by accident, but by design.
The World War II era defined Oakland’s contemporary neighborhoods in many ways. A predominantly White region became far less so during the boom times of war, when the population as a whole increased—almost 100,000 new people arrived between 1940 and 1945, many of them from the South—and the Black population went from 8,462 to 21,770.3 All these new Oaklanders had to live somewhere, of course. Enter the Federal Housing Administration.
The federal government built more than thirty thousand public housing units in the East Bay. Black families were steered toward poorly constructed housing near the shipyards where they worked, near railroad lines, or in the flatlands. White families were steered toward new suburbs and farther inland to the hills, where the houses were sturdier. Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, writes: “Racially explicit government policies to segregate our metropolitan areas are not vestiges, were neither subtle nor intangible, and were sufficiently controlling to construct the de jure segregation that is now with us in neighborhoods and hence in schools.”4
The flatlands and the hills are real places but also mythic constructs in the Oaklander’s imagination. The hills are quiet and full of money; spacious homes built vertically clutch the earth that reaches for the sky, with views of the Pacific and industrial Oakland far below; you need a car to get down and around. The flatlands are, well, flat as hell. You can ride your bike block after block, find vibrant murals alongside abandoned grocery carts filled with what look like all of someone’s worldly possessions, grab an IT’S-IT ice-cream sandwich at the corner store, and have a sweet chat with the guy behind the counter. The homes, at least the original homes, are pretty small. It’s never quiet. But the sun almost always shines.
Almost every American city has hills and flatlands—the part of the city where the White and upwardly mobile folks go, and the part where the Black and economically marginalized stay. We find ourselves on one of these dividing lines, not by accident or desire, but by design. Our cities were planned this way. Which means our schools are planned this way. As the educational historian Jack Schneider writes, “Buying a home means buying a school.”5
Between 1961 and 1966, Oakland lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs, and people fled.6 The city’s overall population fell by about 23,000 between 1950 and 1970; the majority that left were White.7 A group called the Oakland Redevelopment Agency spearheaded new construction in the middle of historic, and almost entirely Black, West Oakland, as well as the expansion of Interstate 880, which cut through the neighborhood. Between 1960 and 1966, more than 7,000 housing units in Oakland were destroyed, and almost 5,100 of them were located in West Oakland. Many of those displaced moved to East Oakland.
Amid this destruction and the outrage that followed, together with the larger fomenting of the civil rights movement, the Black Panther Party was born. It was founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, both students at Merritt Community College. Newton and Seale were intellectually radicalized by their involvement in the Afro-American Association and other groups on campus and by reading the words of Malcolm X.8
But it was their paid jobs running youth service programs at the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center that first planted the seed that caring for kids, what they would come to call “survival programs,” could and must also be part of the revolution.
Their famous free-breakfast program, established in 1969 at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in West Oakland, quickly grew. Eventually Black Panthers were feeding tens of thousands of kids in the U.S.—from Des Moines to Detroit—before they went to school every morning. It wasn’t just about meeting a fundamental need; it was also about shining a light on how inadequate the government efforts were to show up for hungry children—the most innocent of America’s victims.9 Put to shame by the Panthers, the federal government eventually committed to feeding kids breakfast at schools with high poverty levels. A direct line can be drawn between Newton and Seale’s vision in 1966 and the little carton of milk that sits in front of kids every morning in Title I public schools today all over the country.
Black Oakland wasn’t the only community being radicalized. In the Fruitvale neighborhood, Latinx folks were organizing, pushing back against police violence and army recruitment, and creating community clinics and other programs to weather increasing poverty. The Brown Berets, as some activists were known, collaborated with the Black Panther Party on bringing free breakfast to their kids.
In the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the city hemorrhaged jobs—particularly in manufacturing, transportation, and utilities—as was the case in so many industrial cities.
More White families left (90,000 between 1970 and 1990), and now quite a few Black ones have, too. Downtown Oakland was gutted—department stores disappeared and storefronts stood vacant for months. There was a sense that the radical sparkle of the late 1960s, the cohesiveness of so many communities, was fading. Oaklanders were strained by the systematic disinvestment in the city—again, not a naturally occurring phenomenon but a choice on the part of policy makers from the federal level on down.
Where there is economic deprivation, there is collective vulnerability and precarity. Oakland was brutalized by gang-controlled drug operations and violence, starting in the 1970s. By the end of that decade, Oakland’s per capita murder rate was twice that of New York City.
But in the 1990s, crime began to decline steadily. After three decades of the city’s population dwindling, Oakland got bigger again—going from about 339,000 in 1980 to over 430,000 in 2010.10 The Latinx population surged, and recent immigrants from a wide range of countries showed up. Oakland Chinatown, which had also been decimated by the creation of Interstate 880 and years of disinvestment, started to revive.
The East Bay—like so many cities across the U.S.—grew attractive to White and/or privileged folks who might have passed it over in earlier decades. There was a resurgence of interest in living in cities, particularly by those whom the economist Richard Florida dubbed “the creative class”—designers, artists, writers, photographers, architects, and the like—who clustered in urban centers once eschewed by their parents.11 They valued walkability, not white picket fences.
A Lit Hub Nonfiction Books You Should Read this Summer
- One of the Top Five Books I Want to Read This Year for CEO of TEDWomen Pat Mitchell
- "An honest, searching, and progressive book that will spark debate."—Kirkus
- “Martin chronicles her efforts to narrow the space between her progressive principles and her behavior…a compelling account of the benefits of diverse, integrated schools.”—Conor P. Williams, Washington Post
- "In a vivid, meticulously-reported and unflinchingly honest way, Martin describes choosing a school for her eldest daughter in progressive Oakland and navigating both unconscious and explicit biases that force her to confront her privileges and fight against them. In the end, she concludes that the main barriers to true integration in public schools are well-meaning white mothers—without finger-pointing or absolving herself as a white savior."—Oprah Daily
- “Martin brings to her perspective on her daughter's education a self-reflection that goes well beyond her one daughter and their one family, or even their one school, placing instead the story of her white family in the racial history of the U.S. and the gross disparities seen in the American public education system. This reflection...is what allows Learning in Public to live up to its title."—Shelf Awareness
- “This is the story of what school segregation, a nationally important issue, looks like through the lens of one family’s experience.” —Lit Hub
- “Correcting the harmful legacies of racism in America is generational work. Learning in Public invites us to walk the long road of this process in beloved community. Courtney refuses to settle for the comfort and false certainty of simple answers and static moralizing. Instead, she insists on the painful discomfort and joyful awakening of transformation that’s possible when we live into the biggest questions we have through the most personal choices we make.” —Mia Birdsong, author of How We Show Up
- “Writing with equal passion as a journalist and a mother, Courtney Martin interrogates the history and the moral contradictions of “elite parenting,” gentrification, and school choice. She lives the question of how to chart a new way forward with her daughter in their neighborhood. This is a kind of modeling our society needs – as openly messy as the work of remaking our world.”—Krista Tippett, host of On Being and author of Becoming Wise
- "Learning In Public by Courtney Martin rules and I hope you read it."—Garrett Bucks, The White Pages
- “Courtney Martin reveals the tensions that progressive parents grapple with when choosing schools for their children in a limited market for “good” schools. She inspires us to ask necessary questions about race, class, and education in a country that has not yet achieved justice for all.”—Dr. Dena Simmons, Founder of LiberatED and author White Rules for Black People
- “White parents want to be instruments of change, yet don’t want our own children to 'suffer.' We want to raise anti-racists, yet segregate our kids in 'good' schools dominated by families that look like us. Courtney Martin wrestles with all of these hopes and conundrums in ways that are personal, heartfelt and, especially now, profoundly necessary.”—Peggy Orenstein, author of Girls & Sex and Boys & Sex
- “If you have ever wondered what school choice means for white families who profess racial justice and understand that, in the United States, with whom we learn is as important as what we learn, then this is a book for you. Courtney Martin understands that the choices white families make about how and with whom their children live and learn is a way to share in the doing of justice across racial divides. Honest, human, real and necessary, Learning in Public is a triumph.”—Noliwe Rooks, author of Cutting School: The Segrenomics of American Education
- “There is so much love in these pages. Courtney’s capacity to empathize with and challenge White parents’ notions of what is best for our children and our communities is what makes this book so compelling and necessary right now. She’s a master at calling out our bullshit while still calling us together.”—Whitney Kimball Coe, Vice President at Center for Rural Strategies
- “Is it possible to integrate with integrity? To advance justice one school choice at a time? Courtney Martin the writer asks such questions. Courtney Martin the mother, neighbor, and citizen lives them. Learning in Public is a powerful, unflinching chronicle of responsibility-taking: what it feels like, what it costs, what it makes possible.”—Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University and author, Become America
- “I'm so grateful to Courtney Martin for writing Learning In Public, for so many reasons. For one, I now have the book to hand to my White parent friends when they start talking about what school they're going to choose for their kids. Two, Courtney shows White people in particular how to walk the walk and talk the talk—and how neither process is easy, orderly, or what we expect—and hope—it will be. Three, she reminds us that being a "good parent" and a "good citizen" isn't about knowing all the answers, or being the smartest one in the room. It's about being willing to not know. To be curious, to listen, to try, to fail, and to accept that morality is messy. With Learning in Public, Courtney offers the kind of radically vulnerable intelligence that we can all use much more of.” —Kate Schatz, New York Times bestselling author of Rad American Women A-Z and Rad Women Worldwide
- On Sale
- Aug 3, 2021
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Little, Brown and Company