State of Opportunity

Wednesday during Morning Edition and All Things Considered

State of Opportunity is a special project produced by Michigan Radio with major financial support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The project features documentary reports, first-person storytelling, youth journalists, an online portal, and Michigan Radio’s Public Insight Network.

The goal is to expose the barriers children of low income families in Michigan face in achieving success.

Hogan / flickr

"Up by your bootstraps," that ubiquitous phrase that has come to function basically as shorthand for the American Dream, first came onto the scene in 1834.  

Linguist Anne Curzan says at that point, it was basically an insult. It described somebody delusional enough to think they could defy the laws of physics and pull themselves up in the air by the very things anchoring them to the ground. 

You see it on your local TV news every few weeks. Or maybe a small article in the paper.

Another fire. Another bust. Another story about meth.

The statistics tell the rest of the story: Methamphetamine use and production is on the rise in Michigan.

And last year, more children were exposed to meth labs than at any time since the state started keeping track.

user alamosbasement / flickr

America is becoming less equal.

That much is now widely acknowledged.

But what can be done to improve things for the next generation?

We’ve been doing this work on State of Opportunity for nearly three years now. If there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over about how to help kids get ahead, it’s this: Education is the key.

"Once you’ve made it to college and graduated, your social mobility opportunities are great," said Fabian Pfeffer.

"Putting people into more post-secondary education would strongly promote their mobility," said Erin Currier.

"We’re talking about producing skills," said James Heckman. "Skills are the core of the modern economy."

If you want a good job, you have to have skills. If you want skills, you have to have education. That’s pretty uncontroversial.

But then I came across the work of this guy:

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

Chamonique Griffith stands in front of her second-graders on a Thursday morning, about to try something that, for her, is new.

"How many of you know that I go to class at night?" she asks.  

Her second graders all quietly raise their hands.

"So, last night, I got to do a really cool activity with my teacher," Griffith continues, "and so I wanted to try the activity with you."

Griffith is part of the first cohort of teachers in a new college of education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids. This college is focused entirely on preparing teachers for urban classrooms. The students enrolled in the master's level program, for now, are all currently teaching at Grand Rapids Public Schools.

flickr/56832361@N00

Last week, we brought you a story on the theory of white fragility, which was developed by Robin DiAngelo

DiAngelo developed her theory after years of both leading and observing workshops on racism. Her original paper on it runs 17 pages long. She also wrote a book called What Does it Mean to be White. She has a PhD. She's been doing this work for two decades. 
We had about five minutes to tell you the story on our air.  Since then, we've gotten a lot of comments, with many people looking for more context. Some people went ahead and read DiAngelo's paper on white fragility, which is linked to in our original story. 

But there's also a lot more to my interview with Robin DiAngelo than we were able to share on the radio. 
 

flickr/clappstar

This is the version of our story that aired on Michigan Radio. To hear an extended version of our interview with Robin DiAngelo on the theory of white fragility, click here

Robin DiAngelo was right out of college when she started thinking about it. She'd landed a job leading workshops on racism. And she met a man who became very angry, and pounded on a table. He said white people are the target of discrimination, white people can’t even find jobs anymore.

DiAngelo looked around the office and she saw nothing but white people, all of them with jobs.   

"It was unnerving," she says now. "It was like, 'This is not rooted in any racial reality that is happening, in this room, in this workplace, or in this man’s life.' And yet, these feelings are real. His rage is real. How do we do that?"

courtesy of The Diatribe

"Can you read right now at least please?"

Fable is harassing one of his students.

"Can you at least read in front of us?" he asks.

The student, Jocelyn, already said she doesn’t want to read her poem. She hardly ever speaks at all in this class.

But Fable, whose given name is Marcel Price, will not let up.

"I won't ask you for anything ever again," he says earnestly.

Fable is one of the teachers of this class, one out of four members of a poetry collective known as The Diatribe. The other poets are Rachel Gleason, G Foster II and Shawn Moore. They all pile on Jocelyn, the only student here today who hasn’t yet read a poem out loud.

The four poets plead, each in turn.

"Please."

"Please."

"Please." 

"Please."

Kevin Dooley / flickr

Michigan has been scolding  "you're going to pay for that!" to young offenders across the state for close to two decades. 

This punishment comes in forms traditional to criminal justice: juvenile detention, jail for those 17 and older, probation, parole. Increasingly though, it also means that young offenders must literally find the money to pay a host of costs to courts and sheriff's departments across the state. 

Jennifer Deming / photoswithflair.com

It’s hard to remember now. Naton Brown isn’t sure what year it was. But she was eight years old.

"Yeah, I don’t remember," she tells me. "I just know that I kept on telling my mom I had headaches, and we went to the hospital, but then the doctor said it’s just because they thought I was dehydrated or something."

She wasn’t dehydrated. The headaches kept coming. One day at school, Brown fell down the stairs. They took her to the Emergency Room.

Her mother, Delores Lilly, says that’s when they found the tumor.

Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

Temperatures are expected to dip below zero again tomorrow morning in parts of lower Michigan.

It’s been a long winter for all of us. But for those struggling to cover their heating bill, the frigid weather poses a much bigger risk.

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