Reflecting on Flint and Detroit

 

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From Pixabay user: Johnhain

Guest Post from Doug Hill – Rochester Education Association President

Is it anger? Is it despair? Is it disgust? Is it hopelessness?

I’ll be quite honest, I’m not sure what I’ve been feeling these past few weeks as a pair of crises have blown up within an hour’s drive of us.

To our north we have the Flint water fiasco that first rose to national prominence back in December when MSNBC’sRachel Maddow provided this compelling 18-minute profile.  To our south we have what can only be described as education in squalor-like conditions in many of the Detroit Public Schools’ buildings. Our brother and sister educators in DPS have been staging random “sick outs” the past several weeks in an effort to draw attention to these conditions which include: roof and window leaks, low/no heat, overcrowded classrooms, mold, and vermin.

There are some common threads woven between these two tragedies. One is Gov. Rick Snyder; another is the Emergency Manager (EM) legislation he signed into law during the infancy of his first term; yet another is the current DPS Emergency Manager, Darnell Early, who was also an EM in Flint at the time the city permanently severed ties with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department by selling the pipeline to Lake Huron; still another is a sense of what can best be classified as a general inaction or sense of urgency – or even misguided actions – on the part of our elected leaders in Lansing; and the final common thread is us (yes, you and I).

Let’s begin with the Gov. Snyder, for if there’s one thing we know it’s that, ultimately, these two crises have occurred during his time leading the state.

 

The EM Law, then-known as Public Act 4 of 2011 was signed by Gov. Snyder and put into action the day before St. Patrick’s Day 2011 and its preamble states the following:

“AN ACT to safeguard and assure the fiscal accountability of units of local government, including school districts; to preserve the capacity of units of local government to provide or cause to be provided necessary services essential to the public health, safety, and welfare; …”

 

I purposefully clipped the preamble at this point because I believe it may be the most compelling and important segment of the entire law (which you can read fully here): Provide the necessary services essential to the public health, safety, and welfare pretty much says it all, right? Can anyone say without hesitation that – either knowingly or unknowingly – poisoning a city’s water supply or allowing school buildings to deteriorate to such an extent is in line with maintaining the public health, safety, or welfare?

 

Yet both have happened. Flint is currently on its fifth EM since December 2011; DPS is on its third since March 2009 (appointed as an Emergency Financial Manager under then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm). The EM has the authority to circumvent democratically elected officials (mayor, supervisors, school boards, etc.) to make the necessary decisions to maintain the public health, safety, and welfare. These authorities include voiding contracts and the like. (Please note: I don’t approve of EM and was adamantly opposed – and remain so – to this law when created.) He/she is appointed by the state’s governor.

Admittedly, these Detroit schools did not suddenly become decrepit and unfit for human habitation overnight. It has been a slow decline with plenty of waste, missteps, and malfeasance through the years long before 2010 when Snyder took office. But the current dilemma is due in no small part to legislation signed by Gov. Snyder that allowed charter schools to multiply like jackrabbits in and around the city, his encouragement of cyber schools and schools of choice, and, perhaps the coup de grâce, the creation of the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) four years ago (announcement video here).

The EAA ostensibly allows the State Superintendent or an EM to transfer low-performing schools (bottom 5% in state) into the EAA. The idea was that the EAA would serve as an incubator for improving the education system in Detroit and presumably in other areas later on. Presently there are 15 Detroit schools in the EAA (nine elementary) and this year just one fourth grader was deemed proficient in the M-STEP math test (Eclectablog post here).

What all of these Gov. Snyder-approved “reforms” were designed to do was develop competition through choice for Detroit parents and – because everyone loves good competition – things would improve for Detroit’s students. Sadly, what has in fact happened, is Detroit parents followed the siren song of charters, cyber schools, neighboring school districts, and the EAA and enrolled their children outside of DPS. This steep and steady decline of students has only further exacerbated budget challenges with DPS and created many of the issues our colleagues are voicing their displeasure about.

 

Finally, it would seem, action may be underway. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan toured buildings Tuesday (see storyhere) and has issued a mandate that all be inspected (see story here). Of course there is also misguided action. At least two bills are expected to be introduced in the state Senate Thursday regarding DPS; presumably one of them will be to address the budget crisis but another – and the one seemed to generate more outrage by Senate Education Committee Chair Phil Pavlov (R-St. Clair) – might be a bill to outlaw sick outs (see story here).

Meanwhile, in Flint the hits just keep coming. Today state health reports indicate a steep increase in reported cases of Legionnaires in Genesee County which seems to correlate with the shift to Flint River water in the city (see story here). Likewise, Snyder authorized the use of the National Guard to assist in the distribution of water filters, water, and water test kits (see story here) and has finally reached out the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for federal assistance.

It sickens me that this has happened and I believe in addition to our state’s elected leadership we are all – to some extent – complicit in these occurrences.

As I’d indicated last week my resolution this year is to read more and the book I’ve begun with has been Peter Block’s 2008 work: Community: The Structure of Belonging.

In it, he outlines the steps one (or a small group) needs to take to – quite literally – build a true community. What I’ve realized more than halfway through this thought-provoking read is that even in a place like Rochester/Rochester Hills we DO NOT have a community in the purest sense of the term.

Block devotes a chapter to what he calls “The Stuck Community.” Despite having written this in 2008, I believe we are still very much in this stuck community and the Flint and Detroit situations evidence this. To wit:

“…The story of the stuck community can be heard both in the dominant public debate and also in what we talk to each other about each day. … The overriding characteristic of the stuck community is the decision to broadcast all the reasons we have to be afraid. This is a kind of advertising that exploits the fear we have of violence, of the urban core, of terrorism, of African-Americans and other ethnic groups, of immigrants, of those who are poor or uneducated, of other religions, and of other countries. It seems like the lead story of every local evening newscast is about crime and human suffering, and if our city had none that day, then we hear how somewhere else in the world someone was murdered, bombed, killed in an accident, or abducted from what was once thought to be a safe place. What we are hearing is the marketing of fear. … The marketing of fear is not just for profit; it also holds a political agenda. … It gets packaged as spiritual values, family values, the American way, love it or leave it, all under the umbrella of law and order.

 

“In addition to marketing fear, the stuck community markets fault. … Fault marketing rests on the belief that if we can assign blame and find cause, it is useful to society and somehow reassures us that it won’t happen again.”

 

Sadly, there is far too much fault marketing going on today. You need look no further than the ongoing presidential campaign for a healthy dose, but you can also look to the challenges facing us closer to home in Detroit and Flint. Some blame the Governor, some blame the Emergency Manager(s), some blame the state legislators, some blame the teachers, and some blame the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. What no one seems willing to do, however, is be accountable.

Which is really one of the main tenets of Community. In a true community everyone is accountable because everyoneis a leader because everyone has a sense of ownership.

In a later chapter, “Taking Back Our Projections,” Block writes:

“One payoff for believing that problems and the suffering in our cities are the inevitable products of modern life and culture is that it lets us off the hook. The payoff begins the moment we believe that problems reside in others and that they are the ones who need to change. We displace or assign to others certain qualities that have more to do with us than with them. This is called projection. … The essence of projection is that it placed accountability for an alternative future on others. This is the payoff of stereotyping, prejudice, and a bunch of “isms” that we are familiar with. … The reward is that it takes the pressure off of us. It is a welcome escape from our freedom. We project onto leaders the qualities or disappointments that we find too much to carry ourselves. We project onto the strangers, the wounded, the enemy those aspects of ourselves that are too much to own.”

Block goes on to provide a powerfully tangible (in my opinion) example:

“Take poverty, for example. When we see low-income people, we focus on their needs and deficiencies, and that is all we see. We think their poverty is central to who they are, and that is all they are. We believe that the poor have created that problem for themselves. We view them with charity or pity and wring our hands of their plight. At this moment we are projecting our own vulnerability on the poor. It is a defense against not only my own vulnerability, but also my own complicity in creating poverty. If we took back this projection, we would stop denying that each of us plays a role in creating poverty – by our way of living, by our indifference, by our labeling them as ‘poor’ as if that is who they are, by our choice not to have them as neighbors and get to know them. Part of the reduce taxes debate is the belief that we are wasting money on ‘those people.’ … When we believe that the ‘other’ is the problem and that transformation is required of them and not of us, we become the beneficiaries of their suffering in the world. … The mindset that the ‘other’ is the problem means that we need to wait for them to change before the change we want can come to pass. And until they change, we need to stay distant and contain them. This diverts us from the realization that we have the means, the tools, the thinking to create a world we want to inhabit, and to do it for all.”

 

Yes! We do have the means, the tools, and the thinking to create a world we all want to inhabit. Perhaps what has resonated most about Block’s work has been his insistence that to truly develop a community one must form relationships with people/groups unlike you/yours. In short, we need to have conversations and share our stories and experiences with those outside our usual circles.

 

I wonder if it was Ann Arbor using the Huron River for its water supply and lead leeched into the pipes if Gov. Snyder may have taken a keener interest sooner? Likewise, if there was a rat infestation and black mold issues at St. Clair High School, might Sen. Pavlov be more forgiving to the educators who were “sick” or even be more willing to find a solution to its financial problems? I wonder (rhetorically) what kind of relationship Gov. Snyder and Sen. Pavlov have with the residents of Flint and the teachers in DPS, respectively?

 

I’ve extolled the virtues of relationships and sharing our story in this space plenty over the past 16 months. As I continue to read Community I am convinced more than ever that it is paramount for us to have these sometimes uncomfortable conversations and share more about ourselves, who we are, why we do what we do, and the challenges we face with those who scoff at teachers (parents, politicians, FB friend Peter, etc.).

 

Likewise, Block notes that we as a western culture are isolated because of our individualistic narrative, the inward attention of our institutions and our professions, and the message from the media all fragment us (remember “fault marketing?”). He continues that most sectors of our society are working diligently, though in isolation: “Each piece is working hard on its own purpose, but parallel effort added together does not make a community. Our communities are separated into silos.”

 

I would say this definition is true of Rochester Schools: Teachers, support staff, building administrators, district administrators, and the board of education; all working hard and trying to do the best job possible.

 

The question then, is how do we tear down those silos and once again become Rochester Community Schools?

 

The answer, I believe, lies within each of us.

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