Every time I try to explain my internship with CitySquash, an organization that combines the sport of squash with academic enrichment programs for elementary through college age students in economically disadvantaged communities, I am struck by what this seemingly strange model might indicate about how poverty alleviation organizations often operate.
The seeming randomness of squash as part of the program’s mission could actually be the opposite of chance. If the point is to get economically disadvantaged kids ‘out’ of the Bronx through admission to private high schools and then colleges, providing students with a skill like squash could give them an extra leg up getting in. But more importantly, they would have a skill that allowed them to find common ground with the still majority population of these schools: wealthy, white, and hailing from suburbs of the east coast. In short, the group most likely to play squash.
The moment that made it most clear to me what knowing how to play squash could really feel like for these students occurred when I was absolutely demolished on the squash court by two of the students I taught, 12-year-old boys named Jesse and Caleb.
When I hit the squash courts, it was really the first time I felt like I was in a place where the things I knew were completely unimportant, erased in that moment because no one ever taught me how to hit a backhand, call a let, anticipate how a ball might hit the edge of a wall, or serve from a certain place. Until then, at almost every moment in my life, everything I had been raised to know allowed me to succeed, be trusted, and avoid unmerited profiling or policing.
But I realized that this disconcertment is what happens to kids like Jesse and Caleb all the time. They have had, and will continue to have, experiences that either ignore or completely deny what they know and where they’re from. They were told this summer to take a practice SSAT that would decide their futures, to read a book because they weren’t good enough writers, and to eat food that was foreign to them and that it was the only way to be healthy. There was no recognition of the words they did know, which wouldn’t be SSAT words because these words were most likely Spanish. This denial of what these students do know will only continue as they go onto elite universities, where their teachers will make assumptions about the work they can do. These students will question their places in the very institutions that are supposed to represent the pinnacle of success in a young adult’s life.
Maybe focusing on certain material and ways of being is completely necessary because of the cultural and economic realities we live in, but I can’t help but think that only certain parts of these students are being “enriched.” And what is the cost of this type of enrichment? Maybe the whole definition of success put forth by organizations that strive to help kids fit a specific model takes away from what these kids do know and feel pride in. And in doing this, do these programs take something essential away from who the kids are?
Can we do both? Can we focus on who they are and who we want them to become in order to have more opportunity than their parents had? I think we can.
I heard many of my fellow interns at the end of this summer talk about their experiences with organizations actively trying to focus on valuing all lived experiences. My belief that affirming both what the students bring to their enrichment education and what they can become in learning the type of knowledge that the most privileged in our society grow up with has only been strengthened.
However, if and when staff at CitySquash and similar organizations dedicate themselves to changing the face of these programs, perhaps valuing Spanish language ability in these majority Hispanic communities, our task is only partially complete. We must keep interrogating the place that we come from in believing that the right way to “save the children” or “get them out of the hood” mandates turning them into us.
And when the “us” looks like me, the questioning of these programs becomes even more complex. As a wealthy, white, educated woman who until this summer on the squash court had almost never felt that the things I know aren’t valuable in every situation, what does my presence in this type of work demonstrate about what should be valued? Even if I affirm what the students bring to their enrichment education, do I—should I—really have a place in low-income communities of color? To shy away from these questions of my role in these efforts to advance equality avoids the most challenging issue.
We, those of us with privilege, must take this challenge to define our roles, but we must keep our eyes and ears open. That means that it is necessary but not sufficient to see the barriers that limit the pursuit of equal opportunity. We must also listen for when we are asked to help break those barriers down. Defining our role as one that affirms, helps, and respects others is a challenge. It may require that we leave more to those we seek to help. It may make our fight toward equality look like one where we are taking a backseat. It does not, however, mean that we are shying away from the fight.