Questioning Urban-Centrism in the Golden State

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Sitting down to write about the Central Valley of California often begins with the circuitous process of fighting off the desire to begin with a defense, a justification for why I might even be interested in writing about it in the first place. Even among most scholars and activists in the Bay Area who are keenly attuned to issues of marginality, there is a struggle to move past misguided preconceptions of backwards, conservative, staunchly Christian communities in order to illuminate pressing issues, including immigration, agricultural labor rights, education reform, and the precarious symbiosis between rural and urban centers in the Golden State.

For close to a decade, revelations about my place of origin generally included heavy doses of sarcastic self-deprecation for having overcome my provincial origins – despite the fact that Fresno is the largest city in between Los Angeles and San Francisco. What I never learned growing up is that I was raised in the forgotten California: not the California of movies, not the glamorous Hollywood, nor the progressive enclave of the Bay Area, not a region that has incubated countless well-known social movements and activists over the decades.

The California of my youth was a place of booming development, as vast stretches of former agricultural land became destined for housing developments, converting cheap orchard land into lucrative “agriburbs,” a term elaborated by Paul J.P. Sandul in California Dreaming: Boosterism, Memory and Rural Suburbs in the Golden State to describe suburbanized communities surrounded by rural ag land. Big business interests from wealthier parts of the state and even from outside the state had seen the possibilities for capitalizing on the mythical draw to California that came, in part, from the increased access to images of vastness and prosperity via television and movies.

During the 1950s and 60s, Central California had been a site of political experimentation, as the rising New Right from wealthy Southern California sought to link innovative forms of economic conservatism – now known as neoliberalism – with the evangelical Christianity of rural Central California, setting up an entire rural region to co-sign political maneuvers that would eventually harm their economic and cultural livelihood by using wedge social issue campaigns, such as the Red Scare and gay witch hunts. Today, we can see the impacts of misguided political alliances in the Central Valley, including high rates of poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy in the eight counties that comprise it: Fresno, Kern, Kings, Madera, Merced, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Tulare.

From the age of ten, I knew my primary goal was to flee, to find a place where critical questions of culture and place were welcomed and where I might have a little more room to breathe, both literally and figuratively. The pollution of the Central Valley is an apt metaphor for the cultural congestion of intellectual engagement; as industrial agricultural waste settles on the Valley floor, it coats the lungs of Valley residents, producing high rates of asthma and other respiratory problems, alongside the choking of political and social freedoms that has resulted from complex cultural histories of discrimination and willful ignorance.

As an adult, I have come to acknowledge my complex relationship to the place I call home. Working within education, my own professional trajectory led me to work within and in partnership with urban schools. Much of the education reform movements within California have focused on initiatives that primarily impact the quality of teaching and curriculum within schools found in urban settings; while these efforts are incredibly important, they have often happened without consideration of the impact on rural schools, teachers, and students.

Rural communities in the Central Valley are demographically different from many other more well-studied rural parts of the United States. Central Valley residents are more likely to be racial/ethnic minorities – over 60% are non-white. We are home to many immigrants and English Language Learners (ELLs) as well. The Rural School and Community Trust, a rural education advocacy organization, found that while just over 20% of students in the United States attend rural schools, 44% of ELLs attend rural schools; many of these rural school students learning English can be found in California, which has the second highest percentage of ELLs of any state. The illiteracy rate in all eight of the Central Valley counties for people over the age of sixteen is at least 20%.

Much of the publicity around (urban) public education reform has been connected to what is popularly known as the school-to-prison pipeline. While many in the Central Valley are similarly at risk for incarceration that begins through school-based criminalization, far more people suffer from what is becoming increasingly known as the school-to-nowhere pipeline. Graduation rates can be frighteningly low in much of the Central Valley, leading to unemployment, poverty, lack of access to adequate healthcare and social services, and staggering rates of drug and alcohol dependency.

Because some of these realities are often far removed from many of us who reside in urban centers, it can become incredibly difficult to recognize the intricate interconnections between rural and urban California, including the privileged access to resources like well-funded women’s centers, elite public universities, world-class art, science, and history museums, and free health clinics that many of us in the Bay Area enjoy. The physical and cultural separation also masks the ways that urban livelihood is intimately linked to rural happenings, like when the vast fires just outside Yosemite threatened San Francisco’s access to water and electricity as recently as 2013. The impacts travel in both directions, despite urban self-conceptions of environmental autonomy.

In the future, I hope to elaborate more on these urban-rural interconnections that I have just briefly begun to articulate for myself. For the time being, my hope is that readers of this blog who live in urban areas can begin to think about the urban/rural power imbalance as another social justice issue that warrants thoughtful reflection during a time in history when many of the pushes for reform that are publicized emanate from urban contexts, ignoring the incredible work in rural communities and states across the U.S. There is much more to investigate in the weeks and months to come and this initial foray is but an introduction to a rich and complex terrain of human geography in the Golden State.

The next post will be Thursday, August 20, 2015 and will discuss Managing Social and Emotional Expectations in Social Justice Work.

Antisocial Media: Online Writing for In-Person Dialogue

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Many of us have become accustomed to encountering online personalities and writing that give rise to an intense response – whether it be one of connection, anger, curiosity, intellectual disagreement, etc. We have also become practiced at curating our own words and images for public presentation as a way to engage with others on social media, and part of that involves how we respond when we disagree with another person’s social or political views. Often, we make honest attempts to raise awareness and learn more about the perspectives of others; however, online interactions inevitably meet their limits because we struggle to manage our expectations of what is reasonable to expect from others with whom we may or may not interact with in “real” life.

Rather than write another diatribe – the Internet currently has plenty of those – against the ways people engage online, I’d like to pose a couple of questions for myself to think about: Where do our expectations for online engagement with friends, acquaintances, and strangers come from? What might be some helpful ways to relate to online writing we come across? How can we be responsible when interacting with writing and authors?

Social Expectations in a World of Disconnect

In 1979, Christopher Lasch published a prescient, bestseller-to-be, entitled The Culture of Narcissism. During a time when popularized ideas of narcissism were framed as vanity, self-absorption, and self-aggrandizement, Lasch insisted on taking a non-judgmental approach and trying to understand why people might be seemingly turning inward. The book’s subtitle, “American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations,” is the reader’s first clue as to his findings. While narcissism is usually leveled against individuals as an insult, in Lasch’s conception, it is a rational response to the diminishing expectations of social worlds that emerged during an era when public life – after the immense shifts of the 1960s and early 1970s – was closing in on itself for many Americans as a backlash to progressive social changes.

Lasch and I agree that it is important to remember that for Freud, narcissism was about turning inward in the face of rejection, and yet still required a turn outward in order to find others to affirm the inward turn – our impulses for social interaction are so strong. Today, one way we see this manifest is in “(radical) self-love,” as an act of resistance, serving as a version of self-empowerment for those who have been marginalized or mistreated. Unfortunately, we usually target individuals and accuse them of narcissism without taking a moment to understand what kind of social environment has propelled that need, and without reducing intelligent individuals to mere social puppets. Questioning our collective worlds can open up space to affirm respectful disagreement, ongoing learning about others, and critical self-reflection on social issues, including privilege and oppression.

When online, especially on social media, we have the seemingly omnipotent ability to craft a public persona. In past moments, I’ve posted pictures of myself and found myself compulsively checking the Likes and comments. I’ve posted witty status updates in order to feel affirmed for being funny and intelligent and I’ve noticed how my own emotional life can be impacted by the affirmation I do or don’t receive, even as I’m critical and reflective about it.

For me, the most concerning part about my Internet life occurred when I noticed myself seeking to create a political persona through status updates and blogging, even as those actions can have incredible value if done carefully. I’ve seen others who have created online personas as well that connect to their professional and political lives and they use social media as a platform, mixing the drive for affirmation, self-expression, and consciousness-raising. Additionally, many of these people also take it upon themselves to patrol the Internet, looking for opportunities to show themselves to be smarter, more progressive or radical, and fundamentally more valuable than those with whom they disagree.

Responsible Engagement with Online Writing

I acknowledge that the intensity of online comments and the combative tone many employ comes from a desire to engage with pressing social issues. Anonymity, writing from the safety of distance or within one’s own home can shape the comfort with which we cross social boundaries and eschew in-person rapport building before engaging strangers, acquaintances, and friends in discussions that would usually take at least a short while to build up to in “real” life.

We have also been taught to respond to printed words (on screen or on paper) as disembodied thought. It can become easy to forget that a person took the time to share those words because they thought those words might carry meaning for others, even though we might disagree with those thoughts or find their underlying logic to be misguided at best, and completely violating at worst. Strong feelings spill forth and many feel the strong need to respond.

How might that need shift if blogs and news stories were used for dialogue and debate in-person, with friends, colleagues, or acquaintances? We cannot allow authors online to have the final say on any given issue, but that doesn’t mean we have to engage the author themselves, as we can all participate in shaping the social meaning of online writing by carrying it into our day-to-day lives. Sharing online writing in personal ways, by emailing links to friends and family and setting up opportunities to discuss, could potentially go a long way in giving online readers a way to engage the important issues in a setting that is much more conducive to thoughtfulness and – dare I say – shifts in deeply-held perspectives. Breaking a sense of isolation, which many of us experience as a disturbing contradiction when online, will help temper reactivity. Sometimes, the more alone we feel, the more likely we are to feel triggered by written words that misrepresent us, attack us, or make us feel invisible and devalued.

Because I work with youth, I have been made acutely aware of just how powerfully social norms are created through what young people see online. As adults, we have the incredible responsibility to practice careful interaction in public settings, including the Internet, because we are setting examples for current and future generations. When aggressive and dismissive interactions become the norm both online and in-person, social bonds continue to disintegrate during a time when we need people who will actively intervene to strengthen relationships and build new possibilities for our social worlds.

Thank you for reading. Next week will feature two blogs on Monday (8/17) and Thursday (8/20), focusing on Rural Education in California’s Central Valley and another piece on Managing Emotional Expectations in Social and Political Space.

Hi, Internet!

I’m frustrated and I’ve chosen to do something about it. And yes, I’m dragging you along. Allow me to explain:

Everywhere I look on the internet, there are five-point guidelines for how to do any number of things: seduce (and keep) a man, stop being racist, find the career of your dreams, fund your start-up, and so on. Because I have an intimate awareness of just how stretched thin I can feel sometimes, I appreciate the efforts to synthesize and summarize; unfortunately, much of the internet reading I do leaves me feeling confused, annoyed, and talked-down to. I know from experience that life is much more complicated than a five-point guide-blog can respond to in 1,000-1,500 words or less. And yet, I feel as though there must be some way to maintain a sense of nuance, humility, and patience even within our world of compressed time. This is the challenge I’m presenting to myself, and you all will be the evaluators of my success or failure.

I’m almost positive that most people who start off reading this blog will be friends and acquaintances of mine, but let me indulge by letting the strangers out there know a little bit about who I am and what’s important to me. If forced to pick my top three identifications, I’d choose the following: Californian, introvert, and intuitive. I’ve worked as a para-educational professional for twelve years in schools, non-profits, and community groups. My social, professional, and academic spheres have brought me into contact with many different kinds of people. Techies who don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them who are also critical of the groupthink in Silicon Valley. Community organizers who protest displacement of vulnerable families and communities. Non-profit attorneys. Homeless neighbors, many of them LGBTQ youth. Survival sex workers. Human rights scholars. Hungry public school students. Teenage leaders. People in rural, conservative parts of the country who are just trying to get by, and the people there who are working harder for change than I could ever imagine. I’ve taught immigrant, Spanish-speaking children how to read and I’ve facilitated anti-oppression workshops with graduate students and I count myself as lucky to be a ‘translator’ of sorts, moving in and out of worlds and learning from everyone all the time.

Perhaps you are wondering whether or not I’m writing for you, how my experiences and insights might be helpful, interesting, or whether or not my perspective will enrage you at some points. To be clear, I’m writing for my peers: millennials with college degrees who freely access the English-speaking Internet, and hopefully people who want to consider different approaches to age-old problems like racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and so much more. Most of us came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, and though there is nothing inherently special about us, we have inherited many special problems without having been given the tools to address them: failures of multicultural education, police violence, immigration reform, corporate and finance capitalism, the entrance of LGBTQ awareness into the mainstream, and more. We live in a world of hierarchies, trying desperately to assess where to best place resources, attention, etc. We ask ourselves: who is the most oppressed? This question is often too difficult to answer, even despite the onslaught of statistics and research. Maybe it is also not even the most useful question to ask, as it often requires pitting horror against horror.

I’m currently a doctoral student in a school of education in the Bay Area of California and spend most of my time reading, thinking, and writing (both independently and in community) about issues of educational equity for minority students of many kinds, urban/rural divides, U.S. privilege, history and philosophy, and modern secular culture. I’ve spent the past eight years focusing on building alliances across difference in the interest of fostering beneficial relationships of solidarity in these trying political times. I read a lot. Books, news, reports, blogs. I want to share my reflections from these readings and offer questions for people to think through, always remembering that the thoughts I offer here are not conclusive. They are openings for discussion and I invite feedback at my blog email: outsideinmillennials@gmail.com. I’m in the thinking-business, not the truth-business. The truth is always perspectival, and I know that mine is specific and limited. It is also less interesting to me to put forward a hard vision and more interesting to learn how to proceed with care and humility.

While the subtitle of this blog reads “Culture, Politics, and Current Events,” I do have to provide a caveat: my version of what constitutes a “current event” may be different than yours. I like to take my time, chew things over, and attempt to avoid the seductive knee-jerk moralism that saturates Internet blogs. While I understand that reading and witnessing traumatic events mediated through the news can often make us feel that these urgent problems warrant an urgent response, I also know how dangerous it can be to put thoughts and words out in the public sphere without being cautious. I never know what young eyes will fall on those words and I feel a sense of responsibility to practice rigorous and creative reflection on current social events, moments in time that emerge out of the immensity of history and culture.

Hopefully, you will find my writing and thinking useful, both for day-to-day life, and also for those acute moments of social upheaval when all of our assumptions and habits are thrown back at us and we are forced to confront the ways we relate to those who are different than we are. I’ve chosen to name this blog “Outside In” for a few simple reasons. On a level of amusement, I enjoyed the subtle turn-of-phrase as a child because of how this simple re-wording made people stop and think about what I’d just said before realizing I was describing a similar concept in a different way (often when folding laundry). This phrase also makes me question ideas of what is inside/outside – how do we draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’? Finally, I appreciate bringing ideas, stories, and histories to people who don’t consider those narratives to be within their experience or interest, only to have them find out that many interconnections of legacy bind people and places together, often in ways that fall outside the realm of dominant (or even resistance) history. I want us to call into the center of our thought things we might not usually care about, in order to question ourselves, our communities, and our worlds.

Be on the lookout for my next post on Thursday, August 13, 2015, which I’m writing under the working title “Rules of Engagement: Online Writing for In-Person Dialogue”