You too, Sir

Last Wednesday I arrived to campus at approximately 9:00am. After having a quick conversation with a fellow doctoral student I decided to take a walk on campus. While on my walk I was greeted by a familiar face, a service worker who I often have a 30 second conversation with, usually consisting of the weather and weekend plans. We had our conversation as usual and when the conversation ended I said, “Have a nice day” and began to walk off, when I heard him say, “You too, sir.” I almost stopped in my tracks because I was unsure as to whether this gentleman who appears to be my senior by at least 20 years would call me sir, but I just looked back at him and smiled. As I continued my walk through campus I began to wonder and think to myself, “Why did this man call me sir?” I tried to remember whether he called me “sir” in any of our previous interactions, and I do not believe he did. Why today? I usually dress the same I thought to myself. Today was a class day and I did have on a dress shirt, tie, sweater, and slacks, but was my attire the reason he called me “sir”? Did he think I was a professor, or perhaps an administrator? All of these things swirled around in my mind like a tornado in early spring in the Midwest.

Once those thoughts began to disappear another thought came to me. I guess I am privileged. I walk around the University campus usually dressed up and try to smile or speak to everyone I pass. I usually see several custodians and other service workers everyday as they complete their rounds throughout campus, performing routine services for all of us; however, many of us do not think much of it. The fact is that we have a group of service workers who clean up after us while we walk around smiling and holding conversations that I am sure many of us would consider much deeper, more philosophical, and of more important than the weather and weekend plans.

I must admit that it did bother me that someone I believed I should call sir, even if only out of respect of age difference referred to me as “sir.” Later that day I had a conversation with a colleague about the interaction and we discussed what we thought it might mean. One of the first thoughts we discussed was that of class issues – was it a social class issue? Did this man call me sir because he felt or believed he should, or that it was necessary? Or did he call most people “sir” regardless of where he is or to whom he is having a conversation?

Furthermore, all of these questions reminded me of critical theory which focuses on an individual’s response to social, political, and economic oppression and assumes that social life functions at various levels of meaning (LeCompte & Preissle, 1993). Did this service worker call me “sir” because of social oppression and pressures in our society? Do I appear or exhibit aristocratic characteristics that might give the impression that I need to be called or referred to as “sir”? Or does my dress and status as a doctoral student represent a “higher class,” thereby placing me in a social and/or economic oppressive group?

Finally, I understand that this interaction may not seem like a “big deal,” but I believe that social and class issues are important. In fact, some may argue that critical theory lacks objectivity and that it is a theory that argues that complex interactions and situations are reduced to simplistic explanations and conclusions. I realize that many of us may not have thought twice about the interaction as I did, however, to be called “sir” outside of a formal interaction by a service employee requires some extra thought on my behalf.

Education the great divider: School choice in urban centers

Education in today’s society is a definitive indicator of an individual’s earning potential and social mobility. In light of this reality, parents are constantly searching for ways to provide their children with a quality education that would afford them a greater earning potential and the possibility of upward social mobility. Unfortunately, however, access to a quality education is not equally distributed across all strata of the society.

Bridging the divide between urban and suburban school districts

An Akron, Ohio woman recently made national headlines after she was charged and sentenced for defrauding the neighboring Copley-Fairlawn City Schools of over $30, 000 in her attempt to secure a better quality of education for her two daughters. A comparison of the Copley-Fairlawn City School District’s report card for academic year 2009-2010 to the Akron Public Schools’ report card for the same academic year indicates that Copley-Fairlawn students received better scores in two key achievement areas, reading and mathematics, while Akron students received comparably lower scores in these two achievement areas. Additionally, yearly progress in overall school accountability standards was met by Copley-Fairlawn compared to Akron Public Schools that failed to meet yearly progress.

The inequalities and inequities in the education system necessitate the continuation and expansion of school choice policies. Whether it is the existence of charter schools, voucher programs or urban-suburban programs, school choice policy is needed to allow urban parents opportunities to provide a quality public education for their children. Of course, Kelley Williams-Bolar (accused Akron parent) was found guilty for falsification of government document. But can we villainize her for trying to provide her daughters with an education that is unavailable to them in their home district—an education that is elusive in many urban areas, yet readily available to suburbanites? I am not suggesting here that the laws of the land be flouted. However, I am suggesting that adequate investments be made in school choice policies (eg. urban-suburban programs) that are continuously in danger of termination due to the lack of adequate funding. This should enable urban students, the majority of whom are of a lower socio-economic status, the opportunity to receive a quality public education.

Without attempting to litigate on the legality of Williams-Bolar’s action, it is prudent that we examine the gross inequity between these two neighboring school districts that prompted her to seek a quality education for her children outside of their struggling school district. The present hiatus between Akron and Copley-Fairlawn schools continue to disenfranchise many vulnerable children on the premise of their zip code, despite their parents paying local, state and federal taxes that generally fund schools. I am of the opinion that if Williams-Bolar could have afforded to send her children to a private school, she might have done so, or already voted with her feet for a more effective school district. Can some acts be avoided when one is stripped of choice? Poverty cannot be the reason for a poor education. I wonder what Horace Mann would say about this sad inequity?


Akron Public Schools (2010). 2009-2010 School Year Report Card.

Copley-Fairlawn City School District (2010). 2009-2010 School Year report Card.

Where are we going?

Last Tuesday the Warner School hosted a screening of Schooling the World, with a fantastic panel discussion afterward. The film covers a lot of ground, from economic globalization and neocolonial ideology to sustainable farming and the Buddhist aspects of Ladakh culture. It attempts, successfully in my opinion, to disrupt simple conceptions of schooling, progress, development, wealth, culture and what it means to help through charitable action. Although the film presents a somewhat simplified story of how compulsory schooling and its well-intentioned supporters change indigenous cultures, it does challenge the audience to think about how this interaction occurs in the globalized world.

Both panelists and audience members alike struggled to understand the power dynamics at play when a narrow conception of “help” is imposed on another culture. Do they even want our help? Who are we to help them anyway? What do they need? What do we want? The film makes the point that we (of cultural privilege and power) need to be aware of how our actions impact those in the world around us. Personally, not a day goes by anymore in this doctoral program that I claim to know, or even understand, the totality of any situation or concept. The world is so complicated and irreducible. The film and discussion showed me how quick we sometimes are to swoop in and claim that we have all the answers. I definitely do not, and Schooling the World reminded me that it is equally important to be present in the listening aspect of conversation. I think this starts with a temperament rooted in humility and doubt; something often missing from the hyper-partisan and vitriolic rhetoric that sadly characterizes much of our modern political discourse.

Continue reading “Where are we going?”

Speaking Truth to Power: Reflections from The Pauline Lipman Scandling Lecture

As I sat at my desk – situated in the basement of the graduate student office of The Warner School of Education – the evening of November 8th, I had overlooked that in less than a half an hour the Pauline Lipman Scandling Lecture would begin. At the same time, I also realized that I was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and baseball cap, two mutually exclusive observations.  Although appearances are momentary, appearing in The Hawkins Carlson Room of the Rush Rhees Library in leisure attire was not on my Top Ten list of things to do in representing the Warner School of Education to a renowned scholar. Moreover, it was unlike me to wear sweatshirts to campus, yet that was my burden on this Autumn evening: to attend in embarrassment of my garb, or to not attend and miss out on what I knew would be a riveting lecture. I attended the lecture that evening thanks to the 3-5 minute reassurances from my office mates, and fellow doctoral students that I looked like a “student” and that at least I wasn’t wearing pajamas with fuzzy boots, the chosen attire by many undergraduates.

Dr. Pauline Lipman, an urban education activist and scholar, spoke in the words of Edward Said, “truth to power” at The University of Rochester that night.  Her upcoming book, The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City, challenges the market-driven ideology that has plagued much of America’s domestic and foreign policy for decades, and now urban public education. Being a former Rochester City School District student who lived on the northeast side of Rochester for most of my life, I understood first-hand what in Lipman’s words was “the assault on public education.” Her lecture was fast paced and her Power Point images illustrated  how gentrification in neighborhoods around the country, but specifically in Chicago, were changing the urban landscape to the detriment of many poor, Black and Latina/o residents. A process we are familiar with in the Rochester area.

Toward the end of the lecture, a question was raised regarding how Dr. Lipman seemed to be an opponent to all forms of Charter Schools: independent charters schools and the corporate chain of charter schools like KIPP and Uncommon Charter Schools. Her response was that independent charter schools began as an experiment to find solutions for public education and not necessarily to replace public education. I remember being a proponent of charter schools in the Rochester area.  In fact, I even interviewed to run one.  I was also a supporter of mayoral control, so I can understand opponents of Lipman’s argument challenging neoliberal policy and management in urban education. However, I have discovered The Matrix-like presence of neoliberalism in education. My course work this semester, which includes a class on Contemporary Issues in Higher Education taught by Dr. Andrew Wall, and Concepts in Social Science Research taught by Dr. Ed Brokenbrough have been instrumental in my evolution on these compelling issues influencing my past educational experiences and the present experiences of the plethora of poor, Black, and Latina/o mis-educated students across the country. These courses helped me to understand how neoliberalism and positivist research are at times grounded in more than just economic rationalism.  It took making connections from Dr. Signithia Fordham’s course, Whiteness and Privilege (Spring 2010) to concur with the Pauline Lipman lecture that neolibrealism is a process that can be used to disguise racist ideologies grounded in Western hegemony.  A process that codes disadvantaged communities as in need of saving from themselves, and a process that disinvests in poor areas in order to increase profit-margins for businesses and corporations not located in these communities.

Coming from Cuba in 1980, and being raised by parents who fled communism in Cuba, I have always believed capitalism to be what made America a better place to live. However, the dichotomy is not that simple.  Although I am nothing of an economist, and although I am only in my second year of my Ph.D. program in Educational Leadership, the Pauline Lipman Lecture allowed me to envision myself as a future activist education scholar who aims to speak “truth to power.”

Treatments in Mental Health: A Brief History

Note: In case you missed my last post, I mentioned that with every entry I am going to include a picture from my personal life.  Whether related to the week’s topic or not, I hope to give you a small glimpse into who I am.  In honor of Sunday’s running of the Chicago Marathon, this week’s picture features “the bean.”  As mentioned previously, I traveled to Chicago for the first time this past August and fell in love with the city.

This week I am taking a small break from the topic of school counseling to share with you some interesting information I recently learned.  In a lecture by our Problem ID Teaching Assistant, Ari Elliot, we reviewed a brief history of psychiatric and mental health treatments and interventions.  It’s important for us to remember the history of mental illness treatment both because it was not very long ago, and because it is up to us to ensure that treatment continues to improve and does not revert to the horrible situations of the past (during the lecture, I could not help but make connections to the treatment of Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). I am going to summarize some of what we reviewed in class to emphasize my point:

Europe in the 1600’s: Those considered mentally insane were chained in dungeons with criminals, vagrants, and people with disabilities. They were beaten, given little food, and had no clothing.

Europe in the 1700’s to early 1800’s: Medical treatment was both a remedy and a punishment.  Treatments included bloodletting, purging and induced vomiting, cold water dunking (water torture), and the “swinging chair,” a contraption designed to spin the patient at high speeds.  The chair was thought useful in helping patients to vomit, evacuate the contents of their bladder, and lull them into a tranquilized state of mind.

Europe in the late 1800’s: Concern for the mentally ill increased.  The use of chains and shackles was forbidden.  Patients were removed from dungeons and allowed to stay in sunny rooms and walk outside.

The U.S. in the 1800’s: Mental patients were chained in basement cells.  Public viewing of patients was allowed for entertainment purposes.

1812: Benjamin Rush, a founding father of psychiatry, writes Medical Inquiries and Observations, Upon the Diseases of the Mind. Saw mental illness as psychological and believed the cause to be abnormal blood circulation. Continued the use of bloodletting, spinning therapy, and the “tranquilizer chair,” a device used to control blood flow to the brain, reduce motor activity, and reduce the force and frequency of pulse.

The U.S. in the Late 1800’s: Moral treatment of patients was finally considered.  Spinning devices were banned and patients were given food and clothing.  Patients were trained to act in a civil manner in exchange for certain privileges.

The U.S. in the early 1900’s: The Era of Institutionalization.  Patients kept in massive, overcrowded asylums.  Treatment deteriorated.  The Eugenic movement led to viewing mental patients as contaminants of the gene pool.  Laws were enacted concerning compulsory sterilization.

20th Century Asylum Medication: Treatments included Insulin-induced coma, electro-convulsive therapy, lobotomy, and anti-psychotic medications.

Today, we use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to help diagnose patients.  While the DSM says nothing about treatment, there is hope that a proper diagnosis will lead to proper treatment.  Research is continually changing what we know about the causes and treatments of mental disorders.  I take what I learn about the history of mental illness and hope to always remember to respect and protect the person who may be suffering.

Update from Uganda re: sustainability

Uganda- girl with bucket

Here’s a quick update regarding my first five days in Uganda. As I write below, sending e-mails is difficult. At the school where I am staying, I only have electricity for a short time and the internet is incredibly slow. It takes me 15 minutes from pressing send on one message to where I can open another message. Here’s a brief description of what I’ve done so far.

I’m working in a small school, pre-k to grade 7, developing sustainable resource systems and teaching about sustainability, so I’m part engineer, part educator. I spent all of yesterday designing a rainwater harvesting system, including meeting with a contractor to design a gutter system (who didn’t consider that at one point he had the water running uphill; I want to see his final plans), shopping for pumps (we found one that kids can stand on and pump by moving their legs up and down. I think they will enjoy doing it), ordering a 5,000 liter plastic water storage tank, and tubing to get the water from the gutters to the storage tank and then from the storage tank to an existing tank 20 feet above the ground. When school is in session, I’m teaching them about photovoltaic systems, energy, sustainability, and the energy cycle. However, I think my hosts are more impressed with my engineering than teaching ability!

Not surprising, the inequality and poverty here is incredible. Most people seem to live by selling goods on the street. Most travel either by taxi (15 people in a mini-van) or by motorcycle (5% wear helmets). The cyclists and cars weave in and out of the traffic, which is worse than anywhere I’ve seen, the potholes have potholes, and it’s amazing that I haven’t seen any accidents. However, I’m told that 85% of the patients in hospitals are cyclists. I believe it.

There are basically three school systems here: a private one for the few wealthy, a public one for everyone else, and private schools run by missions or, like my school, run by people who just really care. The school I am in is private, but 30 of the 200 students live at the school because their parents have died from HIV-AIDs, and the others come for whatever they can afford. Essentially, it is because the teachers work for almost nothing that their students are able to attend. The school has few resources. It is only because I came with a suitcase of supplies that the school now has crayons, pencil sharpeners, mirrors, and some more books.

Because the school can’t afford electricity purchased from the city utility (I think the rates are several times what we pay in Rochester), several years ago they installed with the help of AHEAD Energy (Ben and MJ Ebenhack from UR engineering) a solar powered electrical system. However, it is inadequate for their needs and they can only run electricity at night, so no refrigerators or running hot water. My bedroom has no electrical outlets and one overhead light. They heat hot water on the stove for my bath and I can use my computer during the day for only as long as the battery lasts. It’s one thing to talk about global inequality; it’s another to experience it.

However, the people I stay with are wonderful, they take care of everything, including hand washing my clothes and ironing them with an iron heated by charcoal. I’m awakened around 6 A.M. by the roosters that live on the school grounds.

I did discover two days ago that only a half mile down the road, the old US embassy was turned into a hotel and recreation facility for visiting Americans, and ex-pats. Membership is only $20 per week, so I joined. I have my computer plugged in and am writing and will send this document from there.

The first night I stopped at the bar to watch the French Open (TV!) and got into conversations with lots of people who are interested in the project. I have a dentist stopping by the school on Monday, who wants to see if he can help out on future visits to Uganda. I returned last night to send e-mails, work out in the gym, and, again, watch some tennis on TV. Today I played several sets of tennis on the clay courts. It is entirely weird to go from living at a subsistence level at the school and walking a short distance down the road if you are an American having access to hot showers, television, and clay tennis courts. On the one hand it feels hypocritical to be here enjoying European standards of living. On the other, it’s good to take advantage of using my computer for an extended period of time (it’s almost recharged!) and sending more than two e-mails in half an hour.

Tomorrow, it’s back to teaching in the school (grades 3 and 4) and planning lessons for the rest of the week. If you would like to help out in any way (additional supplies, money, volunteering at the school), contact either me or MJ Ebenhack at AHEAD Energy (585-275-7429-7429).

To read more about my previous blog in this series on Uganda, please visit the following web link:


Pioneering Global Sustainability Efforts in Uganda

I’m off Monday, May 23rd, to Kampala, Uganda to work with teachers at the Circle of Peace School on developing and implementing curriculum on energy, sustainability, and development that builds on the technological innovations brought to the school by AHEAD Energy in Rochester. Beyond what I learn over the next weeks, I have several goals. One is to for the school become a community resource on energy and sustainability. A second goal is to develop a partnership between Peace School in Uganda and the Harley School in Rochester, NY. (For a longer description of the project, see the Warner School website news story: New Interdisciplinary Curriculum Enables Schools to Pioneer Global Environmental Sustainability Efforts

This is a new area for me. While I have been writing about increasing global inequality, I have been able to do so from the safe confines of my office. Now, I am off to see what I can actually do. It is critically important that developing countries have access to energy and other resources while at the same time trying not to contribute to global climate change.

I will try to blog regularly. I should add that while a student was initially coming along with me, she recently dropped out of the project for family and personal reasons. However, two students from the University of Rochester Medical School may join me in a week. Energy and health are intertwined. For example, the use of firewood in cooking stoves not only leads to deforestation but also contributes to 1.2 million deaths per year. It will be fascinating to see what we can do.

I depart Uganda on June 13th for the World Council of Comparative Education Societies conference in Istanbul, where I will be presenting two papers, one on globalization, neoliberalism, and inequality, a second on our work in Uganda. I will say more about those papers as I get them written!