Take the red line from Peachtree Center Station to Lindbergh and all the people are white. Men in cloud white shirts and steel grey slacks, gold watches and brown leather shoes shining in white fluorescent lights. Now, take the red line back to the West End and all the people are black. Young men talking complaining about curfews and rules, sitting only a couple of feet away from women with tired eyes and softly nodding heads.
At the heart of Atlanta is the reality that the myth of post-racial America is just that—a myth.
Drive eastward on Courtland Street and look at the rows of men in plastic lawn chairs lined up on sidewalks of grey death. Their elbows hunch over their knees as they watch the speeding cars. The curb is littered with broken glass. Old clothes are strewn over rusted fences. Compare that to the Buckhead whose mansions are built upon hills, each one looking down at curving roads. Terracotta tiles line the roofs and manipulated rows of bushes curve around the house’s perimeter.
Like the mansions in the Buckhead and disrepair of downtown streets and metro stations, the inherent racism of this nation stares us down everyday with a menacing glare and at the heart of Atlanta is the reality that the myth of post-racial America is just that—a myth.
In her poem “Tulips,” Sylvia Plath confesses, “I am sick of baggage,” a sentiment to which all of our bodies can attest. From issues of gentrification and voter obstruction to social alienation and education, the baggage of our personal and collective histories weighs us all down. Yet, these same histories also carve pits within our cores, leaving us incomplete.
I picture restorative justice as a hole.
We may not have dug the hole, but it is nonetheless present, always claiming the bodies of those too disadvantaged to protect themselves.
Not too far from all of our homes, there is a gaping hole that everyday swallows up person after person. One day it claims a blind man, another day, an elderly woman too frail to jump across. The day after next, a child falls in chasing after his red ball and then his mother, consumed with worry, fails to see the cavern’s blackness and she too is swallowed whole. We may not have dug the hole, but it is nonetheless present, always claiming the bodies of those too disadvantaged to protect themselves.
Of course, the logical solution to this problem is to fill the hole. Like Dr. Carol Anderson said, “To restore justice, we must first restore people and make whole those that have been broken.” But before that can be done, we must first acknowledge the existence of the hole, for as Dr. Tanya Washington said, “We cannot reconcile that which we will not acknowledge.” Still, additional questions remain. What happens if the hole remerges? Or a different hole appears elsewhere?
“We cannot reconcile that which we will not acknowledge.”
Just as we cannot simply acknowledge the problem, we cannot only “restore,” or replenish that which was once hollow. We must also work actively to prevent and to build around these once empty ditches, beautiful gardens that saturate the air with sweet aromas and oxygen.
For me, this work is done through education, by crafting the classroom into an intersectional environment of empowerment, community, empathy, and vulnerability.
We foster acknowledgement through empathy, we fill holes through empowerment, and we prevent the return of these devastating holes by building communities and exposing our vulnerabilities.
We ignore issues of injustice because we do not see them as directly affecting our lives. This rationale is the result of both emotional and cognitive distancing. In his piece, “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle,” Peter Singer demonstrates how we often allow issues of distance and nationality affect our willingness to donate to charitable causes. Many of us see the famine in South Sudan and the child labor in Thailand as problems too distant for us to undertake. Yet, in the same way that we distance those in other nations, we can also distance those living in the very same city as us.
When we distance these people, we sever our empathy and grow ignorant to the problem.
In the contemporary context of Atlanta, a tendency exists to distance the homeless population and the impoverished communities adversely affected by the BeltLine project. However, when we distance these people, we sever our empathy and grow ignorant to the problem. Providing people with formal education about the problem will do little unless we also cultivate a feeling of outrage and emotional envelopment. As an educator, I plan to foster empathy in my students through the creation and distribution of stories and narratives. Through literature, I plan to expose the humanity of the “other” and decrease our socially constructed distance.
Educators have the ability to empower their students by acknowledging their worth and pushing them toward their potential.
Upon establishing empathy, the next step is to empower. Richard Morton put it most profoundly when he declared, “Life and death is in the power of the tongue.” As an educator, it is my responsibility to speak life into my students and to restore to them the dignity, humanity, and passion that has either been stripped or deprived from them. It is my responsibility to make sure that they see themselves reflected in the curriculum not only as slaves or migrant workers or housewives, but also as leaders and poets and scholars. Educators have the ability to empower their students by acknowledging their worth and pushing them toward their potential. Moreover, educators have the ability to redirect the passions of the more privileged students, driving them to empower their disadvantaged peers.
Writing from his cell in a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In short, all our histories are intertwined, subjected to a recursive process through which we discover, interpret, and create new stories, new historical moments that affect one another. We are all connected to one another as if we were one long chain of paper dolls. Whatever affects me, affects those around me as well. This is the sentiment behind community.
In order to impart these values, both the student and the educator must be willing to be vulnerable with themselves and others.
As Nora Benavidez underlined, there is a tendency to think that only those who “embody” certain causes get to “own” or “work for” that cause, but this is very much untrue. We can all work for the same cause because we all have a responsibility to one another as members of the same community.
Vulnerability is the adhesive that links together elements of empathy, empowerment, and community. In order to impart these values, both the student and the educator must be willing to be vulnerable with themselves and others. Part of this vulnerability means treating the student like a person and a co-teacher rather than a mere vessel to be filled. In the words of one of my peers, Sara Osman, “I ask questions and facilitate, I don’t teach.” As educators, we must encourage, not lecture. An equal society begins in an equal classroom where everyone is treated with dignity.
My passion is literature. It is reading the words on a page and then transforming them in my mind into images and raw emotion. It is exploring different worlds and minds and concepts. But above all this, my passion is opening these realms for others and using the power of stories to restore the holes in our hearts and souls while also working toward the creation of future where children that look like me as well as those who don’t can feel safe, valued, and above all, human.