Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pass this jobs bill and...

. . . hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged young people will have the hope and dignity of a summer job next year.  (President Obama's Jobs Speech, 9/9/11)

As soon as President Obama said that, I flashed back to this memory:

In 1983, I scored a summer job working for the Parks Council in New York City.  I was a "supervisor" of two team leaders and 24 high school students for a CETA jobs program. There were 20 African-American kids and 4 Latino/Latina kids; the team leaders were a Latino community college student and an African-American student from Howard University. I was the only white person, for the first time in my life.

Do you remember CETA? It was the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a federal program that offered people with low incomes, as well as the long-term unemployed, with jobs and job training programs in the public and non-profit centers.

I think because I was white, I got assigned to the tony southern end of Central Park. Some of the other New York City parks were not so nice, and they had longer commutes from my house. At lunchtime I could sit by myself, or with my boyfriend, and watch Dustin Hoffman eat his lunch with his friends. Yes, he would come to the park too.

The animals had been removed from the Central Park Zoo by 1983.
Our headquarters were in the Central Park Zoo, which was mostly closed for renovation in 1982--a good thing since the original animal stalls were truly prison cells. There is a nice history of the zoo here. The only animals that I remember still being at the zoo were the sea lions. (Photo taken from here.)

The kids taught me slang--"I've got my main squeeze and my two side squeeze"--as well as why we couldn't rake leaves in certain areas (rats). I'm not sure what I taught them. . .

But one day we were on a field trip and one of the girls came up to me. She had just finished 10th grade and she was probably the most diligent worker in the group. Her mother was from Jamaica and worked as a nurse's aide.

"I was thinking," she said to me, "that maybe I could become an LPN [Licensed Practical Nurse]."
"Great!" I said. "That's a great idea!"

But in my heart, I thought, "Why be an LPN? You're smart enough to be an RN or a BSN. In fact, why not be a doctor? You're smart enough to be a doctor."

I didn't say that to her though.

Why didn't I say that to her? Well, probably partly because I was only 20. I couldn't even give myself career advice.
But probably also because I wasn't trained to have Great Expectations from poor black kids.

I wasn't trained. I don't honestly think it's a good excuse. Part of the achievement gap comes from the unconscious assumptions that we make and pass on to others, even when we are trying to do the right thing, and even when we are working on an "employment and training" program.

CETA wasn't perfect, but it did offer those kids jobs, and it did mostly keep them out of trouble that summer.

I hope that Obama gets to pass a good strong jobs bill.

And I hope--I really hope--that someone else told that kid she could be a doctor.

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