First Person

First Person: I teach students of color, and I see fear every day. Our job now is to model bravery

Rousseau Mieze teaches history at Achievement First Bushwick charter middle school in Brooklyn, which serves students who are almost all black or Hispanic. Mieze is also himself a graduate of an early charter school that primarily served low-income students of color, the Academy of the Pacific Rim in Boston. After two shooting deaths of black men by police last week, Mieze spent Friday writing. With school out of session, many teachers have shared their thoughts with colleagues and students in public letters and essays. Here is what Mieze wrote:

If school were in session, the first thing I would tell kids is that they are valued. I would say, “Your life is important; your dreams and aspirations are the life’s blood of our nation. Your dreams are what we celebrate the Fourth of July for.”

I would tell them that I love them and then I would ask them to tell me how they felt. I would monitor for hate and I would aim to purge fear.

Fear is that one emotion that does not come from God. Doubt comes from God — that’s why he uses it to help build tremendous faith. Anger comes from God — he gives it to us so that we can understand how injustice stirs him. Fear doesn’t come from God. Fear blinds us. It paralyzes us.

This truth I experience daily at work. There is a ton of fear at charter schools. After all, they have taken on the incredible challenge of closing the achievement gap. To do it, they create dozens of systems designed to control as many different variables as possible, when the truth about learning — the life-changing kind of learning — is that it is unclear and it is messy.

Those of us who cleave too tightly to the systems allow our doubt to turn to fear. We hold on so tight that we don’t allow for the miracle of life to take place: growth. But the teachers we consider the best are the ones who decide that children and their academic success trump the latest administrative directive, and decide that they will work with all of their energy toward what they believe is right.

I see fear in students, too. I’ve seen scholars with below-average IQs, multiple disabilities, and severely damaged home lives take leaps of faith and reach out toward their destinies. Those scholars have felt the sudden shift of gravity — that feeling of realizing that maybe this leap was a mistake, that their world is about to come crashing down.

It makes sense to want to quit here. But the ones who buck the fear water their destinies with faith and allow the sunlight of discipline, courage, and perseverance make their lives ready to manifest miracle.

Fear in this metaphor is not the bird who snatches the seed, or the gravity that pulls a scholar down after the jump. Fear is much more sinister. Fear keeps students from even fathoming the jump. Fear tells them there is no seed of destiny and if there is, seeds like yours won’t grow.

Fear may not be from God, but it is universal. When Eve ate the apple, she feared God was holding out on her, and when Adam ate the apple, I’m sure he felt the same. But I also think he felt a very familiar fear. He didn’t want to hold his partner accountable. I think he feared her reaction, feared being alone.

In America, teachers, students, and police officers all deal with fear. A lot of that fear is focused on black men and boys — part of a twisted psychology fed by the messages that stream from the subconscious of a country that revolutionized slavery.

I couldn’t stop looking at the officer’s hands in the murder of Philando Castile or the timbre of the voices of the officers who shot Alton Sterling. He is terrified. They are terrified. I’m sure that some of these men have malicious intention, but so many more are suffering from their own prejudice.

Despite this fear, these men deserve to be punished. These men have made choices to take the lives of innocent men and women, and my heart at times loses the strength to pump when it feels as if these crimes will go unpunished.

There is a silent party that saddens me and stirs me to anger: a police force full of well-meaning police officers who remain silent. Those men and women have the responsibility to say, “That officer was wrong. He or she acted unprofessionally.” The officers who don’t are committing Adam’s sin. They are allowing themselves to be deceived, and the results are tearing our nation apart.

TV tells me that no one likes the police officer who stands out to hold their coworkers accountable. The truth is, no one has ever loved that guy — they crucify him. History, however, loves that guy or that woman or that group of people, the people who stand for what is right, who use their God-given anger, stubbornness, compassion, courage, and doubt to manifest change. Too many good men and women co-sign their souls to evil by not speaking up. And when evil is allowed to grow, insanity prevails.

I mentor young men at my church’s youth group. One of them is now entangled in a violent beef with kids in his neighborhood. It is a beef that he and these other kids did not start, one that originated with their fathers, who are no longer in the picture. He told me that he wanted it to end, but had to do his part to maintain his safety with guns and knives. He is constantly looking over his shoulder — a tremendous burden for a 14-year-old to carry.

One Sunday I asked him what the latest news was on the conflict, and he told me that things were looking good. He was moving out of the neighborhood soon, and the young man he was in conflict with was in prison or jail. I told him that moving away doesn’t solve the problems he is having because there will always be beef. Running doesn’t solve those issues. Confronting them head-on does.

I was not advocating that he strap up and fight. I suggested he go and visit this young man in his prison or jail cell and see if he could make a move toward peace. His response blew me away. He could never fathom in a million years having a conversation with this boy who was behind bars. The mere idea was inconceivable.

He was not afraid to pack weapons that could get him arrested or killed. He was afraid of allowing for space for the miracle to happen. He was afraid to face fear with faith and believe that his gesture, his seed, could bear fruit.

He said to me, “Things aren’t like they used to be in the old days where people could make peace.” I almost laughed at the notion that we adults had somehow figured out peace, but then Obama’s words, Jesus’s life, Martin Luther King’s example, and Gandhi’s actions all hit me: be the change.

Police officers, government officials, teachers, and school safety officers all have a choice — a simple but daunting decision. Will we step up as role models of faith in the eyes of adversity, or will we forfeit our children to the destructive power of fear?

Our children need us not just to prepare the ground for miracles, they need us to model what it means to have faith in the face of overwhelming anger and hate. They need us to show them how to make way for miracles of peace and progress to grow in their lives.

As a sixth grader at a charter school, my dean of students made several mistakes. He pushed too hard, trying to control too much of students’ mindsets and behavior. He learned from those mistakes, and he’s used that experience to affect the lives of thousands of people. His debt to society is paid. The good outweighs the bad. His karma is all set.

When I was in my early 20s we had a chat about those days. In many moments of vulnerability and humility, he apologized for the ways he may have hurt the Rousseaus, the Ikes, the Dwaynes. He apologized for the legacy he may have left that allowed for the Rays and Charleses to feel disenfranchised from their education. Now, he makes it his life’s work to be a role model for leadership, even if at times that means he is must be an unpopular voice.

I try to imagine what it feels like for him to take the risk every day to push for better education in our country when there are living testaments to his mistakes. It takes great courage and an unwavering perseverance. It means confronting fear. He has had a significant impact on my belief in humanity.

Fear are the weeds in our lives that require our constant attention. We, like my middle school dean, must decide that the right thing to do trumps our fear of rejection, our fear of failure, our fear of danger, and in some cases our fear of death.

We as adults have the responsibility of being the change we want to see. My dean modeled that for me, I will model it for my daughter, our society needs to model it for our future.

Want more Chalkbeat? Check out What four recent conversations about race and policing looked like in classrooms across the country. You can follow us on Facebook, too.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.