Happy 100th birthday, Fannie Lou Hamer

Happy birthday to Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist in Mississippi, who would have turned 100 yesterday. Watching a video of her testify was one reason I wanted to come to the Delta. Check out Jemar Tisby's piece in the African American Reformed Network. And this part of the Jackson Free Press story is great:

Carl Watson, a 58-year-old Ruleville resident, was the second-youngest of 11 children and said that until he was 12 years old, his family lived on a cotton farm in two shacks — one for his mother and the girls and one for his father and the boys. In about 1972, Hamer and her husband, Perry "Pap" Hamer, helped the Watsons find a better home in Ruleville.

Carl Watson said it was the first time his family had a house with running water and indoor plumbing: "We moved to heaven."

 

 

 

Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist in the Delta

Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights activist in the Delta

"When Schools Feel Like Jail" - on school discipline in the South

I've been meaning to post this fantastic piece on school discipline in the South by Eli Hager at The Marshall Project. It's a nuanced look at how schools in the Mississippi Delta discipline students, from paddling to suspension.

Though the piece doesn't cover the Arkansas Delta, I would add paddling is a regular form of punishment in many public schools there. Punishment in general is racially disproportionate. And, just as in Mississippi, the alternative school that I taught at in Helena, Arkansas was also intended as punishment. 

(I'm curious about how paddling was administered right after schools were desegregated in 1970: did it disappear, as a teacher's assistant suggested to me, because white parents didn't want newly integrated black teachers to paddle white students? I would like to hear from anybody who might know about more this.) 

Hager sets up the context of the Delta:

The Mississippi Delta, a 7,000-square-mile floodplain in the northwest part of the state, is one of the poorest parts of the country. Of the 20 counties in the United States with the highest rates of childhood poverty, six are in the delta. Black students there primarily attend the public schools, which are also primarily staffed by black teachers. The private school system is almost exclusively white. And the public school districts, which have far fewer resources than the private “academies,” are struggling mightily to deal with the bad behavior that keeps cropping up from students’ often troubling home lives.

Many of these children have witnessed domestic violence, according to teachers and parents, or come from crowded households in which multiple families live together. By the fourth grade, more than 75 percent of students are behind in reading.

And meet Rock:

In the ninth grade, when he wore the wrong-color uniform or didn’t tuck in his shirt, Rock got “whooped,” as he puts it. That meant bending over, putting his hands on a desk, and getting hit three to five times on the backside with a flat wooden paddle. Mississippi is one of only four states—the others are Alabama, Georgia, and Texas—where school districts frequently use corporal punishment on students (although 19 states allow the practice by law). Teachers and administrators openly use paddles—and, in rarer cases, belts, rulers, and key chains—to whip kids into order.

In the 10th and 11th grades, according to Rock’s official disciplinary record, he was sent to in-school detention whenever he spoke out of turn, questioned a teacher, was tardy, or refused to take off his hat. In-school detention, which in some schools is referred to as in-school suspension, takes place during school hours. Instead of being in class, Rock would sit in an empty room, doing nothing, for up to three days at a time.

“I wouldn’t say I was a smart aleck,” he says, “but I was known for speaking up.” He recalls asking “why” a lot, like why the pilot of the Enola Gay wasn’t considered “the worst murderer of all time,” and praising Karl Marx during history class. By Rock’s own description, he is curious by nature; he’s always thinking, always speaking up. “Teachers either loved me or hated me,” he says.

Then, in 2014, a few weeks into the 12th grade, Rock did the same thing a 16-year-old black girl in Columbia, South Carolina, did this October: He pulled out his cellphone during class.

When his principal told him to put it away, according to the school, Rock responded with a verbal threat: “I’m going to bust [the teacher] for taking everybody’s phones,” he said. For that outburst, he was sent to Madison County Academic Option Center, an “alternative school” 15 miles away. He was required to stay there for four months.

"Surrounded By Crops, Lacking Food": Scarcity in the Mississippi Delta

I deeply appreciated this two-part series in the Clarion-Ledger that tackles the devastating topic of food deserts in Mississippi Delta. "There are just four grocery stores in the 765-square-mile county, in four towns," writes Anna Wolfe. In one town of 1,300 people, there is no store at all. Consider also that one-third of Delta residents don't have a car in their household, and there's no such thing as public transportation in the Delta. This means many families go hungry, or eat food with no nutritional value. 

Food scarcity can also be traced to industrial agriculture, which use chemicals and pesticides to destroy soil. In the Delta today nearly half the population has obesity; a fifth has diabetes.  It has the highest rates of food insecurity in the country.

Here are some excerpts from Anna Wolfe's piece, including one promising community effort in Holmes County, Mississippi:

The co-op's youth-in-agriculture project, which began in 2015, partners farmers and young people. While giving them an opportunity to earn money, the farmers teach students and older apprentices how to grow and harvest vegetables.

On a sunny Tuesday afternoon after school let out, a dozen Holmes County Central High School students gathered on a pre-plowed field behind the run-down mart.

Bill Evans, director of horticulture with Up in Farms Food Hub, which partners with Mileston, received blank stares after telling the group of 16- and 17-year-olds that the tray of tiny sprouts he carried would grow into cauliflower.

"You know what broccoli looks like?" Evans asked. "Imagine a white one of those."

Many of them had never eaten the vegetable that they'd spend the rest of the day planting. Head searched for pictures of cauliflower on his cellphone and passed it between the teens.

...

"We used to walk outside and get a pear — and that was my snack," Head said. "Now they got to go to the store and buy flaming hot Cheetos. They decorate these stores to target our children … and we're hungry so we eat it."

*

And this: 

Over the last several decades, national farm policy has increasingly prioritized driving down the cost of commodity crops — like soybeans, the crop dominating fields all over Holmes County — while providing relatively little support for fruits and vegetables.

The food industry has responded, finding more ways to use additives from these cheap crops in processed foods.

Most everywhere in the country, this has resulted in heavily processed diets and a sharp increase in obesity.

On a Fraternity Death and Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity

Jay Caspian Kang's piece in the New York Times Magazine on the death of a young Chinese American man and a fraternity hazing is one of the most powerful things I've read on Asian America. It broke my heart. Here's a glimpse:

"Asians are the loneliest Americans. The collective political consciousness of the ’80s has been replaced by the quiet, unaddressed isolation that comes with knowing that you can be born in this country, excel in its schools and find a comfortable place in its economy and still feel no stake in the national conversation. The current vision of solidarity among Asian-­Americans is cartoonish and blurry and relegated to conversations at family picnics, in drunken exchanges over food that reminds everyone at the table of how their mom used to make it. Everything else is the confusion of never knowing what side to choose because choosing our own side has so rarely been an option. Asian pride is a laughable concept to most Americans. Racist incidents pass without prompting any real outcry, and claims of racism are quickly dismissed."

This one will stay with me for a long time.  

 

"One Simple Stitch, Nothing Fancy"

Thanks to the soul-saving Brainpickings for this beautiful excerpt from Anne Lamott on teaching people to read. 

"People who teach others to read or to navigate a library, who don’t give up on slow or challenged students, will get the best seats in heaven. I don’t know a lot, but I know this to be true.

My brother teaches special education at a local high school. I think he will be seated near the Godiva chocolate fountain on the other side of eternity. Our father taught English and writing to the prisoners at San Quentin in the fifties and sixties. All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life — a person with hope of a better story, who has allies, and can read."

And more: 

"To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin.

You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch — teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte’s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you’re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning." 

 

Neil Gaiman on Letting Kids Read for Pleasure (And on Saving Public Libraries, Too)

Stirring words from Neil Gaiman on letting kids read for pleasure:

"I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key.

There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian 'improving' literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy." 

Vandalizing of Emmett Till Marker in Mississippi

Emmett Till marker vandalized in Money, Mississippi. Not the first time. 

Emmett Till marker vandalized in Money, Mississippi. Not the first time. 

"An Emmett Till marker has been vandalized yet again," writes Jemar Tisby in a powerful op-ed in the Mississippi Clarion Ledger, "and the form of vandalism symbolizes a larger story. While defacing a marker is nothing new, this is the first time a sign has been erased."

Tisby, president of the Reformed African American Network, and former principal and TFA member in the Mississippi Delta, warns against "historical amnesia," discussing the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and C. Vann Woodward to counter incorrect accounts of history. But he remains hopeful that vandalism will help open up a conversation about historical wounds and "offers a chance to reinvigorate efforts to redeem a painful past."

 

 

Prison University Project Teaches Creative Writing to Incarcerated Fathers

Graduating students of the Prison University Project (PUP) at San Quentin Prison

Graduating students of the Prison University Project (PUP) at San Quentin Prison

This article on Project Literacy's website on teaching creative writing to incarcerated fathers goes straight to my heart.

Over the past decade, the Prison University Project (PUP), the only college-degree granting prison in California, has taught over 1,000 students. PUP, led by Jody Lewen and located at San Quentin Prison. I was lucky enough to volunteer there as a teacher, and was inspired by the students and the staff.

Much of the rationale for offering a college education to prisoners focuses on recidivism: prisoners with an education are significantly less likely to return. But PUP's Academic Program Director Amy Jamgochian emphasizes that education is also important for the prisoners who are never going to get out. It especially helps incarcerated fathers connect to their families. As Jamgochian says, “They’re able to show their families they were doing something positive; they’re able to be role models as parents and as children."

The Key to Literacy: Teaching Kids to Write for Pleasure and Read for Fun

Kids who like writing outside class are seven times more likely to write above the expected level for their age. New research from the National Literacy Trust suggests that, just as educators improve literacy by helping kids read for fun, we can do the same for writing. 

The study was organized by First Story and questioned 39,411 eight to 18-year-olds across the UK. 

New report charts the growth of rural jails in America

The Vera Institute of Justice has just released a comprehensive, urgent, and essential report on the growth of rural jails in America. "Of the 250 poorest counties, 213 of them are rural, representing locations with the most acute needs across the board," the report notes. And yet "relatively little is known about the inner workings of rural criminal justice systems and, specifically, how rural jails operate—their characteristics, the challenges they face, and the opportunities that exist for reform."

It's hard to overstate how glad I am that researchers have finally tackled this issue, which has "received scant attention," the report concludes, "because cities continue to be the focal point of both academic inquiry and policymaking.” 

The report raises a diverse range of troubling issues, but I'll just highlight a few that are relevant to rural Arkansas jails:

  • LIMITED DELIVERY OF JUSTICE. Due to the poverty and limited tax base, rural counties "often struggle to provide many services—such as education or healthcare—as well as fund and deliver justice, including recruiting key justice personnel and providing even the most basic criminal justice services necessary to process criminal cases through the system." These services include basic investigations by the police and prosecution. 
  • REMOTE LOCATIONS. Courts are spread out across vast amounts of land. "The distances that the few available personnel are often required to travel further frustrate case flow and efficient court operations, extending case processing times, despite comparatively lower overall caseload numbers."
  • SHORTAGE OF SKILLED PRACTITIONERS. Rural counties "lack skilled practitionersjudges, prosecutors, investigators, public defenders, and court administrators—to run or oversee the basic functions of a local criminal justice system, posing serious operational challenges." 
  • INTENSELY LIMITED COURT DAYS. Court convened in Phillips County in four three-week sessions during the year.  "In contrast, Manhattan’s arraignment courts, for example, are open for sessions from early morning until 1:00 am, every day of the week." In other words, when court isn't convened, the people arrested -- still innocent in the eyes of the law -- are sitting around, languishing, waiting months before arraignment. And it means that they've lost the jobs they had and are separated from families.
  • FEW PRETRIAL SERVICE PROGRAMS or DIVERSION PROGRAMS. Resource-scarce counties don't have staff or tools to help make individualized assessments of people who are arrested. And rehabilitation, mental health, and education programs are rare. 

 

Arkansas University Libraries Digitize Southland College papers

In 1864, during the Civil War, Quakers traveled to Phillips County, Arkansas to build an orphanage for slave children. For the next fifty years, bolstered by donations of black soldiers and the support of former slaves, the orphanage transformed and bloomed. Southland College -- the first institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi River for African Americans -- would graduate hundreds of African Americans with teaching degrees.

Its flourishing testified to the "overwhelming longing for literacy felt by former slaves," writes the University of Arkansas Libraries site, and "addressed the acute need for educated teachers and professionals around the country."  

Arkansas university libraries have now digitized a collection of Southland College papers. "It's been a privilege to collaborate in the retelling of Southland College's remarkable history in this format," said the curator Catherine Wallack."The story is both hopeful and heartbreaking, and it belies so many stereotypes about the Arkansas Delta." 

For those interested, I would recommend the historian Thomas C. Kennedy's Southland College, A History of Southland College: The Society of Friends and Black Education (University of Arkansas Press, 2009), an absorbing account of the school's origins, growth, and closing. 

Ida B. Wells, Heroic Journalist and Activist, Covers the Elaine Massacre in 1919

In 1919, in Elaine, Arkansas, black sharecroppers organized in a church to demand wages. What ensued was the largest racial massacre that occurred in American history. Hundreds of black people, including children and women, were shot down, openly, on the streets. And hundreds more were rounded up in the Phillips County jail. Twelve were convicted and sentenced to death; the convictions that would ultimately be reversed by the Supreme Court.

The heroic journalist Ida B. Wells traveled to the jail, disguising herself as a relative. (They were held in the same jail where I visited Patrick.) She published The Arkansas Race Riot a year later, recording the perspectives of the men who had been falsely accused.

Born a slave in rural Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida Wells-Barnett grew up during emancipation and Reconstruction. She had raised her five siblings on meager wages as a rural schoolteacher. She became one of the most passionate anti-lynching activists and the first African American woman to own her own newspaper.

Here's an excerpt from her reporting: 

I was at Hoop Spur Church that night to lodge meeting. I do know that four or five automobiles full of white men came about fifty yards from the church and put the lights out, then started shooting in the church with about 200 head of, men, women and children. I was on the outside of the church and saw this for myself. Then I ran after they started firing in on the church. I don’t know if anybody got killed at, all. I went home and stayed home that night, then the white people was sending word that they was going to kill all the black people, then I run back in the woods and hid two days then the soldiers came then, I made it to them. I was carried in Elaine and put in the school house and I was there eight days. Then I was brought to Helena and put in jail and whipped near to death and was put in an electric chair to make me lie on other Negroes. It was not the union that brought this trouble; it was our crops. They took everything I had, twenty-two acres of cotton, three acres of corn. All that was taken from me and my people. Also all my household goods. Clothes and all. All my hogs, chickens and everything my people had. I was whipped twice in jail. These white people know that they started this trouble. This union was only for a blind. We were threatened before this union was there to make us leave our crops.

 

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) recently released Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, the culmination of a multi-year investigation into lynching in twelve Southern states. Phillips County, where Elaine is located, had 243 lynchings, the most of any county. 

Access to Justice in Rural Arkansas: Confronting the Lawyer Shortage

Access to legal services is an urgent problem facing rural areas. This important study by Lisa Pruitt, J. Cliff McKinney, and Bart Calhoun, "Justice in The Hinterlands," examines Arkansas as a case study of rural shortage.

What Deters Law Students from Rural Practice?

Students indicated lack of jobs and economic support; a lack of cultural amenities associated with urban living; and the challenge of finding a life partner in rural places. Students also "expressed very negative attitudes toward rural people, places, and practice. Recurring themes included an expectation of rural bias toward racial and sexual minorities and women; concerns about lack of anonymity in the community and lack of professionalism in the justice system; and a shortage of clients able to afford an attorney’s services."

What Might Attract Law Students to Rural Practice? The study found that "a critical mass—certainly enough to meet the need in Arkansas’s rural communities—indicated willingness to practice in a rural locale if provided fiscal and professional support," including student loan repayment assistance, mentoring, training in law practice management. 

Among other recommendations, the study advises that Arkansas "follow the lead of South Dakota and offer loan repayment assistance to attorneys who are willing to make a multi-year commitment to practice in an underserved rural area." In South Dakota, this has attracted interest: the program has doubled the size of its program in just two years. 

"Rural America Is the New 'Inner City'"

This great piece on rural America by Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg at the Wall Street Journal reflects more broadly the challenges that the Delta faces, in particular:

Lack of public transportation and childcare make it hard to hold down jobs.  "Although federal and state antipoverty programs were not limited to urban areas, they often failed to address the realities of the rural poor. The 1996 welfare overhaul put more city dwellers back to work, for example, but didn’t take into account the lack of public transportation and child care that made it difficult for people in small towns to hold down jobs[.]" 

Young people with talent leave rural areas. "In 1980, the median age of people in small towns and big cities almost matched. Today, the median age in small towns is about 41 years—five years above the median in big cities."

...And employers go where the young talent is. "In St. Louis, which has more than 30 nearby four-year schools, the percentage of residents with college degrees tripled between 1980 and 2015—creating a talent pool that has lured health care, finance and bioscience employers. Instead of people moving where the jobs are, 'jobs follow people,' said Greg Laposa, a local chamber of commerce vice president."

Hospitals shut down in rural areas, due to shortage of patients with employer-sponsored insurance. At least 79 rural hospitals have closed since 2010.

"Poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas). In fact, the total rural population—accounting for births, deaths and migration—has declined for five straight years."

 

Rural Education and Public Charters

I want to stress that "rural" does not mean white, a common mistake made by urbanites. One in five rural residents is a person of color. More than four of five new rural residents are people of color. And, since the days of slavery, the Arkansas Delta has been majority black. 

A piece by Terry Ryan and Paul Hill on challenges confronting rural schools notes: "Only one in three eighth-grade rural students were proficient in math or reading, about where urban students scored and well below their suburban peers. While rural students are likely to graduate from high school, they lag far behind on every college indicator—applications, admission, attendance, readiness, grades, persistence, and graduation."

In rural Idaho: "Some communities that had lost their schools via consolidation have been able to regain them via chartering, and poorly staffed schools have been able to join together to provide better-resourced schools than any one could afford."

In Phillips County, Arkansas, one of the poorest areas in America, which ranks dead last in health predictors in Arkansas:  "Local and state leaders worked to recruit KIPP to operate in Helena, and the effort has paid big dividends for the community and its children. According to community leader Chalk Mitchell, 'KIPP has helped to eliminate blight. ... The first new building constructed downtown in the last 30 or 40 years was the KIPP gymnasium.' KIPP is the largest employer in downtown Helena with more than 150 employees, including 70 teachers. The school draws students from farms and towns as far as an hour’s drive each way." 

(This charter is where Patrick's daughter attends school now.) 

Public charters get a bad rap in leftist circles, and as a lefty and former workers' rights lawyer, I totally get it. But I hope we can avoid applying an urban lens, with its range of assumptions, to a rural area. Worried about the absence of union protection for teachers? But unions were long ago decimated in rural areas, thanks to radical depopulation, gaping worker shortages,* and animus towards unions by red states. Worried about taking resources away from the traditional school? But the alternative, in a rural area, is often that the school is simply shut down: often it gets consolidated with another school that is fifteen, thirty miles away. That is the common and devastating reality for rural areas. 

In the context of the Delta, I think it's powerful that African American parents, some who live some 60 miles away in remote towns, choose to bus their kids to the public charter. I view the parents' dedication to education as part of a long historical tradition in the Delta. 

* To have a union, you must first have workers. And there are huge teacher shortages in rural areas like the Delta.

Father and Son Graduate Together From Phillips Community College

We need tell more stories like this. I excerpt below Marla Riddell's story from the Helena Daily World.  

In 2008, Emanuel Reed, Sr. was working with his sons on their homework, when his youngest son asked, "Dad, why didn’t you go to college?"

”I made up my mind that night that I was going, come fall of 2009,” said Reed, Sr. 

Reed, Jr., was 13 when his dad started college. His father could only go part-time, usually enrolling in a class or two at night each semester, due to his day-time employment.

”I started seven years before Emanuel, Jr., graduated high school, and although I wanted to get finished early, seeing my son join in, catch up with me, and walk across the stage together, made it worth the wait,” Reed, Sr., said. Father and son graduated together in May 2017. 

Arkansas key to national agenda on rural areas

Good editorial by Sean Alexander in the Democrat Gazette about setting a national agenda on rural development:

"Arkansas should create a blueprint for a national rural development strategy. After all, Arkansas is a small rural state, which makes the task of coordinating development activities less challenging than in the national context. Moreover, our geography is diverse but representative: The Ozarks look a lot like the Appalachians, while the crippling poverty in the Arkansas Delta reflects the reality of many other Mississippi River counties.

Arkansas is also home to some of the best rural development organizations in the United States, including the UA's Cooperative Extension Services, the Delta Regional Authority, Southern Bancorp Inc., the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and many other private and nonprofit organizations."