Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Sustainability classes

Last night the kids and I attended an informational meeting at E's school about sustainability. A local environmental non-profit will be spending two years at E's elementary school helping to "integrate the concept of sustainability into the curriculum." Last night was the first public activity of the year, a presentation by the fifth grade classes about the work they have been doing building a database (I suppose because it needs to fit provide math "components" for the curriculum) about "Quality of Life" issues. Essentially, this means asking a group of people to brainstorm about positive things they want to see in their neighborhood, then doing the exercise where everyone gets three dots and gets to stick them next to different options, and then identifying which suggestions got the most dots. The fifth graders had already done this exercise in their own class, and then with the fourth graders, and last night they did it with the semi-random collection of adults who came to the presentation.

The first noticeable thing when I walked into the room was that everyone there, and all of the kids doing the presentation, were white. Our neighborhood, and especially the school, is definitely not all-white; white kids are probably a minority in E's kindergarten class. But of course, this is hardly surprising — I would have been more surprised (though certainly pleased) if the environmental non-profit in question had prioritized reaching out to kids and parents of color and especially the immigrant population and made a specific effort to include them.

I suppose they probably feel they made enough of a "diversity" effort by coming to our neighborhood school at all. The last two years they were doing this program at a much more suburban school in the same city. And I don't think their program of just asking everyone what positive improvements need to be made and then ranking them has translated very well.

The problem of course is that the problems faced by working-class people in our neighborhood are not only more serious and complicated than those faced by many middle-class folks, they are also bound up inextricably in the very functioning of capitalism. For example, a theme in many of the improvements suggested by the adults and actually prioritized by some of the kids was the need for our neighborhood to have stores which sell basic necessities at a reasonable cost and provide a decent living for those who work in them, instead of the rent-a-centers and used furniture stores and the occasional coffee shop for gentrifiers and such like that populate our business areas. Years ago we had a grocery store, a hardware store, a clothing store, but they were all driven out of business by the suburban "big box" stores. Those who can afford to maintain a car will drive out to Wal-Mart and Price Chopper because it's cheaper, those who are too poor pay inflated prices for food at the corner stores and have few options for other staples beyond begging rides or lugging stuff home by way of the bus system. Now that the last holdouts in the neighborhood have closed, no investor in their right mind would put new capital at risk opening any kind of staple-selling business here, let alone one that would offer low prices.

The first few suggestions were the predictable "more bike lanes" and "more trees" made by some of the Americorps*VISTAs and middle-class parents in the audience, but we pretty quickly got down to the key issue for most people: drugs. The first suggestion, of course, was "no drugs," and the facilitators admirably tried to guide people into making positive suggestions which might help with the problem. So we moved from "no drugs" to "more cops" and the mantra of "educating the children about how bad drugs are." Growing up in the 80s, I was educated to the hilt about how bad drugs are and how I should "just say no," so given my own experiences, I have little faith that that approach has any effect in preventing drug use. And I don't think that more cops is going to work either, until we reach a 1:1 cop to kid ratio and each kid can be followed around constantly by their own personal cop.

What we really need is better jobs with higher wages and fewer hours, so parents can spend more time with their kids, more responsible adults can be out and around the neighborhood keeping an eye on things, and kids can look around them and see adults with productive lives instead of slaving away at too many crappy, demeaning jobs or, even worse, not even have a crappy demeaning job.

But of course we are not allowed to make these kinds of demands in this society. Everything tells us that your job (or lack thereof) is your own responsibility, the failings are your own failings. One participant in the meeting touched on the concept when she was bringing up affordable housing (still seen as a public good, at least in our neighborhood) as a need. She mentioned that if people had affordable housing they might not have to work multiple jobs and then might have more time to be around their kids. But no one brought up that if the wages were better at their first job, people wouldn't have to work the second job.

After thinking about it a bit, I decided that what I should have said I wanted to see in the neighborhood was a sense of hope in collective, social solutions to our problems, and an understanding that hopes for individual solutions are too often just recipes for heartbreak.

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