2016 Week One: Education

picture of Andrew Johnson CIIPANDREW JOHNSON – THREAD

Coloring is probably the last thing I thought I would be doing on the first day of my internship. I hadn’t sat down and created a picture since grade school, but here I was sitting on a picnic table outside the office with a bunch of colleagues whom I had only met hours before, each of us with crayon in hand, enthusiastically shading our pages in a dazzling array of colors. Our assignment was not one of creative license; the contents of our work were being revealed to us gradually in step by step increments. We were showed what to do, and were instructed to follow along. First, we identified a blue crayon and shaded the the top third of the page. We then applied another shade of blue to the same region to create what appeared to be a rich, textured sky. This same process was repeated on the bottom portion of our page, as we shaded the bottom quarter green and then subsequently used a different shade to add accents and depth to what appeared to be a grassy lawn.
As a series of yellow, intertwined ovals began to emerge on the center of each page, people around the table began to speculate on the image that would ultimately be revealed at the end of the exercise. Once we were instructed to draw a second yellow oval adjacent to the first, my visions of a sun were quickly dashed. Some of my coworkers exclaimed that they had been caught off guard by these developments, as they had already anticipated where the picture was headed before all the steps had been revealed. When we were finished, an image of a lion romping through a grassy field was what ultimately greeted my gaze. All the pictures around me were similar in their basic elements, but no one picture was identical to another. Some people added vibrant purple flowers to their field, or decided to draw their lions with multiple tones of yellow and orange. I decided to keep mine simple, and had not strayed too far from the basic parameters of the assignment. Some people, including myself, had finished their picture as soon as all the basic components were added, while others around the table were frantically adding more and more subtle nuances to their images until the very last moment the sheets were collected.
This exercise was part of an office birthday celebration for two of my coworkers, an activity that was intended to seamlessly incorporate both of their personalities into one game. I think that the activity reveals a lot about how different people think and operate toward the completion of a goal. Some people like to complete tasks efficiently, while potentially leaving some aspects a bit rough around the edges in an effort to get as much accomplished as possible. Others are much more detail oriented, painstakingly revising, tweaking, and editing their work until they deem it perfect. If our CIIP group was asked to complete a similar task during orientation, an identical result would have emerged. While all of our images would be united by the same common themes, each would have their own unique nuances and no two images would be truly alike.
I like to think that this exercise serves as a metaphor for our work as CIIP interns. While we are all striving toward a singular goal, namely to make a positive impact within the wider Baltimore City community, we are all going about it in a distinct manner. We are collectively working for a diverse set of community partners, each with distinct mission statements, aims, and challenges. Like each image at our table, our experiences in CIIP will ultimately be similar but none will be identical. We are all working towards unique goals, but with the ultimate aim of giving back to a vibrant community which has provided so much for us as college students. I am looking forward to taking this journey with all of you, and seeing the pictures that you create over the course of the summer.

picture of Justin Lee CIIPJUSTIN LEE – MERIT

“How much do you know about the Baltimore City school system?” my supervisor asked me on my first day of the internship. “Not much, unfortunately,” I replied. My supervisor spoke bluntly. According to him, if you went to a Baltimore City High School not named City, Poly, Western, or, maybe Dunbar, your education was most likely awful. Most schools in Baltimore City just don’t have enough resources or manpower to properly educate all the individuals who walk through their doors.
High school students in Baltimore City and their guardians all know the city’s public education system leaves much to be desired. Taking into account open enrollment (which allows students to apply for entrance into any high school regardless of the zone they live in), getting into the highly sought-after high schools like City or Poly is a daunting task. Essentially, those who miss the cuts for City or Poly have no choice but to enter the lottery for their zone high schools, which are less than stellar and don’t guarantee admission.
Gaining entrance to these schools doesn’t only take luck, but high academic competency. This is calculated from a student’s composite score, a singular number that takes into account your Math, Science, and English GPAs, attendance, and standardized test scores. According to the Baltimore City Public School website, neither City nor Poly will even look at your enrollment if you don’t score at least 610. In actuality, the minimum accepted composite score for placement in the 2016-2017 school year was even higher; 662 at City and 667 at Poly.

Now having learned all of this fairly recently, it really made me think about the problems in the public school system. How does someone who doesn’t have access to adequate resources or someone who constantly has to worry about situations outside of school thrive in that environment? I guess the answer that I came up with was that most don’t. It’s disheartening to think about all the possible talent that could be falling through the cracks because a school system won’t allow them to reach their potential. Many would argue that education is what helps break the cycle of poverty. But if the school system itself is one of the biggest obstacles to getting a quality education, why aren’t we aiming to change it?
As much as I learned my first week at MERIT, there is so much more that I could encounter that will, no doubt, leave a lasting impression. I didn’t even begin to mention how the system unfavorably impacts people of color since it is mostly people of color who attend public schools and come from more difficult upbringings. I also didn’t talk about how even the top students at Baltimore City high schools not named City, Poly, or Western can and will struggle mightily in college. The education system is vast in nature and working at MERIT is giving me the unique opportunity to learn more about it.

picture of Serena Thomas CIIPSERENA THOMAS – CODE IN THE SCHOOLS

When I was learning about geometry, the adage “all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares” was thrown around quite a bit. This summer my own mantra is tattooed in my mind the way the outline of all the countries of the world is tattooed on the top of my boss Charlotte’s foot: to be black is to be a person of color, but not all persons of color are black.

I grew up in a idyllic small town in the suburbs of New Jersey with large houses on hills and a population as diverse as a bag of rice. As someone put it for me once, I was a “cocoa puff in a bowl full of rice krispies”. Much like class or money, we grew up learning that race was a topic you do not talk about, but the fact that I was an Indian girl in a white town was brought up subtly and consistently. Never more so than when I was told, “oh, but you’re practically white” regularly. Almost, but not quite, and no amount of the right clothes or a voice devoid of an accent could ever close that gap between myself and the speaker.

Unlike how I was raised for 20 years, race is brought up daily at my summer job at Code in the Schools, a local Baltimore nonprofit whose aim is to bring computer science education to the under served and under represented youth in the city. Charlotte, the communications director, recounts how a black man with an enormous pitbull was about to go into her house to see her roommate as she was exiting and she jumped. “I had to go back and tell him two months later that it was because of the dog, not because he’s black. Why would I be afraid of him because he’s black? I’m not afraid of myself.” Someone else is trying to get new grants and mentions rich, white donors, and in particular, a cool rich, white, donor who talks to his other rich, white, donor buddies and says “here are some awesome people doing great things for kids who don’t look like us. We should help out.”

Race is brought up so much in part because of the CitS mission. As our executive director, Gretchen, a petite woman with trendy tech glasses and long blonde hair says, “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. This summer, I’m helping CitS coordinate a 5 week coding bootcamp for 17-21 year olds in Baltimore, and we’re bringing in panelists every Friday to talk about their careers. Charlotte repeats Gretchen’s words at a meeting we take with Betamore, a “hub for entrepreneurship and education”, to throw around ideas about who could be featured on career panels. On the venn diagram of Charlotte’s names and Betamore’s there is little overlap. Betamore wants to bring in celebrated white names in the tech sector. Charlotte almost exclusively mentions black entrepreneurs from the Baltimore community and beyond. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, and these kids need to see themselves up there in these panels, talking about their strides in tech and entrepreneurship.

I feel some solidarity in all of this. I am not white, so I can relate with all the talk about “rich, white, dudes”, I think. I, too, can sit at the table and talk about not being white and add my own field notes that I’ve collected over the years. My darker skin gives me this free pass here I assume. I feel like I fit in. Until I don’t.

I start to realize it within the office. A man comes into the office to discuss the documentary he’s filming about women of color in tech. There’s no quick darting look my way, like the ones my friends shoot me for a millisecond if someone mentions an Indian person and I’m around. I expect the same look when he says “women of color”. I figure this doesn’t happen because everyone in the meeting has dark skin. I mention I’m studying engineering and think maybe he’ll want to talk to me about being a woman of color in tech but no questions come my way about my experiences.

Outside, when I’m waiting for my JHMI back to campus, a man in a vibrant blue shirt a long dreads says hi. He stops by my bench and asks “what are you?” This is actually the second person to ask. A woman that same morning had asked me the same thing as I was getting off the JHMI to go to work. “I like your dress,” she said, “and also, what are you?”

“What am I?” I ask the man, to clarify, even though I know exactly what he’s asking. “What are you? What are you? Like black, white, whatever, what are you?” he repeats. I don’t fit into the two options he gave me so I tell him. He seems surprised.

I have another moment of realizing I don’t quite fit in when I have a conversation with a woman at work about BAMF café, a locale which has cartoons of all kinds of superheroes crowding their walls. “Yeah, I like the food there,” she tells me, “but I have a problem with the fact that there aren’t more action figures of color on the walls.”

“You should say something,” I tell her. And she says that she will never. I almost say that I’ll say something. I have color in my skin, too, don’t I? But I don’t interject. I’ve heard a lot about the savior complex lately and I’m 20. I don’t think I know enough to swoop in and save anyone just yet.

“I won’t tell them. I need a white person to tell them for me for them to change anything,” she says, matter of factly. “If I tell them, sure, they’ll feel awkward, but that awkward isn’t going to make them do anything. And I can educate black people about black people, but I don’t think it’s my place to educate white people about black people.”

That’s when a realization hits me. I understand what it’s like not to be white. But I don’t understand what it’s like to be black. I feel at a loss. I am not a black woman who can stand in solidarity with her and say, “yes, superheroes who look like us should be seen.” I am not a white woman who can talk to the storeowners and say that the walls are washed in white, we should change this. In Baltimore, there seems to be black and white. There isn’t really an in between. But here I am. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, so I don’t know what role I’ll play in all of this just yet. But I know by the end of the summer I’ll have found that out.

picture of Chelsea Zou CIIPCHELSEA ZOU – LIBERTY ELEMENTARY

“You will fall in love with learning if you come to Liberty Elementary.” You might think either the principal or the teachers of the school shared this statement with me this week. In reality, these words came from a fifth grade student who gave a speech at the graduation ceremony this past Thursday. After a week at Liberty Elementary, painting faces on Fun Day, getting to know the layout of the school, and working with the principal, I can tell that this fifth grader’s words are definitely true for so many of the students at Liberty. Achieving this type of learning environment at a public school in an urban area is not without challenges, though, and throughout the rest of this internship, I hope to continue understanding what makes Liberty such a wonderful place for its students. While the field trips and access to technology that the school provides certainly enriches the students’ learning experiences, the principal, Joe Manko (an overall incredible human being) would most likely say that good people are at the core. The teachers at Liberty, who are both experienced and dedicated, care deeply about each student’s progress. Colorful student artwork, writing, and projects cover the walls of classrooms and hallways. I pass a class where a teacher is reading Harry Potter to an enraptured class of third graders, and another where a teacher is discussing how her fourth grade class has been rehearsing songs from the musical Hamilton. Walking around, it is clear that these teachers know how to have fun while also managing students who may be a bit more mischievous. I was lucky enough to stop by Ms. Krauss’ first grade class one morning to help out. It was amazing to get a first-hand look at Ms. Krauss and the class aide, Ms. Gross, work with this energetic group of six and seven year olds. Being called Ms. Zou by the students was also very special. As mentioned above, Mr. Manko is incredible. As he walks through the halls, he knows almost every name of the 400+ students at Liberty. Children constantly run up and hug Mr. Manko, eager to tell him what they’ve been working on or just share funny stories. To have a group of teachers who are so passionate and thoughtful and a principal as committed as Mr. Manko, it is easy to see why the students at Liberty love learning.

picture of Caleb Warren CIIPCALEB WARREN – THREAD

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