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My Good Neighborhood May Not Look Like Your Good Neighborhood

Robin Hughes
A good colleague, Vasti Torres, wrote a piece years ago entitled “Mi Casa Is Not Always Like Your House.” In this piece she encouraged folks to use a culturally sensitive lens in the context of higher education. Most importantly, she talked about Latino students from a Latina perspective.

I was reminded of her piece when a new faculty member asked me about housing, schooling and just living in this part of the country, and how I navigated finding a place as an African-American female.

I began with a response similar to that of Torres. “What I consider to be a great neighborhood and great schooling is certainly different from what many folks consider to be great neighborhood and schooling,” I said.

When I decided to move to Indianapolis, I asked folks from here about where I should live. Most folks offered similar advice: there were a handful of neighborhoods that were not only great, but they had great schools — and just plain old great neighborhoods.

I knew what this “coded” and sometimes non-critical message meant. Most of the time, great neighborhoods and great schools meant something very different than what I was looking for.

The coded langue of greatness had some commonalities. It tended to mean homogeneous and White — both schools and neighborhoods and most of the participants including teachers. It meant high test scores, and really well-manicured school yards with really nice buildings. Oh yeah, it meant high tax dollars to fund education, and of course “high-quality teachers.” (I assume this means that all teachers are culturally competent because that would mean that their multiracial classroom students perform well.)

I took to the Internet to look at school data. A quick perusal of who tended to be in the socially constructed gifted and talented and who was suspended and expelled also told an interesting story about who were considered to be “great students.”

Recently, I spoke with a faculty member who will be moving to the same city. The person shared that they had heard there were great places; however, she wanted to know where the “great places” were to raise conscious, African-American children in a supportive environment with teachers who cared about all kids — you know, high-quality teachers who actually have had experience working and living in diverse spaces — not just those who have read an article or two about folks of color.

Now, that is the question that we all should be asking the real estate agents when they take us on those drives to look for housing. Plus, we should all look at school data regarding, suspensions, expulsions, the socially constructed “gifted and talented,” and the “special education” classroom (which look very different in terms of racial populations).

That faculty member forced me to think about the 1970s — the era in which I grew up. I had to wonder where the Mrs. Johnny’s, Birdie’s and Willie’s were. These neighborhood women typically arrived home before anyone else did, so they kept a keen watch on anyone who “hit the streets” to play before homework was completed. You see, we actually completed homework and were expected to do so without a significant amount of help from the parents, many of whom were day workers, janitors, teachers, and a spattering of lawyers and doctors.

Our parents were not bombarded with calls from the schools, because the teachers and neighborhoods demanded, loved and fussed, cared for, and pushed all of us to do well (key to cultural competency are these ingredients, especially liking, loving, caring and actually knowing folks — not just reading about groups and “gathering tools” that work with certain groups).

We all lived together in those great neighborhoods. Those neighbors were also around in case anyone was sent home early from school (usually illness). There were several neighbors whose phone numbers we all kept close in case of an emergency. It didn’t have to be a relative, because in a sense our neighborhood, which was great, was filled with “play cousins, brothers, uncles and aunts, and other mothers and fathers.”

Most of my neighbors went to the same school, P.L. Dunbar in Fort Worth, Texas. We all heard that we were smart. I assume that somehow everyone back then must have been the new socially constructed Gifted and Talented. We just didn’t know it. Many of the children from my neighborhood went on to become productive, highly successful citizens. The formula was simple: the entire neighborhood cared, loved and fussed. Parents and teachers worked as a collective and collaborative group “village” to support each other (no doubt those teachers would have been considered “high quality.”)

I cannot recall reports about failing Black males in schools — perhaps because some folks were not considered to be so special until later in the 1970s when special ed categories were created and great neighborhoods were gentrified or demolished — and those same quality teachers seemed to disappear, too, interestingly right at the cusp of bussing.

Nevertheless, I keep thinking about the notion of great neighborhoods and what they may look like to different folks. Certainly the real estate agent’s idea about what a great neighborhood looks like is different from mine. What I have surmised it that great neighborhoods, as least the ones with which I am familiar, looks nothing like the great neighborhood in which I grew up.

I had to answer the new colleague’s inquiry about a “good neighborhood and good schools.”

It depends on what you are looking for, how you define good neighborhood, who you are raising and for what. I would say my good neighborhood might be different from what you consider great. Much like my collections of great classical music includes works from James Brown, Etta James, Billy Holiday and Coltrane, to name a few, and great literary artists might include Maya Angelo, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.

A great neighborhood still has many of the characteristics that existed in those neighborhoods that I remember from a time not too long ago. Loving and fussing, reciprocity, and care for everyone.

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