... I knew what it was that I wanted to explore with that interesting group. It was that I'd discovered long ago that it's the givers who grow.
Learned that just before leaving the University of California system back in the 70's, where I was coordinating the Four H programs for the State. That program was one of the long time offerings through the Department of Agriculture, and was being conducted out of the University of California statewide offices in Berkeley. I didn't last long. If I were to choose one area of failure in my work career it would surely be that position.
The Four H programs were created long ago at a time when the nation's farming community was where poverty was most visible. It was in order to try to draw that community into the educational system that the original Land Grant colleges were formed, and Four H programs were used to attract children and their families into considering college educations and studying for advance degrees.
Of course, by the time I was hired as a 4H program representative, California's farms were nearly all giant agribusinesses, and the State's small farms had all but vanished. The children of the farming community were by then from some of the state's most affluent families. There were private planes in many barns originally built for cows.
I managed two state conferences before I crashed and burned -- one at the State Fair in Sacramento and another on the University of California campus at Santa Barbara.
One day I found myself in a staff meeting where the subject under discussion was how to bring the children of farm workers into 4H programs. For that meeting there were several Latino community organizers brought in from the San Joaquin Valley farm worker community to participate in the planning.
I was horrified to discover that the group was planning to introduce gardening projects for farm workers kids. I'm not sure where it came from, but I saw this as comparable to bringing little African American children into programs where they'd learn to pick cotton as recreation! No one else could see what I was so appalled by. My communications skill left a lot to be desired at that point.
I tried to explain by presenting an alternative that went over like a lead balloon! This was after I'd seen a flyer that was being prepared for distribution for the Santa Barbara teen conference. It was advertising workshops bearing the titles listed below (fortunately I found a copy of this flyer in my files).
The list reads:
I fully understood the intent was to create sensitivity in 4-H members, but it missed its mark -- if the rising discomfort that it caused in me was any sign.Growing up Asian
Growing up Black
Growing up in a Broken Home
Growing up Chicano
Growing up Delinquent
Growing up Handicapped
Growing up Native American
Growing up Poor
Mind you, these are all privileged white teens with nary a child of color among them. I was appalled by their proposed program. For me, a workshop entitled "Growing up Racist" might have been more appropriate. The over all feeling was this list, which equated racial identity with behavioral and physical deficits, was stupid and insensitive beyond all measure.
I drafted an alternative program that would have children of the high schools of Merced and Fresno in the San Joaquin Valleys -- where the clusters of Barrios with Latino children needing programs -- I would have those white kids bused in from the towns. I'd have turned things around so that the children of color would be the teachers by offering an immersion experience in the Spanish language being taught by farm worker youth. How great would that be? I would turn the tables, making the non-white kids the givers -- the teachers!
My supervisors were underwhelmed by my "brilliance," and there were no takers. The Latino organizers simply looked puzzled by my attempt at re-directing to a format where they could not see a role for themselves. I left the program after several weeks of frustration, and I've never looked back.
But that concept of moving us away from allowing young white people always having their supremacy reinforced through serving as saviors to the under-served, and our kids always seen as being little more than creatures of need is damaging in ways still to be determined. Maybe this is the stage beyond Peace Corps and AmeriCorp, both great service programs, but both providing growth for the givers and encouraging dependency in the takers.
My hope is that the National Park Service in its wisdom, will one day send white youth onto historically black college campuses on six month details -- where they can have the experience of being in the minority in an all-black environment, among peers. That would be a rare experience that white youth should have in their formative years, and unfortunately rarely do. The park service is well-equipped to provide it. And black youth would be seen as providers, equally as rare.
In an odd way, the Hip Hop community over the past decades has accomplished that quite naturally. The market doesn't give them credit, but JayZee and Dr. Dre et al are operating in that dimension, and they've gone beyond the possibility of having their talents and marketable skills expropriated. They've been more than willing to share their expertise with anyone with the interest and the ability to use them. That generation has moved black culture from being seen merely as raw material with which to enrich American culture, to a place where it's gaining respect and a place of its own in world culture.