“In Democrats, Independents and Republicans, I have seen a general ignorance of how this country works…” – Farah Despeignes
Parkchester Times Chief Editor, Mutiu Olawuyi, recently had an interview with Farah Despeignes, specifically focused on the deteriorating education systems provided for average New Yorkers, especially the Bronxites. She sailed us through how the US education systems available for average Americans has seriously affected their lifestyles.
Question # 1: Would you mind telling us a little about yourself and your experience in the area of education?
I was born in Brooklyn, NY and went to school in Haiti and Queens, NY. I attended College Model, a Methodist private elementary school in Cap-Haitien in Haiti that was modeled after the educational system in Switzerland. Upon my return to NYC, I attended PS 135 for a semester in the sixth grade, where I was acclimated to the US style of educating children. It was a major shock because in the Swiss model of education I had received in Haiti, teachers were primarily interested in a student’s ability to research, think, and demonstrate their knowledge, while the American system had a reliability on multiple choice exams that didn’t exactly measure a child’s knowledge or ability to reason – because reasoning does not always mean arriving at the same conclusion as someone else, and in fact allowed for a multiplicity of answers that could all be correct. I was immediately disenchanted by the new system of learning because I was used to writing and presenting “dissertations” in elementary school – although I did occasionally run into trouble with traditional Haitian teachers who often demanded that I memorize things that I had no interest in memorizing, because I knew the ability to explain and synthesize was the intellectual strength I preferred to cultivate.
That bred in me the love of reading, researching, and writing. I was definitely a nerd and a bookworm. I read a novel a day on top of my schoolwork. Speed reading became a thing in which I competed against myself to read hundreds of pages in three or four hours. By the time I went to college, I had read hundreds of books (if not thousands), a whole wing of my father’s extensive library – something that I think impeded my appreciation for many of my teachers and professors and their syllabi – and set me up for some failures as an unconventional student who didn’t care for formalities, such as attendance when I knew I could easily pass the exam or write the paper.
It is worth noting that I grew up in a family of educators who spent fortunes on books and education. I grew up with parents who were always in school and who collected degrees like kids collected cards and action figures. I went to Incarnation School for middle school and after that, I attended St. John’s Preparatory High School. I flunked out of the pharmacy school at St. John’s University and the engineering school at the City College of New York, where I ended up as a punishment for wasting good money by not regularly attending classes at St. John’s University. Eventually, I returned to my loves of reading, researching, and writing, settling on a double major in literature and history for my undergraduate studies. I immediately started teaching as a college adjunct upon graduation from that program, as I simultaneously attended graduate school. By graduate school, I was bored again, and I was interested in having intellectual adventures that the programs could not accommodate, and my mentors were not willing to sanction. Although I originally dreamed of collecting degrees like my parents, I soon realized I preferred solo intellectual escapades. I would grudgingly finish my graduate program and walk into the high school teaching profession, keeping a promise I had made to my grandmother, becoming a fusion of the memorable teachers I had and the unconventional teachers I wish I had. I chose to teach in the South Bronx, based on a dream in which my grandmother directed me to the South Bronx. Soon, I realized that the problem of inequitable education was bigger than individual classrooms and individual school buildings – and in fact was a well-choreographed campaign to camouflage issues of racism, economic injustice, social injustice, environmental injustice and systemic ineptitude – while pointing fingers and scapegoating the educators on the ground – who were doing for the most part their very best with the resources given. And I have been organizing and fighting for education equity ever since.
Question # 2: As an individual with over 4 decades of both local and foreign experience in education (both as a student and an instructor), how would you describe how education has evolved since you were a child? Have there been tangible/significant changes or progress?
I don’t know that education in the United States has necessarily evolved in the proper sense of the word. Of course, many things have changed in the rhetoric of education and some of the practices. Certainly, technology has had an impact in the way we educate. On the same token, the disparities are such that not every student and every school has access to technology. Certainly, social movements have had some impact on education. Now, we are talking about Black Lives Matter in education – yet black and brown folks are still the ones fighting for equity in education and fighting to matter in education. When I was teaching, there was a lot of noise about educating black boys differently – yet they continue to be more suspended than any other group and the school to prison pipeline for Black and Brown students is very much alive in our schools. We talk about resources for kids with IEPs (Individualized Education Plan/Program), yet we are still fighting for these students to receive their services on time and properly. We talk about culturally relevant curricula. Many schools don’t even prioritize that and where is the money for the books to implement the curricula? When I was teaching, my white Assistant Principal for English thought that any badly written novel in Ebonics by a black author would do – as if the likes of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Bell Hooks, Zora Neale Hurston Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B Dubois didn’t exist. In terms of pedagogy, as far as I know, the DOE is always adopting something new, never giving anything a chance to work – always a new buzz word and a new way of doing things. At first, I used to think it was because we were looking for miracles and magic bullets. But now, I think it’s about something much more sinister than that. It’s about money. I firmly believe the DOE is a place where transactions worth millions of dollars float and flow every day. It’s less about educating kids and more about big contracts to sell books, pedagogical pretense, food and so much more. That’s why we have DOE vendors, even when we can buy the same product for cheaper somewhere else. Those big contracts are also why education is not ameliorating anytime soon, not unless the American people demand it.
Question # 3: What would you like to change in the current education system consumed by the Bronxite if you were in the position of power?
I would like to change everything about the current education system. Schools need to be well resourced and well-funded. Curricula need to be more reflective of our diversity and more differentiated to meet students where they are. We need to provide multiple paths to graduation, including bringing back vocational and technical education, with classrooms and curricula that resemble the 21st century. In underserved communities, education need to be a community affair as we must also educate the community in order for them to be able to truly support the education of the children. We need to make healthy the intersection of government agencies in our schools by making them education, student, family, and community centered at the point of intersection. We need to remove red tape and streamline that monster bureaucracy called the DOE. Parents and students need to be real partners in the making of education policy, etcetera. This was just to give a few examples.
Question # 4: How has the education standard consumed by the Bronxite affected their socioeconomic and political lifestyle?
Education in the Bronx and places like the Bronx is a joke because it doesn’t offer life skills and it doesn’t prepare the student for future careers. This climate of constant standardized exams doesn’t make it possible for teachers to really teach, as they are constantly teaching to a test. There is no civic education to teach these youngsters to be leaders and there is no financial literacy taught to encourage the students to think about upward mobility, plan their future careers and become entrepreneurs. In other words, the system is designed to do exactly what it does, which is not to give a real education to our children. This system of education teaches our children to be low-wage workers and not bosses nor owners of anything. It also does not encourage them to be thinkers, researchers nor inventors. It does not encourage them to be future giants of technology or of the arts.
Question # 5: Is STEMDUP a suitable curriculum for Bronx socioeconomic and political development? And why?
I cannot speak to the suitability of the STEMDUP curriculum because I have not read it and I have not seen it implemented. Its objectives are great, but the proof of any curriculum is in the details and the implementation. However, I love the idea of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Diversity, Unity and Peace. However, Art is missing, and I believe the arts are a phenomenal way to teach diversity, unity, and peace. In my mind, no curriculum is complete without the arts, as they are very important to the individual development of the students, the development of school culture and community building.
Question # 6: What kind of education system do you feel can change The Bronx for the better? And why?
There is no magic bullet to education, meaning that there is no one education system that is perfect for the Bronx and communities like the Bronx. A great education system offers multiple pathways to success and meets every child where he or she is. This means that we need to stop thinking in just one way. We need to give teachers the freedom to teach. We need to offer diversified programming. We need to find multiple ways to assess our students. As Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid.” I think we would do best to educate children in such a way that we do not box them and then label them. We should simply offer as many programs as possible in every school in an equitable way, so that every child can find himself or herself on the spectrum. So, children should not be fighting to get into this school or that school, because every program is in every school.
Question # 7: What piece of advice do you have for Bronx public office holders and your fellow Bronxites in general?
My advice to Bronx elected officials and my fellow Bronxites is to take education seriously – not just the education of our children, but our own as well. I urge the elected officials from the Bronx and other communities like the Bronx to fight to reform education so that our children are prepared for the future. Their future is your legacy, our legacy. Make no mistake about it, education is the problem of the 21st century. It is our miseducation as a nation that gave us President Trump and the fact that we were able to elect Trump shows how fragile we are and how much we have already declined as a nation.
Unless we seriously begin to educate our children in an equitable manner, I am certain that we will see in the Bronx and this country in the next 10 or 20 years a state of chaos that we have never seen before – and it will be the direct result of the lack of education, the lack of economic development and the lack of community building that have been too prevalent in this borough and this country for far too long.
We are surprised by the amount of ignorance we see in Trump supporters and their willingness to believe in lies and conspiracy theories. Are we arrogant enough to think that the same is not happening all over the country, in Independent and Democratic circles? In Democrats, Independents and Republicans, I have seen a general ignorance of how this country works politically, economically and even socially – because too many of us are just not exposed to one another and our lifestyles – hence the cultural wars as opposed to viewing one another for the persons we really are and the quality of the lives we lead, thus enabling us to compromise on many issues like gun safety and gun violence, sustainable criminal justice reform, police brutality, or programs to eradicate poverty and allow economic development.
That lacking is the direct function of our failing education systems both locally and nationally. And elected officials on both sides of the aisle suppress education as they suppress the vote – yes – as they suppress the vote – in order to guarantee their reelections – while their towns, cities, states, and our nation is falling apart. But as James Baldwin would often write and speak:
“beware the fire next time!” In general, I prefer the anger of educated folks than the anger of uneducated folks. The anger of uneducated folks can be pretty destructive.
How angry and destructive do Bronxites need to become in order for us to take education and economic development seriously? How angry and destructive does the nation need to become before politicians and elected officials understand that first and foremost their job is to help improve lives and empower people as partners in that endeavor? My advice to elected officials is to put into law and policy those systems that allow people to learn how to FISH for themselves and enable people to FISH all their lives for themselves, their families, and their communities. That is why many of us in the community are embarking on Operation FISH (Food, Innovation, Sustainability and Health) in the Bronx. We hope to get the necessary funds when the bill is put on the Senate floor by one of our more progressive senators.