When I applied to spend my summer with Breakthrough Collaborative in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., I did not expect to be faced with the same injustices I was preparing myself to fight against. I never thought that I would still feel the effects of losing a job, two months later, less willing and able to express myself without second-guessing my own feelings. But this is how power relations are supposed to work.
Breakthrough seemed like my ideal summer program. They serve low-income, motivated seventh to ninth-graders to keep them on the path to success—success being defined as a college degree and a substantial career. I immediately felt that the lives of these students reflected my own in a way. Despite finishing high school and obtaining a once-relevant associate degree, my mother struggled to find a job in the medical field, which led to stressful, under-paid jobs and periods of reliance on government assistance. My mother worked her ass off; we always had just enough to eat every day and to do the activities we love, but we were always behind and if she wasn’t tackling one issue, another came up. Through it all, she stressed education. We didn’t know how, but we decided that I would go to college. Sometimes I still don’t know how I did it, but I wound up here at Pomona College.
This wonderful, supportive institution has provided me with numerous opportunities. I am now a familiar opinionated voice on campus, a mentor for Questbridge, and a mentor for seventh to ninth-graders through the Weekly Writing Workshop. Above all, I am a sociology major. I am passionate about my new-found area of study because it has help me put in words the inequalities I have seen in my life and in the lives of others I encounter, hear, and read about.
In light of my interests and experiences, I expected that the themes of my summer with Breakthrough would be race, class and education. My summer was completely different than what I had expected, however. The workload was immense; I spent at least 10 hours a day at school, only to return to my home-stay for more lesson planning and to try to be social and polite in spite of exhaustion.
I was more than grateful to have a safe residence full of food and resources and my own space to retreat to. Behind my role as the guest, however, I was freaking out on the inside. The abundance of resources, the ease of access, the amount of privilege, and most of all, the lack of diversity that I found in the home-stay all made me feel uncomfortable.
I tried to push through, but this culture shock was mixed with self-consciousness and feelings of uncertainty. As a woman of color, I asked myself, “How am I being perceived? How am I any more qualified to impact students’ lives than any other college student? How am I fulfilling my duty of advocating for the success of underprivileged youth whilst living in a complete contradiction?”
I mulled these questions over while discussing with my students their familial issues, their early exposure to substance abuse, their hopes and dreams for a better life in the future. As teachers, we were taught to persuade students that four-year Ivies and private universities are better than four-year public schools, all of which are better than community colleges. We taught them what the leading jobs in the country were, and immediately asked, “OK, now who wants to go to MIT and become a computer scientist and make over $60,000 a year?”
We taught these things in a private school setting, which many of these students won’t ever have access to. We fed them information about college admissions and expected them to break the cycle of poverty. While I didn’t have all the answers, I knew that there was a key principle that I didn’t agree with.
The moment I attempted to put into words what was going on in my hyperactive liberal arts and social justice-influenced mind was the moment I posted my critique of the status quo on my personal blog. Revealing my discomfort via blog post caused an uproar. With only four days left in the program, I was terminated from Breakthrough due to “negativity” and “inappropriate online behavior.”
At least, this is what the Breakthrough San Juan director who fired me told me. Because I didn’t feel comfortable speaking my mind in the environment I was in, my host and other elite Breakthrough community members stalked me online, found observations and opinions that they did not agree with on my blog, and brought complaints to my employer.
Upon my termination, I was given no opportunity to defend myself, no time to process what happened or have a productive conversation where I wasn’t bawling my eyes out. My host appeared out of nowhere, much like the enraged party does on one of those reality television shows. She sat down, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You need professional help.”
The director sat by while my host read to me a typed lecture about my dishonesty, my lack of communication, and again, my apparent mental health issues that must have caused all this trouble. Within the course of an hour, I had been transformed from a role model for students of color, to the ungrateful anti-role model who perpetuates stereotypes. I was immediately taken from the campus, unable to say good-bye to my students and fellow teachers, and was put on the next train to Claremont.
Is it any coincidence that we hold different standards in the way we speak about class? On one hand, we are not allowed to critique the wealthy and point out their privilege under any circumstance. On the other, we allow words and actions of many forms to oppress racial groups every day. We all want to blame the underprivileged. But god forbid we critique those who represent access to a system that the broke, sick, and undereducated are promised and then denied. We want to blame the liberal arts college student for pointing out flaws in the ways in which society functions and concentrates power among select groups, but didn’t I also once want to go to MIT and become a doctor?
Instead, I stand as an example of what happens when you mix classes of people. Who really has the privilege to have an opinion and speak about it without consequence?
Cortney’s blog: http://thislifeinphotos.wordpress.com/