Keynote Address: Teaching Ethics in Inequitable Times

Good evening everyone. Hello, hello. You heard from the Peace Poets before, I normally have a policy of never following the Peace Poets, they go after me. We spoke at NYU on Monday and I made the great, brilliant decision to go first and then they closed it down. You’ve already heard from the, kind of most wonderful examples of what The Brotherhood/Sister Sol is all about and that’s the Peace Poets, they are really incredible young men who are brave in the work that they do every single day. I’m glad you were able to hear from them. I think they are a wonderful way to start a conference focused on teaching ethics in inequitable times.

I don’t know who came up with the title, but I think it’s probably one of the most necessary conversations for us to have at this time. I think we all are aware of the difficult world we live in. We are aware of the deeply inequitable and unethical times that we live in. I’m happy to be here to talk a little bit about these issues and to frame it as I’m speaking to a room of educators around our work at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol. I want to talk about that a little bit and kind of start in this little brownstone we have in Harlem and then move out into some other conversations and spaces.

The Brotherhood/Sister Sol was created in 1995 and our theory of change is to provide support, guidance, love, and education to young people, and we never shy away from that word love. I would argue that love and ethics are deeply intertwined, that you can’t really teach ethics, you can’t create an ethical and moral society if you don’t also focus on love, love and justice, but definitely love. We provide support, guidance, education, and love, we then teach young people to have discipline and order in their life, and then we provide opportunities and access so they can develop agency. Those are the stages, love, support, guidance, and education, self-discipline and order, and then opportunities and access so that they can develop agency.

We believe that’s necessary because we are working with a population that is facing some of the greatest inequity that we face here in the city. The census was done in 2015 and it found, to no surprise, I’m sure to folks in the room, that the greatest disparity of wealth of any county in America was the county of New York, Manhattan. The top 5% earn $870,000 a year, the bottom 20% survive on less than $10,000 a year, 1 in 5 on this island are surviving on $10,000. 70% of those who are homeless in this city are children.

A lot of times as we move around the city we see the face of homelessness as often mentally ill individual men. That’s what’s often seen as the face, who of course require all the services and deserve all the services that the city has to offer, but what we often don’t see is the real face which are children. Children who go to school every single day and are taught in our schools and they’re leaving shelters in order to get that education. When you think about that level of poverty you realize all the decisions that have to be made in families and how to respond to that kind of lived inequality. When we’re talking about unethical times, when we’re talking about inequality [inaudible 00:05:19], it’s really important to name what that is. To name what it feels like to grow up in an unequal, unethical way, because that has a lived reality, it’s not just a theory.

We know that the theory of change has to be comprehensive because the forces laid against our young people are so comprehensive. We help them to learn what it means to be men and women, leaders and brothers and sisters, and to develop a moral and ethical code, something that will help guide them through life. A young woman who went through our organization who has already quoted Elizabeth Acevedo and was a student of Lev Moscow, who’s sitting here, and she said, always young people will have the best words for so many things, and she said that, “Brotherhood/Sister Sol does not save children’s lives, it teaches children the skills to save their own lives.”

The point of helping them to define a man and a leader, a brother, a sister, a woman and a leader, is to instill within them the understanding and the endurance to overcome the very realities that they’re facing because we know they’re going to leave us just like they leave their family and their parents. They’re going to leave the little room we have created, the home we have created in Harlem, so we provide this rites of passage work where we’re guiding young people from 12 to 18 in this way.

We take them to study with us for a month in Africa and Latin America so that they can see as black and brown children that they are a part of the majority, not the minority as they’re so often told, but it’s also the deeply spiritual experiences that happen with that kind of travel. The ability to travel with us and spend time in the slave force, where members of their families and their ancestors were moved through. It allows us to go to Brazil and for them to see the enduring power of Afro-Latino culture that you have in Brazil. In a very lived way you’re taking young people from sometimes very difficult situations, where they feel overwhelmed by the violence and the lack of education, the lack of opportunity, and now all of a sudden the world is in their hands.

We know that this is the reality for wealthy kids and middle-class kids, it’s accepted. Kids who go to Ethical in Fieldston, you travel in the summer, you travel on your break, you travel whenever you want to travel. Well, economically poor children deserve that as well. We want them to study with us international and we want them to come to understand the environment and the great issues of the day, which would certainly include climate change and global warming and the threats to our environment. Because it’s important for them to not just understand the threats that they face in Harlem, on the streets of Harlem, but also the huge threats to the world.

Arts and education are key part of what we do. I’m raised in a family of organizers and activists. My grandfather came over here from Russia and was an organizer then, was in the Communist Party. Today we would probably call it the Socialist Party, he wouldn’t like that I’ve been told, but the language changes with the times. The Labor Movement is a huge part of my family’s history and legacy.

One of the phrases of the Labor Movement that’s always meant a lot to me was the theme Bread and Roses. It was a movement started in Massachusetts by most of the immigrant women at the turn of last century, and the vision was that people, working people deserved two different things in their life. Blood, roses, the idea of wealth for the spirit and wealth for the soul, so that the bread would sustain them, not the blood but the bread would sustain them … It’s a different story. The bread would sustain them and the roses would be the beauty that people needed for their soul as well. We really believe that at Brotherhood/Sister Sol as well, we want to feed their bellies and feed their minds.

The work was created though, again because of the inequity and inequality that Jason, my co-founder and I saw here in 1995 in this city that we all love. When we created the organization roughly 2,000 people were dying every single year in this city from gun violence. Last year it was less than 400, it’s still an abominable number, but it shows you the substantial drop. In the year we started the work and still today 1 out of 3 black men between the ages of 20 and 29 are under supervision of the prison system, either in prison, on probation, on parole, 1 out of 3. We thought it is important to talk about these numbers and these statistics, because all too often those kind of stories are not shared widely enough.

It’s very easy for us at The Brotherhood/Sister Sol to talk to our young people about the issue, but we want to create a platform for them to talk to those outside of their immediate community, to tell their stories. We believe by telling their stories, the realities that they have to face, the inequalities that they have to face, the words that you experienced and heard from the Peace Poets, that it brings others to the conversation of creating a more just and equitable society.

One of the chief examples of that was the effort to reform the NYPD here in the city. This has obviously become a national conversation, but we’ve been having this conversation in black and brown communities, in tough urban areas since the police have walked the beat. This is not a new conversation, we just have it on video and people have phones and cameras. My father who grew up in Eastern North Carolina would have had experiences in the 40’s and 50’s that would mirror the realities that people are having here in 2016 in New York City.

During the Bloomberg years, for 12 years nearly 700,000 people were stopped a year at gunpoint and frisked. We’re doing nothing but walking down the street. Sometimes we’re doing violations of the law that everybody in this room has done, moving in between the trains, it’s a ticketable offense. Drinking a coffee on the train, ticketable offense. Being in the park after dark, ticketable offense. Six people standing on a street corner, ticketable offense, but that’s only enforced on certain communities and at certain times. As long as that was happening in Harlem and in Central Brooklyn, in the South Bronx, it didn’t break into the city-wide conversation of how inequitable this was, until people started telling their stories.

Some of the leading voices telling those stories were members of our organization, who created documentaries about what the experience felt like. We wrote poems about it. It was Peart, one of our alumni wrote the definitive first person story which was in The New York Times, “Why is the NYPD After Me?” About what it felt like to be stopped and frisked 8 times, 10 times, 12 times. On his birthday he went to the McDonald’s on 96th Street, he was 18 years old. He sat in the divider and had a burger with his cousin. The police showed up, put him down on the ground at gunpoint. They saw from his ID that it was birthday, they dropped the ID back on his back and wished him a happy birthday at gunpoint.

Our young people told these stories and organized because they saw the power of really trying to connect and help people understand what it felt like in a day to day way, not to look at 10 million stops, which is the number that occurred during the Bloomberg years, but what it felt like to be one person stopped. Every single male in our organization was stopped and frisked, all 5 of the Peace Poets. I was stopped and frisked. Jason, my co-founder stopped and frisked at gunpoint in the streets of New York. We had to get the story outside of our community .

The result of that was a change in policy in that one area. There’s a lot of work to still be done. The NYPD needs a entire overhaul, and that’s another conversation for another time. I’m not in any way saying that the war was won, but that one battle was substantially one. The stops went from 700,000 to 40,000 and our young people had to be celebrated for that. We have to celebrate our wins even if it’s not the entire win that we want, and that was unbelievable and it was youth-led, and it was people of color-led. Then you would go to the protest rallies after Eric Garner was killed two years ago and the people protesting were as diverse as the city of New York. It was no longer only a black and brown issue, it was people of all backgrounds and all ages and all faith saying, “This is not the city I want to live in.”

When he was public advocate, Mayor de Blasio came to our site and met with our young organizers including the Peace Poets and Nicholas and he said publicly that they changed his entire view of the issue. When he announced the drop of the appeal in Floyd, which the Bloomberg administration had appealed on stage was the mayor, corporation council, the police chief and Nicholas Peart. Now if that’s not an example of a young person taking the learning of ethics and morals and speaking out for social justice, I don’t know what is. That’s an unbelievably brave thing, he was 18 when he started doing it. Most people would be so intimidated by that kind of onslaught of the police, they would never have spoken out. It’s an example of how you move the conversation more broadly.

James Baldwin said that when the victim is able to articulate the situation of the victim he or she has ceased to be a victim, but instead become a threat. That’s what we want our young people to do, to be threats, threats to racism, threats to sexism, threats to homophobia, threats to prejudice, and to struggle everyday to create a more equitable world for themselves but also for the broader community, and you heard that in the Peace Poets art. You heard them, yes, talking about what it meant to be black and brown men, but you heard them talking about feminism and the love of their mothers. I know all the mothers in here especially love that piece.

You heard them talking about their interconnection to other issues of social justice. They were in the Dakota’s just last week protesting the pipeline. They were on the border protesting around the disappearance of Mexican women on the border. They have been from Sudan to Afghanistan. Sometimes they go places I wish they wouldn’t go, but they go and they come back and they’re very brave in that struggle, but then again, it’s about not just your own community but seeing a wider connection as well.

We know that we’ve had these kind of successes, but we also know that there’s so much work to be done. When I always hear this phrase of inequality I always go back to education, and I know for those of us who are educators in the room, we know that it’s often the [inaudible 00:15:54], but we also have to be very real about what the current situation is. There’s 1.1 million children in our school system, by far the largest in the country, only 70% graduate. You’re talking about 300,000 to 400,000 children who will not graduate, of those who graduate only 30% graduate college-ready, without need of remedial support to go to the MCC. The kids that we work with, even if they do what they’ve been told to do they’re being sold the false bill of goods. Even if they go to every class and do well and graduate, when they get that diploma it’s an eight grade level education in many cases. It’s not a Fieldston education, it’s a mediocre education that is ill-preparing them to compete.

We allow that to happen, the adults. It’s not the children’s issue, that’s our issue. The outroar should be constant, mayors, senators, governors should be elected on that issue and no other, people should be in the streets. Sometimes I wonder why we don’t have more in the streets, but when we allow our children to have that form of education we are starting with an unethical situation, we are starting with an unequal situation. How do we both help the individual young people, like Nicholas, like the Peace Poets, but then also speak to a broader space of equality and true access? There’s not an achievement gap, there’s an access gap. Young people simply do not have access to the education they deserve. The young people are learning to be social change-makers, they’re learning to be those who seek justice.

There are always conversations among our staff about how much information we should really bring to young people, because sometimes they can become almost a force that feels debilitating, if you really understand the history of this country, if you really understand the racism in this country, if you really understand the prison industrial complex, if you really understand the immigration policies that people are putting forward to break up families and send millions of people to a home that they don’t even consider home anymore. When you just think of the gross political conversations we’re having, how do you help young people to navigate that?

We think that the education is essential, that the political education is the beginning of social justice, that by understanding these conditions they can push back and create a more equitable world. The word poor in the dictionary is defined as lacking in value, without merit, deficient, and so we call our children poor because they’re surviving on $10,000 a year, but of course they’re not deficient and they’re not lacking in value. If they understand that, if they understand the socio-economic conditions there’s nothing wrong with them because they were born in Wagner Houses or Polo Grounds or any of these places. There’s something wrong with the society that allows that to continue to occur and for them to grow up in substandard housing and attend substandard schools and not be safe in their very community. We want to work with them to understand these issues so that they first focus there, but then they look more broadly.

While I was certainly pleased that the country seemed to enter in to an uproar after Donald Trump’s most recent comments about how he treats women and thinks that it’s okay to sexually assault women, I appreciated the uproar, but I also am disturbed because the day he gave his kickoff speech he talked about Mexicans as rapists and murderers, there wasn’t the same uproar. He’s talked about banning all people of the Muslim faith from entering the country and there was not the same uproar. The two populations who are most vulnerable right now in political conversation are the undocumented and the Muslim. It reminds me of the Pastor Niemöller and first they came for the Communists, then they came for the Jews, and then they came for the labor organizers and it goes through it, and then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out.

We are at a time where we have a man running for president of the United States who is using McCarthy-like language, who is talking about our sisters and brothers in the most vicious and disgusting way and the uproar should not only be when that conversation reaches us or our homes or our children or our identity, but it needs to be much broader. I do hope that one thing that comes out of these political times are bridges that are built so that people are connecting to other communities that are not necessarily their own, and that’s what we teach at Brotherhood/Sister Sol.

We believe that it’s about helping young people to really open their eyes and to awaken. It’s a phrase that to me captures what ethics and education can do when it’s at its best, it helps a child awaken. I think those of us who are educators have seen that moment when all of a sudden the eyes open and they see the possibility, they get it. To me, one of the phrases that most captures that process is articulated by Chinua Achebe and it’s called Imaginative Identification. He wrote about it in an incredible collection of essays called Hopes and Impediments and he said, “Things are not merely happening before us, they are happening by the force and power of imaginative identification to us. We not only see, we suffer alongside the hero and are branded with the same mark of punishment and poverty.”

That if the struggle of another is to really connect with us, if we are to see the ethical challenges that others face, we have to identify with it beyond just, “I feel bad for that person,” but instead to imagine that threat, that injustice is striking us. We know that if 700,000 people were stopped and frisked in the city for 12 years under the Bloomberg administration and they were white wealthy women, that would have never been allowed to continue. He would not have gotten three terms, he would not have been seen as a leader who should be considered for president. This is aside from any other issues that we will talk about with the administration. Just focus on that for a second.

If you focus on the fact that Rikers Island, there’s 10,000 people in it that’s under supervision of the Department of Justice, because in their own language, in their own language people are being terrorized on that island everyday and people are being tortured everyday. That’s right by La Guardia Airport, 10,000 citizens of this city held in cages and tortured. We allow that to happen. What does it mean to teach ethics and morality when those kind of things are happening in the city that we’re all citizens of? What does it mean to work with young people so that they can understand the very conditions they face, but also realize these are these huge inequalities that continue in the city and what will they do about them?

Maxine Green, who’s and educator, I’m sure many people in this room are familiar with said, “It is a conscious endeavour on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them.” Again, as educators that to me would be our goal and aspiration, to help young people inquire into what seeks to dominate them, and then to deconstruct that. That would be the goal of ethical learning. That would be the goal of a school faced on creating a moral environment where young people can become strong men and strong women.

As we think about this issue as educators, as we move forward and we build schools based on these themes, as The Brotherhood/Sister Sol continues to work on these things, I think the challenge to us as educators is to help young people figure out how to define what they see and what they face. To provide the opportunities that allow them to become strong adults even considering all those conditions. Because as much as I can talk about the inequalities our children face, one of the things that sustains me in my work, one of the things that inspires me is their incredible fortitude, the incredible ability of young people to endure, to adapt, and to push through. They shouldn’t have to face those things and those conditions, but now that they are facing them what can they do to overcome them?

In all of our work as educators, I think we have to make sure that those are the two themes we keep together, helping young people to look into the conditions that they are facing, and then to help create paths so that they can change the very conditions that they face every single day. Thank you.

Khary Lazarre-White is a social entrepreneur, educator, nonprofit executive, writer, and attorney. In 1995, at the age of 21 he co-founded The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, an extraordinary city-wide organization based in Harlem that provides after school programs, counseling, summer camps, job training, college preparation and much more. Khary has earned an impressive collection of awards and has been featured on television shows and in print publications. He serves on many boards including, most recently the Ethical Culture School Board.