Grappling with the invisible benefits that I earned through the lottery of birth means I also have to deal with uncomfortable topics of money and status. Over time, I have realized that this comes from the fact of my upbringing and the narrative of the family I have built. My husband and I are both from families where work ethic was an important part of our narrative – my father worked his way up from challenging circumstances to find financial success and my husband’s Irish Catholic father believed hard work and character were foundational to building the nest egg that feeds our generation. So, separating out hard work from socio-economic status is a difficult but important process for me.
Again, I am not always awesome at this. My students, who are the first generation in their families to attend college, have been important in changing my perspectives. Their parents work incredibly hard, making sacrifices I could not imagine – sending your child to Eastside’s boarding program out of 8th grade! I can’t imagine! As I examined what is different between the ethic they show and that my father taught me, there it not much. Working hard resonates across both. But, I see that race plays a huge part in why some people find financial gain at the end of struggle and others don’t. This is part of Eastside’s mission that I think is most powerful – give these students every privilege and expectation that are implicit in the schooling at the most prestigious (and largely white) private schools, and let these children shine. There are certainly pros and cons to this model, but it is what we do, very well, and we are seeing the fruits of our labor as students create their own success on their own terms.
I am so glad that I can contribute at Eastside as a teacher, and I don’t have to worry about the fund-raising work. Asking for money makes me crazy uncomfortable. Yet, in my life with my kids in school, I am asked for money all of the time. I was shocked when entering the school district the dollar amount that was asked (and received) from all families each year as voluntary contributions. $1000 per year… per child… to the district plus other giving directly to the school site. It was a lot to take in as I watched my students struggle to make the parent contribution of $250 per year at Eastside.
This vast divide made my brain split in two. How could I be members of both of these communities?!? So many realizations came piling in on me – how my students must feel in college surrounded by students who were used to this sort of giving, how much we have equated quality of education by the dollars put toward the program, how the donations of food and time are valued- it was a lot. And to know that the PTA had a budget overflow from one year to the next… my head spins to think about how these two worlds are so physically close, yet so far apart.
I told myself early on that as my kids got older, I would encourage others around me to engage in “Yes, and…” giving. Meaning, it is great to support the learning environment of your own child AND where can you also give to help a child who does not have the same advantages. As I say all the time, my children don’t need me to give money to their schools. They have two college educated parents and early childhood literacy skills that work particularly heavily in their favor, not to mention the other privileges of race and zip code. What we all need is to give to the schools and programs where there are not two college educated parents, because if those students are better prepared, schools will become more diverse and rigorous for everyone. (Here, I could and often do go into a rabbit hole of unfounded fear, college admissions and assumptions about access that I will save for another time…)
In my mind, giving is better if it is not performative. This is where the challenge comes. There is a lot of celebration and ceremony around large giving events – galas, auctions, dinners, etc – and connecting with others who care about the same cause is so important to building community and raising the status of organizations often overlooked. But, I challenge myself and others to find small ways to give quietly to programs that benefit communities that I am not necessarily a part of. How do I find these? Usually through my generous former students who highlight charities in the communities where they are living and working that echo the challenges they faced as children. It takes some work, and requires that I follow people on social media to see what matters to them.
If you want to know more about giving to causes outside of your daily lives, I would recommend that you start by adding different voices to your social media feed. Follow celebrities, see who they follow or when they post meaningful messages from voices you are unfamiliar with. The “Pass the Mic” movement on Instagram was very helpful in this regard – many public figures that I follow – including Ellen and others – had a takeover of their page by a woman of color for a day or two. I found a lot of great ideas and movements that way. If you come across a movement you are particularly interested in, let me know. I would love to add it to my list.
To use an overused somewhat charged phrase, when something is making you uncomfortable “Lean In” to that discomfort with “Why” questions. Then, see if you can find answers that help you grapple with the discomfort. I still have a lot of unresolved feelings about the polar nature of my work and home worlds, but I try to sit with them to see what I can learn and how I can better understand the path to connecting them.