Representing from Overseas

In Articles by Joshua Block0 Comments

Philadelphia mural of W.E.B. DuBois, scholar and sociologist who developed the theory of double consciousness. Courtesy of Joshua Block.

The other day I sat in the front of a classroom north of Wellington, New Zealand, facing thirty teenagers. We had met thirty minutes earlier. I had heard from them about their school and their community before sharing information about my school and my students in Philly.

“What else would you like to know?” I asked. “Ask me about my school or about the States in general.”

A hand in the middle of the room shot straight up. I nodded to the young woman, who was leaning forward as she perched on the front of her seat. Her question was a one syllable word: “Trump?!”

As an American living overseas, how do I respond? Is it best to tell how shocked, horrified, and afraid those in my community were after the election? Should I talk about the despair? Or maybe the resistance and the organizing? Is it best to share that hate has always been a part of U.S. society and that this moment is not new, but merely a time when the fringes are more visible and powerful?  

I have had the privilege of living overseas multiple times in my life. Wherever I go, the United States’ role in the world is like an invisible mark that I carry with me. I felt it when I witnessed the checkpoints and the continuing occupation of Palestine. It brought on deep, internal despair when I watched logging trucks from U.S. companies enter the equatorial forest of Cameroon.

Despite the ways my country supports oppressive policies, the fact that I am from the U.S. means people regularly looked towards me with admiration and envy. There are some obvious reasons why this happens: I live with material comforts, and I live in a country that dominates the global narrative by producing media products consumed by much of the world. What I am saying is not new. Many know or have experienced the ways the U.S. has always been a land of contradictions, of double consciousnesses, a place where “some are more equal.”  

While I previously reflected on the assumptions and complexities of my national identity, that one-word question from a seventeen-year-old represented something different.

People’s understanding of my country is changing. Instead of national rhetoric about justice, this is a moment in which the dominant voices spew hatred. Instead of leadership, the dominant voices in my country offer regressive policies while embracing greed and a vision where caring, kindness, and justice do not matter.

I maintain hope that this shall pass. Author and activist Rebecca Solnit reminds us, “We are complex creatures. Hope and anguish can coexist within us and in our movements and analyses.” When youth around the world have a clear sense that something has changed, that something is not right, we can mourn and despair, but we must also work to make sure the resistance continues to grow. Frida Berrigan calls this “dreaming the alternative and resisting the reality.”

As always, change will come from the bottom up. It will come from organizing, it will come from movements, and it will come from young people. This potential for change can inform our work as educators. It is for these reasons that schools and teachers must find meaningful ways to support young people and their understandings of possibility. Let us never lose sight of the fact that classrooms provide opportunities to work towards the world we want.

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