Category Archives: Community?

Making Maestre

Here is the slide presentation I gave with my partner this week at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music. It is based upon our primary research on the Elm City Girls’ Choir of New Haven. Photographs are my own; audio and video is not included here, but recordings of this group can be purchased through the United Choir School office. One hope I have is that the choir will continue to reach a wider audience despite the fact that the organization is unable to dedicate many funds to advertising concerts. The text that goes with the slide presentation will come along shortly.

Stacie Vos

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Buck Gems: The American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY

Girl at natural history

I took this photograph because it would record for me of the power of these dioramas, for young and old. I saw the girl stop in her tracks, something that made the educator in me snap to. Then I realized that I paused because seeing her was like watching myself look at these recreated gemsbok, their horns like tree-spears puncturing an artificial sky, their eyes piercing, the feet all planted.

SNV 2013

with thanks to Armand Morgan

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Sexual Equality Means Zero Tolerance: On Yale’s Sex Crimes Report

It’s so, so frustrating to have

reported to the school, been let down

by the school, brought it to the

federal government and then get let

down by the federal government.

Alexandra Brodsky, to Huffington Post

In some cases, rapists receive no more than a “written reprimand” about their behavior. Yale University’s recent report on sexual violence might suggest that petty theft is a greater crime than violence against women.

I recently received a very neutral e-mail from the University Title IX Coordinator, in which she included a link to the fourth semi-annual Report of Complaints of Sexual Misconduct. Because I have concerned myself with women’s safety and equality since these terms became available to me, I was not entirely surprised by the lack of seriousness evident in the descriptions of the many complaints listed in the “report.”

Both The Huffington Post and The New Haven Register precede me in presenting articles that criticize the diplomatic and ineffective term “nonconsensual sex,” repeated throughout the document. This term symbolizes what appears to be an attempt to make vague and illegitimate the complaints of the few women who have spoken up about sexual violence. Anyone who has ever considered the problem knows that the vast majority of women who experience sexual harassment and assault do not report it. This is often due to a combination of self-blaming and active hostility on the part of the authorities who are responsible for investigating and prosecuting sex crimes (For instance, I once spoke to a Philadelphia police officer who said he liked to “get to the women before the rape advocates did,” suggesting that women fabricated rape complaints, especially after talking with one another).

If we take for granted that most sexual violence goes unreported, we should be even more alarmed by the acts reported below, and the fact that they are met with disciplinary actions so slight as to be laughable to both the respondents and to outside parties like myself.

Here are a few highlights from the report: (And below I list articles detailing the 2011 Title IX complaint)

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It is clear that fines will not deter Yale from sustaining itself despite this utter lack of concern for half of the student body (See Huffington Post link above regarding the fines of $155,000 this year). It should also be clear that a man who rapes and harasses women commits a crime that is neither tolerable nor forgivable. He does not deserve to keep a position at an ivy league university, a position that could instead go to any number of capable, non-violent, respectful individuals. The priority in addressing his behavior must not be (as it often is, even in the recent national harassment cases we have seen involving mayors and potential mayors) “counseling” or “gender sensitivity training.”* This is not a “sensitivity” issue. This is about violent crimes against women that are directly related to both their ability to obtain a quality education and their human rights in general.

In the meantime, I can attest to the fact that concerned female students will feel it is their duty to write articles such as this one, putting aside for at least a period of time their own academic interests and writing (or, perhaps their grocery shopping at the very least). It is unthinkable that women who endure sexual violence must continue to attend classes and frequent the same libraries and dining halls as their assailants. That these women manage to succeed, as they must, is to no credit to the university.

Stacie Vos

*On the issue of seeing the rapist as the victim, I suggest Barbara Johnson’s essay “Muteness Envy.” In it she combines an exploration of the trope of women’s silence throughout the English poetic tradition. Beginning with Keats, Johnson moves into an analysis of Jane Campion’s film The Piano and public reactions to it. She ends with a discussion of “Take Back the Night” ceremonies and our culture’s general ability to conflate women’s pain and pleasure, men’s aggression with their victimhood. The concluding paragraph can give you a sense:

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See also: 

Alexandra Brodsky’s Protests and Efforts After Being Asked by Yale Authorities to Cover Up an Attempted Rape by Another Yale Student

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2012/06/18/was_yale_really_cleared_on_sexual_harrassment_.html

http://www.yalealumnimagazine.com/blog_posts/1517

http://yaledailynews.com/crosscampus/2013/07/17/title-ix-complainant-organizes-protest-outside-doe/

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Guest Post: “Dreams” by Langston Hughes

The following is a brief reflection from a student I recently worked with at the Mercy Learning Center in Bridgeport. She chose the following poem as her source:

Dreams

 
by Langston Hughes
 
Hold fast to dreams 
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16075
 
Dreams
Kalala Mangabu
 
I just want to focus on the part “barren field frozen with snow.” First of all, dreams are like a mirror image of  their dreamer and are symbolic, they contain information about the unconscious mind. so when dreams die, it’s like there is nothing to life. I mean life becomes meaningless just like a barren field. What’s a field? A field is an open area, where you can plant something and expect it to grow. It’s always somewhere productive, and what happens if it becomes barren? It then becomes useless and loses its purpose.
 
Dreams in the author’s opinion, provide us with something to look out for and if one doesn’t hold fast to them, life will never reach its potential of becoming fruitful or turn into a beautiful thing just like a field. Its purpose is to be fruitful and produce something but when it is frozen with snow, it loses its value and purpose. I guess what the author is trying to say is that we are nothing without dreams and that is why he uses metaphors to show how serious his statement is.
 
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Detecting Gender: Inspector Morse and Feminist Theory

morse

image credit: http://www.vpt.org/show/17619/404

In the Inspector Morse episode Day of the Devil, Morse periodically visits the psychiatrist of a serial rapist and murderer who has escaped prison. The psychiatrist, Dr. Esther Martin, is stationed at an Oxford hotel per the request of the killer. Morse periodically visits the doctor in order to gather more insight on the criminal, and to see if she is safe. A female police officer, W.P.C. Nora Curtis, accompanies Dr. Martin. During one of Morse’ s visits, he joins both women for a drink in the hotel cafe. They begin a conversation after Morse suggests that Constable Curtis may need a break to attend to her “living arrangement,” or her boyfriend, with whom she lives. The conversation begins as follows:

W.P.C. Curtis: I live with someone. He divides his time between me and the motorbike, but he’s alright.

Dr. Martin: (smiling) He’s got a motorbike?

W.P.C. Curtis: Yeah.

Dr. Martin: I had a motorbike once.

W.P.C. Curtis: (astonished) You? What was it?

Dr. Martin: A harley, actually. It belonged to my eldest brother, and the supposition was that it would pass on to the next male in the line.

Morse looks down as if ashamed or embarrassed.

Dr. Martin: But I challenged my other brothers to a speed trial, saw them both off and got to keep the bike.

W.P .C Curtis: (smiling, in awe) That’s wonderful. That’s fantastic, doctor.

Morse: Why should Dr. Martin’s success cause you such unbounded joy, Constable?

W.P.C. Curtis: Oh, no reason, sir.

Morse: Come on, you can barely contain yourself.

W.P.C. Curtis: (slowly) I was pleased because she’d beat them at what’s considered their own game. She pauses. That’s never easy for a woman as we don’t get to make the rules. Or, don’t you agree sir?

Morse: Yes, I do. But, in beating them at their own games, aren’t you in danger of losing something essential?

W.P .C. Curtis: (mockingly) Our cuddly qualities, sir?

Dr. Martin looks at her, sighs, and smiles gently.

Morse: If you mean a disinclination to violence, a greater capacity for fair-mindedness and compassion, then yes, your cuddly qualities.

W.P.C. Curtis’s eyes burn into him.

Morse: I’ve always seen femininity as a guarantor of civilization.

W.P.C. Curtis: You’ve rather an idealized view of us.

Morse: That may be, but, it is my view.

W.P.C. Curtis: I can sum up your idea of feminine qualities in one word: weakness. And it’s that weakness that sustains discrimination, inequality, and violence in all its forms, from the Saturday night slap in the mouth to the kind of things we get from this bastard we’re all chasing.

Dr. Martin: Are you sure you don’t want any coffee, chief inspector?

Morse: No thank you doctor, I appear to have upset Constable Curtis. That was inexcusable, even if it was unintentional.

Constable W.P.C. Curtis: Sir.

When Morse asks Constable Curtis if she (as a member of the female community, who identifies with Esther Martin’ s story of beating her brothers in a race), is “in danger of losing something essential,” he uses a word that both refers to something crucial and to what may be considered the essence or necessary quality of all women. The conversation that follows brings up a critical question for feminist thought: Is there always something wrong with saying there is an essence of women, or that this essence is femininity? What if that essence is a set of positive qualities such as those listed by Morse: an aversion to violence, a propensity toward fairness, compassion? If we accept the idealized view of women espoused by Morse (1), what happens to masculine women? In other words, what are the dangers of holding such a romantic view of all women?

In this case, it is, at least in part, Dr. Esther Martin’ s trust in women that leads her to danger. When Morse and Lewis interview her about how and why she had purposely assisted Barrie’s escape from prison, she described the first time she had met him: “I’d broken down on my motorbike. I thought they’d stopped to help. I could see the woman in the van, and thought I was safe (crying). ” The woman in the van was the wife of a second rapist, herself battered, and had joined the men rather than risk further endangerment. Dr. Martin, who sits between Morse and W.P.C. Curtis in the conversation described above, is accurately placed, for she believes not only in the ideal view of women, but in their ability to take on the masculine role as well. When Morse ends the conversation with an apology, it seems to be precisely because he understands the complex position of women, especially those who choose to move beyond traditionally feminine roles (2). Ride on her Harley as she might, she was reminded in the worst of ways which sex she was.

But is it the behavior of women that matters most in the case of crimes against them? According to W.P.C. Curtis’s impassioned speech, the woman’s behavior, especially if it is weak, actually allows the crime to occur. Her response to patriarchal norms, as a woman who joins the police force, is indeed to “beat them at their own game,” to carry and cock a gun. This view leaves in tact masculine dominance, whether its representatives be male or female.

Morse, on the other hand, describes femininity as a “guarantor” of civilization. He implies that women embody this femininity, but he never says so outright. In his daily life, he is no chief member of the masculine crew. Rather, he spends his idle time drinking wine and listening to female opera singers. He reads to such an extent that it endangers his reputation as a “copper” (3). If femininity is to guarantee civility, it must not be something that only women can access. In addition to taking on relatively humane hobbies, Morse consistently identifies with women. In Day of the Devil, for example, he makes no move to announce that Dr. Martin let Barrie out of prison, or that she intended to kill him. Both Morse and Dr. Martin, a man and a woman, identify with women in the end. At the end of the final interview with Dr. Martin, Morse asks her if she could have gone through with the murder. She picks up a ring from the examination table, which had belonged to another one of Barrie’s victims, and tells Morse that when he finds the owner of the ring, he is to look into the woman’ s eyes. Here, she says, he will find the answer to his question.

In seeking revenge against her rapist, Dr. Martin moves beyond an individualist quest to “beat men at their own game,” to an action that she sees as an act of solidarity with other women. It is precisely this identification with the other, whether male or female, that is the true “guarantor of civilization.” If women have traditionally been more able to identify with others, it is because, in order to become human agents themselves, they had to identify with that which is other from themselves – the masculine norm. If only men were human, it was the prerogative of women to show their likeness to men.

Inspector Morse’s brief speech on gender, along with the circumstances within which the speech takes place, reminds us of this basic quest for humanity. The turning of tables with regard to gender requires not the female assumption of male roles, but men’s capacity to see in themselves that which has thus far been considered “feminine. ”

 

 

 

 

1 Although the “peacefulness” of women is a widespread view that has existed and continues to exist, I would like to maintain the words used in this show in particular. It seems that while a general form of essentialist belief about women is consistent with sexist views of women as homemakers and mothers only, Morse expresses something very different.

2 This is one of many examples of Morse treating women more gently than he might a male colleague. Some might see this as condescending, but this behavior may also be read as that which results from empathy toward women in patriarchal society.

3 See Happy Families.

Stacie Vos, 2010

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Debating Education: New Haven

Last evening I attended the New Haven mayoral candidates debate on education. The event took place at Varick Memorial Zion Church on Dixwell street. Melissa Bailey of the New Haven Independent has noted that this location was no accident: “…Varick has become a cause célèbre for the charter movement, as Pastor Eldren D. Morrison (pictured) moves forward with a proposal to launch a charter school serving Dixwell and Newhallville. Gov. Daniel P. Malloy has scheduled two personal visits to the church this year to support the charter effort,” she writes.

I no longer live in New Haven, and thus cannot cast a vote for any of these candidates. However, I taught for over three years in New Haven schools, and remain interested in the problems facing students and teachers in New Haven and other cities where race and class-based disparities are vast and visible.

I also went because I want to support Gary Holder-Winfield’s campaign (especially since my former student Larry Stovall worked for him in 2008), and because I wanted to hear first-hand what Kermit Carolina, my former colleague at Hillhouse high school, had to say about his school and his goals as a candidate.

The event began with a “meet-and-greet” in the basement of the church. The walls were lined with paintings and photographs of previous church members, many of them women: Lula Jones, Sister Gertrude E. Hood, Mrs. Daisy Rudd — to name a few. Attendees helped themselves to pizza, chicken wings, and salad. I sat at a table with a third grader who said he had had field day at school and had subsequently fallen asleep in class.

The education reform organization CONNCAN had set up a table with pens and index cards for people to submit questions for the debate.

Former Hillhouse High School Librarian, Mr. Gibson, submits a question for the debate.

People were still coming in at 6:30, when the debate was set to begin. It took close to fifteen minutes after this to make sure all of the microphones were working. At last, the debate began with a moderator from Fox CT news. The pastor hosting the event described her as a “beautiful and talented” Princeton graduate.

Candidates gave opening statements, beginning with Kermit Carolina, who claimed that he was the only candidate to have children in New Haven schools, and to have gone through the system himself. The former was later proven false when two other candidates (Fernandez and Keitazulu) shared that they too had children in the schools.

***

I would like to focus on a few aspects of the debate, but a full transcription can be found in Bailey’s live blog from the evening. A few things of note for me were the candidates’ support for school choice, the widespread praise for Achievement First, and the discussion of how many New Haven workers in fact live outside of the city limits (this point, it seems, was meant to both guilt those who lived outside, and also to emphasize that New Haven schools were not adequately preparing their students for the competition of the workforce).

On the issue of school choice, all candidates were nearly forced, it seemed, to say “yes.” One of them, however, Matthew Nemerson, said that he was in favor of neighborhood schools. Justin Elicker of the Board of Aldermen called for even more schools to be created, and thus an increase in school choice. Holder-Winfield said that he was thankful that his mother found a way around the school system where he grew up (in a housing project in the Bronx) so that he did not have to attend his neighborhood school.

The question that remains, for all of these candidates to address, is what happens to the students whose parents do not make a choice, students with parents who are not engaged in the lives of their children’s schools. What about students who are on the waiting lists? School choice, in my view, is a way out for politicians, a way of saying that a city does not need to ensure that every school is a fine choice. That said, Elicker’s motto is that there should be “no wrong door.” Are more and more charter schools really the only way to achieve this?

Carolina’s school, Hillhouse, represents the antithesis of school choice. As he rightly points out, the majority of students labeled as “transfers” (the children other schools have abandoned and pushed out), are sent to Hillhouse. I used to sign them in to my classroom. I still remember a particular boy with a spectacular smile and a [tracking] bracelet around his ankle. I had another student who left for jail, something that I found out only after trying to visit his house, not far from the school.

Carolina became principal at the school after I left, and a recent survey shows that satisfaction amongst the teachers has only worsened. I have not been back to visit recently, but I can say that despite the allegations against this principal, it is worth considering how the city as a whole allows Hillhouse to remain a sort of “dumping ground” for the students with the most challenges.

The schools of the charter system Achievement First received nothing but praise when mentioned throughout the debate. Because our politicians and school leaders are primarily concerned with data, these schools are deemed a success. Sometimes the only criticism of these schools is that we need more of them. However, I would ask that those in support of such schools attempt to look beyond the test scores and consider the intellectual climate within these classrooms. In these schools there is an abundance of teachers from Teach for America (meaning that they lack training and likely intend to stay for two years only), and there is a great deal of turnaround due to the demands of the job. This turnaround is also due to an evaluation system that treats all teachers equally despite the fact that some subjects are more difficult to teach and to remediate quickly. I was asked to teach English at the high school after another teacher left mid-way through the year. After having been told, having observed, and having seen numerous promotional videos about a school system that had gotten behavior problems down and accountability up, I actually found more of the same challenges I had while teaching at Hillhouse. I also found that the close-reading skills I had to teach, especially the skill of critically interpreting literature, were new to the students and in many ways ran against the rigid system of instruction used throughout the school.

The New York Times recently published a long-needed report on how reform efforts have focused too much on the types of improvement that math teachers can easily make, while teachers of English have a much harder time. In last night’s discussion, and as is often the case, the discussion of the quality of education was largely missing. The closest we came to a discussion of what to do about reading levels was Holder-Winfield’s statement that the foundations of reading must be a top priority for teachers in training and for schools in general. This is still to focus on skills, however, and what it means to think critically, to enjoy learning, to read closely, still seems a discussion that will not come for a long time. Pastor Eldren D. Morrison, who introduced the event, made this even clearer when he said that the reason school was important was because it provided an alternative to gun violence: He shared an anecdote of speaking at the Hillhouse graduation and at the same time receiving a text message about a nearby shooting. He claimed that education was the top civil rights issue and that it was “life or death.”

This is certainly not enough, though. If schools are only an escape from crisis, they become nothing more than drop-in-shelters. The content of the students’ education becomes a non-issue, and the mere presence of the students is lauded. This is no recipe for intellect and subjectivity. “Education” remains an abstraction in conversations like the ones I witnessed last night. What kind of education are we discussing, and for whom? Why did I hear, twice during the debate, that not all New Haven kids will go to college? Why can’t we raise our standards rather than starting off with a focus on what we think kids can’t do?

The last question of the evening was one I submitted before the event. It read, “Often, schools in low-income neighborhoods are pushed to their very limits. What will you do to facilitate increased parental involvement so that parents and teachers can work in concert?” Carolina was the first to answer, and he referred to a Chicagoconsortium study that named parent-teacher collaboration as one of five central factors of a school’s success. He then asked that the question be repeated so that he could lay blame on teachers who don’t live in New Haven. The Q bridge and those who cross it daily, he suggested, were the real problems. My response to this is admittedly selfish in part: I enjoy living in the small seacoast town I’ve moved to since I left New Haven in 2008. I find it hard to think that where a teacher resides is the main problem, however. New Haven is a big city, so that a teacher who lives in the city limits could live far from her school. I think back to my lonely nights during teacher-parent conferences in New Haven, to the teachers who said that having 8 parents show wasn’t too bad after all. I had over 100 students at the time. I was in my classroom ready to talk to parents. I had called many of them and personally invited them to come in. I had a log that I kept for parent calls. This would have been the case whether I lived in New Haven (which I did at that time), or not. In short, Carolina did not answer my question. He did not take the opportunity to use his own school as a case in point, because that simply would not have worked.

Carolina’s dig at commuters makes sense, however, in a context that allows personal experience to reign over intentional action and policy decisions. In order to avoid the scrutiny he might otherwise face over grade changing and poor results on a school climate survey, the principal focused on those undeniable and easy facts: I’m from New Haven; I went to school here; I’m staying here. None of these help voters, teachers, students, or residents determine what he can or will do for them. Carolina is not the only person guilty of this. Other candidates rely upon their own experiences a great deal, too. However, others are more willing to discuss what they have already done, as a way to suggest that they will continue to do work that aims to raise the quality of life for New Haven residents. Henry Fernandez talked about founding youth agency LEAP. Elicker discussed his focus on early childhood education. Holder-Winfield referred to his rather unique effort to raise awareness about PTSD in impoverished and violent neighborhoods, referring again and again to the issues that students bring to school, which need to be addressed before anything else can happen for them. (This was in response to Elicker’s call for “character education”; Holder-Winfield discussed this work recently with a group of Yale students.)

A final problem that ought to be discussed in the context of any issue, especially education, did not come up last night: the status of women and girls in New Haven. (See links below about the clear ties between a mother’s education level and that of her children, and about the disparities in Connecticut with regard to teen pregnancy.) Henry Fernandez has made this issue a central part of his campaign, and I wonder if any others will do the same.

If the quality of education throughout this country is “the civil rights issue” of our time, as some have claimed, and if the state of New Haven’s schools is as dire as we see and say it is, we might have to ask why the aisles of Varick church were not packed last night, where the superintendent was, where the teachers were, when the voices of the students will be heard. If I had to choose two lines that got the biggest response from the crowd, they would be the following: First was Henry Fernandez’s statement that the schools were not a place where you take care of your friends. Secondly, people applauded when Keitazulu referred to children he saw riding bikes in the middle of the day. He said, (as Bailey transcribes): ‘“Where is your parents? Where is the truancy officer? Where is somebody?”’ These simple statements seemed to move the audience a good deal. Perhaps this response is a reminder that before we can talk about changing what is happening in the schools, there is much to do about the culture of the city as a whole. Perhaps then we can have the necessary discussion about the teaching of reading and writing and a movement toward an education that fosters creativity, exploration and critical thinking rather than perfunctory skills that might allow someone to pursue an alternative to crime and violence.

Stacie N. Vos

2013

Notes and Links

Status of Women and Girls 2012

http://www.cfgnh.org/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Public/Reports/StatusofWGNHReport_Economic2012.pdf

Women for Fernandez

http://fernandezformayor.com/assets/pdf/WomenForFernandez.pdf

Holder-Winfield with Yale Students

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/gary_holder_winfield_education/

Debate Transcription

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/join_us_live5/

Teen pregnancy in New Haven is double the statewide rate and 1.8 times the national rate, according to a recent report.

http://www.rwjf.org/content/dam/farm/reports/reports/2012/rwjf400283

Yale Medicine Field Action Report

http://medicine.yale.edu/ysph/practice/practice/393_129439_PPSNE%20Field%20Action%20Report_7-9-12.pdf

girls-coach-girls-run40

The 2010 shoreline runners and their armbands by Leeza Meksin.

This is a blog about various attempts to create feminist communities, or anything resembling such a thing. http://girltogirltowntotown.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/introduction/

Some related writing can be found on the website for an educational program that is run by Sam Intrator, my former professor at Smith College. The program is called Project Coach, and it allows high school students to work (for pay) as coaches for elementary-aged kids’ sports teams. The program also provides fellowships for graduate students at Smith, who serve as mentors and program leaders, tracking the academic progress of high school coaches.

The blog (and one of my entries) can be found here:

http://projectcoachyouthleadership.blogspot.com/2010/11/springfields-director-of-wellness.html

Program Website

http://projectcoach.smith.edu/about

http://www.smith.edu/education/project-coach.php