Changing our Conversation Palettes

For the past six years I have had the honor of working in education reform on behalf of the marginalized communities that are critical to the fabric of this country. I have traveled to many cities and states and I have to say there is, in fact, a different quality about each of them.

I was recently treated to various types of southern cuisine during a trip to Memphis. What’s funny is I thought I knew southern food and quite frankly, prided myself of being somewhat of a southern home chef. What I found out was I didn’t know southern food at all! What I thought was southern was actually soul food. There is a difference.

We went to lunch at a popular restaurant in the city. No tablecloths, no frills or thrills, but obviously some of the best southern food around based on the line to get a table. I felt like I was in for a treat!

Looking at the menu I saw things like Carrot Soufflé, Spiced Beets, Northern Beans, and Rutabaga Turnips. So theoretically I knew what they were but I’d never seen nor tasted any of those dishes. I had to lean over to my colleague and ask for food descriptions just in case I ordered one of those items. I’m sure my mother is shaking her head at me right now.

I realized that I absolutely did not know anything about southern food. Just like I also realized that I needed to know more about the perils of Black folks in southern places like Memphis. While at lunch I was treated to one of the most real conversations I’ve ever had about the reality of being Black in the south. I live in Washington, DC where, apparently, we live in a seemingly harmonious, diversity bubble.

I was clearly clueless.

Over lunch I heard stories about the organizing movement of Black and Latino parents in Memphis to advocate for better educational options for their children. I met a mother who adopted three children because she didn’t want them to be returned to their abusive home. She didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, she spent most of her life cleaning the homes of white people who did. She saw what they had and knew the disparity among her folks and them was all too real.

I met a woman who worked in early childhood education for 31 years and now works as a parent organizer where she goes into neighborhoods with the sole focus of educating Black parents, most of them poor, on the realities of their schools and the importance of knowing their options. She told me, “I go where they are – grocery stores, laundry mats, shopping malls. I find them because they need to hear from me.” And once she finds them, she educates them so they can become more engaged advocates for their children.

As I sat there listening I thought about all of the convenings and conferences that I’ve attended around education all across this country. Gatherings where we would hear from education leaders but sometimes the real focus would be on the fun – from learning line dancing to honkey tonk music, to wine tasting in the Bay area, to shucking oysters on the Bayou, and having chili in the windy city, I was saddened as I realized the many missed opportunities we had to actually have the real conversations with the people we all claim we’re in this work for. We come into their cities, stay in their 4/5 star hotels, eat in their fabulous restaurants and yet, we never see nor talk to them. Shame. On. Us.

I have to thank the ladies of Memphis who not only had me in tears from laughing and truly enjoying myself but who instantly changed my raison d’être when I travel from this point forward. I’d rather spend my time with the locals learning from them than the policy wonks at the conference. Don’t get me wrong. The conversations that we have inside of those workshops and sessions are essential, but I will never visit another city and leave out the most important conversation that we should all be having with the most critical messenger – the people who are living the lives that we claim we want to help change.

Believe it or not, they want to tell their stories.