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74 Interview: Integrated Schools Founder on Talking to White Parents About Privilege and Turning Neighborhood Schools Into a Rallying Cry for Integration

By Conor Williams | December 4, 2018

See previous 74 interviews: Sen. Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms, civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller talks equity in education, Harvard professor Karen Mapp talks family engagement, former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King talks the Trump administration, and more. The full archive is right here.

After a prolonged lull, American school integration debates have reignited in recent years. Courtney Everts Mykytyn, the founder of California-based Integrated Schools, is quietly becoming a force in these conversations.

Her four-year-old group describes itself and its mission this way: “Integrated Schools is growing a grassroots movement of, by and for parents who are intentionally, joyfully and humbly enrolling their children in integrating schools … Because school segregation is as much a story of failed public policy as it is one of white/privileged families thwarting it, our hearts-and-minds campaign offers a new model for integration in which this undertaking falls not on the backs of marginalized communities, but on white and/or privileged families who care about equity.”

I first encountered Mykytyn’s work while writing an article about gentrification’s effects on bilingual education. She’s also been featured in Mother Jones and CityLab. I sat down with her during a spring trip to Los Angeles.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: You’ve said that you kind of ignited around school integration at a meeting about middle school feeder patterns for dual language programs, right?

Mykytyn: Yeah. I attended this meeting as a parent of a kid in a middle school that had just opened up dual language, and to see if we could potentially draw in this other dual language elementary school as well. And the way that those privileged parents were talking and cheering on others about what they expected and demanded from the district … “If you don’t give me X, Y, Z, I’m taking my kid to a charter school! I’m leaving tomorrow!” WOOOOO! Cheers, cheers, foot stamping. It wasn’t pretty.

No self-awareness.

I mean, I’m sure there was a little. There must have been someone who was quiet. I knew a couple of people who were unhappy with how it went down. But the loud ones in the dual language program [were] so far from what I had hoped that program could be. It wasn’t about integration. It wasn’t about equity. It wasn’t about coming together as a community. It was entirely about “This is really great, what I get for my kid. I’d like more.” I don’t know how else to say it other than “opportunity hoarding.”

And it really just became utterly clear that, as long as we’re not talking about integration, we’re not talking about integration.

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We’ve seen this a lot lately, right? Places like the Upper West Side, where some white families got caught letting their privilege flags fly free. They were yelling about what their kids needed —

And “deserved”!

When rich, white kids “need” something, we act as though they “deserve” it. So, in places like New York, L.A., and D.C., there’s this influx of young, upwardly mobile, highly educated, often white families. They live in neighborhoods both because of price and by choice.

Yeah, I think there’s a rejection of sterility. I don’t — they don’t — want to live in a cookie-cutter suburb.

Right. They’re well off, but not so much that they can afford to buy segregation outright with real estate. But there’s also a cultural part. So you’ve got these diversity-curious families who still blanche at the step of sending their kids to schools that look like their neighborhood. Why?

You know why. You know exactly why. I mean, there’s a lot of racism and classism. And it’s often racism talked about like classism.

We’ve been steeped in this broken-schools narrative, this Nation at Risk stuff. It’s easy to point at any government institution and say that it’s broken, to point out the broken pieces, but there’s also a disconnect between who it’s broken for. When you’re looking at the white kids, the privileged kids, it’s actually not broken. These stories are building up and kind of creating the air we’re breathing.

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So … take that, and add anxious parents leveraged to the gills to afford a house in a gentrifying neighborhood, and here we are.

I’ve been thinking about parenting and our risk culture. If you don’t give your kids the right foods in the right order when they’re young, then they’re only going to eat butter noodles until they’re 10 and they won’t have the right nutrition, so their metabolism will predispose them to obesity. If they don’t get this many hours of play, if they don’t feel heard by adults this many times a day …“BAM! BAM! You are going to screw all of this up! You know you will!”

We need to be clear: these aren’t the actual risks of having police target your kids, right, just for being a 12-year-old walking home in a hoodie. But you really love your kid. They’ve thrown up on you so, so many times. You just love this kid and you want to do everything you can.

So: why the disconnect between living in the community and sending your kids to school in the community? It’s about how we define good parenting, and how we define good schools. Those two narratives outweigh narratives around what a good citizen or community member is.

What does it mean to have good schools? Does it have to have a fancy program like dual language? Great test scores? An organic garden? Is that the definition?

Or is it that there are kids. In a building. With teachers. Could that be OK? Is there some value, actually, in other things that aren’t quite as easily measured? I’m not saying data is crap. But it’s hard to think healthily about it in terms of your kid.

Today’s parents are under a lot of pressure. Of course school enrollment feels high-stakes. And they’re — we’re — cushioned by plenty of privilege!

I mean, it’s part of the smog that we’re breathing. We’ve really moved from a narrative of childhood as a time of resilience to a time of vulnerability. Combine that with our narrative of failing schools. If you think your kid is really crushable, if you think that his creativity is that vulnerable, it matters a lot. If you want to get into such and such private school, you have to get into such and such preschool. That tends to be a really big counterpoint: “I’m just worried that these schools that have low test scores are just going to be teaching to the test and that therefore they’re not going to be interesting, and therefore my kid’s not going to be enchanted by learning and they’re going to live in my basement.”

Folks get defensive when you ask them about why they’re choosing the segregated district school across town. [Groan.] Enough. Let’s talk about hope.

I mean, I think there’s an opportunity now to talk about segregation in ways that don’t necessarily bring busing into the center of the conversation. So the mechanics of it in a gentrifying neighborhood — I’m not talking about a 45-minute bus ride. I’m talking about a mile this way or two miles in the other. That opens up space to have the discussion.

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Are they ready?

I mean, it might be stretching it to say that people are ready, but some are ready-adjacent. It was a lot harder 10 years ago, when my kids were starting school, than it is now. If we can tie all of these things together into a different kind of package of what integration means for parenting, for ideas of what school can be in your walkable, public-transport-y neighborhood, I think that there’s a good chance for optimism.

Maybe we’re not always having the conversation yet. We’re certainly not landing on integration every time, but we’re at least ready to talk.

And you hear people get defensive. That’s the other cool part. You have to explain why you’re not choosing an integrated school. So we’re developing talking points about all the usual reasons people give for why they can’t do it. “My kid is a really kinesthetic learner.” You’ve heard it.

I have.

You know, “I don’t want my kid to be the only white kid.” “I don’t want my kid to be a social experiment.” You know, “play-based models are so much better,” all those progressive pedagogical arguments. If someone says to me, “I really love Sir Ken Robinson” [best-selling British author and education expert who espouses greater creativity in schools], I know that this conversation is going to be difficult. “We’ve been pushing our kids too hard, so we really need a social-emotionally progressive curriculum or else …”

Or else what? Your kid’s going to live in your basement when they’re 40? They’re going to be in and out of rehab?

What sorts of families seek you out at Integrated Schools?

Lots of people who live in a diverse neighborhood think, “Hey, I like it here, I have a certain amount of privilege of time and resources, and I should be involved in my neighborhood school. If I bought a house here and the housing prices were good enough for me, then shouldn’t the schools be too?”

But the largest categories are 1) white and/or privileged parents who went to integrated schools and are like, “What the hell? Why aren’t there any integrated schools for my kid? I really value that.” Or 2) white and/or privileged parents are showing up and saying, “I’ve been thinking a lot about race and ethnicity in education and I need to think through this more,” or 3) they’re coming in with “I live in a gentrifying neighborhood and I kind of want to fix my neighborhood school! Integration!”

Lots of paths in.

Yeah, but it’s really a competition with that urge to “get what’s best for your kid.” And neighborhood schools, as you know, have been a rallying cry for segregation as frequently as — or more frequently than — a rallying cry for integration.

Neighborhood schools are school choice! They’re the original school choice program!

Right! So when people are saying that we can’t deal with school integration because we have residential segregation, well — chicken and the egg. We had a lot of integrated communities before Brown v. Board, actually. But even in integrated communities, we have really segregated schools. So we have to start somewhere. Does that mean we shouldn’t do work on zoning or affordable housing? No. Of course not. Of course we need to deal with that too. But we can’t use it as an excuse not to do the school piece.

How do you get families to consider integration?

Integrated Schools’ job is to allow for different kinds of conversations to be had. And even more specifically, different kinds of questions to be asked. We’re trying to set up an integration ecosystem from a parent perspective.

Policy is important, but there’s so much that happens before and after policy that very few people are playing with. If we’re not talking about this at kids’ birthday parties, it might not matter that we’re at the state legislature. Because white, privileged people can get out of your damn policies.

So much hinges on calculations around white anxieties. How much pressure will they bear? Integrated Schools excavates those.

Right! We’re talking it through. In a really basic way, we’re building a constituency for brave policy. We’re building a noisy counter to the people who are going to say no to busing. We’re building people who can tell different stories loudly and proudly. Who have lived those stories. Who have built relationships in their communities by being in schools there.

Cajoling school board members to change policies is a heavy lift, but it’s nothing compared to being at every one of these damn birthday parties and preschool forums and soccer practices, you know, all of the places.

Also, I believe very strongly that we can’t just unleash white folks into global majority schools willy-nilly. You have to get folks who are willing to do the work of integration, not just opportunity-hoarding desegregation or gentrification. If we’re really talking about what true integration could mean — it’s revolutionary. It might not cure all of the world’s problems, but I think it would get at a lot of them.

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Which is why it’s hard, right?

Right! These problems are millennia in the making! This is a deep hole!

So we have to do it well. And that’s 50 times harder than just doing it. But the damage from doing integration poorly might, in fact, be worse than not doing it at all. So we’re trying to be pointed about asking parents who are thinking about sending their kids to integrated schools: Tell us not just about your intent, but about what you want your impact to be. Think about what kinds of things are going to get you to that place. Do you need to be the president of the PTA? These are often well-meaning people who really do care. How do they show up and get involved and be engaged? What does that look like if you’re giving up the part about getting your kid into the “best” school? Does it look like raising a ton of money for an organic garden?

Or perhaps you need to cut that off a little bit. Perhaps your job is just to show up and listen and build relationships — be a part of something at the school as opposed to trying to “fix” it.

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