Opinion

Tribute: Courtney Everts Mykytyn Inspired Countless Parents Seeking Integrated Schools. Her Death Is a Heartbreaking Loss

By Conor Williams | January 6, 2020

Courtney Everts Mykytyn in a 2008 photo with her children (Facebook)

The first time Courtney Everts Mykytyn and I spoke, we almost didn’t get around to talking about schools. I was trying to interview her for an Atlantic Monthly article I was writing about privileged families hoarding access to dual language immersion programs. But we couldn’t stop talking about our kids. Hers were about a decade older than mine; at one point, she described them as too old to be any good at being children, but not yet mature enough to be any good at being adults.

It was all of adolescence’s rough, raw effervescence captured in a single sentence. I was stunned. I’ve used it in countless conversations since.

It was just the first of many such moments. Courtney contained multitudes. Just before we met, she founded Integrated Schools, an organization that recruits and connects networks of mostly privileged, mostly white families committing to integrating schools in their communities. She got her doctorate in medical anthropology from the University of Southern California. Above all, however, Courtney was an amaranthine font of insights on all things parenting.

But Courtney died last week, reportedly the final Los Angeles pedestrian killed by a car in 2019. Somehow — inconceivably, awfully, heartbreakingly — we’d talked about this. I asked her how she’d decided when her kids could walk to her neighborhood playground alone. She said she’d never worried about the adults regularly hanging out in the park, but she’d still waited to let her kids make the walk until she was sure they could handle crossing a busy nearby street.

That conversation was part of an interview I did with her a year later, for The 74. We had pages of extra material, because it happened again — we spent much of our time swapping photos of our kids before only eventually edging into talking about the daily work of integration. Something else she said stuck with me, even though it wound up on the cutting room floor.

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“You really love your kid,” she said to me, to all the progressive parents checking GreatSchools ratings against their mortgage budgets. “They’ve thrown up on you so, so many times. You’re already in deep. Buckets of deep. You just love this kid and you want to do everything you can.”

Perhaps that seems obvious. And yet, so many educational equity efforts stumble at that point. Reforms to improve opportunities for the historically underserved are all well and good until they trip over privileged parents’ ability (their right? their duty?) to “do what’s best for their kids.” This personal trump card is inequity’s last, best defense. Fortunately, Courtney had a knack for capturing the tensions in privileged progressive parents’ heads, and how they accumulate into the hypocrisies we live.

I didn’t known Courtney well — we met a handful of times in person and spoke another handful of times on the phone. But we shared a demographic — white PhDs parenting in cities and concerned about what that meant. How to live our progressive values? How to raise our children intentionally without hoarding opportunities? How to do our best for our kids while also doing what was best for other kids in our communities?

Courtney’s answers to those questions were wholly unique. I’d come to admire, even revere, her example. Because she was emphatically unexpected, the sort of person who had cracked some parenting code that insulated her against the tendency of so many other people like us to seek out tony, privileged enclaves of segregation: private schools, lily-white suburban districts, neighborhood schools where the price tag for entry was at least a $1 million mortgage. We both knew — and talked about, and rolled our eyes at — countless families like ours who fled diversity of every type at every opportunity.

And yet, a confession: I kept grinding my anxiety gears anyway. I still do. I fight those anxieties each day, swearing up and down to myself that I AM doing the right thing, that it IS going to be OK, even as I fret and sweat and wonder if I maybe ought to follow my privileged peers over the redline and through the woods, into the segregation they’ve purchased. Courtney had a gift for collecting and channeling anxieties like these, instead of challenging them and raising people’s defenses.

So I listened to her Conversations About Integration podcast. I connected with members of the Integrated Schools parent network in Washington, D.C., and around the country. Each day, I keep working on believing in my new mantra — my kids will be OK; they don’t need to be cushioned in a bubble of wealth at school; they’re actually going to be better and happier for it.

This was how it was supposed to work. This was her theory of how to approach the thorniest problem in American public education. She believed that systemic oppression was woven deeply into U.S. schools, and that that would only change if privileged white people changed.

This became a joke for us: Each time we spoke, I pushed her to tell me which policies she thought we needed to change and how. Each time I asked, she demurred with a laugh. School integration mandates, systems, strategies, reforms and the like? We’ve tried those, she’d say. We know what happens. First, white people fight, and then they flee. That’s not just a historical claim; it’s a thesis constantly being confirmed by current events.

In just the past month, white families in Queens, New York, and Montgomery County, Maryland, have responded to preliminary conversations about new integration plans with outrage. Others will do so next month. Meanwhile, millions of white families will make quiet, private, respectable choices that lead to the same result — they’ll find excuses to push their kids into selective magnet programs and/or trade up on the value of their gentrifying home to move into a securely wealthy neighborhood school zone.

Further, Courtney warned, white families too often desegregate a campus without fully integrating themselves. We sometimes talk about school integration as if it were a magic formula, as if schools with a nicely curated demographic balance will somehow inevitably produce an equitable educational environment. And yet, left to our own devices, privileged white families are prone to elbowing our children’s needs into the forefront. In newly diverse schools, this often looks like taking over the PTA, establishing segregated academic programs and so forth. This isn’t integration. It’s colonization.

That’s why Courtney believed in changing white narratives, in roughing up those well-worn behavioral grooves, by the force of example. So when I asked about changing policies, she’d twist the conversation back to changing the culture — white, privileged culture.

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