The Search for Home: Day Two at the People of Color Conference

Jennifer D. Klein

I’ve been thinking all week about the distinction between inclusivity and belonging.  As Kapono Ciotti put it in our pre-conference workshop on Wednesday, we’ve shifted our thinking significantly over the last few decades, and our language has had to shift as well.  We started with tolerance–a word I personally hate because it suggests we only tolerate each other–then moved to diversity, then to inclusivity.  But belonging is a very different thing, a deeper and more emotional concept than inclusivity.  Rinku Sen referenced the weaknesses of the term inclusivity as well on Day One; inclusivity, she told us, suggests that one person or group has built a world they’ll allow others to come into, and that’s not the same as creating community together.  Belonging is that feeling of home, that feeling of knowing that you are an inseparable part of something, connected deeply to the people around you.

This morning, we had the incredible experience of hearing from Poet Laureate Richard Blanco, and his search for home was at the heart of what he shared.  As he put it in his keynote, he was produced (conceived) in Cuba, manufactured (born) in Spain, and imported (moved) to the United States.  He described growing up Cuban in Miami, of the ways his family tried to “be American” by incorporating elements of a US lifestyle into their home.  He made us laugh at his stories of “San Giving,” his family’s version of Thanksgiving, in which the turkey was always dry, pork was served as well, and pork drippings helped to make the turkey palatable.  They drank rum and danced salsa on Thanksgiving–and childhood looked nothing like the Brady Bunch.  He told us of his parents’ nostalgia for Cuba, for a life he never knew, and of their attempt to find home in the United States while also preserving a sense of home they might return to one day in Cuba.  Blanco evoked humor but also a deep urge for belonging as he described his search for home and his parents’ yearning as well, particularly his mother’s: “To love a country as if you’ve lost one…  It isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where you choose to die–that’s your country” (from “Mother Country”).

Blanco also described the challenges of growing up queer in his Cuban family, of being accepted for who he is–in particular by his grandmother.  One of my favorite poems was “Queer Theory: According to my Grandmother.”  The poem included endless admonishments for less-than-machista behavior from her grandson: “Don’t pee sitting down,” she told him.  “Don’t stare at the Million Dollar Man; I’ve seen you.”  Her ideas about masculinity, standards that didn’t match who he was, also impacted Blanco’s sense of home and belonging.  It wasn’t until he wrote and then read his work at on Inauguration Day that he realized the United States can be home for all, a place where everyone belongs.  “We can all write this new narrative,” he told us, “we can all contribute a chapter.  There’s a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it–together” (from “One Today“).

Our students need a sense of home and belonging as well, and I spent the morning in David J. Johns‘ master class exploring how students might contribute to co-constructing their education, particularly African-American youth, both LGBTQI+ and straight.  His focus on student voice kept reminding me of belonging as well, of how often students feel school is a world constructed by the adults that they have to find their place in.  Instead, David Johns’ workshop suggested that students should be involved in the creation of that world, of a space in which they feel right and safe and whole.  Too often, he pointed out, adults assume they know what students need–which I explored in my blog on Day One.  But when we ask students what they need from us, when we involve them in the conversation about what their education should look like, they can shift from being included (often only marginally) to a real sense of belonging.  As someone working hard to incorporate student voice into everything that happens in the schools I support, I found his ideas deeply resonant.  I found myself thinking about the power of learning from students rather than making assumptions or teaching at them, of the incredible transformations I’ve seen in schools where students have been at the table and have had the opportunity to turn their communities into communities that feel more like home.  “We need to disrupt an educational system that determines opportunities based on zip codes and genetic codes,” Johns told us, so that all students thrive and feel a sense of belonging and wellbeing, both in our schools and the world they inhabit after they leave us.

For Zak Ebrahim, the search for home was different.  As the son of a terrorist, Zak has moved 30 times in the course of his life.  In school, he was bullied constantly–which he acknowledged has created a deep empathy for outsiders.  He chose a life of peace building and constructive action, rejecting his father’s ideas about the United States and forcing change through violence.  What moved me most was the element of choice, that idea that we can choose an identity different what’s expected or assumed, even when that identity is different than a parent or the community around us.  “Isolation,” he told us, “is the key ingredient for radicalization; separation never leads to understanding.” As my friend and colleague Homa Sabet Tavangar pointed out, this was a perfect bookend to Bryan Stevenson‘s urging on Day One that we “get proximate” because only by getting in close can we really understand the lives of others.  When our students feel a sense of belonging and home, it comes from that very proximity–and from seeing our own reflection in others, something we can only begin to do when we make real connections and build deep relationships.

I grew up searching for home as well, trying to make sense of my Semitic (Jewish) identity, clashing with the politics of Israel, trying to understand my place in the mostly non-Jewish communities I’ve inhabited.  Once I stopped self-identifying as religiously or politically Jewish, it got even more complicated; I lived outside the United States for significant portions of my teens and 20s, always searching for a sense of belonging.  Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamed of trying to arrive at a home I never quite make it to; the dreams started when I was 9 or 10 and I still have them several times a year.  I can see some city off in the distance each time, viewed from planes and trains and ships, but I never quite arrive.

I felt that way in school as well, as I shared in my pre-conference welcome blog.  While I found ways to be included, I can’t say I felt I belonged.  And this is probably at the heart of why the People of Color Conference has become so important to me over the years.  When I step into the International Affinity group, I know I’m home; we are an incredibly diverse group, filled with people of every color from every continent, yet we share a connection to worlds beyond the United States and the experience of feeling like outsiders in places others call home.  As the only US-born international most years, who feels more at home outside the United States than in, I don’t have to explain myself with this family.  They know and understand me; I’m not just included, I belong.  And as we prepared to meet with our student counterparts on Saturday morning, we affirmed how much our students need this, too: the power of being understood and seen by teachers and peers, and the sense of belonging that comes from it.

I wonder if we might channel our childhood wounds and educate from exactly what we needed as children ourselves; the effect would surely be transformative.  Ultimately, the search for a country we can call home is the same as our students’ search for belonging in our communities.  A school can be a country, too, I keep thinking–a place where all belong and contribute and know they are home.

My PoCC family, the International Affinity Group

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