Vienna Gratitude

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September 2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of my arrival in Austria. At the time I was planning on a semester. That semester extended to a year and after a few years of back and forth between the US and Vienna, I settled here in 1991.

As a US Citizen and an African-American one at that, I am a foreigner here. While I did not grow-up here, this is the city and country in which I have come of age. When I move through town I know where I am going and people ask me for directions. I am a foreigner at home.

Vienna is an exceptionally beautiful city which is kept remarkably clean and well groomed. It has a clear and seemingly unconflicted understanding of itself as a primary tourist destination. The historical buildings, extensive parks and central pedestrian areas remind the locals  exactly what part of the economy is paying a good chunk of the bills. Having lived here so long it is easy to forget what a downright marvelous location this is. That’s how it is when you become local – you find faults much more easily than wonder.

At the same time, I didn’t settle in Vienna because of its imperial history or architectural gems. Rather I stayed because of the people I met: the welcome they offered, the interest they showed, the curiosity they shared, the enthusiasm I encountered when I spoke the language.  During my first few years here, brown people were not a particularly common sight. I fielded a lot of questions from Austrians about where I was from and how I liked it here “with us” (“Wie gefaellt es Dir hier bei uns?”).

Several years in I found that the question no longer fit. I had somehow outgrown it. When I asked myself I found that my questions had less to do with whether or not I liked it here, rather the emphasis was on what I liked here and what made it evident that I would stay; what made it unlikely that there would  be a return “home” (to the US). Small wonder, home was and is right here.

And the “what” that keeps me here? Let me count the ways:

  • Vienna is a remarkably safe city.
  • It’s clean, tidy and well-groomed to a fault.
  • Water and air quality are impeccable.
  • City services are numerous and work reliably well.
  • Public transportation deserves awards – it’s extensive, user-friendly and affordable.
  • City-run early childhood care (Kindergaerten) stands out as child-centered, family-friendly and simply well-planned.
  • Health care is guaranteed.
  • The city has green spaces large and small throughout and is buffered on 3 sides by the Vienna Woods.
  • Cultural offerings are off the charts in terms of quality and variety and access to public museums, concerts and opera is made possible through city support.
  • Stores are closed on Sundays (which means that people find other ways to spend their time and money).
  • Public education, while traditional, works.

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And those are just several external variables that make for an excellent quality of life. Of course, relationships to  family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances create the foundation for staying and flourishing here. That said, it seems important to point out those every day conveniences and privileges which contribute to a great life. They are huge blessings and not to be taken for granted.

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*Fotos: CC via Pixabay.com

 

 

Finally Looking Under the Hood

Oh boy.
Stephanie Rivera tweeted some thoughts the other day which caught my attention via @theJLV because THEY WERE ALL IN CAPS. In my understanding, all caps in electronic communication is the equivalent of shouting. What was she shouting about?

Then she went on to write this powerful post: Advocacy in the Age of Colorblindness.. (Please read her blog post FIRST before reading on.) While I have certainly read my fair share on race in American society, and more specifically in education, this post and the comments it provoked landed like few others. Altogether they hit me at my core, pitched me into my past and lifted up the blinds on my present. Just like that – the exposure of widely held thinking among some white educators, the struggle to maintain decorum in the face of an emotionally charged set of triggers, and certainly the dedication to student voice throughout – Stephanie Rivera touched a piece of my own vulnerability in matters of race, identity, culture and education.
In the comment section Adam Beckham points out from his vantage point as a white male:

I can have an innovative curriculum and be tech-forward and all the good stuff we’re demanding from teachers, but I’m not going to get into their hearts like a black teacher can. They know I don’t go home to their neighborhood. We can both listen to some Houston rap and talk about it, but they know we are from different worlds and share different destinies. And they can know that while they know I love them and work for them every single day.

I can sit with them and read “Space Traders” by Derrick Bell all day long, but at the end of the day I’m still a white male. That’s not a bad thing, *there’s nothing wrong with being a white person or a male person*, it’s just not the whole meal they need to eat. It’s good to have some of me in the mix, but I can’t be all the options on the menu.

A kid shouldn’t have to go all day without seeing multiple, successful people reflecting their lives and cultures. That’s injustice. We would never accept that for our kids as white people. It’s unimaginable.

That final sentence is what brings the whole topic home to roost for me: Recognizing what would be unimaginable for my white colleagues and friends as an absolute given through most of my education and career.  Also Mia adds nuance to the dialogue by describing her desire as an Asian-American to have had Asian role models during her school experience.  She writes:

I identify as Asian and I would’ve really appreciated an Asian teacher to be a role model of an Asian American to me. Most of my childhood I learned how to be “white” American and to reject my culture not simply because of my white peers but because of the adults in my life that didn’t understand my culture.

These comments drive home the point that this conversation is not only about skin color – it’s about culture and identity which have many facets – although skin color is the most prominent identifier of minority groups.

For that New Orleans student who was brave enough to assert his own view of what might do him and his fellow students more good in school, I hope he continues to voice his opinions whether or not the adults in his environment are able to hear his message or not. While I was in high school, I doubt that I could have acknowledged or articulated what was missing in my education. I just took what was there for granted. In my case, what was there: predominately white private schools with no teachers of color. I just did my part to make sure I fit in.

And fit in I did. So seamlessly did I fit in that I also began to buy into the notion that race and color were not really so important. My academic, social and professional success were testaments to that, right? When I moved to Europe and created my life here, being African-American and a native English speaker seemed to open more doors than close them.

Well here I am, nearly 50, looking back at almost a quarter century involved in education and what have I learned? The divides are multiple and deepening and the inclination to look away, reshuffle our vocabulary and assert “mission accomplished” appears to be growing. I notice this now looking back, for instance, on my professional career and considering the tremendous lack of visible role models and mentors of color. When I was ready to consider pursuing formal roles of leadership, where were my colleagues of color, especially in independent education, who could share their experience and advice? When I attended conferences, when would I encounter a facilitator or keynote speaker of color doing the type of work I aspired to do? Almost never, unless I was attending the NAIS People of Color Conference where that was precisely the point of the exercise.

I may not live in the US anymore, yet it is my home culture. And being black in America has different nuances and implications than in any other culture in the world. I still live in the shadows of my particular racial narrative. And I sure do recognize the struggles of my colleagues, my family, friends and others to overcome these divides (of color, culture, language, gender, sexual orientation) with understanding and through dialogue. For this reason, I felt a special appreciation for Stephanie Rivera’s thoughtful analysis of the dynamics taking place on the BAT facebook page. When we take the time to actually look under the hood, we may find that even if we’re not sure exactly what it is we are seeing and hearing, we can still recognize when something is not right. And get help to discover what really is the matter.