by Tiny Gray-Garcia @povertyskola, daughter of Dee, Mama of Tiburcio
“Beep, beep – sorry we can’t hear you, what did you say? Beep, beep, click …” and then it was over. The “informational” zoom session offered to anyone still trying to go to college in the middle of a global pandemic, which was seemingly being hosted by a cat representing the community college financial aid office, was over.
Me and four Black, Brown, Indigenous or Disabled formerly houseless youth, recent graduates from the po Mama and Uncle run liberation school known as Deecolonize Academy, sat there on our tiny classroom couch masks askew, absolutely hopeless and depressed.
One of our mottos at Deecolonize Academy has and will always be: ‘It takes a village to go to college’
One of our principles at POOR Magazine and Deecolonize Academy was we would never ascribe to the age-gradated institutional education mandated notions of readiness for educational advancement. We would never base anything on a test, we would never perpetuate punitive segregation to “teach” a child something. We would teach relevant, real herStories from all of Mama Earth. We would lift up elders’ wisdom, disability justice and eldership.
We teach usable skills, community love and service, rigorous curriculum and land liberation all informed by Indigenous and Krip Hop Theory, Black Panther Practice and Poverty Scholarship Theory and Practice. We, the founders and the children, were all detained by detention, special edumakated into not at all special curriculum, overtly or covertly labeled into racist, classist tropes, segregated into ableist corners of classrooms, tested, arrested and silenced.
We knew the pain of obstacles, no-we-can’t-help-yous, principal’s offices, detention centers, jail cells, barriers and impossible crises’ that never let up. Our children would have something different, see possibilities, live into possibilities, not based on how much blood-stained dollars or well-connected parents they or their parents or ancestors had access to and, as my ghetto skola warrior mama would say, learn back all the truth that was stolen from us.
And then Covid hit
I don’t want to name a humble community college, because I don’t put blame on anyone or anything, except maybe multi-billion-dollar Big Pharma and Amonstrazon, making “bank” on a global pandemic. But most community colleges are beautiful access points for poor, disabled, Indigenous, migrant, Black and Brown and poor wite students who have been shut out of endless streams of access.
I love community colleges, and this sixth grade edumakated poverty skola was literally kept alive in the depths of me and mama’s and my sun’s homelessness by the free childcare provided by Tracey Jones Faulkner and all the child care warriors at the Family Resource Center at City College of San Francisco, when all I could do to survive is take one class and they provided me free child care.
“The steepest declines were among African American students, Native American students, male students and students who are outside of what we consider traditional college-going age,” David O’Brien, the college system’s vice chancellor of government relations, told the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee.
“In particular, among all students aged 40 and older, total enrollment declined by over 100,000 students, or nearly a third of the overall decline,” writes EDSource.
But there is an emergency now of loss of students in poverty who have fallen so far into societal cracks some of us can’t be pulled out. In the last month, stories have seeped out about severe drops in enrollment. It must be named, and this poverty skola and revolutionary teacher is advocating for the launch of a huge public relations campaign funded by state and federal government to let all the poor folks who, just like us, gave up on the last dream we had for all that public education can bring, to come back in, with a caveat to start with a clean slate.
Most community colleges are beautiful access points for poor, disabled, Indigenous, migrant, Black and Brown and poor wite students who have been shut out of endless streams of access.
Because what none of these stories say is the story of why and how and where all these lost students are. But of course, how can these reporters know this? They are written by what I call MCM – Middle Class Media – who themselves have never missed a meal and have all graduated “college,” which is probably how they got that LA Times and SF Chronicle reporting job.
Losing people who are already lost is real. It is not easy to “Keep Hope Alive,” as my Mama Dee used to say, quoting Jesse Jackson. When you are already buried in so much crisis, it’s hard to breathe.
Our youth in struggle are right there with us, in those graves dug by impossibility. Our arms are too tired.
Our brains filled with conflicts we can’t sort out, rent we can’t pay, homelessness we can’t navigate, poverty and hunger so intense it leaves no space for “future goals,” depression, digital divisions, old computers, broken phones, no wifi, Mamas so deep in trauma they never hear our cries, relationships that confuse us, children we have no childcare for, dreams so deferred that they become interred.
The communities of students in poverty, both elder and youth, that we at POOR Magazine are supporting gave up. Some went into underground economic strategies – survival economies – some just became more depressed and many just started working in low-paid jobs that didn’t inspire them or give them much hope for anything else.
For our Deecolonize Academy youth skolaz, we don’t teach life begins and ends with college “success.” That’s a myth of krapitalism and the extractive akkkademia industrial complex. We teach many things: art, dance, prayer, martial arts, survival skills, construction, architecture, janitorial skills, permaculture and gardening – love-work, the opposite of anti-social work, aka caregiving for our elders and communities in whatever way they need it, disability justice in real time everywhere, Indigenous herstory and land use led and taught by Indigenous teachers, jailhouse lawyering and revolutionary advocacy and organizing, liberation media, radio, video etc., to name a few.
And all of our youth skolaz went on to become teachers in their own school, teaching grammar, dance, science, writing and construction to their younger youth skolaz. But they were still hoping to expand their education, to look at other possibilities and that dream felt to them like it was done.
From the moment shelter in place was announced, which was right in the middle of spring semester 2020 – leaving students and teachers absolutely confused and in chaos – to the evil adaptation of “Asynchronous,” where so-called teachers would upload a syllabus and a whole gaggle of assignments and maybe if you were lucky appear once on a zoom to “explain” the class, but usually, like in an extremely hard English 1A class that all the youth poverty skolaz took, not even one obligatory appearance was to be had.
And then, these same “teachers” would dole out extremely rigid grades, that maybe a consistently fed, cared for, housed and depression-free person could handle, but any poverty skola student would immediately or slowly fall out from.
And don’t get me started about trying to get the so-called “teachers” to overstand, listen, respond or acknowledge disabled students in their “class.” This nightmare happened in real time to our young warriors, leaving them depressed, questioning or just giving up.
No matter how much support our little school could provide, we didn’t have that kind of support, the kind of support that people with what I call organizational privilege have, the privilege of knowing where your next meal, roof or support person is and never having to worry whether you are housed long enough to find out if the wifi is strong.
These are privileges I teach to young people with race, class or formal education privilege who come to PeopleSkool, and why I teach conscious wealth-hoarders and Mama Earth inheritors – owning-class people – that it is their duty to radically redistribute resources they have always had to people who have never had any.
And then the final straw – an F
In the brutal and deadly summer of 2020, the graduating class of Deecolonize Academy, who were now enrolled in our Live-Work Mentorship at Homefulness – a paid live-in mentorship in construction, media, teaching and healing – concurrently enrolled, as was the pre-Covid plan, in a community college class. Together, to get community support from us and their peers.
They all worked their hardest. Sifting through their own poverty, trauma and their mamaz and communities’ trauma and yea, they weren’t perfect students, but they did most of the work, as well as they could only having assignments with no lectures, no counselor and no teacher.
At the end of that torture, three of them got an F. An F??? With no ability to call, appeal or even speak with the non-existent teacher. With the help of some of our volunteers we tried to appeal – to no avail.
A deecolonized college counselor
Eight hours, countless emails and phone calls later and Jasmine, friend, artist, poverty skola and fierce education infiltrator who agreed to be Deecolonize Academy’s volunteer college infiltrator/counselor was able to squeeze our youth poverty skolaz through the eye of the impossible college needle.
Now one of our disabled youths has disability services which he and I were summarily denied for a year and a half of constant emailing, zooming and calling by us to the school. Two more youth have financial aid and all of them have counselors and support.
These are not little things, and in pre-Covid days, these are struggles that could’ve been accomplished with all the counselors and staff they have in-house at community college campuses. But the zoom access piece is real, and the reality is that not everyone has the skill or bandwidth, both digitally and emotionally, to swim through the nightmare channels of information.
They didn’t respect my revolutionary home-schooling on life and survival as curriculum which led to my Ph.D. in poverty.
Through her work, we were able to find out about a little-known waiver that was instituted without hardly anyone knowing it that will probably enable them to get a waiver from the F. Why was this waiver almost going to expire? And why didn’t anyone know about it?
This is my challenge to the Peralta College District and all community colleges across the US. Let students get a clean slate or lose poor, Black, Brown, Indigenous, Disabled and Houseless students forever.
Deecolonize Academy is not a utopic visionary idea – it’s an answer to an educational emergency
It is very hard for us already broken people to unbreak our youth. We work so hard every day to live into something we never had. My sixth-grade education and subsequent inability to ever re-enter school after the age of 12 was specifically related to my homelessness and my Indigenous cultural deep structure.
Notwithstanding my wite skin privilege, which my disabled mama of color insisted I use to get us everything from temporary shelters to food to tents to leases, my culture dictated that I take care of my mama when she became disabled. The LA Unified School District didn’t respect caring for an elder or working to support my family in a micro-business, which so many Indigenous families across Mama Earth do every day, as a valid excuse for my absence.
They didn’t respect my revolutionary home-schooling on life and survival as curriculum which led to my Ph.D. in poverty. And in fact, they didn’t really respect any part of our family’s struggle to survive and instead criminalized us with a barrage of truant officers, Child Protective Services anti-social workers and poLice calls. Until we realized, Mama and me, that I just needed to leave institutional school entirely before it led to permanent separation from my mama.
We look to community colleges as an access point for all the subjects that US public schools have ripped away from our low and no-income students.
At Deecolonize Academy, co-founded by this poverty skola – Tiny Gray-Garcia – with my Mama Dee’s dream and June Kealoha Hall, Muteado Silencio, Leroy Moore, Queennandi XSheba and many more poor mamaz and uncles, we write, we build, we pray, we teach everything all of us never had.
We are also old school, and even though we never engage with the state or institutions of death – poLice, military, CPS, APS – we also hold the line, teaching, holding our children in struggle with the same rules of respect we hold our adults to in the family council and elephant councils of accountability.
We also know that school is not just linear learning, and that learning is also first and foremost by mama and grandmama, aunties and uncles, sisters and brothers. We also know that learning includes loving. Loving includes cleaning and caregiving, protesting and showing up for mamaz, aunties, children, daddies, uncles and families in trauma.
We know that racism and poverty are linked and so is eviction and housing insecurity and depression. We know these “lessons” because they are our life.
But, like one of Dr. Noble’s and my Mama Dee’s lessons from Poverty Scholarship – poor people-led theory, art, words and tears across Mama Earth – we need to have many tools in the village tool chest to raise children and one of them is excellence. Black excellence, Brown excellence, poor people excellence, disabled people excellence. Redefined excellence, not rooted in a colonial test score, but in commitment, love-work, empathy, creativity, Mama Earth protection, poverty scholarship and deep and radical advocacy and liberation.
One of these tools is the option of all kinds of learning. And because we are an extremely grassroots school with no solid budget, we looked to our community colleges as an access point for all the subjects that US public schools have ripped away from our low and no-income students. History, music, science and philosophy, to name a few, are now relegated to “electives” in public education curriculum.
The reality is poor children in poor schools are lucky to get enough lunch, much-less a real curriculum. My sun, who recently went to an OUSD high school, was spit out at 1 p.m. with a stripped-down education, purportedly readying youth for “college” but only teaching and testing the barest of minimums of curriculum – like art and music and history were luxuries only afforded the very few.
In another iteration of my life, I had the blessing of working on racial justice in education policy with a fierce group of truth-tellers and education warriors, many of whom, like Malaika Parker, went on to bring farming and animals and Mama Earth to youth of color. While at this job, I witnessed and worked on many struggles in education I knew and had experienced, but what I didn’t know was the cool indifference the aristokrazy and lie-gislators – as I call them – would speak about children in poverty.
One of my favorite lines, told by the executive directors Susan and Olivia, was the state lie-gislator who openly would say: “We know there isn’t enough room in college for everyone.” I know they think of us like that, but it still nauseates me to hear it confirmed.
So, we teach as much as we can in our humble campus and have students as young as 14 go to community college. We have not nor will we give up on community college, but this is an urgent plea to anyone reading this. If you want the over 30 percent of working class and houseless, disabled and holding-on-by-a-thread students to come back to campus, with or without a global pandemic, you need to offer a clean slate program for the last two years and even through 2022.
Please don’t make one of the last channels of access inaccessible. The next session of PeopleSkool is on Jan. 29 and 30 and is open to all people needing to learn new ways to redistribute and liberate land and live in this broken and tortured Mama Earth – www.racepovertymediajustice.org. To contact Tiny, go to www.lisatinygraygarcia.com or on twitter at @povertyskola.
Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, aka “povertyskola,” is a poet, teacher and the formerly houseless, incarcerated daughter of Dee and mama of Tiburcio and author of “Criminal of Poverty: Growing Up Homeless in America” and “Poverty Scholarship: Poor People-led Theory, Art, Words and Tears Across Mama Earth” and co-founder of Homefulness, a homeless people’s solution to homelessness. Reach her at www.lisatinygraygarcia.com or @povertyskola on Twitter.