The Second Line Blog

Abi Mbaye: How to Survive Being Black at a Southern Ivy League School

Recently, a Black Yale student who was questioned by police for napping in a common space told the police, “I’m not going to justify my existence here.” And yet, so many students of color find themselves having to do that on a daily basis. In New Orleans, Abi Mbaye’s story highlights the challenges students of color face when they transition into predominantly white spaces, especially a prestigious college. Abi grew up in Harlem, New York as well as Senegal before attending Chatham University in Pittsburgh; and now, she attends Tulane University in New Orleans. Her experiences of emotional trauma and culture shock as she navigated the changes are telling of the future for some of our New Orleans students. Orleans Parish schools are made up of predominantly African American students, and a number of these students will eventually attend predominantly white universities. Whether they are Ivy League or state schools, they will likely confront the same difficulties as Abi.

Abi was born in New York City, but she moved to Senegal when she was five years old, along with her brother. Some of her other siblings were raised in the United States, so she is grateful for her time in Senegal where she was able to be immersed in her heritage, including the African culture, French and Arabic language, and Islamic religion. Her grandmother raised her while she was there, and she received a well-rounded education in a private school.

She returned to the United States in the sixth grade and began attending public schools in Harlem. “It was a difficult transition,” she remembers. “I grew up in an African home and I didn’t speak English.” Abi’s father, who only had an eighth grade education in Senegal, worked as a taxi cab driver. Her mother, who hadn’t been given an opportunity for a formal education in Senegal, sold jewelry and also worked as a cook. Growing up, Abi’s father talked about racism, but she didn’t completely grasp it at that point, partly because she was around other Black and Latinx peers and she hadn’t been fully exposed to the systems of racism. This didn’t happen until she graduated high school and went to college.

“I always knew I wanted to be a doctor,” Abi says. She had always done well in school, but she also had never had full access to tools and resources. The most that was expected of her was to attend a community college or state school,  but she was determined. She knew the path she wanted to take. She would attend a smaller school and then transfer to a more prestigious school.

The first university she attended was Chatham, which was predominately white, and at that time, an all-female school. She struggled to adapt to the environment and suffered from depression. Her classmates were sympathetic, but could not understand her feelings of isolation. This is when she began to seek out more information about systems of oppression and she discovered the language of the experience of racism in the U.S.  Still, she hadn’t fully come to terms with it, and because she viewed her time at Chatham as temporary, she hadn’t fully accepted that this would be her life from now on.

Arriving at Tulane, the reality began to sink in.  Up until this point, Tulane had been her dream, but it was quickly becoming clear that she had not prepared for the racism she would encounter and the isolation she would feel.  “Tulane was always the dream. This is where I wanted to be. When I got into Tulane there was a happiness inside of me for months. I was so excited. It was the confirmation that I was where I needed to be in life.” But Abi began to experience the impact of racism right away.

Two or three days after she arrived, she went to the student dining hall to make arrangements for her meal plan. She requested a Halal plan because she is Muslim, but they told her they only had a Kosher meal plan, which is food prepared in alignment with Jewish religious requirements, not Muslim.

“I remember thinking ‘what does that have to do with me?’ But that wasn’t even the worst part.”

Her real moment of reckoning was in the dining hall itself.

“I was at a meeting and all around me was Black people cooking, serving, and cleaning and that had a profound impact on me. I remember thinking ‘this is what a modern plantation must look like.’ And I got out of there in a rush, and I threw up in a trashcan right outside the dining hall. That was the impact on me. I was disoriented for a few weeks. My body was not adjusting well.”

Following the experience, she continued to feel nauseous, but doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong with her.  The sickness was most likely the psychological toll of her stress, and so she was prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depression medicine. “There is something about Tulane and being in this space that my spirit cannot accept,” she says.

If Abi’s experiences give us some indication of the emotional challenges New Orleans students may encounter when they go off to college, her story also gives hope. Instead of leaving or giving up, Abi has simply become more determined to follow her dreams.

“I don’t think there is ever a time when you feel like you truly belong at Tulane. I can’t even imagine what that would feel like, but I do know I deserve to be here. I do know that I have a right to be here. I do know that this school was built—the entire academic quad, the classrooms we sit in—were built by enslaved Africans.  I do know that the money that made this school private was money from the labor of enslaved African people and those are my ancestors. So I definitely have the right to be here. I have the right to benefit from this education. I have the right to access this education. I have the right to be comfortable here. Despite it being a very ugly place because of its history; I do know I have the right. My ancestors have worked for that.”

Abi is also determined to make an impact. Even while she acknowledges that the University is not where it needs to be, she is grateful for the work of the student activists who came before her and who made it easier for her.  She hopes to honor their work and build upon it to make it easier for the students of color who come after her. She finds strength in organizing. She is a certified Community Engagement Advocate, and in this role, she facilitates peer-led trainings on racism and oppression. She has also been a leader in Students Organizing Against Racism and is currently President of the African American Women’s Society.

“I alone can’t make changes. The only thing I can do while I’m here is to keep the doors that were open for me open for others, and to open more doors for those who come behind me…“I just find spaces where I can do the work.”

Some of the gains she, along with other activists, have fought for and accomplished is the creation of the Center for Academic Equity, which provides programming and scholarships for students of color. They have also asked for the hiring of more professors of color. One of those new professors, Z’étoile Imma, has made a huge impact on Abi. “Having her here has been life-changing for me in so many ways. She opened me to a whole new world that I didn’t even know existed of African literature and African writers. It has been so empowering. Her presence has done something for me.”  Abi also has found strength by continuing to connect with African culture through Nigerian and Senegalese television shows, cooking, and wearing traditional fabrics.

But mainly, she realizes she will have to find the strength within herself to survive at Tulane, and to survive in predominantly white spaces. She has realized that just her existence is activism.  “During the fall semester I was having a really hard time. It was probably my lowest point at Tulane. And a community advocate, Ashana Bigard, texted me and told me ‘as a Black woman, the most radical thing you can do is just to be okay.’ And those words have never left me. So every single day I just try to be as okay and as happy as I can, and to do as much as I can because that’s the most radical thing I can do here as a Black woman.”


Wayfinder Foundation Launches First Fellowship Cohort in Indianapolis and Los Angeles

Now more than ever, activists have a critical role to play in shaping the future of our country and its public policies. A new program, launched this week, is cultivating the next generation of voices in communities of color around the country. By doing so, the Wayfinder Foundation is creatively finding new ways to support activists through its Community Activist Fellowship.

Starting  June 1, fourteen fellows in Indianapolis, Indiana and Los Angeles, California will lead projects focused on various issue areas including parent engagement, education access, domestic abuse, immigration, women’s rights and the use of digital media for advocacy.

“The Community Activist Fellowship is providing a way for our activists to begin a year of  intense training and support to help them change the world in which we know it. By providing resources to marginalized communities, not only are we supporting their activism, we are freeing their voices to be heard, and strengthening their regard to continue to fight,” said Wayfinder’s chief program officer, Angela Jones Hackley.

Wayfinder will begin accepting applications for its second cohort in Washington, DC, Memphis, TN, and Oakland, CA, later this month.

“Wayfinder was founded in 2017 with the mission of putting resources behind activism through investing in mothers and mother-figures by using a two-generational approach – when you help the mother, you help the child,” said Chris Stewart, CEO, Wayfinder Foundation. “It is clear in this country we create systems that are designed to punish the mother – welfare systems that keep her poor, school systems that keep her and her child undereducated. These activists are saying no more! We will not be silenced. It is our duty to support them in their efforts.”

With a combined contribution of more than $100K in financial and expert resources, the Wayfinder Foundation launched this inaugural cohort as part of their “This is Activism” multimedia campaign, focused on highlighting acts of activism across the country.

“Our Fellows are excellent examples of what happens when you don’t give in to the status quo and you aren’t afraid to stand up to fight for yourself and others. It’s heroic,” said Stewart. More information on the CAF and a list of Fellows can be found on the Wayfinder Foundation website.

Attending a Community College Does NOT Mean you are a Failure

Because my mother’s highest education level was high school along with a few certifications here and there, I viewed college as the only way to make a way – a different way rather,  a better way. I never even considered the idea of attending a junior or community college.

But, in the humblest of spirits, I also never struggled academically throughout my school years.

Academics was always something where I excelled and had confidence. Prior to college, I believed I was disciplined enough to manage college expectations.

Even those who have historically struggled academically throughout their school years and/or don’t have the financial resources to avoid encountering debt for higher education and costly living expenses, still believe a four year school is the only way.  While this is an ambitious mindset for some of our school-aged kids, it can be damaging.

Every single year, I watch  students cycle through a pattern of negative emotions during their senior year as the time they have to decide what’s next closes in. I hear students’ tone and demeanor change to low and uncomfortable when they identify Delgado Community College as the college they will accept admission.  I see school staff parade around and praise those who’ve received admission and financial aid for state and Ivy League schools. I hear underclassman mirror the sentiment by being less supportive of seniors attending schools other than four-year institutions. I see student-athletes scoff at the idea of attending a junior college to better prepare both academically and athletically to transition to a larger college/university despite not receiving athletic scholarship offers as they had anticipated their entire lives.

Just a few weeks ago at College Signing Day, I had a student not only tearfully share the shame she had of attending Delgado Community College, but went on to stand on the stage in front of her peers and underclassman and falsely state she was attending UNO for college when she hadn’t even been accepted during the ceremony.

I was speechless.

I was sad.

This shame is much deeper than we think or even realize.  America tells us time and time again that education is something that historically, has not always been privileged to us, so the opportunity to continue the pursuit of education even beyond high school is one we should rejoice around, even more so when we are blessed to identify financial aid sources to minimize student debt. However, this unfortunately is not the case for a lot of our students, who because of some unrealistic expectation we’ve set has them thinking that anything outside of a Division-1 College/University is a failure. With this mindset, time is wasted and even sadder, dreams are lost.  I hate this for our future leaders.

In a city like New Orleans, where poverty is often a prerequisite for criminality, it is critical we change how we approach our messaging of the pursuit of higher education for our students who are indeed interested, but embarrassed to take a different pathway if one is needed.

While we can’t ignore the impact of lower socio-economical status and its impact on college completion; this is one of the many barriers to college completion within the four years that most imagine.

A recent study conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center concluded the following:

While there was a relatively small difference in the transfer-with-award rate, there was a substantial difference in the transfer-out bachelor’s completion rate, which may indicate that the effects of socioeconomic differences tend to grow as students progress along their academic career.

An attempt to progress beyond socio-economic limitations is worthwhile if we want to maximize our exposure to more opportunities to identify career paths to hopefully improve one’s quality of life.  Our children are not failures for doing what is best in the moment.  We, as educators, are not failures if they aren’t always prepared or confident in attending a larger learning institution.

As beautifully stated in an Odyssey Op-ed

“By attending a community college, I was able to save money and grow academically, emotionally, socially, and mentally. In that time, I found a passion.”

I want my students to know that they’ve been able to accomplish what generations before them could not even think of and how they would have been brutalized if they attempted.

So for opportunity, even if the journey is not as anticipated or like everyone else’s, YOU ARE NOT FAILURE.

Click here to read full article of a graduate of a community college titled, “I’m Proud To Be A Community College Alumni And You Should Be Too.”


Choice. What Choice?

In a school district that has the most charter schools in the nation, and the most children in charter schools, school choice was dealt a severe blow this week when the parents of students attending Cypress Academy were told the school would be closing for good only three days before school ends for the year. Additionally, students and families were informed that the student body would be transferred automatically to Lafayette Extension at Dunbar, a school that would be operated by the Choice Foundation charter schools. If the parents don’t want their children to go to Lafayette Extension, they can enter into the OneApp enrollment process with no priority status. Priority status is usually given to the students of a school that is closing.

Here’s the problem with all of this action which shows blatant disrespect by the school, school board members, and Superintendent. There is no way the officials OPSB didn’t know this was coming and if they didn’t, they should be replaced for insubordination. Since Cypress Academy has on its website some sort of partnership with Choice Foundation, this news can’t be a coincidence. These families and students were part of a deal that obviously didn’t include their input and cowardly strips them of their choice. Not giving these students priority status in the OneApp enrollment process shows the flaws of the OPSB and the OneApp system. It’s only as good as the humans who run it and that’s if those humans believe in humanity. Children’s educational futures are being used as dealmakers or breakers and that’s an unfortunate shame for the future of this city.

Parents and students can only demand that with the OPSB on the cusp of entering into Unification on July 1st, 2018, these type of detrimental events will be a thing of the past. Ensuring that your elected school board officials are working for the people and not for profit is our responsibility because something doesn’t add up here. This is never acceptable. School closings rips the very fabric that students lives are built on. Those five and six year old children will probably never see those educators again. At a time when their development is at the crucial stage of development, they have suffered a heartbreak and severe blow, not to mention the parents who are either boxed in or cornered by the actions of educators, administrators and OPSB officials. Fix it please because the choice isn’t yours; it should be ours.

I Wish I Had Attended an HBCU

What a time to be black in America.  You either feel stifled or you’re hella proud!  Probably even a combination of both at different times.  Despite my often outrage following incidents of sheer prejudice and injustice across the world, more than ever, I have no desires or wishes to be anyone else.  I am proud to be black, even prouder to tell my students why they should be just as confident and self-aware. I’m envious that I didn’t feel this badge of honor sooner.

Having earned both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at two separate, predominately white institutions, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I had known more about HBCUs during high school and had taken advantage of what these institutions offer their students as it relates to a rich history and grooming of students, turned alumni, who have impacted the world as leaders within our communities through politics, STEM, law, etc.

As described by academic journal The Conversation about HBCUs importance:

“Through the years, predominantly black spaces such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have sheltered black people. More than that, they provide an important space for the fight for civil rights, equality, and black liberation.”

Our fight that has not yet dissolved in our country.  As with most artifacts within the African American community within this country, HBCUs don’t exist without struggle.  There are looming challenges associated with debt, declining enrollment, and relevance.  I often preach to my kids, “You are greater than the obstacles standing before you.”  Despite the challenges HBCUs face, these institutions are pushing through those challenges as NBC News reports:

Despite the structural challenges, HBCUs continue to outperform their peers in some respects. While HBCUs represent only three percent of all U.S. colleges, they produce 17 percent of African-Americans with bachelor’s degrees and 24 percent of all black scientists and engineers. And, by and large, at a time of stratospheric tuition rates, HBCUs have continued to serve academically and financially disadvantaged students — known as “at risk” students in financial aid parlance.

The very engine that faces unknown futures at times, is the very engine responsible for providing the sustenance a lot of our black college students need to persevere through the rigor of college academics with the hopes to furnish a future of passionate work and financial freedom.

Admittedly, and it took years for me to fully realize it, I struggled with working my hardest because I never felt 100% comfortable being the only black, female student within my programs of study.

And on the one day we all wait and plan for, one of the days parents brag the most about, I felt an even smaller connection to the schools I had become indebted. I’m guilty of exiting my college commencement ceremonies prior to their closings because the speaker chosen to deliver the commencement addresses did not look or sound like me. At the time, it didn’t seem like he was even speaking to me.  It is because of this that I not only become envious, but I am extremely excited when I see the guests HBCUs, even including our local Dillard and Xavier University, invite to close out the collegiate journey of their graduates. It’s a beautiful thing.

What a difference my final walk to join the rankings of those before me could have been?  What an honor it would have been to return to my HBCU as an alumnas to celebrate homecoming and jam to the thunderous sound of the band during its half-time performances?  How amazing would it have been to have some of the most influential people of color to address my graduating class with words of encouragement and love that I would carry for a lifetime and pass on to those I knew needed to hear them most?  

Well, while I will never get that experience, I am thankful for the opportunity to witness the powerful speeches delivered to those who learned of HBCUs and elected to become a part of the legacy that exists in part to those generations before us. Some of the speeches I enjoyed this year came from: Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman at Howard University, attorney and political commentator, Angela Rye at Southern University, Grammy award-winning Chance the Rapper at Dillard University, and New York Times investigative  journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones at Xavier University of Louisiana.  Take away the celebrity and there is still the opportunity to be uplifted by your own likeness and exit with words that bring the journey full-circle.

Below are transcripts of some of the powerful words spoken during their addresses to the 2018 graduating classes:

Chadwick Boseman to Howard University

When you are deciding on next steps, next jobs, next careers, further education, you should rather find purpose than a job or a career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you need to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.

Chance The Rapper to Dillard University

We have to erase the stigma” that comes with surpassing our heroes.  Never set any limitation on your own greatness.

Nikole Hannah-Jones to Xavier University of Louisiana

Understand that when you leave here and go into your respective fields, never take for granted what it took for you to get here. Make sure you don’t close the door behind you.  Reach back to those who are striving to get where you are. Because I PROFOUNDLY believe we have to be the person we needed when we were trying to make it ourselves.

Angela Rye to Southern University

Be the change! Be courageous! Be bold! Like your lives, our lives, depend on it.  Because they do!”

Measles and Hepatitis A Outbreaks Illustrate Why Schools Shouldn’t Cater to the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Modern medicine is often cited as the most important human achievement. At the forefront of modern medicine is the advent of vaccines. Vaccines have almost completely eliminated diseases like Polio and Measles. Smallpox killed an estimated 500 million people during the 20th century alone but today has been almost completely eradicated by vaccines.

It’s hard for many to understand why anyone would have a problem with such progress but a small and vocal group of people do. This group of people, collectively referred to as the Anti-Vaccination movement, link vaccines to all of sorts problems, but most notably they allege vaccines cause autism. The entire movement has its roots in a widely debunked 1998 essay. Since then, the movement has only grown, in spite of the fact their claims have no basis in science. Today, celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey lead the charge against vaccines.

Unfortunately, the claims of the Anti-Vaccination movement seem to be gaining traction. Government officials have recently begun catering to anti-vaccination ideas. Even President Trump has implied a link between vaccines and autism… much to the chagrin of his own experts. Many states and schools are now allowing students to skip vaccines for religious or ideological reasons. And right on cue, the country has seen an uptick in preventable infectious diseases.

Another common claim among anti-vaxxers is vaccines are unnecessary because many diseases have already been eliminated. But in fact, it only seems that way because of something called “herd immunity.” The concept of herd immunity dictates that if a high enough percentage of a population is immune to a disease then the rest of the population is effectively immune as well. However, the key part of this concept is that a large percentage needs to be immune. If people stop getting vaccinations for whatever reason, such as buying into the narrative of the anti-vaccination movement, then herd immunity disappears. This was the case this past October in Minnesota.

Minnesota had its largest measles outbreak in 30 years. Anti-Vaccination groups have aggressively targeted skeptical Somalian immigrants in the Minneapolis area with measurable success. So not unsurprisingly, the measles outbreak disproportionately affected Somali-American children.

But this isn’t simply the fault of Jenny McCarthy and her Anti-Vaccination zealots. It is also the fault of the states and schools for allowing people to choose whether or not they will allow their kids to get vaccinated. As of 2016, Minnesota was one of the few states that allowed both religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccinations.Other states have not learned from Minnesota’s poor example. Political groups in the southwest have put Texas at a higher risk for a measles outbreak because of the large number of children who are taking advantage of the state’s “conscientious exemption” to get around vaccination requirements.

Schools allowing students to remain unvaccinated now can have disastrous effects decades down the line. Michigan and Kentucky are in the midst of a hepatitis A outbreak now because of a combination of poor hygiene and soft vaccination requirements in the past that left many adults without ever having received the vaccine. The hepatitis A vaccine was only created in 1995. Obviously many people alive today were well past school age at that point, but many were not and some states like Indiana didn’t require a vaccination against the highly contagious disease until 2014. Now, they are paying the price.

Some school districts are overhauling their vaccination efforts, and some are even requiring them like they should have all along. Jefferson County Public schools in Louisville, Kentucky will require students to produce proof of a hepatitis A vaccine to attend school during the 2018-19 school year. Such a requirement is long overdue, but it’s certainly progress that should be applauded…even if it took an outbreak of a preventable contagious disease to get to that point.

Put your Money Where your Mouth Is If you Want a Quality Education for your Child in NOLA.

Despite being upset about my son’s One-App placement results to enter kindergarten, I took my time on this piece because within the topic of education, there is a lot of nuance.  

Adding to the nuance, determining the best pathway for your child’s education, becomes even more frustrating when the availability of quality schools is limited.

Initially, I was outraged because for the second year in a row, the city’s One App did not provide placement for my son into any of the elementary schools I had selected. I’d selected five, ll with performance scores no less than a B. Why would I select anything else for my son whom I want nothing less than the best for?

Some of my thoughts/questions went like this:

“So, because I make decent money, my child can’t get into a high performing school?”

“If I had selected a school with a performance ratings no better than C, my son would have been admitted right?”

But then, I thought about the kids who do benefit from the selection process, the kids whose families likely cannot afford to pay private school tuition and the parents who cannot miss work to commute back and forth to a school to manage the admission process.

And then, I become selfish again. Well, not necessarily selfish, but having attended what I have always considered to be pretty good public schools, I always felt comfortable with the idea of providing my son with the same experience to attend a school where the student population looked a lot like him and provided a solid education.  His family would handle the rest to ensure his village or nurturers was secure.

But the way it’s looking, my options to do that are non-existent. He is number 7 on the waiting list at Lake Forest Charter Elementary and he was given no placement through the city’s One-App enrollment despite selecting five school options. And despite their plea to apply again during Round 2 by May 25, 2018,  according the site none of the schools I selected are projected to even have availability.

I am happy the schools with lower performance are not yet full.  This hopefully means we’ll have more students attending schools that have been deemed to have higher performance.  Unfortunately, the fact remains that we have too many schools with low performance rates and not enough quality schools to choose. This makes the race to seek educational quality in New Orleans, a daunting one, particularly when your income determines your eligibility for resources in a city with rising costs of living and low wage employment.

Nevertheless, I have no choice but to put my money where my mouth is and pay for the education that I not only want my son to have. But when the city whose impoverishment I worked so hard to escape in my adulthood, in turn, penalizes me for it, it hurts.