25 Years Among the Poorest Children in America

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-five Years Among the Poorest Children in America

by Jonathan Kozol

Crown Publishers (2012)

Book Review

Unlike Kozol’s prior books, which focus on the abysmal condition of inner city schools, Fire in the Ashes follows the families of specific children Kozol has befriended and their disastrous living conditions. The families he describes are either those he encountered at the Martinique Hotel homeless shelter in midtown Manhattan or those he met through an after school program at St Ann’s Episcopal Church in Mott Haven.

With a media annual income of $17,000 for a family of five, Mott Haven is the poorest neighborhood in the South Bronx and the poorest congressional district in the US. Official unemployment (which doesn’t count those who have given up and quit looking) is 14%.

The book poignantly describes the brutal living conditions the children and their families confront, including chronic malnutrition, chronic asthma (from asbestos and incinerators), sexual exploitation of mothers by shelter guards, grooming by gangs and drug dealers, untreated parental mental illness, repeated episodes of homelessness and overcrowded classrooms and schools (many of which have lost funding to private charter schools).

Kozol follows the children of eight African American and Hispanic families from primary school through adulthood, as they struggle with social service and educational systems that have virtually abandoned them.

Some of the children he befriends graduate from high school (and even college) and end up in long term employment. Others drop out and are swallowed up by the criminal justice system. In each case, the children who succeed do so because someone (a teacher, social worker, pastor or Kozol himself) offers financial assistance to ensure they received the educational support they needed.

Although Kozol (with the help of readers and supporters) has set up an Education Action Fund to assist students from desperately poor racially segregated neighborhoods like Mott Haven, he argues against this type of individual intervention as a long term solution.

The real answer, he maintains, is to provide public schools in neighborhoods like Mott Haven, with the best educational funding (instead of the worst), the smallest classes (at present most classes have over 30 pupils), and the best prepared and best paid teachers (instead of the least experienced, most poorly paid).

Jonathan Kozol and the Pernicious Underfunding of Inner City Schools

Civil rights activist and education reformer Jonathan Kozol has been working with children in inner city schools for more than forty years. His primary focus is the pernicious under funding of schools that primarily serve minority students. In the talk below, he uses New York City as an example. In the year 2000, a child attending a Long Island school received average funding of $18,000 a year, while one attending school in the South Bronx received average funding of $8,000.

In the 1960s, Kozol worked as a primary school teacher in inner city Boston. He left classroom teaching to focus on teacher training, educational research and social justice organizing. His best known books are his 1967 Death at an Early Age: the Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools, his 1988 Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America, his 1991 Savage Inequalities, his 1995 Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation and his 2000 Ordinary Resurrections. The last two refer to his extensive work in South Bronx public schools and the students he came to know there.

In my view, his most powerful presentations are those in which he talks about Pineapple and Anthony and other students he worked with in the South Bronx.

The talk below is divided into six 8 minutes segments.

Part 1 – Kozol talks about getting his start in a Roxbury (Boston) church freedom school following the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi.

Part 2 – Kozol addresses the severe disadvantages inner city school children start out with, including the highest rate of asthma in the country (due to constant exposure to polluting industries sited in their neighborhoods), periodic episodes of homelessness and the fact that more than one-fourth have fathers in prison.

Part 3 – Kozol addresses  discriminatory funding patterns in inner city schools.

Part 4 – Kozol laments the devastating impact of high stakes testing on inner city students, teachers and principals. Introducing Pineapple and other South Bronx students he has worked with, he explains how pressure to train students for high stakes testing destroys genuine motivation for learning.

Part 5 – Kozol talks about his depressing efforts to lobby Congress to improve funding for inner city schools. He also describes the time Mr Rogers came to visit the South Bronx after school program where he volunteered.

Part 6 – Kozol talks about how teaching in the ghetto politicized him, especially after he was fired by the Boston Public Schools for teaching his African American students about the African American poet Langston Hughes.

Greening the South Bronx

Greening the Ghetto
Majora Carter (2006)

Film Review

I make no secret of my belief that real political change must start at the local. To bone up on my organizing skills, I’m presently doing a master class called “How Communities Awaken”. It’s been decades since I took a formal class. For homework they’ve given two books and a flash drive full of videos, podcasts and journal articles.

Naturally I went for the videos first. This one is a 2006 TED talk by an African American environmental justice* activist from the South Bronx.

The most striking part of Carter’s talk is her narrative describing how local politicians and developers deliberately target politically vulnerable communities. I saw the exact same thing happen to Seattle’s central area in the 1980s.

As in Seattle, major Interstate expansion (to shorten the Manhattan commute for wealthy Westchester County residents) displaced thousands (600,000) of South Bronx residents. The family homes many had purchased became virtually worthless.

In addition to the Interstate, South Bronx residents have been saddled with four power plants, a sewage treatment plant and a toxic waste site. Due air pollution, one in four South Bronx kids has asthma, seven times the national average.

Fighting Back Through Community Empowerment

Carter describes how she and her neighbors turned this around by obtaining a $10,000 grant to transform a desolate Hudson River dump site into a park. And how this success led to the formation of a Green Wave movement in South Bronx.

In addition to building community and greatly improving the physical environment, her Green the Ghetto movement has translated into serious economic development. In addition to offering job training for ecological stewardship, her community started New York’s first green roof** installation business.

The end of the film features an intriguing interaction (i.e. putdown) with Al Gore about his patronizing response when she approached him about addressing environmental justice in his climate change slideshows.

*Carter defines environmental justice as the right of a community not to be saddled with an undue burden of environmental problems.
**A green roof is a living roof partly or completely covered with vegetation, to optimize energy conservation and minimize water runoff.