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Exploring Class and Critical Race Theory: Rethinking how we/I might have gone wrong in developing the profession …

Mark Krueger

“Youth workers are members of an oppressed class,” says Tony, a member of our staff who is working on his dissertation and has read Pablo Freire like many education Ph.D. candidates.

“What do you mean?” asks David, another staff member.

“Many of the workers who come to our continuing education and credit classes make minimum wages and are overwhelmed by their lives outside of work. Last week several of them told me they carried guns because they felt so unsafe in their neighborhoods,” replies Tony.

“It’s getting bad isn’t it?” I ask.

“It’s always been a rough life,” David says.

“Yeah, but I think it’s worse now. Many of these workers have the same issues the kids have to deal with, and they get no supervision,” Tony says.

“So, what are you suggesting?” David asks.

“That we have to be sensitive to this in our classes.”

“In what way?”

“We have to adjust our expectations. They simply don’t have time once they leave to do assignments.”

“I refuse to do that,” I say.

“I agree,” says Lucy, another staff member who lives in the same neighborhood as many of the youth workers. “Many of them do quite well despite the hardships.”

“I don’t think you understand. Many of them come from similar abusive situations as the youth,” Tony says.

“I understand. I was in an abusive relationship. But some people are more resilient than others,” Lucy says.

“I agree. It won’t help to water down our standards because we feel sorry for some of the workers who really need some counseling. That’s not the purpose of our classes,” says David, his voice rising.

“What is?” Tony asks.

“To teach them to be competent workers,” David says.

Lucy nods.

“I’m conflicted. I don’t want to lower our standards, and at the same time I am sensitive to the needs of some of the workers. But I’m not sure it is our role to sit here and think of them as an oppressed class. This touches on my own identity as a youth worker and it doesn’t feel right. I’d rather teach resilience and self-awareness, and create opportunities, as we are doing now, in our classes for them to voice their opinions and shape the curricula … make the classes an empowering experience. Not maintaining our standards suggests we don’t value or are looking down on them.”
“I agree,” Lucy says.

“I don’t think you guys are getting it. I’m saying they are overwhelmed with personal, financial, and professional responsibilities and by not taking this into consideration we are not respecting and valuing their role in our community,” Tony says.

“Framing it that way makes it more understandable. But I’m still not sure that’s a reason for lowering standards or treating them as oppressed. When I was a youth worker I went to school and worked sixty hours a week and I made it …” David says.

“Yeah, but don’t forget the cultural aspect. Most of our students are people of color.”

“Are you saying I’m privileged because I am white?” David says slightly irritated again.

“What are you talking about?” says Ron overhearing the Tony’s and David’s last comments.

“How many of the workers in our classes are in an oppressed class, and how difficult it is to survive much less go to school,” Tony says.

“I’m a black man and I don’t feel oppressed,” Ron says.

“Yes, I don’t like to be categorized that way either,” Lucy says …

Recently in part in response to conversations like this and articles I read, including articles about critical race theory (CRT) and class (Skott Mhyre & Grretzinger, 2005), I re-thought my youth and many years of involvement in a movement to professionalize youth work. I had felt that discussions about race, ethnicity, class, and gender in youth work should go something like this:

… The most successful youth workers are more or less radical entrepreneurs. We don’t enter the field to make money, but we find ways to make a living by being creative, getting educated, grabbing the bulls by the horns, and making a career for ourselves. Empowerment comes from within. We are not empowered by others but rather we empower ourselves by working with others to advance our cause to improve care for kids. In order to do this we have to stay and survive. This means we have to be advocates for ourselves and our work. To get ahead requires hard work, education, commitment and creativity. Doing this, getting ahead and learning and becoming as skilled as possible, is honorable in a field plagued by high rates of turnover and incompetence. It is the ethical thing to do, to survive and flourish, and despite the obstacles it can be done if we work at it.

Further we all build and shape ourselves into the world through unique cultural, familial and communal experiences. Culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, etc. in this context affects all of us differently. We all have our own stories and it is important to understand in the context of these stories. For example, the way we and others see the world and make meaning in part is determined by the rituals, traditions, views and beliefs of our culture and families. There is, however, considerable diversity within, between, and among cultures and how culture influences any single individual. Thus the only way to understand how culture influences another person is to speak across the spaces of our experiences (Sarris, 1993). Further, if we value our own culture and how it shapes and affects us then we are more likely to value and be curious about the culture of others. Cross cultural work in this regard is empathy, or the desire to want to understand and know another person, while simultaneously recognizing that we can never have another person’s experience or literally see the world through their eyes. If we practiced this kind of cross cultural work it would lead to greater acceptance and understanding in youth work …

I also felt that care of self, as Michel Foucault argued, was the ethos of civilized society (in Rabinow & Rose, 1994). People who care for self are much more likely to care for others. Critical race theory (CRT), however, seemed to argue that this was not enough. Despite our best efforts to relate to each other with sensitivity to our differences, the laws, policies, programs and practices of a predominantly white society directly, indirectly, intentionally, or unintentionally suppressed multiculturalism (Jay, 2003; Deyhle and Parker, 1999).

Recently in writing about power, class, and CRT in youth work, Skott Mhrye (2006) argued that one of the problems is that workers are not visible and this makes it difficult to value youth. I am simplifying here but I believe his point was the absence of workers in a field that was trying to focus on youth involvement and agency created an equation for progress in which half was missing. And that therefore we were more or less destined to failure as a field just as relationships are destined to failure when only one person is there.

Thus, in considering class and CRT I felt I had to explore my own youth and background (make myself visible) and question how it might have contributed to my participation in hegemony, class divisions, and some of our failures in the development of the profession, which by all accounts is struggling in the U.S. as elsewhere when it comes creating a competent, diverse workforce:

My older brother and I were the sons of parents from German families that like most German families in Milwaukee had abandoned most of their culture during two world wars. Suffice it to say it was not popular to be German in those days in America (1940s and 1950s), and so most of these families pretended not to be, some even changing their names or pronunciation of their names. Krueger (Krooger), for example, became Kreeger. German, which had been the primary language in the schools before WWI, was rarely spoken in public, and not at all in our house.

We lived in a duplex in a lower middle class neighborhood on the Northwest Side with blue and white collar families. Our friends were largely Italian, Greek, and Jewish. Strangely we did not talk much about the war, or even know much about it and about our parents’, their relatives’ and their ancestors’ conflicts. This was not “our business.” Maybe they talked about it in their homes, I’m not sure. We didn’t in ours. The Jewish kids’ Sabbath was on Saturday and their houses and Italians’ houses looked and smelled different inside than our house, but that was about it as far as I was concerned. Oh, and the Jewish girls were not to date the gentiles, although most of them did.

Racial slurs and jokes were not used at home. My parents had been “dirt poor” as kids and somehow emerged from it without the overt biases and prejudices that I saw on the playgrounds. My father called the women at work, who were mostly secretaries, “gals” but that was about the extent of what I heard from my parents that today might be considered derogatory, sexists, or racist.

At the time “negroes” were in increasing numbers moving north for the city’s high paying blue color jobs in industry. My father, who often told me stories about how rough he had it as a poor kid, once said, “It would have been much more difficult if I were a colored person.” Nonetheless, there were few children of color in our school. I went to the black section of town to play basketball and listen to music. In those days we were not afraid to go into the black community, at least I wasn’t. Parent’s and adults, black and white, seemed to watch out for us.

In preparation for this article I rode back to my old neighborhood. In Milwaukee many of the good paying jobs have disappeared during the past decade. Subsequently, most of the houses were run down. Young black men walked the streets. A couple stepped in front of my car and “dissed” me (Milwaukee graduates less than 35% of the African American men from high school). Three young black women sat on our porch steps with young children (Milwaukee has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy). When I pulled into the alley and rode behind my old house, I was frightened. A satellite dish had replaced our basketball backboard and hoop on the garage roof. Garbage had not been picked up. It was very different yet I felt a sort of odd kinship with a young man who stared at me over a fence.

When I grew up there most of the families seemed to want to forget and escape into the American Pastoral as Phillip Roth later called it in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel (Roth, 1997) about those times. My father worked for the same life insurance company all his life, hardly ever missing a day. My mother had been a “flapper” who smoked, drove and worked long before it was popular. They worked their way out of poverty and through the depression to the middle class, waiting to have children until they could afford it when they were in their mid thirties.

Like other members of my generation I escaped from the Pastoral into Rock n’ Roll, Jazz and the Beats, and then in the 1960’s into drugs, alcohol, free love, free speech, civil rights and anti-war protests, although unlike some of my more fired-up, fervent friends I was less active on the political side of the things, still preferring, I think in hindsight, the beats, identifying more with Miles Davis with his head bent over his trumpet and his back to the crowd than in your face Jimmi Hendrix.

While I worked with youth, I joined with other youth workers in an effort to form a profession. Together, black, brown, men, women, etc. we organized, spoke out, and wrote about our importance to youth and society. We did not see ourselves as an oppressed class but rather revolutionaries who were going to change the “fucking” excuse the language youth work world. There were the usual tensions, power struggles, differences (geographical, racial, cultural developmental, etc), but on the whole we respected and valued each other, perhaps because of what we learned from and about working with kids and civil rights.

We stayed away from labels with the kids and ourselves. Terms like “white privilege” would not have been used other than perhaps in the context of humor because white privilege would have stigmatized someone just as other labels did (Magnet, 2006). We were well aware of the inequities associated with the color of a person’s skin and the history of racism in the country. Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Maclom X, Angela Davis, Joan Baez, Huey Newton, Robert Kennedy, George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, Saul Alinsky, Caesar Chavez, etc, had been our influences (in my case taking on more importance after I found my cause), and we wanted to move on while recognizing and trying to rectify disparities in class, race, etc, that made it more challenging for the youth and some of us.

Looking back you could say we wanted to maintain the innocence of our struggle in which despite our different races, cultures, and classes we had found something similar that called to all of us in our brotherhood and sisterhood for the cause (Magnet, 2006). After three black presidents I became the first white president of our national association, and was followed by a gay president. We made progress in developing a knowledge base for our field, and in showing how practice with youth could be improved. We raised the standards in many states and countries for practice, developed bachelors, masters and Ph.D. programs, and increased cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness in our field. Many of us seized the opportunities in our emerging profession and advanced our careers. Some went on to high level appointments in government. Others became executive directors of youth serving agencies. Many became superb practitioners. And I became a professor and founded a research and education center for youth workers.

Yet, salaries, support, preparation, and working conditions on average for youth workers did not improve that much, if at all. In some places the work was done better than ever, but in comparison to other industrialized countries (generalizations are always difficult), we did not do very well, in part because of cuts in funding for programs for youth. Youth and particularly youth of color, continued to be exposed to risks and challenges that made it difficult for them to develop and succeed in our society. Some would argue that during this period things, with the exception of a few upswings, actually got worse for youth and youth workers.

My colleagues and I often wondered why? Were we too idealistic? Were we wrong to focus on knowing ourselves in a way that genuinely opened us to others with the hope they would do the same for us? Had we underestimated the power of racism, hegemony, and white privilege? Were we too self-serving and not enough youth focused? Was it because our voice was not loud enough? As the distribution of wealth widened and more youth were impoverished, why were we, like other human service groups, losers in the political, social and economic debates?

Lately, I have been second guessing myself, partially because of the trip back to my neighborhood, which I mentioned earlier. I wonder if I hadn’t missed something all along. When a black former president and friend, Norman Powell, who preceded me as president, insisted on not sitting with his back to the door in a restaurant, should I have been more sensitive to my white privilege, racism, profiling, etc., and how it influenced the way he saw the world. When we were refused entry into a Florida nightclub because of our dress when two young white men had just entered in T-shirts, and he smiled at me, had I underestimated how much of an impact this had on his and other youth and workers of color attitudes about life and our efforts to change things? Should I have listened more to my father when he told me his trip out of poverty would have been much more difficult if he were colored? I thought I had but maybe not with sufficient understanding.

Were we, as self-styled revolutionaries, naive about how engrained racism and prejudice were in relation to youth work, a racially mixed profession whose membership in many urban communities today is predominantly Black or Latino? Had we (I) not been able to see the neutralizing powers of our collective experiences in a country that is predominantly white? Were we not as sensitive to these issues as we had thought we were? I don’t know.

Or, did I overlook, for example, how much this meant to boys like Daniel in the novel I wrote about youth work? How it influenced their world view and interpreted how I interacted with them? Did I miss something hidden in my profession, and/or community? Did we miss something that was hidden in our multicultural curriculum and activities and instead suppress the very initiatives we were trying to undertake (Jay, 2003). And/or was it just all part of living in a country that has never really valued people who work with other peoples’ children, and children without families? In capitalism will youth always play second fiddle to War and profit (McNaughton, 2006; Skott-Mhrye & Gretzinger, 2005)? Or was it just simply about racism in a society with widening class divisions in which people of color always seem disproportionately to wind up on the short end of the stick?

I have also been wondering if journey was the wrong metaphor as Halse (2006, pp 105-106) recently articulated in her argument that as an interpretive device in Western auto/biography, “journey” tends not to reflect what it purports to represent. Had we deceived ourselves by framing our work as a shared journey into believing something other than what was occurring, and inadvertently clouded our arguments and steered our focus from the reality of the moment, past and present?

Anyway, these are the types of questions some members of our field and I have been openly asking. We don’t necessarily have an answer to these questions other than perhaps all of the above as it applies on a case by case basis. Meanwhile to remain optimistic some of us have told ourselves we were doing fairly well in comparison to other professions at similar stages of development. Over the long run, whether or not in the ebb and flow of these political, economic, and social tides our work and approach will have a major impact on youth and workers is debatable, but we continue the struggle, naively perhaps, with the hope that it will as long as we are in it together and able to question ourselves.

In the article mentioned above Hans Skott Mhyre (2006) argued that we have to make ourselves visible in order to value the other. One of the youth workers in a study I did a few years ago said the major challenge in the work was to “show up.” Gerry Fewster (1999) challenges us to be present, open, and available to mirror back our experiences of the other. In these conversations and discourses about the profession and our successes and failures in relationship to race, culture, and other differences, I would like to think that I am present, available and visible ... or at the very least that I try to be.


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