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A call for compassion and empathy in education policy

Anna Deavere Smith
Anna Deavere Smith presents at Stanford, for the first time publicly, material from her work-in-progress on the school-to-prison pipeline.
Sean Reardon, Prudence Carter and Anna Deavere Smith
Professors of Education Sean Reardon and Prudence Carter talk with Anna Deavere Smith at the Stanford Graduate School of Education's Cubberley Lecture on April 23.

A call for compassion and empathy in education policy

Actress Anna Deavere Smith spotlights inequality and injustice in schools during a riveting Cubberley Lecture performance.

Through a series of fast-paced, provocative monologues, actress Anna Deavere Smith on Wednesday offered a deeply humanizing perspective on the difficulties facing poor kids in American schools and the troubles that those who work with them confront.

Smith's latest project, which was the basis for the evening’s presentation, “Notes from the Field: School and Prison Pathways,” explores how the U.S. education system is failing so many children of color, with a particular emphasis on school discipline and how their lives are rife with violence. Data show that kids who are expelled or suspended from school are more likely to drop out, and dropouts are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.

Her performance in CEMEX Auditorium at the annual Cubberley Lecture of the Stanford Graduate School of Education was inspired, in part, by conversations she had with researchers at the GSE, whom she called her "muses." This was the first time she had presented this material, and there are plans for additional readings nationwide in the coming year in which she shares more of this new work.

For the show, which was followed by a wide-ranging discussion with GSE Professors Prudence Carter and Sean Reardon and included questions from the audience, Smith channeled the voices of six people in education: two university professors (one was Reardon), a teacher, a principal, a school welfare liaison and a community youth adviser.    

It paid particular attention to themes of race, poverty and the effect zero tolerance discipline policies can have on students of color. Black, Latino and Native American children are dismissed from schools at higher rates than whites.

Consistent with her previous performances and "documentary-theater style," the testimonials were drawn verbatim from extensive interviews she conducted and recorded over the past year.

A master of mimicry, Smith, known for TV roles on "The West Wing" and "Nurse Jackie," captured the nuances of her characters — with subtle hand gestures, a change in shoulder posture here, a tilt of the head there, shifting of the eyes and, most of all, the varying inflections, rhythms and pace of their words, with her voice soft in a whisper one moment and then next raised to a shout that boomed across the theater. It added up to powerful performances filled with violence, pain, fear, love, humor and, most surprisingly, hope.

"Phenomenal people doing phenomenal things," is how she described her subjects during the post-performance discussion.

The first monologue was Maxine Greene, a professor emerita at Columbia Teachers College. Greene talked about schools as factories, and recalled Thomas Jefferson's education policy that included singling out the “geniuses” from the "rubbish."

Through Stephanie Williams, a teacher in Philadelphia, Smith personalized the experience of an educator dealing with emotionally scarred kids — ones who throw desks, curse at their teachers, pick fights. “It’s like running a jail without a gun," Williams said.

The testimonial from Roberto Pena, a child welfare attendance liaison for San Francisco Unified School District, was saturated by the violence he's witnessed, growing up in El Salvador and now, in his current role in California: words such as death, funerals, cremation, dying punctuated his commentary.

With Arnold Perkins, the former director of the Alameda County Health Department, Smith took on the perplexing — and comic — issue of saggy pants. Perkins, who describes himself as a community servant, volunteers at many youth organizations, and Smith shows him puzzling about why the young men he meets always pull their pants down further before they sit across from him.  The monologue has the age-old exasperation of adults with teenagers, and had the audience in stitches over the generation gap, while weaving in serious issues of power, authority, autonomy and community that kids, specifically African-Americans, play out by letting their pants hang so low.

Linda Wayman, a principal at Strawberry Mansion High in Philadelphia, told of the tough love she gives her students —100 percent of whom are from economically disadvantaged families. Smith displayed Wayman's earnestness to get her kids to go on field trips “to find new experiences” or to go to college — just to be hopeful of another way to live. If you only reach one, she says, then you've done good.

Smith's channeling of Reardon marked one of several moments of levity despite the weighty issues being articulated. Smith indicated the monologue was as much to have fun with the fact that he was in the audience as it was to convey his important research — he had described it to her as “educational epidemiology” — on the widening income gap and thoughts on testing and assessments in schools.

"One of the questions for us as Americans is are we going to have to give up some basic ideas we had of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," Smith said later. "I'm very distressed that people don't think that we've made much progress in 60 years since Brown v Board of Ed and that it might be worse and we're living in times of segregation again."

While each monologue got at the issue in different ways and through different perspectives, they were bound by their ability to draw the audience into the individual's story and experience, and to shed light on the problems in education that, while the subject of studies and data, often become too abstract.

"I'm interested in full humans, feeling humans, struggling humans, wounded humans," Smith explained. "So I'm very interested in the struggles people have and wondering what in the world can be done to break generations of violence and poverty and incarceration."

The performances sparked a lively discussion on the power of the arts to personalize complex issues and create empathy.

"I wonder," Carter said, "if this is also a conversation about how different types of people should be involved in the policy process."

Reardon, who invited Smith to come to Stanford to present this work, noted that as a policy researcher, his approach to issues of educational inequity is often from the "35,000 foot landscape." He echoed the views of others in the audience when he said how much he valued Smith’s being able to show how the individual is impacted on the ground. She not only makes the research real, he explained, but also adds entirely new dimensions to it.

Smith, a former faculty member at Stanford who is now at New York University, urged all those involved in education to practice more understanding.

"I think the conversation needs to be filled with a call for compassion and love. We don't really talk about love," she said. "But it seems to me that maybe that's something that has to be thought about, to have a more loving society — in a big way — not such a punitive society, which is of course why we're in the state that we are with the school to prison pipeline with kids being yanked out of school for what would be called mischief in wealthy communities and sent to jail."

During the Q&A, members of the audience questioned Smith about her interview techniques ("I like to pick people who have a lot to say"), and noted that violence should be studied more in relation to schools and student outcomes.

One person advocated for more humanities to help children learn to express themselves, and another pondered how teacher preparation programs rise to the challenge of training teachers to deal with the traumatic situations like the ones described in Wayman and Williams' interviews.

Smith said that she is planning to do a series of workshops on the project at the Berkeley Rep this summer in which she will be seeking to engage more people in dialogue about how to advance the project.

The Cubberley Lecture was co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Education, the Workshop on Poverty, Inequality and Education and Stanford Live.

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