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Tuesday, April 13 and Friday, April 16.

At the end of class on Tuesday, it seemed pretty clear that many of the Latino and black eighth graders in Valerie Barth’s class on immigration and identity, saw lighter skin as an element of beauty. Curves too.

So on Tuesday when they gather again, Barth asks them to name three female black celebrities they consider beautiful.

It’s a restless class of 26 students – seven are absent – and as students call out their answers, Barth has to stop and review their Tribe Agreement posted in the library: attentive listening, no put downs, right to pass and mutual respect. They read them out and Barth reviews again what each means.

The students calm down long enough for us to find out that the girls have opted for Alicia Keys, Oprah, Halle Berry.
The boys? Michelle Obama. There’s some back and forth on whether Michelle has two Ls or one, but despite their preferences for light skin on Tuesday, it no longer seems to matter for the First Lady.

To prepare them for a short film on Ghana, Barth asks if they remember from last year’s social studies class where Ghana is.
“Where they play soccer,” one boy says and Barth decides it’s time for a review.
When the film starts, it’s late and so Barth promises to resume the lesson on Friday.

* * *
On Friday, 28 students return and even though it’s the last day for grading, the last day to turn in unfinished work, they are unusually quiet.

One boy counts out the 17 pages of his typewritten report on child soldiers in Afghanistan. When I ask to look at it, he hands it over, but first warns, “Don’t mess up the pages.”

Why Afghanistan? “…because my uncle Tony is in Afghanistan in the Armed Forces and I want to know why he is in this war,” he writes.

It’s a reminder that for these eighth graders, American foreign policy is not as abstract a topic as it might be for others.
With papers handed in, Barth picks up from where she left off on Tuesday.

We watch the short documentary, “Why Do White People Have Black Spots?” In it, Ghanaian adolescents talk about the questions they have for their counterparts in America.

When it’s over, students talk about how comfortable the Ghanaian students appear with frizzy hair and dark skin.
“They were like dressing carefree,” says one girl.

“They look like they don’t care what people think of them; they look comfortable about looking African,” says another.

The work sheet asks students to pick one of the questions the African students asked and answer it. Students take the exercise seriously—trying to answer questions like whether the father is the boss of the house (it depends, if you’re living with a single mother) or why Africans are poor (we probably have more resources), but the sense of the coming weekend and the class ending starts to emerge.

The last question on the worksheet is “What would you like to tell the world?”

Most repeat versions of what their peers in the film have said—the world is one, peace is better than war, and so on. But one boy sets world peace aside. “They should play more baseball,” he suggests.

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I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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1 Comment

  1. The youth that you see in this video had spent weeks working and collaborating with each other, doing just what this class is doing–talking amongst each other about their identity, how they wanted to be seen, and their opinions about local and global policies. It is great to hear that the conversation continues!

    -Anya Kandel
    Executive Director, Momentus International

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