If you live in New York City, or catch some NYC news feeds, the controversy of NYC schools chancellor, Cathie Black, is old news. For those of you who are not aware, the appointment of Black by Mayor Bloomberg (who may I add is in his third term which the people did NOT vote for) has been a zone of contention for many parents, teachers, and activists. Much of the concern around her appointment stems from her lack of experience in the field and her hiring procedures. Now, her “jokes” around birth control in NYC schools can be added to that list of concerns.
I’m a bit late to this story as I’m still trying to enjoy my last few days of vacation before the semester begins and I’m back to teaching on a regular basis. After reading some commentary on a few social networking sites by colleagues working in school based health centers in the city, I had to look up the story and read what exactly happened.
Perhaps there is too much irony in the fact that many of the sources that came up in an Internet search for this story were of a conservative space. Even the articles that referenced their original source came from those conservative news outlets. The one space I found online that offered a video of the conversation was at Clutch Magazine in an article written by Liane Membis. Watch the video below of the exchange:
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Here are some of the concerns I have regarding her statement:
I have no problem with humor in the workplace, especially at tense meetings. What I have learned is that using humor takes skill and accountability for what may be the outcome. After all, it is not the intent, but the outcome that is often what folks remember and need to apologize for. What my concern about this joke is the connection to the history of eugenics, forced sterilization, racism, classism, and ableism that is not unique to the US, but that has a very specific history in NYC. For more information about specific experiences in NYC I suggest two texts: Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement by Jennifer Nelson, and Killing The Black Body by Dorothy Roberts.
The comment made “could we just have some birth control for a while? It would really help us out” was made while a man was speaking of overcrowding in schools. He was speaking about what the current overcrowding situation is when she made that comment. Her comment regarding birth control is not appropriate because she made it regarding a situation where children are already here. Thus, it can be/is interpreted as questioning why birth control was not used by parents. I’m of the opinion that it is extremely tasteless to question why parents chose to continue a pregnancy and parent versus other options, especially years after their child is born.
“But the parents at that downtown Manhattan meeting were overwhelmingly white and well-off, which may have been why she felt she could make the joke in the first place. She knows that those folks are not going to think she is really telling them to stop breeding.
The rich white lady from Manhattan might have received a very different reaction had she attempted that humor in a poor neighborhood where hope lives in the children and the realization of that hope resides in education.
The poor have historically been told by people of Black’s station to stop breeding and being such a burden”
Black, as a racially White woman with a large amount of power in how NYC schools are managed, must recognize how her power can be misused, even in conversations. Ignoring, forgetting, or being ignorant in how youth in NYC and their families have been treated regarding birth control and family size is not going to help convince her team or parents that she is a strong leader. Historical memory is real and there are many parents and inter-generational families that remember vividly what has happened regarding forced sterilization and over access to some forms of contraception in their community.
I’ve shared before how much of a challenge working in a school based health center was for me, especially in east Harlem where the student population was 100% youth of Color. One of the many challenges was questioning at one point why all of these contraceptive options were offered exclusively and so easily to the youth of Color I worked with versus the working class racially White youth, or youth with various social locations different from the students I worked with. It made me think more about what it means to have access and what it means when some underrepresented communities have more access than others.
I know I’m not alone in my discomfort or concern. Yet, I do not think this is a complete failure or mistake on Black’s part (or on Bloomberg’s in appointing her). There is some good that can come out of such comments and mistakes.
What I appreciate about Black’s comments is that she is comfortable discussing contraception. I remember how much activism we did on lobby day to Albany, the grants applied for just to offer the services to the students we work with on a regular basis so they can make the best decisions for themselves. Discussing these topics in NYC schools is not as present as it could be and Black may open up such dialogue. She is clearly pro-contraception, yet that does not mean she is pro-choice. We’ll have to see what legacy she may leave, if any, while in her new position. I admit, although I think her comment was tasteless and dangerous, I am hopeful for the potential in conversation.