My mother was a teacher and her friends and all my aunts were teachers, and they really changed lives: For a long time, school has been considered a potent intervention against poverty, inequality and racism and the intersection of all three.
But like a lot of people, I had lost touch with the fact that schools have been in such decline. I don't think about school discipline, so I didn't know about the school-to-prison pipeline; it was news to me that black, brown and Native American children who are poor are disciplined more harshly than their wealthy or middle class counterparts — as well as poor whites. I was floored by the statistics that show that poor kids are disproportionately dealt with harshly by school systems, when school has been a way out of poverty.
But once I opened my eyes to it, I started to hear about five-year-olds being taken out of kindergarten in handcuffs for having temper tantrums, or that very troubling video of a girl being thrown across the room by a school resource officer in Columbia, South Carolina. I couldn't understand why kids who are poor are considered threats at a very early age and not allowed to be mischievous — in some ways, not allowed to be children.
So, with education in my DNA I thought, "Wow, it's time for me to go back to my roots."
For a long time, school has been considered a potent intervention against poverty, inequality and racism and the intersection of all three.
With "Notes from the Field," I wanted to look at where we make investments in this country, whether in the prison system and in asking our police to go out and just look for kids, sweep them off the street and throw them in juvenile hall, or in creating big, robust, innovative learning environments.
There is a pathologizing of poverty in America; it is as if some think that people make themselves poor. Current activists use asking for an end to systemic inequality as a rallying cry, but hose words may be too vague for some to respond. We see inequality, but the “systemic” part doesn’t have a face.
Maybe one reason for that idea is because you can't really see systemic inequality; it's a concept. We have to be willing go back and forth between classes and between circumstances in our own lives, and see the extraordinary disparities that other people face. But it can a harder thing for people to really grasp if they're not thinking about it, and easier to think about individual responsibility than the systems affecting us.
When I was invited to do this project, I thought, "The good thing that the theater could do is put a face on it, to ask audiences to open their hearts as well as their minds." It was hard for me to turn away from some of these incredible people who I interviewed, so I figured that it would be hard for audiences to turn their backs on them, too.
I hope that people in policy spaces can use it, because I know that it will elicit a different type of conversation or consideration. I want to get them to stop talking so much, and watch and feel. Things need to change, and we need people to change them, whether that's people of means doing big things, or young people becoming active themselves.
One of the people I interviewed, Pedro Noguera, an education scholar, really believes that the kind of activism that can change our systemic problems will happen not in colleges but in high schools. Maybe we're already seeing it this week after the awful tragedy in Florida: Activism that has been the instant response to it, and it's coming from people who are in high school.
I hope that that type of activism can happen not because of tragedy but because teenagers are beginning to understand that they are the future, and they're going to make the future.
As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.
Anna Deavere Smith is an actress, playwright and professor at New York University, where she teaches at the Tisch School of the Arts.