Since the pandemic, I’ve done quite a bit of reporting on local school districts and the ways they’ve responded to COVID-19. I’ve also spoken to dozens of parents affected by the pandemic.
But I’ve recently had to admit that the voices and perspectives that have dominated my thinking as a local education reporter have been more often those of the relatively well-to-do.
This is embarrassing to admit, given my particular focus on equity. It also demonstrates just how easily the interests and priorities of marginalized people slip into irrelevance during crises.
It takes hard work to hear the voices of the marginalized, even for someone like me who’s supposed to be paying close attention to them. That’s true enough during normal times, but the work has been Herculean in the era of COVID-19.
I learned this the hard way last week when I was reporting on parents’ reactions to District 97’s remote learning and the administration’s transition to a hybrid model.
I’ve spoken to some very smart, compassionate, reasonable and well-meaning parents in Oak Park over these last several months — many of whom, like all of us, are at their wits’ end. These parents demonstrate that inequity has many layers.
I’ve spoken to comfortably middle-class people in Oak Park whose children have special needs and who feel marginalized because of their unique experience, but at the same time are aware that their class status affords them relative luxuries like nannies that have helped smooth the remote learning experience.
I’ve heard the voices of Black community leaders and parent advocates who have spoken up about the specters of racism, white supremacy and white privilege that haunt Oak Park and that contour many white parents’ encounters with D97 Supt. Kelley and D200 Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams — both Black women.
I’ve spoken to numerous Black and Brown student activists in Oak Park and River Forest — the bold, the beautiful, the bright and brilliant.
But in my reporting, I haven’t often acknowledged those affected by perhaps the most persistent inequities of material well-being — wealth, resources and connections that facilitate opportunities.
These are the most marginalized people in our community — those who aren’t vocal or very expressive about their suffering; who are poor and resource-starved; who aren’t connected or networked. What are their stories? What do they think about remote learning or hybrid learning or anything else?
I haven’t often recognized them. I don’t go to where they are. I don’t hear them talking in whispers and moving in the shadows. And yet, their suffering will make most of us blush with shame at our relative fortune and embarrassed by our self-involvement, even when our survival necessitates it.
The deepest, most entrenched inequities are those that are unseen and unheard. And the voices of people who are suffering from those most entrenched inequities are the hardest voices to capture.
As a reporter, hearing those marginalized voices sometimes takes traveling the path of greatest resistance. Sometimes, it takes being uncomfortable.
Sometimes, it takes asking ourselves some tough questions. Like how do we center the voices of the marginalized among us even when crises — pandemics, climate events, recessions, civic unrest — force us to focus inward, to ourselves and our own families?
Are we genuinely listening to the perspectives of the most vulnerable and marginalized among us and allowing them to inform our collective actions? That is, are we including everybody in the collective, in the common? Are we in this together as a community or as an aggregate of special interests?
When we rationally respond to external threats, such as the threat of the pandemic to our children’s educations, how do we ensure that we’re not drowning out the voices of those who are suffering much more than we are?
I’ve realized that as a reporter and a person, I haven’t been vigilant about keeping those questions front of my mind, because that’s the only way to ensure that I’m doing everything I can to make sure the voices at the margins of the community are getting heard.
The old maxim says that journalism is about speaking truth to power. But whose truth? And how is that truth presented? From whose perspective? And from what angle? I admit I have to do a better job at presenting the truth more equitably. We all do.