The Re-Education of Alex Bruzan Episode 1: The Story We Find Ourselves In

It’s odd to me that every time I sit down to write a blog post, for WAWM or my own site (Can even plug that here? Seriously, I don’t know the rules about that. I guess I could email someone and ask, but how do I even start that conversation), that I feel the need to preface what I’m about to say. It’s not like I say anything overly offensive or controversial. If fact, I’m so worried about offending someone that I over think every little thing I am write down to the point where it takes way too long to actually get something out onto the screen. I used to think it was a hyper focused desire to not make someone uncomfortable or, even worse, make someone think that I see myself as any better than anyone else – spoiler alert, I’m not. Another layer to my insecurity is trying to figure out how to appropriately view my life experiences . One of the first times I told anyone outside of Dottke that I live in the inner city of Milwaukee was at a BLT meeting over 7 years after being employed with our district. Laz had us talking about something and I felt an intense urge to share that part of my life. Up until very recently I thought the decision my wife and I made to move into the poorest zipcode in Milwaukee, which happens to be 99.2% non-white, was only for personal growth or like a hobby or my way to be an individual and not necessarily something to be shared. Sure, when I come up with an idea or view kids a certain way or naturally think differently most of the impetus behind those thoughts and opinions are shaped through living in a neighborhood where the median household income is $24,000 a year. But what does that actually have to do with education.

It has to do with education because everything has to do with education. My neighbor’s son who doesn’t work, almost always rides around with a beer in the cup holder of his SUV, and loves playing music with loud bass is one of the better sons I know. Because of the bass and honking and occasional yelling, I know he comes to visit his mom, who lives next to me, multiple times a day. Pamela is old and frail and wakes up at 4:30 every morning to go to dialysis. Life hasn’t been as kind to her as it has to me. It hasn’t been as kind to Louis, her son. Louis and I are about the same age. On appearances, you might conclude that would be the only similarity, but because I know him, I know we have a way more in common than not. However, we still have lives that look nothing alike. I think the thing we have most in common, is that we are both just doing the best we can. Sure there are ways to advance efficiency and eak out a little more production in a day, but in the end, we are both just trying to make it from one day to the next the best we can with what we have. What does this have to do with education? I went high school. Louis went to high school. On a micro level, my best compared with his best could be explained away. It could be concluded that I just made better decisions. I mean, we own four paid for houses (although the housing prices here are a little “different”). I got ahead and he didn’t. I did this and that with my education and he did that and this. Two people two results. But when I stop and I look around and there are more and more Louis’s, well intentioned, awesome people, with no way to break out of the cycle of poverty it becomes much more than two people two results. A zipcode with an incarceration rate around 50% isn’t formed randomly, it’s created, birthed if you will. Because that’s really what it is right? The educational process is a lot like the process of growing a baby inside of a womb. School is supposed to be a safe place shielded from the outside world where an individual is nurtured and then sent out into the world on graduation day, ready to go out there and crush it. Only that doesn’t always happen. And I think it happens a lot more for someone that looks like me, than it does for someone that looks like Louis.

The scary thing is, the results of my life are praised and the results of his are used as an excuse to hate him. The diverging point between his life and mine most likely occurred before either of us were 18 years old. It probably happened even sooner than that. Maybe when we were both in elementary school.  I was always good at memorizing things and seeing patterns. If you have a good memory and a knack for pattern recognition, you can actually get pretty far in a traditional school. All I ever had to do was remember some facts and learn the pattern. Even in college, earning a bachelors degree in Mathematics, and then again in grad school, memorize these things and notice these patterns. That was it. In almost 20 years of school I think I had to try half a dozen times. And you know what produced that, a school, specifically Lake in the Hills Elementary School. I don’t know which MPS school Louis went to, but I know that he did go and I know the results weren’t the same. Part of living here is constantly being faced with chances to tangibly have empathy in ways that stretch me. When I see Louis, I only want to see the positive. But when that doesn’t always happen, I remind myself that he is no better or worse than I am. We are both two human beings doing the best we can with what we have. I can’t help but wonder how much of what he has was dictated to him, like it was to me, by his educational experience.

I shouldn’t live where I do, the fact that it took me 7 years to mention it at work is evidence to me that it is a disruption in the social order. It’s weird, I know that. But it’s only weird because I have white skin and I am not poor. Our educational system created me and it created Louis. Healing from 400 years of racial inequity is going to take a long time. But there will be some things that can help speed up the process. Realizing our educational system produces very different outcomes with disproportionally “good” outcomes for whites and then systematically breaking that down and rebuilding it equitably will be paramount to moving us toward greater racial reconciliation at a pace much faster than what we have been experiencing. In order to do that on a macro level, we have to explore our own spaces on a micro level. Some specifics are the same. My intended audience is for our organization, but it is the same message for any school system. Your demographics are going to be different. You may not have the same untold story going on behind the scenes, but the principals are the same. So here we go.

We are in the middle of the greatest disruption to our educational system since World War 2. I wasn’t even close to alive then, nor were my parents in the 1940’s. Actually, there aren’t a ton of people left from that time. I can’t imagine serving in World War 2 and then living through a Pandemic 80 years later. A few years ago we had like 5 snow days in a row or something like that. I thought that was wild. Crazy, right, 5 days. It was awesome. I built a movie/video game hangout space for my kids in the attic. They watched the movie Snow Day 5 or 6 times and played video games for hours on end. It was epic. I got a ton of work done at one of my rentals and my wife, who owns her own web design businesses loved having the kids around more while she worked from home. That was 5 days. My kids, who go to a Milwaukee Public School, had no school, nothing, for weeks in March and April. Weeks. Everything is canceled for the first time since a long time ago. It’s all not happening.

We are now forced to create new systems. We now have to figure out how to do school safely. Safety has always been a top priority, but it has never been like this. Usually it is keep a kid safe from a stranger or keep a kid safe from another kid. Never before has it been keep a kid safe from something we can’t see, something we might have no signs or symptoms is living inside of a kid, and something that we know is coming. We are going to have kids with Coronavirus. They are going to spread it. We are going to have teachers with Coronavirus. They are going to spread it. This is sort of like a never ending tornado siren and we are going to be in one endless tornado drill. We know it’s going to happen, because we are preparing and over preparing for it when we get back to school in September. WAWM is in a good spot because we can start later than schools in other places. It’s not good because the virus spread might be slowed by then, it’s good because we might learn something from mistakes schools make in places that are starting in mid-August.

Any time we make a new system or we do something en mass some people win and some people lose. It’s binary but on a sliding scale. Virtual school, that’s a thing now. It was before, but working at a school that specialized in credit recovery means that we have the privilege of working with students that have failed out of virtual school all the time. They failed out of it, because the promises made to parents and kids that virtual school is the answer they have been seeking rarely pan out. It is never as simple as do the work on the computer and we will give you credit. It doesn’t work that way. So people win and people lose. The winners are those that can continue learning with minimal disruption. If a kid has access to technology (as a side, I will be doing an entire episode on access because access isn’t what we think it is), has decent internet, a parent that can help facilitate and manage the work flow from the kids teacher, and has a home and neighborhood that is free from distractions will do better than the kids in my neighborhood. And here in lies the problem. Little Alex Bruzan would win if this was taking place in the late 80’s or early 90’s and little Louis would lose. Even with 5 kids in small house in the suburbs of Chicago, my mom would have demanded work for me to complete and we would have sat down at the table or on the floor and did that work. For weeks during the start of the pandemic my own kids, living in the poorest zipcode in the state of Wisconsin, had no work. We had to make it up for them. Sure, there were packets we could pick up and we did. We picked up some for our kids and for the neighbors, but from an educational perspective, they were trash. They did more damage because of how confusing they were than good. I love Pamela and I love Louis, but if the pandemic was happening in the 90’s, I doubt they would be printing off worksheets for Louis to do, and I would not blame them for it, that’s for a later conversation.

There are people that will win and people that will lose. In our case there are kids that will win and kids that will lose. I am scared that the kids that will win are more likely to be the kids that look like me and less likely to be the kids that look like Louis. I am scared of that because it isn’t like everything was perfect before the virus showed up. In fact, it sucked. Do you know how I know it sucks? Because we literally have people putting up signs saying Black Lives Matter. I know it’s a movement and an organization but it literally says all over the place that Black Lives Matter. Like we needed to be convinced of that, like one side has to take out advertisement space to say that they matter and the other side has to be reminded constantly that Black Lives do in fact Matter. I have lived in the inner city for 14 years. I can tell you that at least during that time, there has never been more social awareness that racial inequity exists.

Shoot, so that means we are more aware of racial inequity, which has perpetuated racial discrimination, which leads or came out of racist thoughts and feelings, which is what leads us to look at the life decisions of someone not as a symptom of poor educational experiences but as an indictment of the character of the individual. Do you know what happens when we judge a person based on their choices without thinking about what produced those choices? We don’t like the person. What happens when we don’t like someone? We avoid them. And, if we have enough resources, a portion of those resources are used to stay away from the person. When that happens over and over patterns emerge. Resources are used to avoid what we don’t like and we use them to position ourselves around things we do like. I used to think I was insane, like literally insane which is probably proof in and of itself that I am not, but I thought I was insane because I met so few people that choose to use their resources to position themselves around something that is seen as “bad” in an effort to change the “bad” to “good”. That was our original intent on living in the inner city – to help the neighborhood. To make it go from “bad” to “good”. Do you know what happened, it worked. It isn’t “bad” any more. It’s “good”. Here’s the catch, the only thing that changed was me. People still get murdered. The affects of poverty still destroy lives and little Black boys are still put through an educational system that spits them out as an 18 year old with a 50/50 chance of ending up in prison. Bad things happen here, but this is a “good” neighborhood because I believe it to be. I came to that conclusion a few years ago. It started by thinking it wasn’t that bad here. It wasn’t the same as living in a suburb, but it wasn’t that different. Then it morphed into not bad and just different. Now I am convinced it is all good, different or not. I was the one that deemed it a bad place. Sometimes I wonder if it is actually that simple. Stop seeing the inner city as bad and reframe it as good. Celebrate it rather than blame the people that live here. I wonder what would happen if all 1.5 million residents of metro Milwaukee reframed how they thought about my neighborhood. What actions would come out of a change in attitude? I am in a financial position to sell everything and move any time I want to, but, as of right now, I have no intention of doing so. If others didn’t see it as “bad” any longer, they would start to wonder why the outputs of the neighborhood aren’t that great? The conclusion they would come to is poverty. 14 years is enough time to see the cycle of poverty run through more than one iteration. Poverty is cyclical and on another episode I can show you how I know that to be true. That cycle is perpetuated much easier when a majority of the poor people live in a few areas, like my neighborhood.

A contributing factor to that, in part, is how the metro area of Milwaukee has decided to organize itself. Certainly, this isn’t the only cause, but it can’t help the problem. Milwaukee is generally accepted to be one of, if not, the most segregated metro area in the country. How many people have you ever known that make a decision about where they are going to live based on their contribution or participation in segregation. (Because all 1.5 million of us living in and around Milwaukee either make it more segregated or less based on the demographic make up of where we live. We are either helping solve the problem of segregation or allowing it to happen based on how we decide to orient ourselves). Good schools and safety are usually at the top of the list of must haves for a younger home buyer. So if a person chooses where they live based on the education their kid will get and their general perception of safety, they will never choose to live in my neighborhood. That is why it is strange when I see a white person around here (at my house where I am writing this right now). So does that mean that it’s ok for my neighbors kids to go to crappy schools and live in fear? The same neighbors that don’t actually have a choice on where they live, because they grew up going to crappy schools and living in fear and are stuck in the cycle of poverty.

I don’t know how you have a metro area that is hyper segregated without also having some serious racial tension. I feel it. It’s everywhere two people that look differently interact with each other. The tension goes away when relationships are formed and friendships created. By the way, the absence of feeling racial tension doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It means that you don’t notice it, and it’s possible someone reading this or listening to a recording of me talking this through has oriented themselves so far away from anyone that is different than themselves that they don’t even have the opportunity to know that racial tension exists. That is what happens in hyper-segregated spaces. It’s easy to forget about anything other than what is right in front of you, and if what is right in front of you is all the same why would you ever have to think about someone that is different.

Ok, so now let’s drill down a little more and talk about West Allis/West Milwaukee. I am not a historian. I like statistics, but I don’t want to use them to prove a point, at least not now. So we can talk in generalities, our district has historically been majority white and now, very recently, we are minority white. That is a shift that doesn’t happen over night. It happens gradually based on a bunch of different factors. Diversity is good. Diversity is actually one of the best things our school district has going for it. Diversity should be celebrated systematically. Diversity actually allows us to do equity work, because we can actually try and create equitable outcomes within the system we have control over. For our school district and for any other employee in any other district we find ourselves in a story that has the potential to be framed in one of two ways. We are either championing equity or furthering inequity. It’s binary on a sliding scale just like people winning and losing any time a new system is created. We are in the process of designing and implementing brand new systems. When a new system is created, someone wins and someone loses. The thing is, is that we can be intentional about making sure the wins are for those who need them most and the losses are minimal for those that won’t be negatively effected by them. That’s what this series of blog posts and recordings are going to be about. How do we create equitable outcomes during the greatest disruption in education since World War 2, which just so happens to coincide with the highest social awareness of racial inequities in the last 15 years, in one of the most segregated metro areas in the country, while transitioning from majority white to minority white.

If I hadn’t spent the last 14 years reframing my own views on race and equity and justice, most of my opinions would be useless. My hope is that you can separate my educational experience, which I haven’t even talked about, with my experience living in the inner city. Or maybe what I am actually trying to say is that I have nothing important to add to the conversation about education in WAWM or Wisconsin or America for that matter without my experience living in the inner city and all of my thoughts and opinions can be directly tied back to that part of my life. Maybe that’s why I always feel the need to preface a piece of content I create. I don’t want you to think you should care about Alex Bruzan, Deeper Learning Coach at Dottke High School. I have some cool ideas, but that’s about it. I would much rather you think about me as Alex Bruzan, advocate for Louis and for every other person living in my neighborhood and 53206 and whatever version of that exists in the city you are in, and when I suggest we think differently or consider something, I am not doing it for personal gain, or to climb some educational hierarchical ladder. I am saying these things because I have been re-educated by living in the inner city and I want to share what I have learned so that my neighbors kids (yeah, there is a whole episode on that) have the same access to an educational experience that will allow them the same ease of access to financial freedom through a fulfilling career as my kids will.