I recently started volunteering at a school garden once per week. For one hour every Tuesday morning, I put on my Danskos, pretend to know something about urban farming, and work with other volunteers to teach elementary schoolers about plants, bugs, weather, fruits and veggies, and concepts of character-building and respect.
During a recent session, we talked with third graders about garden ecosystems, explaining how the fate of their little school-side plot depends on a healthy balance of good bugs, bad bugs, soil, silt, clay, and water. We did a scavenger hunt for spiders, bees, and beetles. We touched the dirt. They were grossed out but giggly. I was learning.
The kids at this school are primarily from lower-income households and the average classroom makeup is about 90% African American.
Why does that matter?
Because demographics are how we understand our ecosystem. We view our world as a balance of "good" people, "bad" people, Black, White, Hispanic, rich, poor, college-educated, doctors, fast-food workers, homeowners....a makeup of racial and socioeconomic checkboxes.
This election season has made me more keenly aware of how categorical the American outlook can be. And no, it's not just a Republican way of viewing the world, but there is a Republican tendency to see the Other as "bad bugs." Dirt that shouldn't be touched, let alone tilled for a healthy harvest.
When Donald Trump claims that Judge Gonzalo Curiel can't aptly do his job because "He's a Mexican," when former employees say Trump believes that "laziness is a trait in Blacks," when he refers to ghettos and inner cities while discussing African-American issues, when he tokenizes Black people (er...person) at his rallies, Trump upholds the kind of stereotypes that belittle the contributions and potential of entire races. He's saying it's okay to look at a five-year-old Black girl and make automatic and negative assumptions about her destiny. That it's okay to see a Hispanic third grader and think he'll amount to nothing but a criminal.
Many of us are grossed out. We're not very giggly. But are we learning?
If you have the privilege of spending an hour exploring a garden with a six, seven, or eight-year-old, it will change your entire week. Seeing those kids light up about a butterfly (the boy who knew it was a Monarch -- heart, consider yourself melted), exclaim how much they love strawberries, oranges, APPLES!! (I feel you -- shoutout to nature's candy), or tell you what they know about rain barrels (can you also help with all my dying plants?)...it's adorable, inspiring, magical, even. At the risk of sounding trite, there is truly something special about witnessing that level of enthusiasm and wonder. These young urban farmers are so full of potential. They're not afraid of digging into the dirt, of learning about its many colors, layers, and textures, of doing what they can to keep their little garden healthy.
And no, I'm not an expert on per-pupil spending, school districting, socioeconomics, race relations, or really anything remotely political. But I do know that we have to stop seeing each other -- and our children -- as "good bugs" and "bad bugs" if we want our ecosystem to thrive.