An Exciting Move On School Relations

COMMENT

November 01, 1992|By KEVIN THOMAS

The day Jackie Brown took over her new job as the Howard County school system's human relations coordinator, a Ku Klux Klan member was spotted passing out hate literature to students at a county elementary school.

The recruitment leaflets included a prominent picture of Mickey Mouse engaged in an obscene gesture. Underneath the picture were the words, "Hey, nigger!"

That was a poignant beginning for Ms. Brown. She keeps a copy of the leaflet hanging in her office. But you can seldom find her there. She has spent much of the last few weeks outside, meeting school officials, teachers and parents.

Many of those who have come into contact with her are calling Ms. Brown's hiring one of the smartest moves school officials have made. And rightly so.

What Ms. Brown has done in a short time is no less than inject the school system with some excitement about combating the county's human relations problems.

After a depressing year in which a number of hate-related incidents bubbled to the surface, school officials had been desperate for a way out. Jackie Brown, a former associate professor at Bowie State University and a family counselor, seems to know the way.

Ms. Brown first wants those of us who live in Howard County to understand where we've been. It has everything to do with the county's unique history and the "myths" we have created about ourselves and the place we live.

One of those myths is that ethnic, racial and sexual discrimination doesn't exist in Howard County; that the utopia that Columbia supposedly brought to this place has erased all the ugly attributes that mar the rest of society.

Ms. Brown says that believing in the myth has made us "vulnerable to a creeping cancer of discrimination." Acts of racial and ethnic hate do indeed happen here. Because we are so surprised by them, however, we're not sure how to react.

Ms. Brown has two goals.

One is to help school officials and students deal effectively with hate-related incidents, while teaching a broad respect for the diversity of all people.

The other goal, probably the more difficult to achieve, is to bring together the interest groups and leaders that make up the

school community. From that, she wants to create a dialogue that fairly addresses the aspirations of all parties.

Now frankly, this is social science stuff. It's about creating "models" and recognizing "paradigms." It's about negotiating "value systems" and how to respond to "signal incidents."

Ms. Brown feels very comfortable talking about such things. But it is not necessarily the words she uses that have captivated so many. It's the passion and conviction she brings to the mission.

I am convinced that one of the reasons she has been embraced with such enthusiasm is that she rejects anything that pulls people apart. She talks about multi-culturalism as if it were a wonderful gift. Never mind that 20 years of attempted integration has produced few results and sometimes seems as if it has turned people more passionately against one another.

Ms. Brown knows this, but she says we've missed the point of integration. We thought it meant that everyone would be alike. What it means is a constant struggle to understand and rejoice in the diversity of others.

She appeals to the higher ideals in us all. How refreshing. Where do we get started?

Ms. Brown says that when she started her job, she realized she was confronting a fractured community.

"The people who were supposed to be talking had already gone into their own separate groups," she says, laughing. "They just didn't know they were supposed to come back and negotiate."

In that vein, Ms. Brown talks about oppressors and victims. But she isn't talking necessarily about white oppressors and black victims. It could easily be the reverse. The task is to recognize where you fit among the two groups, and why you have invested so much in a role that produces nothing positive.

Realizing this, people can stop playing the old roles. Besides, the enemy is seldom the person. Ms. Brown says we must learn not to assume that other people do what they do because they are mean-spirited. Often, they simply don't have the tools to do the right thing. Not yet, anyway. Ms. Brown is working on the tools.

It's simple. And complex. It's about coming up with a model that is unique to our community, one that will take us out of this period of strife.

There is an enemy: "The oppressive paradigm," Jackie Brown says. "It diminishes the human spirit."

The reason Jackie Brown is so popular is that she is a reflection of what we want to achieve. She convinces us that the road map is within us already, and that finding it will make us better for the journey.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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