Roxhill Rocks!

For better or worse, the lines of “local “and “global” are blurring, and old concepts of “think global, act local” and its many variants no longer neatly apply.  As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman commented at a World Affairs Council event a few years ago, his shift from covering “third world” economies reeling from debt and internal inequality to reporting on the U.S. economy wasn’t such a big leap.

Indeed, a welcome trend in “development” conversation is the shift from thinking in terms of poor countries and rich countries to thinking in terms of disadvantaged communities or regions anywhere in the world.  More people are talking about inequality locally, regionally, and globally, which poses a different set of challenges than does the alleviation of poverty in a more homogenous setting.

Local inequality is on my mind this week as I work with teachers at Roxhill Elementary School in south Seattle on their first ever auction.  It is school fundraising season, when north end schools comfortably bring in $200,000 or so to round out salaries and pay for art and music enrichment.  Roxhill, on the other hand, is looking at a $190,000 reduction in its budget for next school year with no parent fundraising body in place to make this up.  They stand to lose their City Year volunteer, reading intervention specialist, and their afterschool reading and science programs.  I am sure that Seattle is not the only city with schools facing two very different funding realities.

Roxhill is an amazing school tucked away on the Seattle/unincorporated King County line.  Roxhill opened in 1958, led by Seattle’s first African-American principal, Mr. Harrison Caldwell.  It is located in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in King County.  Roxhill represents this diversity, with 35% Latino, 26% African American, 18% Asian, 18% Caucasian and 3% American Indian students.  Over 60-percent of the student body receives special education or ESL support, and over 80-percent of families live below the poverty line and qualify for free and reduced lunch.

But what drew me into helping Roxhill was the fact that its principal and teachers understood their funding realities and decided to do something about it.  At my child’s school, a parent-led auction committee starts ten months out and plans a magical event that raises around $140,000 each year.  At Roxhill, teachers began meeting in February and worked through their vacations and weekends to pull together an event designed to engage the community beyond their parents, who cannot afford to give any more than they do now.  I spent a few hours at the school yesterday.  The teacher coordinating the auction used her prep period to meet with me, and another teacher came in between her classes to update the procurement spreadsheet.

Increasingly we can apply our experiences helping communities far away to our search for ways to help communities within our own city.  The same concepts that we think about on an international scale—charity, dependence, new forms of partnership, capacity building, and need for systemic transformational change—apply to intra-city collaborations.  Many people have floated the idea, for example, that north end schools give a percentage of their auction proceeds to disadvantaged schools in the south, but concerns about cold hand-outs and dependence without action keep north end schools from doing so.  As we rethink global aid, it is also time to re-imagine how we might close local gaps of inequality.

Roxhill offers us a new example for acting on our concerns about the inequality of school funding.  Certainly we need to find new funding mechanisms for public schools in general.  But Roxhill’s strategy of expanding its community well beyond its boundaries resembles small NGOs elsewhere in the world that expand their community to include us as partners in their work.  Roxhill isn’t looking for charity but rather partnership, and people have responded.  Parents from at least three north end schools have jumped in as volunteers, donors, and auction attendees because they could see how their contributions could be magnified by the energy and creativity of Roxhill staff members.

University of Chicago professor of law and ethics Martha Nussbaum, in her thought-provoking book For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, gives us examples of how in-depth experience close at hand can translate into greater empathy beyond our direct sphere of influence.  She speaks as a parent about the need to invest yourself deeply in the love and care of your own children.  “But that should not mean that we believe our country or family is really worth more than the children or families of other people—all are still equally human, of equal moral worth.”

Most of us know that people outside of our direct community have the same worth as we have.  The challenge is finding new ways to reinforce this belief with structures that ensure traditionally disadvantaged people have access to tools that allow them to experience dignity and equal opportunity.  Roxhill shows us how one community can expand its borders and include us in their effort to give its children (in the adapted words of John Dewey), “What the best and wisest parent wants for his [or her] own child.”

I learned yesterday that a number of items for the auction came in from an unknown source.  Turns out that the school’s meter maid incorporated auction procurement into her route and landed a bunch of donations from local businesses and police officers.  If you are in Seattle and want to join me at the Roxhill Elementary School “Night for the Stars” auction, it takes place on May 12th at Twist in Belltown from 6:30-9:30pm.  Roxhill Rocks! is a school motto.

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