Marble Equity Team Hosts Film Screening, Discussion of Social Disparities

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Friday, January 24, 2020, 7:40 am
Emily Joan Elliott

Above: Merkeb Yohannes speaks at the event (photos by Raymond Holt)

What local actions can be taken to address inequalities, including those that impact children in the East Lansing Public Schools? What can East Lansing-area residents do to promote not only equality – treating all people the same – but also equity – providing all with the same tools for success, recognizing that we do not all start out with the same tools at our disposal?

On January 22, 2020, the Marble Equity Team tackled those overarching questions by screening the documentary film The Great American Lie and hosting a panel discussion localizing the film’s themes.

The Marble Equity Team was formed at Marble Elementary School in 2018 when strategic planning for the school’s future and mission drew attention to issues of equity. The group seeks to tackle equity-related issues, while the standing Parent Council at Marble focuses its efforts on a variety of other school-related issues.

Above: Terah Chambers (right), Vice President of the East Lansing School Board, speaks at the event

The Team currently consists of approximately a dozen parents and guardians to Marble students, and has many supporters in the community, including teachers and the school’s principal, Josh Robertson. The Team has worked with teachers to receive grants to purchase more inclusive library books, organized student assemblies that are more diverse than in the past, started a food pantry, and more.

The Great American Lie is the final film in a trilogy created by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. The film, like the Marble Equity Team, focuses on how various identities – including race, class, gender, ability, residency status, and among others – generate both privilege and oppression, including by leading to the unequal distribution of resources over the lifespan.

While introducing the film at the event held at East Lansing High School, Erin Roberts of the Marble Equity Team and one of the two event facilitators, warned that the film could make viewers uncomfortable. But, Roberts said, that discomfort must be embraced to begin to affect change in our community.

Above: audience members at the event listen to the presenters

Dana Watson, the event’s other facilitator, added while not all inequities are intentionally created, the Team hoped the film would draw the audience’s attention to inequities facing our local community and would encourage change.

The film brings viewers to communities across the United States. We meet a school principal in Oakland, California, who is trying to help her students as they deal with poverty, violence, and the loss of loved ones through deportation. We encounter former employees of a steel mill in Ohio, grappling with unemployment and opioid use meant to dull the pain of daily struggles. We are introduced to a woman in Louisiana who tries to put her political and religious views into action by volunteering with a faith-based food pantry. Another woman of Indian-descent fights for the rights of women in low-paying jobs, particularly in the restaurant and food industries in America’s cities.

The film conveys the message that by embracing values that our society has coded as male – power, money, and individuality – we have devalued characteristics usually deemed female, such as empathy, compassion, and collaboration. The film shows how the American Dream is inherently difficult for many to achieve. It ends with the suggestion that by recognizing the inequities in our communities, we can work to generate change and equity.

Localizing these issues after the screening, the panel first addressed the question of what actions the audience could take to address issues raised in the film.

Jordan X. Evans, a community organizer affiliated with One Love Global, Black Lives Matter, and several other initiatives in the Greater Lansing area, opened with a call to address policy issues, particularly on the local level, to complete census forms in order to receive government-funded resources, and to vote.

Terah Chambers, an MSU Professor of Educational Administration and Vice President of the East Lansing Board of Education, and Merkeb Yohannes, Senior Program Director with the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence and member of the refugee community, both highlighted how fighting for equity can seem overwhelming. Chambers began by calling for the community to focus on local issues.

Yohannes followed up by commenting how the system’s inherent inequities makes fighting for equity feel overwhelming and has the potential to burn people out.

Above: Jordan X. Evans (left) speaks at the event

The facilitators then honed in on issues of economic equity, asking how our community can ameliorate these issues. Yohannes argued that if we, as a society, demonstrate value with money, we need to compensate people fairly for their work. Evans followed up by noting a bill passed by the State Legislature in Lansing to improve the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2022.

The third question posed asked the panelists how we can embrace feminine values of empathy and compassion.

Melissa Fore, Fixed-Term Faculty at James Madison College at MSU and founding member of the Marble Equity Team, critiqued the notion of feminizing such values, arguing that compassion and empathy should be human values. The panel agreed and suggested remedies, such as investing taxpayer money in schools and mental health, using privilege for positive change, and pushing for necessary reform even when the road is slow and difficult.

Above from left: Merkeb Yohannes, Melissa Fore (speaking), andTerah Chambers.

Other members of the Marble Equity Team were in attendance and expressed excitement about the Team’s work. Monica Fink, President of the Marble Equity Team, noted that the film screening represented a follow-up to implicit bias training that the Team offered to the public in 2019.

During the discussion, one mother who has had several children attend Marble said she appreciates how the Team’s work has been based on the compensation charity model, providing children who lack the resources with book fair money and Halloween costumes. However, she said, she also welcomes to chance to create new, more equitable systems and traditions at Marble.

Principal Josh Robertson, who was in attendance, indicated he is happy with the Equity Team’s work and appreciates its commitment to all children at Marble and to encouraging conversations that examine equity.

Simón Perrazza, a native of Detroit who moved to East Lansing and attended Red Cedar while in fifth grade, told those present that he is proud of East Lansing but remembers feeling noticed by his classmates as one of the few students of color in the 1980s.

Perrazza said he hopes that the Equity Team’s work will help the community use its privilege to continue to fight for inclusivity, to recognize all the forms of oppression that people face, and to see itself in relationship to its surrounding communities.


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