The Epic NEXT Program tasks 15-20 high school students with researching, writing, and performing a play about a social issue, usually related to educational justice. The idea, is that those most impacted by the system, are those most likely to come up with meaningful solutions, and that theater can be used as tool for social change.
Back in 2018, New York Appleseed, an advocacy organization fighting for integrated schools and communities, commissioned EPIC to create a show about school segregation. The result was Nothing About Us, a 30 minute stage play written and performed by high school students.
The process begins with interviews of roughly 40 people about the topic. Ranging from researchers, to parents, to administrators, the goal is to hear from a wide range of stake holders. Those interviews are then transcribed and pieced together, along with some original writing, to create the show. Students recite the words spoken in the interviews, sing and rap, and create scenes from the stories told by the interviewees. The final show, featuring 5 students, with one prop and a handful of folding chairs can then be performed just about anywhere to a wide variety of audiences.
We’re incredibly fortunate to be able to share some clips from a film adaptation of that show today, as well as a conversation with one of the artistic directors of EPIC and two of the students who wrote and performed the piece. If you have ever doubted the importance of youth voice, this show declares, unequivicollay, that nothing about students done without their input, will be for them.
Don’t forget to register for the Fifty State Conversation. Once registered, you’ll receive links to free screenings of Nothing About Us on:
- Wednesday February 17 at 8pm (Eastern Standard Time)
- Wednesday March 17 at 7pm (Eastern Standard Time)
- Saturday April 17 at 3pm (Eastern Standard Time)
- Monday May 17 at 7:15pm (Eastern Standard Time)
If you can’t make one of those, you can rent it on demand.
- EPIC Theatre Ensemble
- The Fifty State Conversation – Sign up today!
- Intetgrated Schools Advisory Board
- Matt Gonzales
- Matt Gonzales’s White Lips to White Ears
- IntegrateNYC‘s 5Rs of Real Integration
- The Promise from Nashville Public Radio
Join our Patreon to support this work, and connect with us and other listeners to discuss these issues even further.
Andrew: Welcome to the Integrated Schools Podcast. I'm Andrew, a White dad from Denver, and this is EPIC’s Nothing About Us: Youth Theater on Integration. You know, school segregation is one of many social issues impacting our democracy. And there's all sorts of work being done to try to address it. From policy briefs, to academic papers, to journalism, to, well, podcasting.
But our show today features a group of artists with the vision to use theater as a tool to improve our democracy. Epic Theatre Ensemble is a youth-focused arts organization based in New York City.
Back in 2018, New York Appleseed, an advocacy organization fighting for integrated schools and communities, commissioned Epic Theatre to create a show about school segregation.
The result of that work was a 30 minute piece called Nothing About Us. Written and performed by high school students, Nothing About Us has been on tour around the country, playing everywhere from theaters to school board meetings.
And I am so excited to be able to share some clips from that show with you and also to introduce you to one of the artistic directors for Epic, as well as two of the students who helped write and perform the show.
And if you enjoy it, we talk at the end of the conversation about Epic's upcoming Fifty State Conversation happening on May 17th and several free screenings of a digital version of the show that are happening before then.
I think that student voice is such a critical piece to finding solutions to societal issues. And Epic does a really great job of empowering youth to address challenging topics with fresh perspectives. So, let's hear it.
Jim Wallert: I'm Jim Wallert. I'm the one of the founders and the co-artistic directors of Epic Theatre Ensemble. And our mission is to create bold new work with and for diverse communities that promotes vital discourse and social change.
Andrew: The work is so powerful and what I love about it is that it's clearly serious theater but it features student actors, student writers, and really aims to center student voice. And I wonder if you can tell us about what the experience looks like for a high school student who wants to be part of Epic?
Jim Wallert: Well, young people are at the center of everything that we do at Epic. We have education programs that we run in partnership with New York City public high schools and a youth arts leadership program that we built called Epic Next and that program is a, it's a three-year program where students create pieces about different sociopolitical issues.
The students do research around an essential question, interview between 40 and Fifty stakeholders. Those interviews are audio-recorded and transcribed and woven together with their own original writing. And they create these 30 minute touring plays that are really about educational justice.
Andrew: And so that's how Nothing About Us came to be. Can you talk a little bit about the origin of Nothing About Us and the crux of what that piece is about?
Jim Wallert: Sure. So they were given this topic of educational segregation and they started doing research. And one of the first things that they learned was that New York City public schools are more segregated today than they were before Brown vs. Board of Education. So, you know, sort of blown away by that news, they, they started looking at this idea of what does separate but equal mean to us in 2018, which is when the piece was originally commissioned. And so that was really the driving force behind it.
Andrew: Tell me a bit about the creation process for a show like Nothing About Us.
Jim Wallert: Yeah, the pieces are created by an ensemble of, you know, some years, as many as 20. So they are conducting these interviews, we're transcribing sections of the audio recordings, and then they are kind of using that text and those audio recordings to create an original character.
Andrew: Right. And the type, types, of people that you interviewed for Nothing About Us, who were you talking to to kind of gain insight on this educational segregation problem?
Jim Wallert: We try to get a really wide range of perspectives. So they talked to students, they talked to parents, to teachers, to administrators, we talked to a lot of different policy experts and education activists. The idea was really to see who are the stakeholders, who's the community that is most affected by these questions, and what do they think about it? How would, how does this affect them and their everyday lives?
Andrew: Right. It's such a, such a powerful piece and, uh, thrilled to also have a couple of the students who were involved in creating it, Chrissy and Lizette, you wanna introduce yourselves?
Chrissy: So my name is Chrissy. I am currently a freshman in SUNY Oswego. I went to Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts as a theater major. I am a Dominican, Afro-Latina basically.
Lizette: Um, hey I’m Lizette. I am a freshman at SUNY Purchase and I also went to Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. And I'm Puerto Rican.
Andrew: Talk a little bit about Nothing About Us, about creating the show, about the writing process. How did that happen, what sort of memories do you have of the creation process?
Chrissy: It was, it was insane. It was an insane two weeks. ‘Cause it was like a whole week, like five days, interviewing 40-something people. And then it was like three days writing the play and there was two days memorizing it and then performing it like right away.
So it was, you got all types of, like, emotions around the room while we're doing that. Like we're stressed and we're trying to come up with that stuff. And then it's like, after we write the play that it's like, okay, who's getting what and how are we going to, like, perform these people that we interviewed?
Because just like Jim said, we're not mimicking the people, that wasn't like the point of the interview. So like the way that we did it, we just like, basically embraced the person that we were talking to. And we're like observing them. It was fun. And honestly, because of Epic it's why I started like to learn things that were happening in the world. I feel like I didn't watch the news before Epic. You understand? And it's funny cause it's just like we were talking about all these topics and then like I found new emotions and like, Whoa, like, it's true! Like, my school is technically segregated because it was just Black people and Hispanics and we don't have a single Asian, a single White person, a single Native American, stuff like that. So I'm like, wow. Like that actually happens in real life. It's not like, just like in the news. So it was like, it just found new emotions.
It's like, I'm like, I really want to perform this well. I want to, like, put out the message about how those, this types of things are happening in New York. When, you know, all you hear is like, Oh no, New York is like so diverse and like, you got everybody from everywhere. But then it's like, you dig deeper it’s like, not really. ‘Cause look at the schools, it was like, What's going on there?
Andrew: Lizette, what are your memories from the creation process?
Lizette: It was very interesting that we had to perform as the people that we interviewed. And how we had to pace how they spoke and how they, what their posture was and how they acted around other people. And so I just felt like that was an amazing experience to become someone that you are not. And it’s a real person. It's not a character from a play, it's an actual person.
And yeah, Epic is professional and to happen to work with them is an amazing thing because where me and Chrissy went to school at, we didn't have a lot of resources and we didn't have a diverse school and it was very limited.
And so to have Epic, this professional theater company, come and want to collaborate with us and want to let the students have their voices heard was really liberating, you know?
Andrew: Not just like, here's this opportunity to do, do theater on a more professional level or something, but also your voice, your perspective, your experience is, is what's going to drive the creation of this art, is what's going to drive this show. I think that's so powerful.
And I love that the show has done really simply, right, some chairs, five student actors, which allows you to do it just about anywhere for any audience. So, I would guess you, you end up in spaces that are maybe not typically used for theater and, and maybe that allows you to perform for people who, who might really need to hear the message but might not choose this sort of theater for a, you know, a typical Friday night or something.
Chrissy: Yeah, Epic knew how to, like, attract the people that needed to hear these types of things. ‘Cause you know, there are moments where we are in a room full of White people and they're just, like quiet. They're like uncomfortable, they’re like not laughing at the jokes that, they, like, feel attacked. It's like, they're Becky. And it's just like, Well, this is for you basically. Now you're freaking paying attention.
Andrew: Right. In addition to the more maybe feel-good types of places that you perform, Jim, can you tell us about some of the, maybe like, more charged environments where the show has been?
Jim Wallert: Yeah, we do perform in school districts that are going through rezoning processes and those performances are always really, they can be really intense, you know. Very often we're told by folks that, you know, The last meeting people got into a shouting match and so we're hoping that this performance and conversation can elevate the level of the dialogue. And I think that that's, that's what happens in a lot of cases.
What I've heard from people who see the performances is that they see five young people speaking their truths and being brave. And that that sets the tone for them. Like, we don't have any excuse not to engage in this discussion in a civilized, empathetic, generous way. That’s been really incredible.
I think that the play is about educational segregation, but I think the students did a really great job in exploring, like, what's at the root of educational segregation and they don't shy away from talking about things like systemic racism. From White supremacy, from resource hoarding and some of these issues that are not just present in the school system, but that I think are, you know, as, as one of the characters in the play says, Woven into the fabric of the flag of this country.
So, so while I think education is something that affects all of us, I think Nothing About Us touches on some of these deeper systemic problems.
Andrew: Right. Yeah, I think we need, we need to listen to some of it. I'm so excited to be able to share some of this and, and to that point, I think you, you set the tone for it well because the very beginning of the whole show, I guess, always started with a similar question, is that right?
Jim Wallert: Yeah, the first question that the students asked every one of the 40 stakeholders that they interviewed was, What is the purpose of school? And so we begin that performance where I'll jump up in front of the audience and ask them for their responses to that same question, What is the purpose of school?
And I'll get a few of them. And then we've pre-set the students in among the audience. So I start calling on actual audience members, but then I start calling on the student actors who hop up and start giving their responses that they learned in the interviews. And it very kind of seamlessly flows from, you know, a conversation about this question just right into the play itself.
Andrew: All right. Let's take a listen to that.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF SCHOOL?
Actor 1: Ah, it’s a great question – I think, ah, I think a cynical, ah, voice in my mind might say that the purpose of school is ah, ah, to get folks to kind of, maybe assimilate or conform to, ah, a certain set of norms or, ah, set of behaviors that our society values.
Actor 2: (laughing lightly) The purpose of school? (laughing lightly) I’m trying to decide whether to be facetious, or…serious. But even my facetious answer is serious. I think schools, currently, are run as a way of warehousing…uh…troublesome younger members of the society.
Actor 3: Schooling, I think of as different from education. Schooling is like, we take everybody’s kids for twelve years and teach them, more or less, to act the same way. The purpose of schooling is a social control thing. The purpose of education is the opposite of that- it’s freedom.
Actor 4: OK, so I had a really rough childhood and school for me was a refuge. School was a place that I could really truly be myself. I really believe that the purpose of school should be to educate the hearts and minds of students and the adults that are engaged in the teaching process.
Actor 5 It’s also to socialize our own community so that we’re not locked into our own family, our own building, our own block. We get to meet and interact with other people, other kids who we might not otherwise see.
Actor 5: Like, democratic equity. Like, building a better democracy. Building, like a body of citizenry that, like, is literate and can like navigate the world. Social mobility. Like, I grew up poor and I was the first person in my family to go to college, to get a bachelor’s degree, let alone to get a master’s degree. So how do I, like, elevate my social, like, status and how do I like, not become poor for the rest of my life?
Actor 2: The purpose of schooling is to create people who are compassionate, people who have empathy, and people who are passionate about creating a just society and a just world.
Actor 1: The purpose of education is not for an adult to stand there and give you knowledge or wisdom. But to ask you questions, help you stumble upon or discover a deeper, more thorough understanding of the world and of yourselves.
Actor 3: School is a career as a young kid.
Why keep us all apart
You want us to learn together
So you shouldn’t sort us out
We all the same- So what
Just put us in together
We’re the same no matter what.
Andrew: So you have the audio from the interviews, you have these sort of, this text that you have, the transcriptions, you're kind of recreating these characters but there's also some language that comes out of what seems like Department of Education town hall meetings, is that right?
Jim Wallert: Yeah, we had transcripts from a few different town hall meetings that went horribly off the rails in terms of conversations. New York Appleseed was able to give us some transcripts and they were like, Just take a look at this, this, this is what the current state of the dialogue around segregation is in some communities around the country.
Andrew: Yeah. You know, throughout, throughout the piece, it's clear the actors are not always playing someone who is their same gender, clearly not someone who is their same race, not someone who's their same age, but there's something really powerful about the really problematic things that White people have said at at town halls coming out of the mouths of students of color.
I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that, that experience, how that is as a performer?
Chrissy: It's the most hilarious thing you could ever see honestly. It's just like so funny that they'd be like really trying to embody this White person. And like, because of those transcripts, I know it's like, it was like the best baseline ever because we heightened that up. Like we went all out when we were playing all those characters. Like they really do, like, over-exaggerate and, like, be overly White and stuff like that. Like be the Karens of like right now. So it's just like...
Andrew: Embrace your inner Karen and bring it out.
Chrissy: Embrace the inner Karen that you have. So it was like the most it's like so funny but like, yeah, it's just like that baseline, the town hall is just like one of the best parts to like show the different point of views of each parent.
Andrew: Did you notice a reaction, particularly from White audience members? To me it's, it's really powerful to hear those words that sound really familiar coming out of the mouths of students of color. Like it, it makes you take it in, in a whole different way. Did you see that happening?
Lizette: Um, yes. When me and Chrissy would have to say “White supremacy”, it was just like, uh, Wait what? like type of look on their face. Like, the way I like to see their faces just be shook and surprised is amazing. I just be like, we did that.
Andrew: Yeah, that's super powerful. Alright, let’s take a listen to the town hall.
And now, A TOWN HALL
The Town Hall School District Representative: [Clearing her throat] Thank you for coming out tonight for this meeting. As we try to address the segregation racially and economically in our schools, we have developed a proposal to change the high school admission criteria to take ELA and Math exams and demographic factors such as socio-economic status, home language, and home address into account.
OK, OK. This will help diversify your district’s schools to not only reflect the diversity of New York City but also to help make equity a cornerstone of our educational system. This is a time to hear from parents, community members, and students so that we can hear your concerns and your ideas.
Parent 1: I have children in the district and I'm concerned with this diversity plan that you are proposing. What about class sizes and the quality of special education for my child with the influx of those low-performing students?
Parent 2: What about the reputation of our school? The recognition of our high-test scores and our kids getting into prestigious programs and high schools? We need to think about the donations from current and former parents. Have you all thought about that? You should because this will cause parents to move and our arts, music, and language programs to disappear.
Parent 1: Let’s not be naïve about the types of students that some schools will be receiving and the potential schools that our children are going to be forced to attend. It matters who’s in the classroom. Why would I make the choice to put my children in an environment that I know will harm them?
Parent 2: We have two choices. Fight for the seats that they want to give away or move. I choose to fight.
Parent 3: What about us? All I hear is the children who look like me are being labeled as poor and underperforming.
Parent 1: Nobody said your kids are underperforming.
Parent 3: You just said they were underperforming!
Parent 1: No I didn’t!
Parent 2: Becky, you kind of did.
Parent 1: I did? Oh damn. My bad.
Parent 4: Those white lips hit those white ears differently than ours do.
Parent 3: What is not being said about our children is that they are smart, creative, caring, and most importantly a potential friend to your child. You all see our children as one way…well I see you all as one way too. People who just take. [In Spanish]: You take over our neighborhoods and right now, you want to take the opportunity for our children to finally get access to the resources that should be a right for everyone.
Parent 1: We worked hard for these opportunities. It is not about “taking” because we are not doing that. It’s about earning what you worked for. We live in a meritocracy.
Parent 4: Can we stop beating around the bush? This is going to happen. That is the hard truth here. I am a beneficiary of a desegregation program and it provided me a chance to have quality teachers and the proper resources to learn but it was hard to be at a school that did not want you. What I want to know is what are principals going to do to help the transition for the students coming into these new schools?
Parent 1: I respect what the last woman said but my wife and I have worked and lived in under-resourced areas as educators and I will add, as minorities in predominantly Black and Latino communities. I share that to say that I am not a racist. Some of you here think that this is a race issue and I will be the first to say that it is not. It is an education issue. My children deserve the high-quality education that they earned through a test that everyone gets to take.
Parent 2: It’s just the system.
Parent 1: Yes, the system. How am I doing to prepare my children to attend these new integrated schools?
The Town Hall School District Representative:: I don't know. How did you prepare your kids to attend segregated schools?
Andrew: It's so powerful. It's so simple. One of the challenges with the school segregation conversation is the ways we tend to treat it as inevitable, right? That like school segregation is just the way things are, is the way things will always be, it's the way things have always been, it's the way things should be. And just that one question instantly makes you reconsider that another thing tied to that sort of inevitability, like the pretending, the phony language we use, the things that we say that we pretend aren't racist, but that clearly are racist. And the beating around the bush scene is such a great window into that. Because there is no visual on a podcast, could you set up, what is the audience seeing when they see this beating around the bush scene?
Chrissy: So when, okay. Opening stage, you're sitting there, you're looking at the stage and there's one singular person in the middle of the stage and that person opens a paper and it says, “The Bush”.
So that person is like being The Bush. You got people taking off their shoe and as they, as they're saying their lines, they're swinging their shoe on the floor and smacking it down because they're beating around the person that, which is The Bush, it's like a hilarious thing when you started watching it. Like, I feel like at first people don't catch on, but once they start realizing like, Oh, wait, they actually are beating around The Bush. Oh my God, that's so funny, you know?
Andrew: So we're, we're going to take a listen. We're going to hear the bush beaters. And then at the end, we get this conversation between people of color and White people. ______________________
And now, BEATING AROUND THE BUSH
BUSH: White supremacy.
BUSH BEATER #1: I’ve put my kid in a majority white school because I think that’s a better educational opportunity. I just feel more comfortable!
BUSH BEATER #2: I’m not racist! I just want my kids to be safe!
BUSH BEATER #3: Standardized tests are used because we believe they give students a chance to achieve based on their own merit!
BUSH BEATER #4: Screened schools provide opportunities to pull students out of poverty!
BUSH BEATER #1: All our kids have an equal education!
BUSH BEATER #2: I’m not racist! I have a lot of black friends!
BUSH BEATER #3: I’m not racist! I saw Black Panther three times!
BUSH BEATER #4: I’m not racist! I don’t see color! I don’t see color!
BUSH BEATER #1: My name is not Becky! My name is not Becky!
BUSH BEATER #2: All lives matter! All lives matter!
(The BUSH BEATERS stop. They breathe heavily.)
Bush: White people. Hi. It’s me, white supremacy.
(The BUSH BEATERS slink away. BUSH transforms into POC.)
POC: America is built on segregation.
White Person: We separate students so that the best compete with the best.
POC: We need to change this MONSTROSITY people call ‘The System’—a RACIALLY biased system that privileges the white and the wealthy.
White Person: This protocol is used because we believe that each set of persons can get their education individually based on their own merit.
POC: WE HAVE BEEN “SEPARATE BUT EQUAL” BEFORE BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION; BEFORE PLESSY V. FERGUSON.
White Person: People of color don’t really stand for America due to the (clears throat) “shade” that is being “thrown at them”
POC: “Land of the free, Home of the Brave” my ass
White Person: Diversity is important
POC: God created us for this reason
White Person: “All men are created equal” — Thomas Jefferson
POC: Slave owner
Andrew: I love that you've got these very current contemporary issues, but also take some time to understand the past and the history that got us to this point. How did that change your own personal understanding as students in the system of the system that you found yourselves in?
Lizette: I mean, when we was learning about the history of segregation and what's going on now, what happened back then, and it's just like, how do we connect those two? And it was just that they perfectly aligned with each other. It was just very interesting to us that it just happens to be the same thing and how they both collide, of back then and now, and it's just really sad.
Andrew: What was supposed to seem like history is actually still right here with us. It's not actually that long ago.
Chrissy: Yeah. So I was a sophomore when we started doing this whole play. So I wasn't like really much aware about what's happening. Like what I see at my school, I used to be like, yeah, regular, normal, no White people. Okay, cool. Whatever. Like, I wasn't really like paying the mind about the whole thing.
And it's just like, you know, with the interviews, it was like, I sat down for a history lesson basically. It's like, it's been from the beginning and it has not changed now. Like you would say, Oh yeah, there was segregation and then like Brown vs. Board of Education, there's no more segregation, yay. But it's like, wait, it's 2018 and there’s still segregation. Like, I like, after like those interviews, I'm like, wait, my school is not normal, actually. It's not like a regular school.
Because there's also like the problem about how in history, they only teach the White history. This is not like the full story. And it's not from all's perspective. This is only from one perspective.
Lizette: It's crazy. Right? ‘Cause kids who happen to be in low income schools and, and low resourced schools, we already know that we happen to be poor. We already know this and you know, people that are in more diverse schools have privilege. We already know this. But kids in low-income schools, they don't project how they feel or they don't know the history.
And I feel like with Epic, it really helped us bring a voice to low income schools and kids that need resources for schools. And it really helped us help them.
Jim Wallert: It's really exciting for me to see students, when they start to research and write a play about educational justice, invariably they will say things like, I can't believe I never noticed this before. You know? I can't believe that I've gone through elementary school, middle school, and a couple of years of high school and it never occurred to me to wonder where the White people were and it's really exciting watching students understanding like it doesn't have to be this way. These are choices that people made. And people blaming the system, but the system is just a bunch of adults who have jobs who are making choices, you know?
Andrew: Right. And, that's why it's so important to understand the history and how we got here. Because when you understand that, then you can understand that it is not inevitable. That it was intentional, that there was real work put in to get us here. And so that provides at least a little hope that maybe work could get us out.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Actor 4: From the transatlantic slave trade onward. From the very establishment of the United States. Segregation is a part of the fabric of the flag of this country. I can't believe I just said that. But when, in the history of America, did we not have to combat segregation?
Actor 2: Maybe after the civil rights movement in the 60’s when we started believing that the problems were solved. Maybe we weren’t critical enough in thinking that there were still problems.
Actor 3: People with power wanted to do something, so they invented things to justify doing that. Everything we think of as racism was justified one way or another- taking someone’s land, forcing them to do work for you, keeping them out of your neighborhoods, creating tests that only certain people will pass- it’s all invented because you want something that consolidates your power and keeps you safe.
Actor 5: There are hundreds of years of history. Hundreds of years of colonialism. In more recent times people have been unwilling to talk about this history and unwilling to talk about segregation. People kind of want to flatten it out and talk about other things and that prevents us from having meaningful change because people aren’t recognizing the real problem.
Actor 5: The primary driver of segregation is white supremacy. Segregation is the child of white supremacy.
Actor 1: We have to look at the history of this country and in doing so you realize that The American Dream was never supposed to be accessible to people of color, or to women or to queer people. That ideal wasn’t created for those people. That is why we call ourselves marginalized. Education is one of the very institutions that clearly demonstrates the marginalization of people who are not white wealthy men. So how did we get here? Very intentionally- by actualizing the American ideal. This IS the American Dream. For the people who created it, this is what it is.
Andrew: That's, um, that's, that's heavy. Particularly as young people of color, young Americans, how do you reconcile that? You know, that this is your country, and yet if you understand how it looks today and the history of how it came to be this way, you come away with this recognition that White supremacy is baked in, that, that as, as the piece says, right, this is the American dream for those who created America.
Where does, where does that leave you? How do you reconcile that?
Chrissy: I don't know. It just goes back to like the whole every man is created equal. And all that, like, it just goes all the way back to that. And how, if we really talk about it, it was just White straight men are created equal. So that line is like super deep, just like you said, it's heavy, it’s deep. This is how they wanted it to happen. Basically, they wanted to have the control. They wanted the White men to be on top. And then White women, and then it's like people of color, you know, it's like all the way down.
Lizette: I have to agree with Chrissy, like it was, it's so normalized. And it's crazy because it had to take so many years for people to understand that there's White supremacists then, and so when it comes to this whole last year, it's like people have to get hurt for people to understand that there's something wrong,
But I just, hopefully it really opens people's eyes up into all suggestions of schools, race, how can we help?
Andrew: Yeah, well said. So Matt Gonzales has been on our podcast before, he's on our advisory board at Integrated Schools and his blog post, “White Lips To White Ears”, is in many ways sort of foundational to the work we do.
We take the responsibility of the power of White lips to White ears seriously. He gave you permission to out him as one of the people that you interviewed, who contributed to Nothing About Us. How does his interview come to be and, and how did you decide to take that White lips to White ears idea and create a whole piece around it?
Chrissy: I mean, when he said it, it's like, one of the most things is like, I don't know the way it hit me, at least it was like, yo, that is true.
Jim Wallert: Matt actually was, he was the first person that we interviewed and the whole ensemble was there. So there were like 20 people in the room. And I just remember, he didn't start off telling that story, Chrissy, if you remember. He just sort of used that phrase, White lips to White ears, and he was like talking for about 10 minutes and Chrissy was like, um, Can I ask you a question about that phrase, White lips to White ears? What the hell does that mean? Like you just really, like, we're like, what are you talking about about? And then he, he launched into the monologue from the piece, but I just thought that was so funny.
Andrew: It meant something.
Andrew: Well, so, so, so we've got Dave, who is the White friend in the, in the piece and there's, there's something so powerful about White lips to White ears.
And now, WHITE LIPS TO WHITE EARS
Episode One: The Coffee Shop
Becky: There's like this really great school and all I had to do was put my child's name Timmy in this lottery.
Bg: What do you mean you put Timmy’s name in a lottery?
Becky: So like uh I put his name in this lottery for Charter Chance of Greatness.
Bg: What is that?
Becky: A charter school, duh.
Bg: Why didn’t you just sign him up for a public school?
Bg: Do you have any idea of what you're doing? You are basically putting your child’s education in a lottery without thinking of the consequences of how he will work in the community or just grow in general. You are literally gambling with your child's future.
Becky: You have like no idea on what you're talking about. I like know what's right for my child, right Dave?
Dave: Putting your child in the lottery is dumb.
Becky: You are absolutely right Dave.
Episode Two: Falling off a Cliff
Becky: I'm like so excited that we decided to go camping you guys. Oh look a cliff! Do you guys think i can make it to the other side?
Bg: Becky don't even try it. You are literally committing suicide from doing that. You are my friend. I wouldn't want anything to happen to you. So please don't do it. You’re not made of rubber.
Becky: You like never support me in anything. Screw you. I can totally make it, right Dave?
Dave: You’d freaking die.
Becky: You're like so right Dave, that was dumb of me to think. Like thank you Dave. You like saved my like life.
Matt Gonzales: I was camping with some friends, me and my ex-partner and we were the two only people of color. I’ve been camping since I was a kid and there’s a lot of, um, white people in camping spaces. So, we’re hanging around the campfire having fun. And somehow we got to talking about white supremacy and racism. Ok, like, for sure, I probably brought it up. So I’m talking to one of my friends from graduate school- he’s like on it- getting it. Another dude, he like gets it. We’re talking about this- we’re all agreeing.
And like, this Becky, I’m just gonna call her Becky. Like I could see visibly she was feeling attacked, feeling threatened, and was challenging me. And I’m all for someone trying to check me on whatever I’m saying if it’s problematic. But everything I was saying was very basic, like white privilege, power. Nothing controversial. Nothing about Becky individually. It was more about the structure that we live in. And she just felt attacked and white tears- and all that good stuff.
And so I just tried being really kind, soft-spoken, empathetic, and she just wouldn’t get it, couldn't get it. And so then I gave up. Like alright, I lost. So then my buddy Zack and her brother- obviously white dudes-- just literally just like verbatim plagiarized me- everything I said and just like said it to her. And I just had to stand there and watch her get it. And at first I was angry that I had to have a white spokesperson. But after reflecting back on it and talking to my buddy Zack- I learned something that day and so did he.
What he learned was that it’s not my job to educate white America; he said, “It’s not Matt’s job to do that- it’s mine.” He learned he actually has more power to do so. Now why he has that power is a whiteness thing and super problematic, but he said, the work he’s going to be doing “iis going after those people and Matt’s going to inform me how best to navigate those conversations; what to read, all that good stuff”.
And what I learned- and it was the most liberating thing I’ve ever gotten, is that it ain’t my job. My job is to work with Zack, the homie, but my job is not to convince Becky that she has white privilege. So now whenever I’m talking to a random white person, I make sure that I have a white ally with me. ‘Cause those white lips hit those white ears differently than mine do.
Andrew: I'm wondering, Chrissy and Lizette, he talks a little about this, like, sense of relief from that like, it's not his job to talk to the Beckys. And I'm wondering if there was some relief taken from that, that, like, Oh, okay, I can actually just focus on maybe finding some allies and talking to them and let them go worry about the Beckys.
Lizette: Most of my friends are people of color but when we have conversations with other adults about the situation, like, yeah, Jim got this, you know? So, I don't know how to explain it, but because Jim understands where we come from or just a person understands where we come from. It's like, yeah, they got that. They could handle explaining it much better than I can or explaining it in a sense that I don't offend them.
Chrissy: Like, Lizette's right. A hundred percent. When it comes to, like, White people explaining, we just like, Jim, you got this. I just, I feel like I don't have the patience to be like, you know, teaching you two plus two is four and it's just like, I will try, you know, I will try to be like, Hey, no, you're not supposed to say that. And then it's just like, you are going to keep talking and like pushing your idea that it's wrong and I'm just going to go, Yeah two plus two is four till like, pop! You know what I'm saying? It's like, it's like too much. You're, you're being ignorant right now. Like I'm not going to deal with you. When I know that there's a White person that actually understands all that type of thing, I'm like, bet I'm going to use you as a shield. So I don't do nothing wrong and I don't seem like the violent Black person. Oh my God, they're doing it again. It's always the attitude. So I grabbed that shield of that person that I know that is like, yes, you understand. Here you go, deal with that. They're not going to be like, Oh, you aggressive White person. They're gonna be like, Oh, you speak, you're speaking facts right now. I'm trying to understand.
Andrew: Yeah. You gotta be able to find those allies. You know, the people who, who, you can trust to use as your shield. But I really appreciate that, that the piece does not kind of go for the simplistic, easy answer, sort of acknowledges the fact that just moving bodies around is not an answer to educational justice, that, that the goal here is real integration. And another organization we've had on the podcast and worked with in the past is IntegrateNYC. And I love that you bring their 5 Rs into the conversation. And one of those Rs, not to get sort of too far off on a tangent here, but one of their Rs is Representation. And I know you have both now left your high school that had almost no White people at all and you're both in college. And, um, I'm just wondering, you know, what that transition has sort of been.
Chrissy: I mean, my school is a majority White people. So far, most of my teachers are White people. But I know like, my friend, she has like a Black teacher just because she's taking like African, um, English which is like, it seems a bit off it's like, Oh, so when it comes to like Black teaching, you're putting the Black teacher, like how come you can’t put the Black teacher teaching history, or teaching like math? And it's like, you know, I don't know. It's a little iffy for right now so I’m hoping there's change in the future, like in the, I have three more years here, so I hope I see like more teachers of color.
Andrew: How about you, Lizette?
Lizette: I have mainly White teachers and the only teacher that I have that's Hispanic and Latino is my Latin studies teacher. So it's like, Oh, what's your race? What can you teach? I'm going to put you here. And so it's just, I mean, I feel like when it comes to teachers, not to say White teachers cannot teach, but if you have majority of people of color in your class, it's more comfortable when it's a teacher of color. They understand with some sense, not to say White people don't understand sometimes. I'm just saying, don’t want to offend nobody. I'm just saying that like, it's just more comfortable.
Chrissy: I feel like I'm a very, like, charismatic person. I want to say, like in high school, I was like, really cool with like, Oh my teacher, we could like sit down and have a one-on-one and be fun and stuff. But then when it comes to like up here right now, most of my White teachers, I feel like, Oh, I have to be a proper Black person. Not show them that I'm the stereotypical Black person that's like disrespectful, like too playful or whatever. I don't know, show that I'm like the perfect picture basically. And then maybe, you know, because it's hard still because you know, COVID maybe get to know them and I'm like, Oh, okay. They understand. And they're like, pretty cool. So I’ma like, I'm, I’ma let loose a little bit, which so far has not happened yet, you know?
Lizette: For example, like in my current situation, like I do take care of my family, you know what I'm saying? So I was been taking care of my mother and my, and my little sister. And so for some teachers, it was a problem, as if I don't have to do that.
And so I'm like, just because you had the privilege to not take care of somebody and all you had to do is worry about yourself, that don't mean you can't have no type of sympathy for me. You, you have to understand where I'm coming from because at the end of the day, like I just happen to be, I don't want to say misfortunate, because I love my family to death, but I just happened to grow up a little bit quicker. And you have to sit there and be like, So what's going on? Talk to me, let me see how we could work on this to make sure you're successful.
And so that's what I feel like also is a struggle in college right now.
Chrissy: I feel like some professors are like, Oh, I am expecting you to fail basically. Just ‘cause you came from this background and you are this person and you have this color. If you just have like this same expectancy for every student then I'm like, Okay, you're chill, you're cool. And you don't expect me to do amazing and you expect me to do bad. So it's like, you expect me to be human. And if things happen then things happen. So it's like…
Andrew: Right. Thank you for sharing those stories. That’s really powerful. So that’s representation. The other 5 Rs, listeners may recall, they are Race and Enrollment: so, you know, the numbers. How many kids, what the demographics are at the school compared to, you know, the broader city, et cetera. Resources: how are resources allocated across schools. Relationships: how does the school community interact. And Restorative Justice, or how discipline is handled at the school.
And I love this part of the show, it's called “What is Integration?”. And it seems to really try to imagine what a school that focused on all 5 Rs could achieve. So let's hear it.
WHAT IS INTEGRATION?
Actor 2: If we can implement the 5 R’s of integration in our schools, that is a very big step in dismantling racism.
Actor 1: Honestly, the most important educational-justice concern in New York City today isn’t families sending their children to schools where most children look like them. Not even close. It is not the quest to get a few thousand more Black and Brown children into the handful of predominantly White and Asian schools. Those are all side issues.
Actor 4: My ideal school doesn’t necessarily have to be diverse. Some of the best teaching experiences I had were not because, “Oh there’s white kids here and black kids here and Latino kids here and everybody is so happy!”
Actor 1: The greatest barriers to true equity is the severe under-resourcing, institutional neglect, and underestimation of New York City’s predominantly Black and Brown schools.
Actor 4: There are a few schools in New York City, in the South Bronx, in Bed-Stuy, in parts of Harlem that are just doing their damn thing and it’s not so necessarily about the race of the students, it’s just that some teachers have gotten together and partnered with families and community-based organizations to help support the kids.
Actor 1: Those who care about racial and socioeconomic justice and the educational rights of Black and Brown children living in poverty should be deeply troubled by the rhetoric of integration.
Actor 5: When I hear a black parent say, “I’ve put my kid in a majority white school, because I think that’s a better educational system”, for a black or brown parent to say that to me, like hurts my soul because that means they’ve internalized something about us and themselves that is supposedly inferior- which I think is wrong. And this comes from a place of pain and like traumatic experience and just listening and honoring those things is how I approach these families of color because I know I’ve had those internalized things.
Actor 4: So there’s that cynical political argument that’s like, “O.K., I know we want resource equity but integration is how we’re going to get there through the back door.“ I think the truth is that resources absolutely matter, but integration matters for reasons beyond resources as well.
Actor 2: I think by spending time together is when you start to see the humanity in people who are different from you.
Actor 1: We will not reach the promised land by shuffling Black and Brown children away from their neighborhood schools to Whiter schools or vice versa.
Actor 5: Like I don’t want you guys just to get like white schools. That’s insufficient for me. I want you to get like Wakanda schools.
Actor 4: Integration when it’s done well should get to the goals of resource equity but gets to a vision that is much broader than that.
Actor 1: Do neighborhoods like Harlem, the South Bronx, and Brownsville require more White upper-middle-class families in order for families who have lived in these communities for decades to enjoy a high quality of life and self-determination?
Actor 4: School integration actually has the power to push us to have a more integrated city overall. Which could mean not only having integrated schools but having conversations around what our housing policies look like, what patterns of gentrification means for folks in the city.
Andrew: I think this part is so great, ‘cause it, it leans into the nuance of integration. Like there, there are great schools that are doing great things that are not at all integrated and, and that's real. And, and there's definitely the resource push for integration. I love that the piece calls out the idea of like integration as being a backdoor way to get more equitably distributed resources. Because like that is also real.
But I, I liked that it then goes on to highlight some of the, sort of the broader goals of integration, of creating a multiracial democracy, you know, of finding shared humanity, of moving beyond just shuffling kids around to creating something different.
And I'm wondering how you see that connection between the kind of more surface level benefits that can come from desegregation, like more resources, and then maybe the kind of deeper, like, what do you get from actually learning together? What do you get from having kids who are actually having their educational experiences together?
Chrissy: You know how people are like, Oh, America is like the greatest place ever? I feel like if we all like, actually start to like, put everyone, everyone, in equal ground for everybody to like, get the same resources, have the same type of education. And we teach everything basically. It just will make everything just like easier, companies will be more successful, I don't know… well, it will be like the, I don't know, the day that happens, low key, I feel like the world's going to end. Just ‘cause it's like, when that happens, it's going to be like so perfect that it's just going to be like, nah, this is wrong. There's a glitch in the system, world ending. Boom. So, but…
Lizette: Growing up, I was around a lot of Hispanic and Black people, you know? And so I was never really around White people. Growing up, I learned to accept everybody for themselves. You know what I'm saying? Because when you, when you're a child, you’re not grown enough to be arrogant. When you're small, you don't learn to not love somebody. You start growing up to not love somebody. And I say, I say love because we all, honestly, if we was together, we all love each other the way, you know, we are.
Chrissy: We get taught to hate basically.
Lizette: And not love. ‘Cause I want to see what we can do to come together as people of color and how can we grow? And especially including the White people, how can you grow and accepting this and accepting us? You know what I mean?
Chrissy: We still got a long way to go.
Andrew: We still got a long way to go. I think you're right. Um, I really love this dropping character and dropping knowledge. So every actor who was in the piece gets to drop character and then sort of speak from the heart. And I think this is where you really get to make the case for why we need youth voice in this discussion. This is not just about the words of some people who have thought about school segregation but that your voice, as your idea as students, as the people most impacted by school segregation, are really crucial if we want to actually design a version of integration that works for you, as students.
And so it seems like this dropping character and dropping knowledge section of the show is really a moment where, where you can kind of speak to the power in the educational system as yourselves and sort of hold them accountable
Chrissy: I love that part that we're actually like being truthful. The changes that they're trying to make, the changes, the whole system that, okay, I get it, you're the boss or whatever, but the things that are happening are not really affecting you though. So why are you making decisions on your own mind without even asking the person that you're actually like affecting?
It's like a whole corporation that's like making, I don't know, toilet seats and they like, make it with like knives and it's like, okay, yeah, like, okay, let's then, let's let the prototype out. And it's like, you got the people that use the toilets. It's like, yo, this is hurting me. Like, what are you doing?
Andrew: This is not working for us.
Chrissy: It's like, Oh, well.
Andrew: Did you, have you ever gone to the bathroom? What's wrong with you?
Chrissy: Exactly. I don't know. That's the way I was thinking about it. I'm like, we're actually like the whole department of education. Right? Come on, you have not gone to school for like Fifty years. And you think that we're going to be like the same thing. Like we're going to like the same things that you guys went through? No. Open your eyes, ask the people that go through it a question, like ask them how it is, rated one out of ten. Like that's all you got to ask. Oh, it's all solid one?! Shit. What are we going to do? There's something wrong!
Andrew: We better change something.
Andrew: Let’s take the knives out of the toilet.
Chrissy: Yes. Let’s take the knives out and see how, what they think about it now.
Andrew: What do you think about that, that last ending section there, Lizette?
Lizette: When we really think about it, we just went through a whole bunch of everybody else's opinions. We just said what everybody else felt about segregation in schools. And it's like, it's about our turn as actors to say how we feel about the situation.
So that's what we did. We said our opinions about the situation and it's up to you to take it or leave it. We done this whole play. We had acted like White people, Black people, a Bush, an object, you know, and so it's just like, you just seen mad point of views from one actor and we just gonna say how we feel.
Andrew: Yeah. Let’s hear it.
And now DROPPING CHARACTER AND DROPPING KNOWLEDGE
Hi, I'm Chrissy and I am a senior at Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. Is there value in hearing students in this conversation? Yes, we go through the bullshit, so you should. And not only the good kids, but everyone. Even the ones that are struggling in school, we all have voices.
Hi, my name's Esmirna. I'm a senior at Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts and if you're telling me that the choice that you make to change school policies on segregation can affect my future and my learning, then you bet I want to be a part of that conversation.
My name is Hailey. Um, I just recently graduated from Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts and I will be attending Muhlenberg College in the fall. The students were the ones who work closest with the system. We're the ones who have to go through a system on a daily basis. So we should be the ones who are used to help change the system.
I’m Roman. I recently graduated from Chelsea Career and Technical Education High School, and I will be attending Mohawk Valley Community College in the fall. Students go to school to get an education, but they also go to school to make change in their community. Students have every right for their voices to be heard.
Hello, my name is Marquese Evans. I'm a recent graduate of Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. And I will be attending Niagara County Community College in the fall. Us as students are looked down upon because of our age and also because we lack experience, but without us, there really wouldn't be a system at all.
Andrew: Why was that an important piece to include, Jim?
Jim Wallert: I mean, like Lizette was saying with all the actors, playing all these different roles, like it's, you've been through this 30 minute kind of empathy machine hearing all of these different points of view.
And I think it's good to remind the audience after we've seen them playing all these different characters that these are 16, 17, 18 year old students that are in this system. This isn't theoretical for them. This is their lives. And they have incredible insights into how the system works, that someone working in an administration building isn't going to get, and so their points of view are invaluable and necessary if we're going to actually change the system.
The implicit message in all of the work that Epic Next does and all of these touring shows is this idea that students are the most impacted by these decisions and they are the least consulted.
Andrew: Yeah. That's great and it, and it leads us nicely into the finale where we finally get to hear where the show's title comes from.
And now THE FINALE
Are we equal?
no one knows
even those with 20/20
are too blind to see
the system we in goes in
way way deep
Why keep us all apart
You want us to learn together
So you shouldn’t sort us out
We all the same- So what
Just put us in together
We’re the same no matter what
advancements and enhancements
all designed for a purpose
segregation at the heart of the beast
and we all know it
but if we all agree then what’s stopping us from stopping the quota
same stuff that the schools need, money
we have a voice, and yet we stay running
finding some solutions that don’t work
all because the color of our skin
Why we chase ‘em
Don’t adults have all the power
So why they messing up
The system is fucked up
Schools look like jail
And students be on cuffs
Why keep us all apart
You want them to learn together
So you shouldn’t sort us out
We all the same- So what
Just put us in together
We’re the same no matter what
(Music Cuts Off)
so are we equal? ask yourselves
victims to the system that we’ve been dealt
This is a racist country and we’ve invested in white supremacy
there’s a chance for change but will we take it?
are we equal? that’s up for interpretation
That’s all we want
We have the right
Nothing about us without us is for us.
Andrew: So just, just to, to wrap up. I mean the, the piece is brilliant. The interview content that you have is so great, but there's something different about presenting it as art. And so I'm wondering why did you have to do this as a play rather than compile these interviews into a series of essays or something. What is gained from an audience standpoint or from your standpoint as, as performers, from actually making this art?
Chrissy: Who likes to read essays? Who likes to read essays? I don't know who likes to listen to lectures with like a monotone voice. It's like today we're learning, blah, blah, blah. Like, honestly, the best way for people to learn is like to have fun and like watch stuff. I just feel like plays is just more fun and it's more like in your face. ‘Cause like we're here. We're actually real people when we're telling you this right now.
Lizette: I feel like a play is just so much better. It’s a burst of excitement. Or it makes you upset and it still gets a reaction out of you. What's really cool about it is that with this play, we start off as if we were you, you know? ‘Cause we sit in the audience, we're an audience member and it's crazy ‘cause some of the educators, like, I don't know if they think this, but like, I assume, it's like they're kids, what do they know?
You know, and so it's like, well, this is what we know. We acted like you. We show this perspective of all ages and all race. And I just think that is so cool. And I think that's, that's just, I feel like it's more entertaining to see.
Andrew: What do you think about that, Jim? The power of art?
Jim Wallert: Yeah, I would say specifically the power of theater. You know, a television show or a film or a radio broadcast or the internet really is about mass communication. And, and I think a play really has the power of individual transformation. You know, it's about a relatively small group of people being in a room together and we all know we're there and we're sharing this experience together.
And, and the audience is hearing the performers. The performers are hearing the audience's reaction and responses and it feeds into each other. And we have this experience together and we're breathing the same air, which is a thing that we can't do, um, over the last 12 months and we're having this, this experience together.
And I think a play also really has, has a great ability to look at how the personal informs the political. How these big civic choices that we make, that they have personal consequences on individuals and, and, and a play can give voice to those people and can tell those stories.
It's really, um, in this film, hearing the audience reaction just really, you know, I, I, I think I'm doing okay in COVID in quarantine. And I, I feel like, I’m fine. We're still making art. We're still making things and we're still having these conversations online and it's great. And it's like, Ugh, no, that’s, it reminds me of like, Gosh, we gotta, we gotta get back there. We gotta get back to that place where we're able to be in a room together and have these experiences together.
Andrew: Yeah, I think we all need that. I don’t want to go without talking about the Fifty State Conversation. Can you tell us what that is, Jim?
Jim Wallert: Sure, so on May 17th, which is the anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education, we're inviting people all over the country to take part in a conversation about segregation. And our goal is to have participants from all Fifty States, Puerto Rico and Washington DC. And so what we're doing is, we're hosting a series of free screenings on the 17th of every month, February, March, April, and May.
But then there's going to be an opportunity to take part in a national conversation on May 17th. And we're offering people the opportunity to participate in a number of different ways.
You can just be an audience member. You can sign up to watch one of the screenings and then show up virtually for the Fifty State Conversation on May 17th. We would love folks to be promoters and in addition to participating as an audience member, helping us put the word out there. We're also inviting people who are interested in co-hosting a local screening for their community or their constituents, they can host a conversation around Nothing About Us and then share out the results of that conversation or, or different insights, as a part of the Fifty State Conversation.
And then there's an opportunity for youth artists from all around the country to create their own original content in response to some of the questions and themes of Nothing About Us. And we'll be sharing out that work in the month leading up to May 17th. So, we really want to engage people from all over the country in these questions and these themes, and really find out how this play resonates, how these questions resonate in all different parts of the country.
Andrew: Sounds like such a cool event. I'm definitely looking forward to it and would encourage listeners to watch the entire show. We’ve been able to share some clips. But the whole show, being able to see it is really a whole different experience. Check the show notes for more details on that.
Jim, Lizette, Chrissy, thank you so much for coming on. For taking your time, but much, much more importantly, thank you for creating this art, for sharing it with the world, for allowing us to share it with our listeners. And I desperately hope that you get to get back out there and start making live theater in front of people again in the very near future.
Jim Wallert: Awesome.
Chrissy: Thank you for like, you know, it's my first podcast. I, like I was, I was leveraged!
Lizette: Mine as well. Thank you.
My sincere gratitude to Chrissy, Lizette, and Jim for taking the time to speak with me and to the entire Epic team for allowing us to use some of this amazing show on our podcast. I encourage you all to participate in the Fifty State Conversation. The first showing of Nothing About Us is tonight, February 17th. If you can't make it tonight, or March 17th, or April 17th, the piece is available to rent through Epic’s streaming platform. You can find more details in the show notes.
You know, the power of youth voice to see with fresh eyes, to find new ways of understanding and to push us all to speak our truth and be brave, it gives me hope for the future. I, I think that it's true that “Nothing about us without us is for us”. But there's hope in the opposite of that, right? That the things we do for our kids, the world we create for them, if they can be involved, it can be for them. And that is really the generational work of Integrated Schools.
Let us know what you think. Where have you seen effective youth voice being leveraged to drive positive change? How does art affect how we have these conversations? We'd love to hear from [email protected] or on social media at Integrated Schools.
You can also dig into the conversation deeper while helping to support this work through our Patreon page: patreon.com/Integrated Schools. Your financial support keeps this all-volunteer operation running and keeps the podcast ad-free. We are so grateful to those of you who have found value in this work and stepped up to help support it.
We'll be leaving the New York City scene behind and shifting our gaze to Nashville and a podcast called The Promise when we're back in two weeks. Thank you for listening and thank you for sharing this podcast.
I'm grateful to be in this with you, as I try to know better and do better. See you next time.