In the center of Queens, New York City’s famously diverse borough, a plan to integrate middle schools was tabled before it really began.
The podcast “School Colors” is back with a second season that delves into how the plan derailed in District 28, which is divided into the ethnically mixed but largely white and affluent neighborhoods of Forest Hills and Rego Park to the north, and the more racially diverse and working-class communities of Richmond Hill and Jamaica to the south.
Creators Mark Winston Griffith and Max Freedman spent the first season of School Colors tracing the history of race and the struggle for power over schools in District 16, a gentrifying corner of Brooklyn that includes the historically Black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Once again, the pair dive deep into District 28’s past to help explain its current challenges. They explore who gets included in conversations about race, and reflect on how their own lives have been shaped by these forces.
Season two, which kicked off earlier this month, is being distributed by NPR’s Code Switch. New episodes drop weekly.
Chalkbeat spoke with Winston Griffith and Freedman about why it’s important to understand shared histories, how to move forward even when progress on education issues feels elusive, and why complexities need to be embraced when it comes to discussions about race in America.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Without giving too much away, can you explain what season two is about?
Freedman: The first season was about District 16 in Brooklyn, and ended with a brief discussion of how District 16 was about to go through a diversity planning process. This season essentially picks up where last season left off, because we’re talking about that diversity planning process — but in a different district. When the city chose districts to go through this process, District 28 was the one that got all the attention because District 28 is the one where it went off the rails.
I think that was surprising to outsiders. Because District 28 is literally in the middle of Queens, which is often talked about as the most diverse place in the world.
The immediate question is: Why would people be upset about a diversity plan in the most diverse place in the world? Everybody — everybody we talked to said they value diversity. And then, in some ways, the more interesting question to us is: Why would that district need a diversity plan in the first place?
The evocative thing that we’ll get to is that, for as long as this district has existed, for more than 50 years, people have said that there’s a Mason Dixon Line between the North and the South.
How did that happen? That’s the first half of the season basically. And then the second half is: So how did this happen in the present? How did this sort of disparity, baked-in from the past, persist? And how did things spin so far out of control when the idea of this diversity plan was floated?
In Brooklyn’s District 15, the city piloted a public engagement process that ultimately overhauled admissions to make middle schools more integrated. The process was seen as a template for places like District 28. So if District 28 is going to serve as a template for the rest of the city, what lessons do you think District 28 holds?
Winston Griffith: This is what the diversity planners tried to kind of solve for: that every district in New York City has got its own set of dynamics.
When we were going to District 28, people were pushing up against the fact that District 15 was regarded as the template — and they didn’t want that template imposed on them. They didn’t identify with the population there. They didn’t identify with the goals of District 15. They thought that the district had different issues. One of the things that we learned in looking at this in District 28 is, there’s got to be some buy-in very early on in the process.
On one level, you’ve got to acknowledge that the concept of buy-in is a little slippery, right? No matter how perfectly you do things there are always going to be people who feel as though their interests are being challenged, and so they’re going to resist. But at the very least you’ve got to have some widespread acceptance that what you’re doing is something that is needed.
In District 28 you’ve got almost an equal measure, if you did a sort of census take on it, of Asian, Black, Latinx, and white. We know that those categories are absurdly reductionist, but the point is, you’ve got so many different identities and so many different aspirations and cultures baked into the district, that creates an issue all unto itself.
Both in the first season, and in this season, you do a lot of going back — like way back — in history. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to trace that history and why is that important to understanding our current landscape?
Freedman: We come from a place where we believe that a lot of the conditions that we see in our schools and in our city have been baked in for decades, and sometimes centuries. And whether or not any individual person who lives there now feels personally responsible for that, if they’re living there now, they’ve inherited all of this stuff. And they benefit from the stuff that’s baked in, and they suffer from the stuff that’s baked in.
Winston Griffith: Yeah, and I think that communities are dynamic. They’re changing all the time. So you always have to factor in that there’s a certain level of community amnesia, you know?
Freedman: Particularly when it comes to schools.
Winston Griffith: Right. And so I think it’s so instructive for folks, and helpful, when they understand that what they feel, what they say, what they’re doing, in some ways, has already been played out. It helps inform them, and makes them smarter about how they are navigating the issues in their particular community.
Freedman: I hope so, anyway.
A lot of education, and a lot of this issue specifically, when it comes to school integration, it just feels like a giant circle. So what does progress look like?
Freedman: One recurring theme, that you’ll certainly hear in episode two and episode three, is that there is a history of intervention to try to, quote unquote, help the south side. Those interventions have almost never been originated or driven by the people that are supposedly intended to, quote unquote, help.
What we heard from some folks in the present, who live in the south side, who live in South Jamaica, is like, ‘Whatever does happen next, it’s got to come from us.’ And I think opinions are really divided about what should happen in this district, about what the conditions are now, about what would make that better.
I think that’s especially hard because we certainly have enough stories to tell of people on the south side trying to make things happen and being demoralized and demobilized.
You’re dealing a lot with racism: Racist histories and racism in the present. When you’re talking to people, especially in the present, how do you think about presenting what are essentially anti-integration arguments or racist arguments, when the people who are making them very rarely are going to lay them out that way?
Winston Griffith: We knew we were going to struggle with it from the very beginning. Because we’re trying to come in with credibility as journalists, and yet also don’t want to willfully blind ourselves to things that we feel are racist. And so the challenge is: When do you call that out? When do you let it speak for itself? At the end of the day, I want them to be able to hear themselves and say, ‘That is what I said. That is what I meant. You captured that accurately and faithfully.’ That’s what we’re both looking for.
Freedman: And that is different, you know, you hear a lot about both-sides kinds of journalism, and the perils of presenting both sides in something when the sides do not necessarily have equal validity. I’m not saying that. I’m not saying anything in particular about the diversity plan and each sides’ validity. So we want to be fair to people without falling into that trap.
Winston Griffith: And that’s why the history is so important. Because when you hear something that someone said 50 years ago, and someone is saying it today, damn near verbatim — history has made the point for us. And we don’t want to be too heavy-handed about that as well. I also don’t think that, because people 50 years ago were in opposition to certain things, anyone who’s in opposition today is a racist. But I do think it’s fair to ask the question whether or not there are any threads between the two.
Part of what made season one stand out was that you each had personal histories weaved into it, and it felt like you were learning about yourselves, too. Can we expect any of that this time around?
Freedman: It’s not as direct as it was in the first season, but it’s there. Both of our families, at different points, were trying to get out of Brooklyn and move to Queens. My family only stayed in Queens for a year before moving to California. But I have the address of the house in Jamaica where my mom lived when she was 5 years old. We can drive by the house where Mark grew up in Laurelton.
Queens represented something to my grandparents, to Mark’s parents, that it still represents to a lot of people today. It represents a sort of suburban American dream but within the city limits. In some ways, I think it inherently represents escaping from the ‘big, bad city,’ It’s an aspect of separating yourself out — sometimes for very good reasons.
The other thing I’d say is, in episode eight — Mark and I both, as children, were in different ways coded as ‘gifted.’ When we talk about tracking, when we talk about gifted programs, and we talk about the idea of ‘giftedness’ in episode eight, we will certainly have to talk about our own experiences. That will be very personal. And difficult, I expect.
What do you hope people will take away from this season? What will make you feel like you’ve done what you set out to do?
Winston Griffith: When you talk about race, and class, and power in the United States, you do a disservice to suggest that it all can be encapsulated by Black and white. And so going to District 28 gave us an opportunity to confront that head-on.
And one of the takeaways that I hope people get, and that that they got with the first season, is that they understand the complexity of these issues, how limited our language and our approach is to race, and understanding race, and talking about race, and have an appreciation for this political moment that we’re in.
Christina Veiga is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on school diversity and preschool. Contact Christina at email@example.com.