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Jonathan Kozol Visits Bakersfield… and Inspires Me to Continue the Fight for Equity

South Kern Sol, Commentary, Randy Villegas

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Speaking at California State University in Bakersfield last quarter, writer Jonathan Kozol said children across the country are not getting the education they need.

“The denial of a child’s learning and needs is the most harmful to a society,” said the educator and activist.

Kozol said he had visited the neighboring communities of Lamont and Arvin and seen the conditions that some people are forced to live in — from pesticides being sprayed near elementary schools to the effects of contaminated water on their health. He said officials need to fund the areas that need it the most, and that includes those communities.

What struck me was Kozol’s  genuine authenticity and care for our own communities in Kern County.

A Harvard graduate, Kozol was initially going to pursue a career in academia. Instead, he moved to a poor black neighborhood to become a 4th grade teacher. Since then he’s devoted his life to fighting for equal educational opportunities for every child in public school.           

As a young man, Kozol was involved in various social justice movements, including the civil rights movement and the United Farm Workers boycotts. Today he focused on the fight for equality in education. Although schools are no longer segregated by law, he said, they have become segregated by income.

In studying public schools across the nation, Kozol said he has found disparities in resources allocated to students. School districts in wealthier neighborhoods can rely on additional funding for students directly from parents. But low-income school districts have to get by on fewer resources, including school supplies (with teachers often having to pay for their own), equipment in the classroom, and educational field trips.

Kozol also criticized over-testing in schools, where educators are left to “teach for the test” rather than teach for learning. He claimed that big testing companies profit off of getting kids to take more tests, rather than emphasizing lifelong learning and retention of information. As a result, school districts pressure teachers to teach to the tests. Kozol said that this sends a message that teachers should not let the children wander from the standards of the state, and it doesn’t allow them to think for themselves.

Rather than spend billions of dollars on testing every year, Kozol said, we should take all of that money and invest it in pre-kindergarten education for every child in the United States.

Kozol called the segregation of schools in the modern era and the over-testing in schools a “cognitive genocide.”

His words, his stories, and his activism inspired me. I was reminded of my own town and community here in Kern County, where the fight for equity is happening even as I write this. Kozol emphasized that sameness was not always the fairest — something I wrote about in my recent article.

When Kozol finished speaking, he held up a notecard on which I had written the question, “How can we explain to someone the difference between equity and equality?”

To my awe, he said: “Well from now on, I’m just going to tell people to read your article.” One of my former professors had shared my recent article, which was published in the Bakersfield Californian, on equity vs. equality, with Kozol prior to the event. I felt shocked but humble at the same time. My words felt validated. My passion for education grew that much more in a single night.

Kozol ended his event by referring to his elementary students and all of the students across the United States, saying, “We have all these beautiful little people in America….Let’s keep them beautiful.”

Afterwards, I was able to take a photo with Kozol and speak to him briefly about Kern County. He signed my book and wrote in the inscription, “In the struggle for Equity, and Justice…. -Jonathan Kozol.” As an educator myself, I hear his words not only in my mind, but throughout his book, and in the wisdom and guidance that he shared with us.

He inspired me to continue to speak out against injustice and inequity in my community. He said that the struggles and dreams that we fight for may not be seen in his lifetime, maybe not even my lifetime, but that we can continue to fight for the future and posterity. Like Jonathan Kozol, I will continue to advocate and say out loud that no matter where someone is born, or what their family’s income is, everyone should have the right to a quality education.


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