Class and race discussions characterize Blake cultural exchange with Patrick Henry

As Blake students took to the JNA stage on Thursday, April 11, to talk about their school trip to Brazil, a cultural exchange of a different kind was taking place right under their noses.

On Tuesday, April 9, five Blake students went to Patrick Henry High School in North Minneapolis. On Thursday, five Henry students came here. It wasn’t one of those cases where “nobody knew what to expect.” In some ways, students from both schools were expecting–or trying not to expect–the worst.

The Blake students, for whom the trip did double duty as a part of the curriculum in the Class and Race independent study, had prepared for the trip by watching the movie Waiting for Superman, which looks at the large urban public schools in Washington, D.C. that have become “failure factories,” according to the filmmakers. When they came to Henry, they were almost surprised by the good will of the students and the quality of the school’s facilities. “I thought it would be a little awkward,” said Aliya Feroe ‘13 of the exchange, “but it came out fine.” Friends from Blake had texted her anxiously: “Is their school ghetto?”

Joe Anderson ‘13 said “[Henry] was not at all what I expected,” after doing reading on public schools; “I felt it was a totally great school and I enjoyed my time there . . . there were a ton of interesting people I got to meet,” he told Spectrum. Erik Maritz ‘13 recalled that Henry offered many languages, like Hmong and Japanese, that Blake did not. And practically everybody in the Blake cohort came away impressed by Henry’s robotics program and engineering lab.

The Henry students came to Blake with their own set of worries. “A lot of people [said Blake was] really snobby,” said Cathy Vang. David Rodriguez had heard everyone “was white and rich,” but at the end of the day he concluded, “you really should not judge a book by its cover.” Vang said “I love the system here.”

After school on Thursday, both the Blake and Henry students met in Anna Reid’s room for a discussion about the exchange and some of the deeper class and race issues it brought to the fore. They were joined by Henry administrator Thomas Murray, who had organized the exchange along with Blake’s Dion Crushshon, also present at the discussion. A recurring theme was the need to unpack distinctions between race and class issues. Crushshon brought up the perception that whiteness equals wealth, an idea that was very alien to the Blake students’ experiences. Office of Equity and Community Engagement director Scott Flemming said that Blake students were aware of the hotspots in discussions about race but found themselves blindsided by the flashpoints in discussions about class. “Is [class] something that divides people more than race?” he asked. Many seemed to agree. Maritz said that while people at Blake are “well-taught about white privilege and all these things” they are deafer to class inequity. And that’s something the Henry students noticed too–how one of the first things they noticed as how well-dressed everybody was, in name brand gear . . . and how these high-end boutiques, like J. Crew and lululemon, are spaces essentially off-limits to people who can’t afford, say, $98.00 yoga pants, a muzaked demimonde of exclusive retail space.

At the end of the discussion, Spectrum got a chance to sit down with Star Tribune columnist Gail Rosenblum, who was covering the exchange herself. She said that she found that the most intriguing part of the exchange was that in the end “they did it.” “This is the kind of column I love to write,” she said, “. . . and I love the fact that young people are brave enough to want to talk about [class and race].” Rosenblum is familiar with both schools and volunteered at Patrick Henry for a number of years, giving her a more balanced perspective, perhaps, than students at either. She wasn’t 100% convinced that “two days in the life of a high school student” would be life-changing. She did talk, though, about listening to students from both schools talk about prom, and how they experience it differently–one talking about how he never has to worry about renting a tux, another saying she has to work two months to save up for a dress–and how the students from both schools were able to see what they shared and what they didn’t reflected in their accounts of a teenage ritual. She said it was a “lightbulb moment” for everyone.