Housing and Education
By | James Roy, II
Gunshots rang out just outside my home, startling a group of boys that had gathered for my 12-year-old birthday party. Without panic or a second thought, I quickly moved further away from the windows, ducking down to assume the position taught to me by my parents. It was “drive-by drill” time. This was a drill that I was accustomed to, growing up in Denver’s historically Black (but now gentrified) Five Points Neighborhood. However, as I began the drill, I noticed something was wrong with my friends. Fear gripped their bodies and froze them into place. I wondered what in the world they were doing and why they weren’t getting down.
As I read Allan’s article for this issue of the journal, I couldn’t help but feel the rush of memories to my brain in the form of vivid images from my childhood. Additionally, as a parent, I felt the weight of the critical decisions while reflecting on my own parents’ decisions in their desire, but sometimes the inability, to provide the best environment for raising Black children. I have been shaped by and experienced the structural impediments that Allan spoke of and noticed first-hand the differences of inaccessible resources due to the economic and often racial make-up of a community. The stories quoted, especially from the youth, resonated incisively.
The drive-by shooting that I spoke of in the first paragraph didn’t last long. After about 30 seconds of hearing bullets and the screeching of tires, my block was quiet again. As I slowly got up, listening for more sounds, tears flooded the eyes of some of my friends. They were terrified. Each of them had heard the Five Points was ‘the hood,’ and although some had visited before, the experience was a new one. For me, it was an unsurprising disruption to an otherwise relatively normal Saturday night.
My young friends had initially intended to spend the night after pizza and a movie. The events no longer allowed them to comfortably do so for fear of their safety. Each of them opted to call their parents to be picked up, ending the birthday party and the fun I had earlier. As the last child left my house, I felt crushed. My birthday was over sooner than I wanted it to be, over something that I didn’t understand. At the time, I thought that drive-bys were a normal experience at every house in every neighborhood. I assumed that learning the drive-by drill at home was as common as learning the fire drill at school–which is why I was shocked about the inaction of my friends. However, more importantly, I didn’t know that my safety was not as secure as my friends’, based on where I lived. For them, this safety was an expectation.
This story highlights the first lesson in systemic injustice that I learned from my mother, a social justice warrior who spent her career fighting for equity in education and, more specifically, in early childhood. She delicately explained to me that my friends had the right to feel afraid and that the fear of the gunshots was healthy. She explained that their neighborhoods were different from ours and attempted to clarify the complexity of why. I didn’t understand at the time, but it started a small fire within me. The pain and confusion swirled for years to come.
These types of experiences, as seen in Allan’s article, are common for children in under-resourced neighborhoods, which are predominantly occupied by Black and Brown residents due to the overwhelming and extensive level of oppression in our country. Systemic oppression is largely a result of the egregiously racist collective actions of government, the urban planning industry, and the real estate industry. However, as the article highlights, there is a significant spillover into the education and success of children.
This dynamic is explained very well by the concept of the Social Determinants of Health (SDOH), which describes conditions across five domains which impact quality of life: economic stability; education access and quality; health care access and quality; neighborhood and built environment; and the social and community context. Disparities in any one of these domains heavily impacts the others. For example, economic instability affects access to healthy foods, leading to the increased risk of health conditions. For children, it can also show up in education. As an example: studies have shown that without proper nutrition, brain development is biologically hindered in such a way that it affects a child’s ability to learn.
To move forward, we will need to frame equity with empathy and understand that the SDOH can be elevated in many ways. Stable housing, good nutrition, accessible resources, and even the feeling of physical safety (versus the trauma of community violence) have profound impacts on educational success. The stories highlighted by DJEC are excellent examples of how we all can learn from each other and build each other up while pushing for changes in policies that continue the legacy of oppression in our country.
James Roy II is a social entrepreneur, community-driven professional, and artist. He has worked in community development for over ten years and has a passion for cultivating healthy communities through community engagement. His career has focused on developing community-guided neighborhood assets through full integration of community voice, coupled with the urban planning field’s best practices of placemaking.
James’ primary role is as the Executive Director of Denver Metro Community Impact. He is also the Founder of Urbanity Advisors and Urbanity Gallery.
James has a BA in Urban Studies/Geography and is finishing a Master of Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Colorado, Denver.
Learn more at jamesroyii.com