04/08/2013 06:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013

Cutting Welfare Benefits of Tennessee's Underperforming Children Is an Injustice

If I do not speak for a majority of Tennesseans I will be remiss to express how saddened, outraged, and disappointed I am with the legislatures who deem it necessary to enact a bill to cut the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, welfare benefits, of parents whose children are under-performers in Tennessee schools. This cannot be the reality of the 21st century of which lingers in the not so distant past the horrors of the Jim Crow South.

How appalling that white male constituents who make up the majority of the legislative body will enact a bill that sharply affects the majority of Tennesseans on welfare, who just so happen to be minorities and people of color. But, what's even more appalling is that many of those who will be impacted by this bill are minority children of color -- helpless, defenseless, and voiceless children who are the bi-products of Tennessee schools. Unfortunately, they are the real victims here.

And, it's unfortunate that the legislators find it more beneficial to continue to oppress, marginalize, and penalize those in poverty, rather than use those resources to produce better educational systems, and resources that will help needy and underprivileged children in low-income families.

Are the legislatures aware of the message they will send to the poor, marginalized, and oppressed? They deem it necessary to penalize poor minority children because they are not performing at a level sufficient or adequate to the academic standards of which many do not have adequate or sufficient resources to compete. So, you find it necessary to penalize them for their condition and circumstances of which they are all victims.

I'm sorry legislators, but this behavior of injustice only continues to victimize the victims. And, in this case it's the children.

I want to pose a challenge to the legislatures who came up with this brilliant idea that they should penalize families of low performing children. I would like to invite them to attend a few hours of tutoring and mentoring with me at Napier Elementary School in South Nashville. The school is adjacent to the J.C. Napier Housing Project. Each week, for the past six months, I leave my ivory palatial meticulous Magnolia divided community of Vanderbilt University, where I am a Divinity student, and I trek to Napier Elementary where I have been tutoring and mentoring students in the second grade. The students are excited and their faces light up when I come into their classroom. They are eager to make their way to the library with me and proudly showcase their learning capabilities, and how such advent lovers of books they are.

But, what often stand in the way of our learning moments together are their hungry stomachs. Their challenges of home life and having to travel through one of the most crime-infested mean streets of South Nashville. The classroom windows overlook the housing project being a constant reminder of poor urban life. They often don't have recess, or any outlet to discharge the daily grudge of sitting in a classroom for hours on end staring at a blackboard, and forced to sit in a seat while being lectured. So, many become restless, lose interest in the studies, or become bored, and anxious.

Now, you compound hungry, restless, excited, troubled, bright children who are victims of the harsh realities of crime-infested neighborhoods and tell them to perform. Yes, they are unable to focus when it's time for testing. The test scores return unsatisfactorily, and these restless, smart, intelligent children who have issues that are compounded by a community or neighborhood surrounded by crime, drugs, and other various dangers, and you want to penalize them for underachieving. That's not an answer to the solution.

I hope you understand that their young minds are dealing with challenges you will never know. Their experiences and obstacles do not reach your neighborhoods or communities. Your world is vastly different and not what those in poverty live and experience on a day-to-day basis. So, please come to Napier Elementary and sit with these children and know their lived experience.

Please leave your pristine offices and venture into these neighborhoods and schools, and sit with these children and discover the brilliant minds and advanced learning capabilities of the students. Do not make laws or bills about a lived experience you have never lived, or even driven by in your luxury vehicle. Do not continue to oppress those who are already marginalized and oppressed. If you punish the children and their families, then what happens to them when they can't afford the food to put on the tables, or buy proper clothing and other necessities? Reprimanding them only continues the cycle of poverty, putting them further in debt, and unable to climb out of the vicious hole that keeps them hostage. But, I'm sure you will create a new law, or bill, or find a way to fine the poor for being poor.

I'm curious to know if the legislatures who think it's a great idea to penalize the poor for their lack of performance in school, then, will you raise the taxes of the rich whose children are low performers in their schools? Instead of dismantling the educational field of the poor, how about leveling the education field for all!

Use the resources to put computers in every classroom, making them available to every student so they can have a leverage in education. How about investing in math and science programs in schools that match those in the suburban communities, or magnate schools? Here's a novel idea, you can provide mandatory recess, creative activities, and other outlets that allow students the ability to express themselves and exercise their minds and bodies. How about a food program that provides afternoon snacks such as fresh fruit and vegetables, where children's brains are being fueled with food that recharges them. Finally, how about each of the legislatures adopting an under-performing school and making it their responsibility to engage the students, parents, teachers, and administrators to ensure that the school reaches the academic level of other enhanced schools. If you get involved instead of making bills and laws that segregate and oppress the poor, then perhaps you will see and be the change you so desire!

Terrance Dean
Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Masters of Theological Studies Candidate, 2014
Community Engagement Fellow, 2013
Tutor/Mentor - Napier Elementary School

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