Tag Archives: fieldwork

How Can We Help Miguel?

[Written for DML Central. More comments there.]

One of the hardest parts of doing fieldwork is hearing difficult, nuanced stories that break my heart. The more complicated the story, the harder it is to tell, but I feel a responsibility to at least try. Given how many educational reformists read this blog, I want to provide a portrait of some of the teens that I’ve met who are currently being failed by the system. My goal in doing so is to ask a hard question: how do we help these specific teens? Let me start with Miguel.

Miguel is 17 and in the 10th grade. His parents, both from Mexico, never finished high school and speak very little English. They are very religious and came to the US to try to provide a life for Miguel and his brother. When Miguel arrived first arrived in Nashville, he spoke very little English himself, but a local gang immediately adopted him and taught him English with heavy street slang. Given his initial friends, he was immediately labeled as a gangbanger by adults. He struggles with this label and it shapes his relationship to school and influences how adults treat him.

danah: Is school boring?
Miguel: Sometimes. Like, my algebra II, that class is like, I don’t get what she is saying. I tell her to slow down and she won’t slow down. She act like a computer. I sometimes am taking notes and she’ll be erasing them. That’s when I get mad and I tell her. She says she don’t care.
danah: Why doesn’t she care?
Miguel: Because she say I never pay attention.
danah: How does that make you feel?
Miguel: It makes me feel bad because I know that I pay attention and I try, but that’s her.

Miguel has long struggled to dissociate himself with gangs, looking up to people who are making their life work through the traditional tracks of school. “When I see people who are doing good in school I be like, oh, I want to be like that. It makes me be a better person and give me, what’s it called, feel better in my mind, my studies and everything.” But he faces insurmountable odds. As an undocumented / “illegal” (in his words) immigrant, he believes that he won’t be going to college. He’s particularly angry about this because his brother is doing quite well in school and there appears to be no hope for him to go to college either. (Note: I’m not sure about the legal barriers, but Miguel is convinced that there’s no way that he or his brother could go to college.)

In addition to feeling as though there’s no educational future for him, he struggles with issues about loyalty, feeling like he should be supporting his friends who supported him when he first arrived. But then a friend of his was killed; this scared him. “It makes me feel like I don’t want to be in that position anymore. I prefer to stay at home or going to the movies without knowing I’m going to get shot.” Fights are all around him and he regularly struggles to stay disengaged.

Miguel: I make decisions now by more of the– to feel myself better and safe, because one day we were fighting and this dude pulled out a knife and he started trying to kill someone. And since then, I was like, “I don’t like that.” And then, one day, it was before the knife, after the knife my friend got into a fight and everyone wasn’t there. This dude pull up a gun and he tried to shoot you. He shoot the gun, but we start running. So that’s why I prefer to stay bored in school and be safe than be doing something bad. Not doing nothing in school is more safe than to be doing something that is bad for me.

Miguel says that most of his friends stay involved with the gangs because “they don’t want leave out of the life. They want to stay in that life.” When the TV show Gangland did a special on Nashville, his friends were ecstatic that they were on TV, that they were now “famous.” This TV show, while showing the underbelly of gang culture, served as a recruiting technique for local gangs. Although Miguel wants out, there are pressures to stay in. He no longer goes to the lunchroom because he’s expected to sit with the gang. He works hard to come up with activities that will give him excuses for not showing up at fights. And while he’s got support outside of school – at church, through a counselor – even his teachers have written him off as a gangbanger.

Here’s a teen who wants to learn, who is painfully far behind and frustrated, who speaks broken English and is clearly lacking in many educational basics, who is unable to see a future for himself outside of doing menial labor and working hard to avoid being picked up by INS. He doesn’t see college as an option nor does he see any path to becoming legal. How can we help a teen like Miguel?

Thank you Nashville!

I’m just finishing up the first 10 days of my fall sprint at intensive fieldwork. I’m a long way from being about to synthesize what I’m seeing but I wanted to share a few things since many of you are curious about my observations.

First off, Nashville is a great city to do fieldwork because of a mix of different dynamics taking place here. There’s the obvious suburban dynamics which are really notable here, especially given some of the extraordinarily wealthy suburbs which their posh football fields and McMansions. But even in the low income regions, there are really interesting things going on, both in the city and in the suburbs. On one hand, you have amazing local organizations dedicated to youth culture. The public library’s facility for teens is better than anything I’ve seen in any public library in the States and boy do teens flock there after school to play with the Wii, get free snacks, do homework, get on the computer, and even read books. The energy after school is fantastic. The library and rec center are where many teens go after school to wait for their parents to pick them up or because they live close to these places and find them to be more fun than going home (for a whole host of reasons). Of course, the teens that go to these places aren’t necessarily representative of all teens in Nashville. One teen told me that the types of people who went to the library are “ghetto” which is why she won’t go there. Still, many of the teens that I met there are trying to stay out of trouble and it was great to see a place for them to go. Likewise, Rocketown, a club founded by Christian musician Michael W. Smith is a popular place for youth trying to keep out of trouble. And there’s a Youth Opportunity Center and a whole host of other organizations working to create activities and opportunities for teens. And, unlike many regions I’ve been in, many of the retailers and fast food joints employ teens.

And then there’s the flipside… There are drug issues, namely pills (although oddly, heroin also seems to be coming back). And gangs. Sure, there are gangs in other cities, but the Kurdish Pride gang down here is quite unique. Kurdish Pride is filled with teens and young adults who come from middle/upper-class two-parent families and are doing well in school, but are engaged in a two-front gang warfare battle. On one hand, they’re trying to stand up to the black and Hispanic gangs here; on the other, they’re trying to show that they’re tough to their cousins back in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere. Things escalated post 9/11 and I can’t imagine that all of this anti-Islamic fever is helping anything down here at all.

A lot of how Nashville is organized depends on transportation, with teens in the suburbs rarely making it into the city because of lack of transportation (and familial rejections of the bus). Malls and movies trump everything in terms of hang out spaces for suburban youth, with parks operating as a critical site for urban youth. All of the youth centers and whatnot are located downtown, although some of the megachurches have great youth programs in the suburbs. Things like football games and Young Life are still playing a huge role in the communities. The biggest socio-economic mixing seemed to have happened at the Opry Mills Mall (which shut down after the flood) and among kids who attend magnet schools or other specialty schools (of which there are some phenomenal ones here… sadly, though, the typical public schools leave much to be desired). As always, geography and mobility really shape the social dynamics.

Anyhow, I could go on and on about the social dynamics of Nashville which are totally fascinating and require much more nuance than I can offer in 3 paragraphs, but I’m sure what you really want to know is about technology. Simply put, technology is really fading into the background and is mostly being used on top of everything else that teens are doing. Teens who are more likely to be stuck at home (namely the teens from wealthier families) are much more consciously engaged in the technology for technology sake, much more likely to sit and chat on Facebook because it’s Facebook. Cell phones are everywhere with texting at unbelievable levels across socio-economic divisions. But teens are treating technology with the same level of emotional connection as they treat their clothes. Some are obsessively passionate about it and some just see it as a functional thing that they may or may not want to engage with.

Some fun little things that I found intriguing… All of the MySpace Top 8 stuff has reappeared in Facebook under “siblings” as teens list their closest friends as their brothers and sisters (which requires confirmation). While joining “groups” used to be a cool way of doing identity marking, it’s now all about clicking “Like” to funny things that get passed around. Relationships aren’t official until they’re “Facebook official.” MySpace isn’t dead among teens but the socio-economic issues around it are extremely pronounced and those who are on MySpace are typically also on Facebook at this point. MySpace and YouTube are ground zero for law enforcement doing gang intelligence. Particularly interesting given that Facebook is heavily used by the Kurdish Pride kids to connect with family back in Iraq; both sides post photos with guns to show toughness and connection. And I confirmed the reality that Facebook is pretty darn public for these teens – available to everyone that they know. And they know very little about how to manage their settings but feel like Facebook’s defaults must be what they should use.

I also heard some pretty crazy heart-wrenching stories. For example, complications to the sexting picture in the news. A boy that I met shared his cell phone with his mother.  He takes the phone during the day and she takes it at night.  His mother appears to be promiscuous (“gets around”).  All day long, he receives naked photos of older men to his cell phone intended for his mother. He’s terrified that his friends will see those pictures and think that they’re intended for him.  He’s super embarrassed about his mother but too uncomfortable to confront her.

Anyhow, there’s a lot more in all of my notes that I still need to process and think through what I have before I can offer more conceptual reactions but I wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve seen. And thanks to everyone who has been so supportive and welcoming. There are some truly dedicated folks in Nashville trying to make a difference and it really warms my heart to see so many dedicated folks working to help teens.

More soon! (Next stop… Raleigh and Durham.)

Upcoming fieldwork: What do you want to know?

I’m gearing up for a bunch of new on-the-ground fieldwork and intend to do a host of semi-structured interviews with American teenagers in different parts of the U.S. in the upcoming months. While I talk to teens regularly, new in-depth fieldwork allows me to really tease out core conceptual puzzles. My goal for this upcoming bout of fieldwork is to really go deep into questions surrounding privacy and publicity. But as I start fieldtesting new questions and running pilot interviews, I thought I’d throw it out to you too. So….

What do you want to know about teens and social media?

Also… if you have general questions for me about my findings, I’m trying out Formspring to field questions. Feel free to ask me questions about research at any time and I’ll do my best to answer them!