Friday, July 24, 2015

Black Lives Matter

My robot team has been doing some outreach almost every week.  We partnered with a few organizations that do STEM education - The Edgerton Center at MIT and The Cambridge Science Festival.  I have been to their events before and, well, have to admit that it was pretty much populated by parents and kids like us.  Parents with professional degrees and kids who like to dabble in science.

A partnership with groups like this is part of the team's business plan.  Yes, I made them come up with a business plan because I want them to think like that.  You could call it a strategic plan as the point is to work three years to then be self-sufficient in the fourth to fund themselves.  They challenged us to come up with certain types of activities, more than just showing off the robot, that came in at particular price points.  This was great and the kids worked all year to do just that and so now we have low cost activities we can do as a charitable act or sell if the place allows us to fundraise.  The groups also have endless opportunities for us to go in their place or with them to various events around the Boston area to do our thing.  This saves us a lot of time looking for opportunities - now we just have to figure out which ones we can staff.

One of the groups, Cambridge Science Festival, has an arm that is called Science on the Street.  It's point is to pop-up at places and allow the people passing by to interact with the activities.  This is to get out of the situation where the only enrichment is going to kids where their parents are already enriching!

These kids weren't even supposed to come to school the
day we came!  They did anyways because they knew we
were coming. 
What has happened has been fascinating and so telling about our national politics.  We were sent to a underprivileged elementary school a few weeks ago to work with a 4th grade and 5th grade group.  The ratio of minorities to white children was about 8:2.  Then this week, into a inner-city community center park where other than the coordinator, we were the only white/asian faces.  Did I tell you that the 5th grade at that school had 'graduated' and weren't supposed to come to school that day?  They all did anyways because their science teacher told them we were coming.  OMG.  Can you imagine that in a wealthily suburb?  They would already be on planes to vacations.

We found that the kids were so polite, fascinated and were delightful.  Why am I saying that?  Well, a
few months ago we did an event at MIT with 800 kids.  Almost all privileged kids of professionals - and we wanted SWAT protection!  As a whole, our team came out discussing how we needed to buy
At MIT with 800 kids.  Note the girl on the right
taking apart the LEGO device.  I had to stop
taking pictures and start guarding our stuff
stanchions because the kids were rude and entitled and in the future we would need to keep ourselves and our stuff behind a barrier.  We had brought our competition robots and after awhile I had to stand there with the LEGO robot held above my head because all the kids were trying to take it apart!!!  Parents were not watching their kids and we were freaking out as they kept leaning over the robot barrier with their faces and could have gotten smashed by the big robot ('where are their parents??' The team kept asking).  In the end, the kids took apart our entire competition table of legos.  It was stunning to see how impolite they were.  The words my team used in the car were things like "dangerous", "rude" and "no respect".  They complained vehemently about how parents aren't watching or teaching their kids anything.  The attitude there was that we were there to serve and they could touch anything they wanted.  I kept having to say - 'hey, this is these kids work -- respect it!'

Contrast that with the park we set up in this week.  It was at a community center at the edge of the projects.  We came in and set up and the 'village elders' who were hanging out on the park benches watching the kids interact with the activities immediately came to our aid to help us out, such polite and helpful gentlemen!  I thought they were just nice old men sitting around in the park.  What I didn't realize was they were the community activists and self appointed public safety overseers.  There were basketball courts next to us and dozens of young men there playing in a league.

We got to business and it was a disaster for us.  The power supply didn't work and then when that was fixed the wheel fell off the robot and the robot wouldn't work!! We had even forgot one of the controllers.  We spent over an hour trying to recode it and debug it.  Had my son on video chat trying to help us.  Disaster.  Never worked or moved.

Well - it was a complete success.  We had designed this robot with a face and made it a 'mr. potato head' with velcro on face parts (some would move if it had turned on!).  The kids were enthralled.  They kept decorating the robot, interacting with the team, helping to fix the wheel, looking at the code and hearing the discussion on how to fix.  They helped us check the wiring and generally kept being fascinated.  They were polite, engaged, asked questions, laughed with us, were well dressed and groomed and the parents who came with them were constantly encouraging them to be nice and polite (don't touch that if they haven't asked you!).
The smiles were just huge.  Note the sign on the wall over the
young man leading kids in building KNEX on a tarp:
"Kids Eat Free".  Something my never-hungry-for-lack-of-food
 teens have to think about.

Essentially, we were paying attention to these kids and that was all they needed.  Like sponges with a never ending thirst.  It was just heartbreaking.  The director just came over and over and thanking us for just showing up because 'this neighborhood needs it so much'.  At one point a child was so interested in my son's face on the smart phone helping debug the wiring.  I told the girl, about 11, that he was in a dorm at MIT.  She asked what that was.  Now understand that we were maybe 10 blocks, if that, from MIT.  I explained it was the best engineering college in the USA and it was in Cambridge.  She didn't know where Cambridge was.  I asked her if she had ever walked to the river (against the river is the wealthiest part of Boston).  "There is a river here?!".  Later in the car, the team exclaimed something about how could she not know about the river that was blocks from where she lived.  I looked up and said, 'you sound like a rich white kid'.  At that moment they realized that this child had never strayed far from the projects in 11 yrs.

Before our time was up, the director came close to me and whispered in my ear.  "The public safety officers would like you to quietly and very quickly pack up and leave".  There was an argument between a group of spectator men at the basketball court.  They knew all too well where it could lead and so did I.   These older men on the benches were watching out for all of us, while we were three blocks from the main Boston Police headquarters, there were no officers anywhere.  "the kids are fascinated by you and we need them to disperse ASAP for their safety, so we need you to leave now, but we have to prevent a panic".  I noted that the other activities were being quietly and quickly picked up.  I turned to the two girls on the team and handed them boxes of stuff and my keys.  Quietly I said "Take this to my car and get in.  Don't come back".  To the lovely kids watching us: "kids, we are going to go because our robot doesn't work -- but we will be back next week and it will!"  Fortunately we had built a system that allowed us to easily carry in for these outside events.  So we were all in the car within 60 seconds.

Never had our team realized what an important mission that outreach to the right place meant.  We are sure that our disastrous hour and a half there had more impact than the event we did for 800.  I love the parents on our team - because we are going back next week and armed with lots of extras too.

Black lives do matter.  The contrast of our outreach experiences have taught us so much more than a bit of public speaking.  It is hard to believe the daily conditions that these kids have to deal with just to learn and our interactions have been a stark contrast to the narrative played on certain TV news stations.  We would rather go back to the projects than teach kids in our own home towns, not because we are being charitable, but because they are nicer to us!


  1. I have loved reading about your group of youngsters and the wonderful activities they have been involved with,
    but I am really impressed with your outreach to the children from less advantaged neighborhoods. Good for you and your team of budding engineers.

  2. Thankyou so much for being there for not only your group of kids but for the all the others you touch with the outreach you do. It is so much more valuable than you know! I grew up in a neighborhood much like that in chicago in the 70s and having a mixed race backround I was lucky and got into a magnet school.
    What you are doing by taking your kids to these places is giving the children there scope for their imagination and dreams they so desperately need good things with which to fill their heads when bad things happen. You are broadening their horizon just by showing up. Thankyou

  3. I used to work as a tour guide at The Boston Globe and (at another time) as a 'pilgrim' at Plimoth Plantation.I dealt mostly with school groups. I would look at the list of schools coming that day and mentally prepare myself. I soon learned that the best groups were from the inner city or the "boonies" (Vermont,rural areas). They appreciated the opportunity and were eager to experience everything. The worst groups were from the entitled suburbs - a day off, lets play. My wallet was stolen by two boys from a prestigious Catholic prep school.One of their mothers made them come to my house , apologize, and give me a new wallet. It did not make up for the hassle of getting a new license, registration, and credit cards, but at least she got it. I always wondered about the other mother and the officials at the school.

  4. I raised my children in an affluent part of a big city. The kids that were friends with mine were the poor minority children that were bussed in. They were the much better behaved, incredibly intelligent, and more willing to learn than the 'rich' kids. They had problems with money and not having parents around at all times, but seemed to be more willing to make the most of any opportunities because of that. Please keep broadening the minds of those inner city children-they are the most in need of it and will benefit much more than the rich.

  5. Thank you for this, Tricia. This was a powerful illustration of how children want to learn, no matter where they are from. I am a transplanted American - came from Canada, but THIS is my country, and right now, my heart is sore from watching the news and the almost weekly events that seem unbelievable to me. Black lives DO matter - and this little girl who didn't know where MIT was is such a great illustration of that. How have we gotten so entrenched into our "own areas" that we don't know what's around us. All these bright children eager to learn can be lost in just a few short years. How heartbreaking to see what promise they have now, and realize how few will be able to fulfill that promise. I'm not doing a good job of explaining what I mean, but your blog really touched my heart today.

    1. This is Julie of Becky and Julie, by the way - for some strange reason, my signature became the both of us when I was trying to set up our Google account, and it's stayed that way... too much hassle to figure out how to change it.

  6. Tricia, may I link to this post on my Facebook page for my friends and family to read? It is such a powerful and moving post about the great divides in our country, as well as a very different perspective than the news media present.