Friday, April 17, 2009

TT Column 1: Susan Boyle and Mexicans

Let me introduce myself – I'm a business consultant and freelance writer. I've had a political column in the North Lake Tahoe Bonanza for the past several years in which I've attempted to bring some liberal/progressive balance to the largely conservative North Shore. In addition to politics I write on religious/spiritual topics and have a forthcoming book in that area. In this column on Tahoe Ticker I hope to bring some of both to readers both in the Tahoe basin and elsewhere. Now to business:

Unless you live in a cave, you have probably been exposed to Susan Boyle over the past couple of weeks. She's the 47-year old English woman who went on "Britain's Got Talent," the UK version of American Idol and wowed the whole world. What's interesting about this to me is that if she had just submitted a tape or sung with only the audio on, you would have thought "great voice." What made her such a sensation is that she is a rather ordinary looking middle-aged woman who was visibly nervous and at the same time, to use a Britishism, "cheeky." In the US we use a different anatomical reference, but mean the same – gutsy, a little brash, and a dash of impudence.

No matter how often we hear and say "you can't judge a book by its cover," we still do. If you watch the clip on YouTube, the judges and the audience are laughing at her until she opens her mouth to sing, and then they're astonished, as if age or looks or dress or anything else had anything to do with musical ability.

Now expand that out – we prejudge everyone and everything we encounter, and unlike a TV show that is set up for moments of high drama, mostly our prejudgments determine not only our behavior but the fate of those we judge. Since the 1960's there have been numerous studies that show that if you give teachers classes of equal ability but tell one teacher the students are bright and the other that the students are slow, the expectation set by the description has enormous power in determining the students' performance. What's remarkable about our first African-American President is not that he got there but that we had to go through 43 white men, many of them unexceptional, to finally elect an exceptional black man.

People who live at Tahoe have an extraordinary record of charitable giving – there are foundations, individual donors, fundraisers, etc. that account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable giving every year. Unfortunately a lot of that giving is going to support programs and institutions that look a lot like the donors. A private school for the children of the privileged raises a hundred thousand dollars to fund its programs while the public schools are laying off teachers and cutting programs, and programs that benefit those who need it most go underfunded and under the radar of people who could support them.

One such program is called ARC – Adventure, Risk, Challenge. ARC is a non-profit program that, for several years now, has worked with English Language Learner (read Mexican-American) high school students in a year-round program that combines a 40 day summer program of outdoor leadership and academic education with ongoing work that turns out college students and community leaders. ARC has programs on the North Shore at the UC Berkeley Sagehen Field Research Center, in Yosemite in conjunction with the UC Merced Science Research Institute, and has had (and will have again) a program in Santa Barbara with UCSB. ARC has an amazing young staff in both centers, and is, like many programs of its ilk, massively underfunded. Maybe a program that starts with the Hispanic equivalent of Susan Boyles and turns out extraordinary human beings deserves at least as much financial support as do prep schools and animal rescue efforts. Or we could just figure what the hell – they're Mexicans.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ed, Thanks for the Susan Boyle and Mexicans article. She finally got her chance. I'm a first generation U.S. born Mexican-American (+ Irish and Hungarian)and I discuss how "my people" must come North of the border to get their chance. Check out my latest blog post, Susan Boyle: Sings for Your Mexican Workers.
My site is
Emeric McCleary