Student Voices: Pandemic Life as a Student Parent
Part 2: Parenting for Social Justice, An Interview with Erin Cross, Director of Penn’s LGBT Center and Mom
In the first blog post of this series, I talked about my journey as a student and a new mom during the pandemic. Even though my schedule is still very unpredictable day to day as I care for my son, writing in shorter chunks of time has helped with creativity and focus. In this post, I discuss what it means to be a parent who is committed to social justice, including the need to interrogate our privilege not only as individuals but as a family. Especially while my son is only a few months old, it is easy to get caught up in the immediate needs of diaper changes, naptime, and all those middle of the night feedings. But the bigger picture of what kind of parent I strive to be is also important.
In the book, Negotiating Critical Literacies with Young Children, Vivian Vasquez writes about what happens when she shares a critical literacies curriculum with preschool children who are three to five years old. Through discussion, drawings, read alouds, and other activities, the children explore social issues including race, gender, and age in complex and thought-provoking ways. Vasquez highlights that children most adults would consider ‘very young’ are actively engaging in critical inquiry related to how they experience the world. Such opportunities to critically engage should be an everyday process, not limited to a classroom unit, holiday, or museum visit.
To reflect more on this topic, I caught up with a former professor of mine at Penn GSE, Erin Cross. Erin is the Director of Penn’s LGBT Center, and also teaches a course on Gender and Sexuality in Education. On the first day of class, we went around and talked about why we enrolled. “One day, I want to be a mom,” I said. During our discussions, Erin sometimes also talked about her kids and their experiences with gender. We kept in touch and I am part of a group Erin facilitates for white parents who are striving to be anti-racist. I want to thank Erin for engaging with me so thoughtfully in the Q&A below.
Jen: What does it mean to be an inclusive parent?
Erin: Striving to have your kids exposed to as much breadth as possible of humanity and believing others lived experiences, including our kids’. We try to talk about all kinds of differences whenever moments present themselves, ensure their books go beyond the white, straight, middle-class, citizen narrative, have varied people in their lives, and discover new art, etc. together. That is not enough, however. I also strive to be an anti-racist parent. We do not sugar coat racism in our house, it would be such a disservice to our kids. It is important for them to see white people admitting they are racist and working on it instead of just saying ‘I understand what you are going through.’ We don’t; so we try to have other folks in their lives of similar ethnic and racial backgrounds to be there if they need them. They also see me and my wife working with communities of color as worker bees and using our white privilege to lift BIPOC voices whenever possible. Breaking the gender binary is also huge in our house as we have folks of all gender identities in our lives as well. I am proud our kids default to they or ask people their pronouns. Sure, they soak up cultural stereotypes because they are being raised in U.S. culture but we try to mitigate them as much as possible. It is weird to see one of our kids enact what he sees as masculinity as he tries on new identities though, because the current identity of ‘cool, macho boy’ did not come from us. It is his experience and he needs to figure out who he is; however, and I have to say it is fun to watch as much as it is frustrating at times.
Jen: You co-facilitate a circle on Campus for Penn staff on whiteness and anti-racism. The theme is raising anti-racist kids. What advice do you have for student groups on Campus interested in creating similar spaces?
Erin: If students want to create a space to discuss and process their whiteness and their role in racism, go ahead and do it. A good place to start is Layla Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy. In the book, Saad describes specific activities you can work through together to start addressing your own racism, like keeping a journal where you can reflect on how your white privilege has protected you throughout your life. Also, know there are staff and faculty in White Educators Committed to Anti-Racism and Equity (WE-CARE) who are trying to do their own work and feel free to reach out.
Jen: When I took your class on Gender and Sexuality in Education we read X: A Fabulous Child’s Story, a fictional story about a child whose gender was kept secret. When X goes to school, the adults react with hostility but other children begin to imitate X and find freedom in rejecting gender rules. How does the fictional experience of X relate to your own real experiences as a parent?
Erin: Although I love the story and it still serves a purpose, it is also very much so stuck in its time and the gender binary. Moreover, since X does a bit of girl and a bit of boy and it is early in life, their actions and appearance are not tied to assumed sexual orientation. What if X really did stick to non-gendered activities? First, it would be impossible and I am guessing many of them would actually be masculine. But, really no reason to speculate I suppose. Kids today have more leeway in terms of gender expression, although it is important to note there are still very binary spaces in the US as well (based on faith communities, ethnic backgrounds, SES, etc.). I was not in my kids’ life when they were young but from stories it was quite interesting. I know now we do our best not to work from gendered notions of things but we also know it seeps in from other spaces. That said, I love hearing how one boy at their school wears skirts and loves to twirl and the school and students are cool with it.
Jen: As a new mom, I love to read to my son. I know you have been a teacher and are a mom as well. What are some of your favorite kids’ books?
Erin: So many. I also asked a few other pals who are educators and moms.
- Julian is a Mermaid
- Hands Hands Fingers Thumbs
- The Day the Crayons Quit
- Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-a-Zoo
- Liza Lou and the Yellerbelly Swamp
- The Day You Began
- A Snowy Day
- Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
- In our Mother’s House
- Today I Feel Silly
- Tell Me Again About the Night I was Born
- I Love My Hair
- Tikki Tikki Tembo
- Peter’s Chair
- Whistle for Willie
- I Am Enough
- The Very Hungry Caterpillar
- Tomie DiPaolo books – Strega Nona in particular
By Jen Kobrin, Learning Fellow and Learning Specialist
Student Voices: Sharing Stories at the Penn Faces Speakeasy
On Thursday, April 5, Penn students, faculty, and staff braved the unseasonably cold, windy, and chilly weather to share and listen to one another’s stories on Penn’s College Green. This event was organized by the student group Penn Faces, which has been supported by the Weingarten Learning Resources Center since its inception.
Penn Faces is a “project that is the product of collaboration among individuals who came together with the common goal of creating a site to foster resilience and encourage honest conversations. Its vibrant color is a blending of Penn’s red and blue, highlighting both the spectrum and the unity of our experiences.”
The Penn Faces website provides students, faculty, and staff with a space to present their stories to the broader Penn community in the hope of breaking down the expectations of perfection that can be found on Penn’s campus.
The PennFaces Speakeasy is an annual event, organized by the PennFaces Student Advisory Board, that is held to provide the Penn community a space where they can share their stories with a wider audience.
The speakers exhibited strength through their vulnerability while sharing their personal stories of facing setbacks, experiencing loss, finding different paths, and building their resiliency. Here are some of the speakers from the event:
As an audience member, what stood out to me were some common themes that connected the different stories.
- While each person shared their own individual stories of facing challenges, feeling like they needed to hide who they were, or believing they needed to conceal their struggles behind a mask, what made a difference for each person was finding an individual or a community with whom they could speak and connect with.
These ideas spoke to me about the need to find community and make connections here at Penn.
Too often, I can feel like I just really need to zone in and focus on my academic and professional work while I am here, but we all need to make time and space for our personal lives.
We can have a richer, happier, and more fulfilling experience if we can be our whole selves on Penn’s campus.
Further, some acknowledged that every resource on campus is not for everybody and that the first resource you reach out to might not be the best for you.
The speakers touched on ideas that reaching out to others and asking for help is a process, but that when you find the right place, it can make all the difference.
Whether who you reach out to is your friends or family, or a designated resource here on campus, these stories remind us that there are people here who truly care, and that there are people here who may be struggling too, even if they don’t always show it.
The speakers and advisory board hope that one day an event like the Speakeasy is not needed at Penn, because we will all feel more comfortable speaking about our fears, difficulties, and struggles openly in more spaces. For the time being though, PennFaces highlights a real need at Penn for students, faculty, and staff to remove our masks and to share our stories.
If you are interested in becoming more involved with PennFaces, go to Penn Faces to find out more.
For more resources at Penn, here is a helpful guide:
Additionally, here are some other resources students have found to be helpful:
- The Tutoring Center
- Marks Family Writing Center
- Resource Librarians
- Professor and TA Office Hours
- Campus and Community Houses (La Casa Latina, Makuu, Greenfield Intercultural Center, LGBT Center, etc.)
- Your college major Advisors
Wherever you build your sense of community and decide to share your story, ask for help, or to find camaraderie, know that the Weingarten Center is here for you.
By Staff Writer: Kelcey Grogan, Learning Instructor & Research Fellow
Student Voices: Creating Positive Environments
College is advertised as a place where students can learn, grow, and interact with their peers. The college setting is known for bolstering interpersonal relationships in virtually every setting, including college dorms, dining halls, and even group study rooms in open spaces.
Before coming to college, both of us had imagined a college experience that would challenge us to explore the unknown, meet unfamiliar faces, and succeed academically. This image of the perfect college experience soon became dependent on the people in our immediate surroundings. From the friends with whom we became acquainted, to the professors with whom we interacted, these key relationships provided a strong and positive foundation for our now flourishing college careers.
Interpersonal relationships are an important part of students’ academic success. We have found that surrounding ourselves with the right people, inside and outside of the classroom, is an essential component of achieving academic success.
At Penn it is easy to be consumed by the daily pressures brought on by academics or extracurriculars. However, Rani and I have found that the constant positive reinforcement of a persistent friend or a model mentor can make these daily difficulties easier to withstand. Whenever I am concerned about a class or overwhelmed with responsibilities, I can turn to Rani to encourage me to get the job done and to put my best foot forward even if I am burnt out and ready to give up. Through my friendship with Rani, I have learned how essential it is to have these constant cheerleaders in my life. Not only have these motivators given me the courage to persist through adversity, but they have also given me the confidence to know that I am capable of achieving the goals that I have set out to accomplish.
Our relationships outside the classroom are critical for thriving academically, but the attitude we have toward our coursework plays a role as well. Contrary to what we had expected, sometimes, campus culture can also include negativity about schoolwork. It is normal to hear people around you discussing how pointless the class is and refusing to do the homework. During exam week we hear people saying how they are going to fail the exam, and it affects not only their focus and productivity, but it affects others as well. It can be very difficult to do well in a class if one internalizes this type of mindset.
Chieme and I have adopted an attitude of positivity. When we have classes together, we sit near each other and our comments on the coursework classroom material are usually positive and hopeful, if there are any at all. In classes where I don’t have friends like Chieme to foster a positive attitude, I try to sit with quiet people or those who also have a similar outlook on the material. Surrounding oneself with positivity seems to supply the courage and energy necessary to attack the material in a more productive way.
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Overall, we have enjoyed our college experiences. Our friendship, work ethic and positive outlook have gotten us far along our respective paths.
- So, try to find people who push you towards the goals you have set for yourself.
- Try to find those constant motivators who will encourage you to think beyond the campus culture and to embrace positivity.
- Look for ways to create constructive friendships and in-class interactions that will promote academic success.
Contributed by PENN Students: Chiemela Ohanele and Rani Richardson