Dear Another Voice,
I once wrote, “To be Black or brown in the United States is to live in a world that is less inviting, less responsive, and with a certain kind of pain” I also wrote, “To be white is to be able to walk down the street like you own it.”
My words were proven true at the 2020 Regional Future City Competition. It is a competition where middle school students build a city 100 years into the future. Students are expected to implement urban planning and infrastructure ideas, civil engineering skills, geography, and climatology. The final component of the competition is to build a 3-D model city and present it to a panel of judges. The only Buffalo Public School to compete was Marva J. Daniels Futures Academy. It was the only team that was all African-American. The other teams hailed from the suburbs and were (mostly) all white.
What does it mean when a group of young Black faces walk into a suburban school and say, “We don’t belong here”? What does it mean when those same kids face judges who are all male and white? What does it mean when those Black kids see white kids build cities in The Congo, Morocco, and Zimbabwe?
The teams that won imagined their cities with skyscrapers made of steel, mono-rails in the sky, jelly-fish water purification systems, micro-chips in citizens, solar panels, and air wells. One team’s city was visited by Prince Harry. Another made a point: “We kept some huts to maintain the culture.”
The imagined cities created by these students were filled with scientific wonder and creativity; a future with infinite resources, green infrastructure, and limitless possibility. Unfortunately, those same cities lacked any historical, political, or environmental reality. They imagined a future devoid of any past.
I do not blame the kids. I blame the teachers. When the students suggested microchipping the inhabitants did the teachers not educate the kids about government surveillance or the policing of communities of color? When the students suggested that their African city get a visit from a British royal did they not stop to talk about colonialism? When the students suggested building high rises in the desert did they not stop to educate their kids about desert climate and local knowledge. (Huts in African desert spaces are made mud, clay, and twigs for scientific and practical purposes.)
The Future City Competition is a reflection of the difference between a Black and white lived reality. It is why “Redskins” is a football team. It is why Colin Kaepernick should just “shut up and play”. It is why Flint, Michigan still does not have clean drinking water. Experiences don’t change. Pain for some. Comfort for others.