By Andrea Voyer
For the past two and a half years I have been studying everyday inequality between people in three cross-class civic communities. I’ve been a participant observer among and conducted interviews with the parents of a public school, the members of a church, and the participants in a neighborhood council.
With this research, I am bringing the literature on civic engagement, which sociologists typically think of as a good thing, into conversation with the literature on inequality, which sociologists typically imagine is reproduced through racism and segregation. Yet, all over America, people find themselves on sidewalks and subways with people who do not share their gender, race, age and religion. In malls, schools, libraries, and grocery stores, one often encounters people who have much more and who have significantly less wealth, power and education. Anderson refers to these settings as cosmopolitan canopies – spaces characterized by routine and unproblematic social interaction among people from different races and ethnicities, socio-economic statuses, and national origins. But, Anderson focuses primarily on mundane and fleeting interactions as people pass through spaces that are impersonal and often private, commercial spaces like malls and public markets. Interactions there may be civil and egalitarian, but that is partly due to the limited stake that people have in short-term encounters.
How does one manage social inequality between neighbors, between classmates and their families, or between members of the same religious community? When social inequality isn’t managed structurally by social segregation or the distribution of people into unequal roles (e.g. customer and service worker), social inequality must be managed interpersonally. Cross-class organizations and the relationships people form within them hold the promise of greater equality, but they also have the potential for reproducing, masking, and legitimating inequality.
Civic engagement can lead to the reproduction of social inequality across organizations and institutions like schools, churches, and neighborhoods. Inter-organizational inequality occurs when civic organizations form along class lines (and other social boundaries), leading to resource hoarding among some and scarcity among others. Civic engagement can also reproduce social inequality between individuals. This interpersonal inequality occurs through, as Linda Stout put it so well in her contribution to this series, prejudicial attitudes, but also “how meetings were run, trainings were conducted, and leaders were chosen.”
We see both inter-organizational and inter-personal inequality in the Public School X (PSX) PTA election. PSX is a public elementary school in Manhattan. In 2017-2018, PSX is approximately 30% Latino, 30% white, 20% Asian, and 15% black. Approximately 15% of students live in temporary housing and nearly 50% of the students have household incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch.
I selected PSX as a research site because of its tremendous diversity, and also because in many ways it is two schools in one. The school has a “gifted and talented” (G&T) program, an accelerated track with admission by examination, that draws students from throughout the school’s Manhattan district. The school also educates “general education” (GenEd) students who did not qualify for G&T but lived in PSX’s immediate neighborhood. GenEd is not exactly a euphemism for race and class, but it is certainly a good proxy for that. GenEd students are more likely to come from poor black and latinx families living in the low and middle income housing projects surrounding the school. G&T students are more likely to be white and Asian children from well-off families living further from the school. GenEd and G&T programs students have separate classrooms and teachers. Despite the different educational tracks at PSX, there is only one “parent community” – as the PTA president calls it, and only one PTA. In New York City, all parents are automatically members of the PTA.
In reality, very few parents aren’t involved at school in some way, and many parents give significant time and money to the school. Parents organize and chaperone fieldtrips, attend school events such as weekly morning classroom activities, and monthly informal chats with the principal. Parents serve as “class parents” responsible for streamlining communication between the teacher and the parents. They can also take an advisory role in the chess club or drama program, and donate money and supplies as requested by the teachers and the PTA. Parents organize and attend several community-building events throughout the year, including family movie nights (tickets $2), a Halloween party (tickets $20), a weekend street festival (tickets $20), and a fundraising Gala and auction (tickets $250).
Given the characteristics of the PSX parent community and the high level of engagement expected of parents, PSX PTA would seem to be an ideal site for the development of a cross-class, multiracial coalition of parents built on the basis of shared membership in the school community. Small’s research shows that organizational inducements to parent involvement at school play a big role in the development of helpful parent networks that are sources of information, social support, institutional ties, and friendships.
In the two-and-a-half years I followed PSX parents, however, I observed that they often reproduced existing external social boundaries and status hierarchies within their personal relationships and group practices. In my early days at PSX, I met with Clara, who serves on the PTA executive committee. Clara described the challenges of fostering PTA involvement among the GenEd families. She had, she said, recruited one wonderful GenEd parent for the PTA, but there was more to be done. I had similar conversations with other active parents, and observed meetings in which parents discussed this issue at length. In June of that same school year, however, several GenEd parents ran for positions on the executive board of the PTA, but not one of them was elected.
One such parent, a grandparent actually, was Victoria Gonzalez. The day of the election, approximately 90 parents were seated in the auditorium as candidates for the PTA executive board courted their votes. In the first four rows, center, a core group of about 30 parents sat closely together, chatting and facing forward. Other parents were scattered throughout the auditorium, sitting alone or in pairs.
A microphone stood on the floor between the first row of seats and the stage. When it came time for candidates for member-at-large, a position typically considered an entry level role for newcomers who will learn the ropes and move to other more demanding positions in the future, Victoria Gonzalez approached the mic from the far side of the auditorium where she sat with another parent.
Victoria is a latinx woman in her late 60s. She was wearing grey sweats and her greying, curly hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She wore no make-up. She was short and stocky in stature. Victoria read a prepared statement, her eyes rarely coming up from the paper. She said, “My name is Victoria Gonzalez. I’m a mother of 3 and a grandmother of 7. I have 2 grandchildren that I have full custody of that are here at PSX. I also have two kids who are 27 and 28 and they also graduated from PSX so that makes me a little familiar with PSX. So, this year I am running for member at large. I know that some of you may probably be wondering why it took me so long to join the PTA. One answer would be that I had no time to come to any of the meetings let alone to join the PTA. I’ve worked so much and I have always had two, three a few or several jobs at a time. I lived around this neighborhood for around 24-25 years. I’ve been involved in the community, and I am a fast learner. What I don’t know I will learn. I have more time now because I am retired. The time I have I can use to be helpful to the PTA. I think I have lots of experience working with children and school advising and organizing and budgeting. Now I’ll just say thank you so much for taking this time to hear me… I’m looking forward and hoping to work with you this coming year.”
Next up was Victoria’s competitor, Jamie Mellan, who rose from her seat in the front row center and walked the two or three steps to the mic. A white woman in her mid or late 30s, Jamie had long smooth brown hair with loose curls at the bottom. She wore a white tank top, jeans, and lightly applied make-up. She stood tall, spoke without notes, and mostly trained her eyes on the crowd at the front of the auditorium. She said, “I’m Jamie Mellan and I know most of you down front.” She smiled at the people she had just been sitting with. “I am very committed to this school, and I want it to be as good as it could be. I have a first grader in this school and next year my middle son will be in kindergarten G&T [gifted and talented] as well. A bit about myself: I’m [in television] and I serve on the board of [important organization for people in entertainment industry]. I also run a charity that works to bring the arts to children. I’ve been very active in the school. I try to fundraise for Teaching Assistants and think we should have full time TAs for every class. Regardless of how things go today, I will be involved with the school. I will fundraise and I will be there for events. I will give anyone and everyone at this school the support that they need. So, feel free to use me in any way.”
Perhaps it isn’t much of a surprise that the parents picked Jamie over Victoria, but why aren’t we surprised? What made it possible for the PSX parents, especially those active parents who expressed a concern with the lack of inclusion of GenEd families, to feel fine about voting for Jamie instead of Victoria?
It isn’t enough to say that the election results were the result of class or ethnic prejudice. An analysis that stops at the claim of such discrimination is missing places where it is possible to intervene in the everyday pragmatics of inequality. I will briefly point out three organizational logics leading to the selection of Jamie: grounded prejudice; experience; and, the organizational role of the PTA in hoarding advantages for the school.
Grounded class prejudice against Victoria unfolded in the logic of the school. In addition to the differences in financial resources indicated by their attire, both candidates were easily placed in the school’s pervasive G&T/GenEd divide. Jamie indicated that she was a G&T parent. Victoria, through her description of her history in the neighborhood and the school, and by her choice not to say what track her children were on, indicated that she was a GenEd parent. I observed that GenEd parents typically stereotyped G&T parents as controlling and overly concerned with money. G&T parents typically stereotyped GenEd parents as needy, struggling, and not in a position to make meaningful contributions to the school. In light of these stereotypes, to be elected Victoria would have to make an overwhelming case for her ability and commitment.
Because most parents are involved in the PTA during the years their children are students, there is a felt need for consistency and past experience in parent leadership. This would also recommend Jamie, whose ability to be present at school in the past produced a tangible difference between what she offered in comparison with Victoria. Both indicated a willingness to work for the school, but Jamie was already familiar with the PTA, its processes and its membership, Victoria was not. Jamie indicated a desire to maintain the status quo (or better) and Victoria made no such claims.
The PSX PTA’s organizational role in supporting the school financially also led to votes for Jamie. A few years earlier, increases in the number of higher income families sending children to PSX led the percentage of documented low-income students to drop below the threshold for the federal Title I funds designated for low-income schools. The school lost a substantial portion of its operating budget, and the PSX Parent Teacher Association, which had not been an active fundraising organization that time, sprang into action. In a few short years, the PTA developed a $450,000 annual budget supporting the school. The PTA funds PSX’s teaching assistants, an instrumental music program, a theatre arts program, afterschool test prep, a chess team, and continuing education for the teachers. The PTA leadership distinguishes between their primary mission, “fundraising,” and their secondary goal of “friendraising.” Jamie nodded to this primary commitment when she described her fundraising experience and community ties that could benefit the school, while Victoria emphasized relating to the children and the educational mission of the school.
Despite parents’ stated desire to be an open and egalitarian organization, the PSX PTA continues to be nearly universally a G&T group. While Clara and others hoped for more GenEd parental involvement, they were really looking for parents who understood and met the expectations they placed upon members of the PTA. In a $450,000-a-year PTA, there is no room for well-intentioned retires from public housing.