by Julia Steiny
Heather Dos Santos, middle-school principal and skilled restorative practitioner, begins her presentations with "Kasserian Ingera," which, in Swahili, means, "How are the children?" She explains that this is the conventional greeting among the Masai who live on the plains of Eastern Africa.
The traditional response is, "All the children are well."
The Masai are famously ferocious warriors. They won their reputation fighting the British and other tribes. But aggressive habits are hard to compartmentalize, so the Masai families and individuals can find themselves in ugly beefs with one another, with the weak at a distinct disadvantage. Great warriors prepare to win at all costs, with bloodlust for victory. But someone who's trained for battle can't easily turn on and off these learned instincts and urges when the warrior returns to the community. In everyday domestic or neighborhood conflicts, the kinds of behavior essential to war resemble that of scary thugs. (Think: recent scandals in the NFL.)
So while the Masai may be animals on the battlefield, at home they deliberately model care for their children. In any society, the health and welfare of kids says a lot about the families, neighborhoods and culture that are their social womb. If the kids are in rough shape, likely the community is too. The Masai build ritual attention into their daily lives to mitigate the knee-jerk reactions to rage that could inflict damage on a family, a friendship, a neighbor. I imagine large, strong men strolling the village, modeling peace.
On the other hand, I marvel at America's phenomenal disregard for our kids.
Dos Santos's school is in a desperately poor urban district where it'd be a fat lie to say all the children are well. But she leads by example, using a calm, velvet voice at all times, since getting aggressive with kids (or adults) just makes them more aggressive. But as a leader with a public role, Dos Santos is unusual. America admires aggression in its leaders even when they model dreadful behavior for our kids. (Think: Congress.) I don't see such leaders giving so much as a second thought to the effects of their role modeling. But kids and communities are watching. In war, aggression serves a specific purpose. In peace, aggression often becomes adult bullying, plain and simple.
As a result, how are the children? In America homicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-19. Almost one in four children lives in poverty. Almost half of all babies are born to unmarried women. Thirty-five percent live in single-parent households. Every day in America almost 2,000 children are confirmed as abused or neglected, and nearly 3,000 kids drop out of high school. It's not a pretty picture.
So I've come to believe that the Masai question needs to be posed to all political candidates during this political season, and henceforth. It would out the thugs. Who is trying to win at all costs? Or just selling out for political gain? Who is able to think beyond their own ego-satisfaction to the business of serving the community they claim to represent? Who is amassing political power without a care in the world for those who don't vote?
"And how are the Providence children?"
Take as an extreme example this year's race for Mayor in my hometown, Providence, Rhode Island. The election features the infamous Buddy Cianci, a two-time felon who spent four and a half years in prison for running City Hall as a criminal enterprise. As he says in his own book Politics and Pasta, "An election is a war and âto the victor belongs the spoils.'" He's a warrior to be sure, but no Masai. His main opponent is Jorge Elorza, an ex-Housing Court judge, with an impressive backstory — a hardscrabble-immigrant childhood that finished at Harvard Law School. He's wonky, but trustworthy. But he has little name recognition compared with Cianci's dazzling self-promotion, and his considerable smarts, wit and charm. Maddeningly, everyone knows he's a thug. According to recent polls, an astonishing number of Providence residents believe this to be part of his charm.
I was appointed to the Providence School Board the same year Cianci started his second term. While green and powerless, I had a ring-side seat to a gladiatorial fight I had no idea existed. I was repeatedly intimidated by City Hall's henchmen. The schools seemed to be a mere excuse to collect tax dollars that could be passed around among the adults. Instead of using any sort of evaluation, the hiring of janitors and others were all subject to approval by City Hall who somehow knew whose family supported the current political machine, or not. I can't begin to tell you how unimportant the kids were. The experience was so horrifying that kids became my personal mission and focus henceforth.
Aggression is as necessary in politics as in war. But it needs to be turned off, balanced by exactly the sorts of high expectations for the common good that can be best represented by children. Unlike the Masai, the power struggle among American adults runs amuck. The kids are ignored to our peril.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected] or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.