Advocating justice in our education system

by Mikah Ochieng, summer writing team

Maria BylerPhiladelphia Praise Center is located in the heart of South Philadelphia, a neighborhood that captures all four corners of the world into a 20 block radius. If you know anything about South Philly, it’s that it’s constantly prone to social change. For over a century, the community has been heavily influenced by the Italian culture but recently it has become a cultural hub for the Hispanic and Asian communities. Like the 20th century immigrants who came before them, this new generational wave of immigrants have experienced what it’s like to face the specific challenges that culture and language bring to one’s life. That is why there are people like Maria C. M. Byler.

Prior to moving to Harrisonburg, Va. this fall to pursue an M.Div. at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Byler played a tremendous role in the life of Philadelphia Praise Center (PPC) and the lives of countless immigrants who have struggled to acclimate to a new environment.  As PPC’s on-staff social worker and in her position with Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEEMAAC), an education, health, and social services agency, Byler committed to making the lives of others a better reality, both spiritually and economically.

Byler’s passionate and optimistic insight has always been a reliable source of inspiration for her work with students and parents in educational services. SEEMAC exposed her to various social services relating to education and school attendance for truant and absent immigrant students. Yet what Byler later discovered as she became more familiar with the educational system within Philadelphia both shocked and frustrated her in her work with students and parents.

On top of the overbearing obstacles that the Philadelphia school district is constantly facing, there remains the issue of deep discriminatory acts of segregation along economic and social boundaries. Byler discovered early on that the traditional motto of American education being “non-discriminatory and accessible to everyone” was simply not true for the people that she was serving. Commonly, Byler would work with bilingual parents who needed language services and programs in order to sufficiently interact with the schools that their children attended. Although these programs had been properly established, it seemed obvious to Byler that the system of education favored students whose primary language was English—educational equality was not accessible to Byler’s client families.

The problems of inner city education are most evident when comparing the education systems of the metro area and the surrounding suburbs. As one would expect, there are economic differences between the two demographic areas, economic differences that seem to be an injustice perpetuated by America’s oldest original sin: institutional racism. Byler has witnessed first-hand the lack of resources and opportunities that Latino and Asian families fail to receive as compared to families who send their children to schools in more affluent, suburban areas.

But it doesn’t have to stay this way, suggests Byler. The solution for this injustice is one that would positively revise the method of state and federal funding for education. Big-time legislators and hardworking parents can work together to provide immigrant students with the hope they receive from a good education, regardless of their nationality. All children, says Byler, should be recognized as unique and worthy of opportunity, not just educational opportunity, but opportunity in all of life.

Because God’s Kingdom is a manifestation of this hope, Jesus-followers are called to tear down the walls of institutional racism that seal away our community’s most powerless—our children—from the hope of an equal education.