Tuesday Talk… with Gwen Prowse

Gwen Prowse grew up in Hillsborough and graduated Hillsborough High School in 2007. She took my AP U.S. Government and Politics course in her senior year. Gwen was always outwardly one of the most positive students I’ve encountered in my career. She was part of a strong class of students, but would regularly distinguish herself, never more than in a debate we had in class on affirmative action (see below). That moment is probably the favorite of my entire career, and nothing in my career has made me prouder than the path she has taken.

Tell me about your experience as a high school student.

From the outside, I had an incredible high school experience. I was very involved. I was the president of my class sophomore through senior years. I played field hockey and lacrosse. I had a lot of friends from many different social groups, and remain close with many to this day. I was even the prom queen. Admittedly, however, high school was a tough time for me. I put a lot of pressure on myself, never slept enough, and was always so worried about being liked. 

My home life wasn’t always easy. When I was in fourth grade, my father died suddenly of a heroin overdose. 

What did your father do for a living?

He worked for AT&T. He was an incredibly charismatic, sharp guy. And a great father. He was a creative (he was my mom’s guitar teacher) and I unfortunately think that suburban life just never really squared well with his sense of self. Anyway, he was sober for about 15 years but relapsed after a rough year or two—his father died and he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. He overdosed when my brother and I were home alone with him and survived. I think the moment caused him such an incredible level of shame that he could hardly move forward. He died of an overdose about two weeks later. I miss him to this day.

That must have been incredibly difficult to go through. What did your mother do?

My mom never went to college so employment options were limited for her. She was laid off two or three times while I was a teen because her employer didn’t want to pay for health insurance for two kids. She’s a hero who did her best to hide these struggles from her kids, but at times, they were palpable. 

I found a lot of intellectual and emotional solace in my English and social studies classes, and from the teachers who instructed them. When I read Catcher in the Rye in Mr. Puma’s class, I felt like I understood grief better. When I read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in Mr. Layton’s class, I felt like I understood my father better—how deeply he struggled to comport with the myth of an American dream. Mr. Layton was an important source of strength for me my sophomore year. I remember one day (or maybe a series of consecutive days?) I had come into his class after I’d obviously been crying—my mom had just been laid off again and it just opened my emotional floodgates—and when Mr. Layton realized his jokes wouldn’t snap me out of my sadness, he returned the next day with a handwritten card wishing me strength. I don’t think I’ve ever told him what that gesture meant to me (I should!).

 Social studies did something else for me. It helped me think about change over time, it gave me perspective beyond my small sphere, and it was a venue for me to think critically. My social studies teachers were often evangelists for these orientations. They inspired me. And frankly, through the content and skills we engaged, they helped to heal me. I always innately felt that in order to understand myself, I needed to understand other people, places and things. Despite how much I fit in, I often felt alienated from the suburbs of Hillsborough; cul de sacs and McMansions never felt like ‘real life’ to me. We never had enough money to travel, so my coursework was a crucial substitute. 

Has your perspective changed as you’ve gotten more worldly experience and gotten some distance?

I wish that my high school expected more of its students, including me. As much as I loved my humanities classes (with a few exceptions), I always felt terrible in my science and math classes. For example, I felt like I never had a teacher who cared how much I was struggling, and in turn, how much I was growing to resent math and internalize a belief that I wasn’t “a math person.” In reality, I had no one to help me with it at home and had no one to teach me to practice. I had no one to inspire me to to think about math or science as an opportunity to do many of the things that I was already doing in humanities classes: think critically, logically, and even creatively. As a social science researcher, I frequently use statistics and computational software. It has taken me years to unlearn the false belief that “I’m not a math person.” Now that I work with and am friends with many colleagues who were raised in different countries, I realize that there are other pedagogies that work to prevent young people from internalizing false beliefs.

What did you not like about social studies classes?

For a while I worried that I was never “good enough” at social studies because I assumed it was all about internalizing rote facts—dates, names, etc. Memory has never been my strong suit. I’ve always thought more in terms of themes and processes. I was fortunate that most of my social studies teachers prioritized discussion, simulation, and DBQs rather than just writing on the board. Dr. Garber, Mr. Gelpke, and Mr. Fenster, all opted for these strategies and I loved their classes.  I particularly came to life in your AP Gov class. It was where I was able to practice so many intellectual and civic skills. Whether debating, simulating different institutions, participating in community service, or volunteering for a campaign, these opportunities provided lessons that carried into my whole life, my very being.

What do you recall of the affirmative action debate in your senior year in AP Gov?

I’m excited to hear what you recall! But if I remember correctly, I was possibly the only student in the whole class who began the debate in support of the policy. The argument felt so clear to me: when your identity group experienced generations of discrimination from education, employment, and access to capital, there should undoubtedly be a mechanism for members of your group to gain comparable traction in those areas. At the time, I was heartbroken that so many of my peers, including many of my friends, couldn’t see that. It was when I began to understand how deeply racism runs and how dangerously its disguised through the rhetoric of “fairness.” I became determined to expose these forms of structural racism and dismantle it. 

It was just you against a bunch of white and Asian students who were convinced that black students were going to take “their” spot at the college of their choice. Typically in that situation I’d help balance the scales by weighing in on the pro side, but you were so articulate and impassioned that it was unnecessary. I just watched. And marveled. And then recruited you to join Debate. 

What did you major in at Rutgers?

I majored in urban planning and public policy, with minors in political science and history. 

How did your focus and career goals evolve as an undergraduate?

I think I knew for a long time *who* I wanted to be, specifically, that I would devote my life to actualizing racial and economic justice in the United States. But finding the right route to do so was a bit less clear. Like I said, my mom never went to college so I never really knew what a career actually was. For a while I thought I wanted to go to law school. Then I thought I wanted to be an urban planner to help design more just and equal communities. I also did a lot of work as a grassroots community organizer, which made me want to address spatial inequality as a political problem. My political science professor and mentor to this day, Lisa Miller, helped me to do that while I was in college.  From here, I decided I wanted to work in public policy or pursue my PhD in political science (which I eventually went off to do!).

How did working with the Institute for Domestic and International Affairs play a role in your life’s trajectory?

Supporting high school Model UN and Model Congress conferences with the Institute of Domestic and International Affairs helped me become a leader, an educator, and a global citizen. In what other venue do you get to become better a leading your peers, teaching high school students key debate and policy skills, and learn a ton about urgent issues facing the nation and global community? 

Being in IDIA also allowed me to make my first trip outside of North America to the Republic of the Gambia, where we teamed up with Gambians our own age to facilitate civics classes to middle school and high school students. This trip was transformative. It taught me how much I have to learn from other countries and cultures. It made me more excited to travel. 

On a cheekier note, it also made me realize how cool it is to be a “nerd”. I was so insecure as a high school student that it took until my senior year to attend a Model Congress conference. I hadn’t even considered it until you encouraged me to join. 

I now proudly serve on the board of IDIA. Oh, and I also met my now husband in IDIA! 

Did you have to do a thesis or rough equivalent? If so, what was it on? 

I did. My thesis was on the racial politics of housing policy in the US. I actually found the abstract!

At the tail end of the Southern civil rights movement, the racial and economic disparities brought on by exclusionary zoning practices sparked the attention of activists, lawyers and legislatures. By the 1970s, however, lawyers and activists realized that the national venue was less responsive to race-based civil rights and therefore retreated to their states and local communities in an attempt to achieve place-based justice through the state constitution and lawmaking bodies. This paper examines this phenomenon by considering New Jersey’s history of affordable housing equity in New Jersey, focusing on Black New Jerseyans in particular. The New Jersey Supreme Court case, Southern Burlington County N.A.A.C.P. v. Township of Mount Laurel (1975) and the corresponding creation of the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) provides a framework for my analysis. Drawing on legal documents, newspaper articles, demographic data, and public law scholarship, I begin with a critique of the role and relationship of courts, legislatures, and private interests in both driving and diminishing racial and economic diversity across the state’s communities. I conclude by offering a set of recommendations, including more racially conscious policy and new relationships between municipalities and legislatures, which may serve to reconcile the dissonance between the intended and actual outcomes of the Mount Laurel decisions.

I do still try to keep tabs on the Mount Laurel case and generally remain involved in housing issues. I serve on the board of an affordable housing nonprofit in New Haven, Connecticut and did a research paper on the rise and decline of New Haven’s affordable housing cooperatives in the second half of the 20th century.

But as far as Mount Laurel goes, it does seem like builders are trying to take advantage of the fact that Governor Murphy is more friendly to the policy. I just read the other day that Royce Brook Golf Club sold off some of its property to developers who hope to build affordable housing. I can only imagine the uproar that will ensue. 

NIMBYism is a serious problem and one I do believe we need to be better at combating in suburbs and in cities, especially as rental housing becomes more and more unaffordable for low and middle income families. It is refreshing to see that the topic of affordable housing has become a national issue. And it is helpful that researchers like Doug Massey at Princeton have been able to show empirical evidence that the Mount Laurel policy works for low-income families at no cost to the municipalities that develop affordable housing. 

Why did you choose to do Teach For America?

If I’m being honest, I really wanted to do Teach For America so I could move to the Mississippi Delta. Of course, I was passionate about education and working with young people, but I first and foremost wanted to move to the Delta and I knew TFA sent teachers there. I became interested in the Delta when studying cities, particularly while studying the Great Migration of 6 million African Americans from the rural South to mostly Northern and Western cities. I wanted to know what was left behind and I wanted to learn from the place, its people, and its history. 

I was ultimately placed in a town in Southeastern Arkansas. I taught high school civics and economics. 

What was your experience like?

Hard! Teaching is hard! Especially when you didn’t go through multiple years of training like many teachers do (and do for very good reasons). I wasn’t prepared to be the teacher my students deserved. They were ninth graders getting used to a high school setting and I was their teacher getting used to a school setting. It was my first real job AND my first time living out of the state of New Jersey. But I loved my students and I worked so hard to let them know it. And I was fortunate to have had outstanding social studies teachers as a pedagogical template.

I was a much better teacher my second year. I’d venture to say I was even good. I raised my expectations for my students and for myself, and I saw results. In addition to learning a ton about teaching, I also learned so much about my context. E.g. what it feels like to live in a rural area (the closest Starbucks was an hour away), the important role religion and specifically Christianity plays in public life in this region, and importantly, how people from this part of the US view where I am from as well as what they believe we believe about them (convoluted sentence — hope you follow!).  I still keep in touch with many of my students. I try to go back and visit every other year. 

Did you think much about the role of race in being a white person teaching in a more racially mixed school than the one you grew up in? 

I taught in a school that was about 60% white and 40% black. In my town in Southeastern Arkansas, nearly all of the teachers were white and the majority of the students in the honors classes were white. The racial divisions of the school were palpable. I thought a lot about race, and tried to teach a lot about race. And I didn’t always get it right. The challenge was scaffolding the issues in ways that students would understand, could constructively contribute, and understand the historic throughlines to today. It was about making it a safe place to discuss and ask questions.  I also worked particularly hard to affirm the students who were Black in my class, as well as white students who were from particularly impoverished backgrounds. I worked to develop relationships with their parents. Perhaps this was my lived form of affirmative action: I wanted to make sure that Black and/or low-income students, who seemed to receive less support and mentorship within the school, felt brilliant and unstoppable. The class of students I taught in my second year actually went on to have the most Black students graduate with honors in the school’s history. I take no credit for that, but it was such a tremendous milestone for the community and I felt so proud to have known and worked with each one of them.

Also, I read Beverly Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? when I was in college, then read it again when I was in TFA. I found this book to be foundational for my understanding of the role that race plays in the socialization of young people, black, white, and brown. 

How do you feel about the criticism levied at TFA that they are being used to undermine unions?

I’m very concerned about the labor implications of TFA. I do think the organization’s work has undermined unions and eroded a lot of what unions have fought for over generations—specifically sane work hours. I snicker inside every time I see charter schools begin to unionize since in many ways charters are the birth-children of TFA.  I also think the act of accepting donations from corporate foundations whose businesses undermine workers of all professions through low wages and union-busting—even when we ALL KNOW that higher parent incomes produce better educational outcomes for young people—is an unsettling element of hypocrisy I’m proud that so many alumni are changing their tune on this issue by beginning to come out to support unions or at least to critique practice within charter schools.  

Why did you decide to leave teaching?

There are so many reasons I tell myself. One is that I get so emotionally invested in people that I lose myself in the work. Another is that when I decided to leave Arkansas to return to the East Coast, I couldn’t really find any teaching work (I actually ended up working for Teach For America in Delaware for a few years). Maybe it was a bit of internalized deprecation toward the teaching profession—that I should do “more.” But I really don’t think so. The most accurate, albeit incomplete, answer is that I just had too many questions about the system that my students were living in and I was hell bent on answering them. My mentor Lisa Miller told me in undergrad that I should only go back to pursue my PhD if I had more questions than answers. I had sooo many questions. 

What are you studying at Yale? 

I’m getting my PhD in political science and African American studies. I mostly study two things. First, I examine the ways in which interactions with the government shape one’s perception of citizenship. Second, I am interested in the political battles between cities and their states and the racialized history (and consequences) of these conflicts. 

Similar question about race that I asked about teaching: how do you navigate working in a field that some black and other antiracist activists might suggest be reserved for people of color?

I think if we are really going to show up for racial justice, we need to decide how we will live anti-racist lives and have anti-racist careers. And most importantly, we need to be open to feedback. I think part of anti-racism is acquiring knowledge . But sometimes knowing is performing the work and not doing the work. I’m very aware of that. There are some questions I always try to ask myself in my field, and also in my day to day life to navigate the important question you’ve asked:

  1. What is my stake in this work? Is it prestige or recognition or is my involvement in this work going to liberate me from the gravitational pull of white supremacy—and in turn support the liberation of oppressed people? If it is the former, I have no place doing the work. Academia is incredibly competitive, so I regularly check in with myself on this question. 
  2. Is this my story to tell? It is not uncommon for white scholars to get famous off of a study or a concept that has already been identified by a person of color years (if not generations) before. A contemporary example is Alice Goffman’s On the Run. One of the most common critiques from Black and Latinx scholars is that this was not her story to tell—she should not have been the one to immerse herself with young Black men in Philadelphia and tell their story. Further, because of my whiteness (and female-bodiedness, etc.), I sometimes have access to people and places that members of more marginalized groups don’t. How can I use that bodily privilege to tell important stories about power?
  3. Am I actively anti-racist in my engagement with my institution and my colleagues or do I fall silent when there’s controversy? Like I said earlier, knowing facts and history and theory does not mean you’re doing the work. When there is racial discord on campus or in our department, I always try to be the buffer between the institution and my more marginalized friends and colleagues. I’ll start the petition so they don’t have to, initiate the meetings with faculty, and push my white colleagues to show up differently. I attend protests and get involved in my community as best I can. People of color from marginalized minority groups do so much emotional and time-intensive labor; I try to alleviate the burden where I can. 

What are your plans after you graduate?

Ahh I don’t know! Hoping to pursue a tenure-track position at a university, but the academic job market is rough! I also kind of have this mentality that I just want to be a good person doing something meaningful somewhere. Ambition and planning have always been a little non-linear for me. Besides, this country is also in a dire state. I want to be prepared to serve where I’m needed, even if it seems to deviate from my apparent trajectory. 

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