Don’t Let Society’s Narrative Dictate Your Path Forward

Pictures of my grandmother’s house in Twomps of Oakland. I visited her often and for many years we lived around the corner from her. The second pic is from my birthday party at her house. The protective fencing placed around the house in the late 90s, during the down turn of the crack epidemic. Photos courtesy of author.

The past few weeks I have spent my days walking up and down the streets of Bushrod. Bushrod is a neighborhood in Oakland bordered by Shattuck Avenue and Racine Street to the east and west and 61st Street and 59th Street to the north and south. Bushrod’s next door neighbor is Grove/Shafter. I am sharing this information because as a young girl, born and raised in Oakland, I was always told that Oakland was a dangerous place. I grew up in Oakland during the crack epidemic in the 80s and lived in what was then called the Murder Dubs or the Twomps.

The narrative that Oakland was dangerous served several purposes. One as a little girl it made me adhere to my mother’s rules about not leaving the block or paying close attention to my surroundings when walking to and from school. In much of our life, narratives serve to keep us safe and to assure one of a specific outcome. Some societal narratives feel harmless, like the you should always drink water when eating to be sure you don’t choke on your food. There are other narratives that are meant for guidance such as if you go to school and follow the rules you will be successful. While societal narratives make provide a sense of safety and assurance, societal narratives can also mask issues of power, race, gender, sexuality, and class. These hidden functions of narrative can become barriers to the life we seek.

After I finished my doctorate, I looked for a home to purchase. I never considered purchasing a home in Oakland based on the narrative I had heard and my limited experience as a child; I never questioned the narrative. Instead, I looked at the well-touted neighborhoods like El Cerrito, Castro Valley and Albany. These neighborhoods are also informally the “white neighborhoods.” I was fortunate to purchase a house in El Cerrito, yet after a year of living there it was clear that I was an unwanted homeowner. My neighbors rarely spoke to me aside from the Portuguese renters across the street. My brother — a 6’5” tall, fair-skinned African American, was stopped by the police each time he took BART to visit me. I myself always knew when a new police officer was hired. As soon as I turned onto San Pablo Dam Road from Central Ave, I would be followed to my house. Once I pulled into my driveway to park the officer would roll down his window and call out my name. After I answered he would say, “Okay, have a good night.” I sold that home after two years to two local young adults.

Walking through Bushrod, which in today’s context is solely referred to as Lower Temescal, I pondered the missed opportunity to live in my native Oakland, to own the Airbnb I was staying at rather than paying the few thousand dollars it cost to rent it for a month. I wondered if I would have felt the need to sell like I did my home in El Cerrito. I also reflected on the gazes of the “new residents” young and older white people. It took me a week to realize that my recollection of the narrative of this area as being a dangerous Black neighborhood was not mistaken. I saw Black elders come out once or twice a day, walking at a modest pace. Given the history of segregation and redlining, their presence confirmed my memories.

After a week, I met one of the long-standing Black next-door neighbors. Based on the interactions I saw, they had very little interaction with the owner of the Airbnb. Yet, they welcomed me like family, even calling over the fence on Memorial Day to give me a plate of food. As I grabbed the plate of food they shared how much has changed in 50 years of living in the neighborhood.

To the left is the Airbnb front house, my cottage was in the back. To the right is the home of one long-standing Black family in the neighborhood. Photo taken from Google Street View.

Why am I writing about housing to an audience of educators? It is because education has its own problematic narratives that have long dictated the decisions of equity-minded leaders, particularly leaders of color. The narrative is one designed to instill shame at the thought of leaving the profession. The narrative is that the work of being a teacher is the most honorable job one can have. To leave such a profession in order to achieve financial stability, greater mental and socio-emotional health, or to live out one’s passion is a disgrace. The narrative, much like the one about the dangers of Black Oakland, are effective.

Allowing society’s narrative to dictate your path forward generally leads to disappointment, frustration, uneasiness and a need to make a shift again in the near future. In the 5 years since I sold my home in El Cerrito, I have lived in 8 different homes — all the while searching for a place to land, to ground myself. By the time I realized the opportunity Oakland provided, it was too late. The cost of homes has soared beyond my means. While it may be too late — at least right now — for me to correct a mistake, there is possibility for educators who know that it is time to make a transition. June through early August is the perfect time for educators to transition. Either into new roles and schools, or new careers altogether.

Transitioning out of the classroom is not an easy task. Knowing that a narrative might be false is not the same as making the intentional decision to IGNORE that false narrative and follow your instincts. The latter takes courage and support of friends, family, colleagues, and career coaches. The need for support is not a negative. We all need support to move beyond a long-held belief. In order to finally find a landing place, I sought the advice of a financial advisor, close friends, and distant colleagues. In October 2021, I made the courageous decision to ground myself in the Midwest — a place that also has a societal narrative of being inhospitable to Black people.

I won’t lie and say that my newfound home comes without fears or concerns. I still carry with me some deficit societal narratives about the midwest. Hearing on the news that a man in South Carolina shot at passing cars on a rural road and killed a young boy had me breathing sharply as I was forced by a main road detour to drive down a rural road on my way to the small town of Kokomo, Indiana. These moments of fear and anticipation of regret are part of being an active member in society. Yet we cannot let society’s narrative of fear keep us from moving forward in life, from centering ourselves and living the life we envision. Instead we must interrogate the societal narratives that leap into our minds when we are seeking to be courageous and ask ourselves what hidden functions come along with this narrative? This is true regardless of the situation.

Whether you want to stay in education or not, you deserve to dictate your own path forward. Much like my experience, some narratives are simply no longer necessary. Could it be that the narratives you hold about being educator are no longer necessary?

Want to dialogue about your transition. I am leading a workshop June 25th. Click here to learn more.

Dr. Lanette Jimerson is a writer, educator and scholar. She helps equity-minded leaders expand their impact and craft a career trajectory that centers their professional and financial needs. Book a conversation to learn how she supports leaders in transition. Check out 12 Tips to Transitioning Careers to get started on your journey

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