On Tuesday, June 23, graduating 5th graders at Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School (TMALS) had a Google Meet conversation with United States diplomat and Fulbright alumnus Mr. Leland Lazarus. “It was such an honor to hang out with you,” said Mr. Lazarus to more than 20 TMALS scholars at the end of the meeting. “You are so incredibly smart,” he added. “You are going to be changing the world.”
TMALS, located on West 151st Street in Manhattan, with “a population of mostly Black and Brown students,” according to Principal Dr. Dawn Brooks-DeCosta, “embraces student-centered, culturally responsive, antiracist pedagogy that enhances students’ learning and success in school. Administrators and teachers actively listen to students’ ideas and observe student individual needs in order to inform curricular priorities, direction and design. Students’ social and historical contexts are reflected in TMALS’s daily practices: student council, self-awareness leaders and ambassadors give students a true voice in the social construct of TMALS. Students lead social-emotional and mindfulness practices daily in the classroom, and peer mediators work with students to resolve conflict, which motivates students to take ownership of their actions, lives, and educational experiences.” TMALS mission is “to provide a robust holistic learning experience for each child through social emotional learning, cultural responsiveness and belonging. We are the village that raises the child.”
Dr. Brooks-DeCosta has led the school with a focus on “cultural responsiveness, antiracist pedagogy and social emotional learning.” Her research was written on Black Principal Perspectives on Social-emotional Learning and Culturally Responsive Leadership in Urban Schools: the Role of Beliefs, Values, and Leadership Practices.
Mr. Lazarus is a scholar of Chinese history and language. Fluent in Mandarin, he spent three years as a U.S. diplomat to China. Currently, he is posted to the Caribbean, and is usually based in Barbados. Since the quarantine, however, he has been living in Miami, where his wife works as a medical doctor and is on the front lines of battling Covid-19.
Mr. Lazarus asked the 5th graders many questions: What language do they speak in China? What do you think they eat in China? He shared with the scholars that he tried foods in China that he had never tried before, such as silk worms. He also discovered that what he thought was his favorite Chinese food, General Tso’s Chicken, was an American invention that did not exist in China. TMALS scholars shared what they knew about Chinese food and holidays.
The 5th graders listened with rapt attention as Mr. Lazarus described his experience of Chinese curiosity about someone from a different culture, specifically a Black person. “In China,” he said, “I had to learn the language and get used to the people who live there. There were very few people who looked like me.”
What is diversity?, asked Mr. Lazarus. He noted that TMALS prided itself on being a school of diversity and inclusion. TMALS scholars shared that they had studied Mexico, Jamaica, and the Black Liberation Movement in the United States. Some also mentioned what they knew about Brazil and the Russian Revolution. The scholars also talked with Mr. Lazarus about current events, such as how the murder of George Floyd made them feel, and the toppling of statues honoring proponents of slavery around the world.
“It shows the power of young people,” said Mr. Lazarus, “young people just like you… who have the power to create change.”
Mr. Lazarus recommended that the 5th graders learn a foreign language “so you can communicate with other people around the world.” He also encouraged them to live in other countries to learn their history, culture and politics “so that you can influence.”
After graduating college, Mr. Lazarus received a Fulbright grant to Panama, where he taught English. The Fulbright grant sends U.S. students and scholars to other countries to live and learn about their cultures and histories, and it brings students and scholars from other countries to the United States to do the same. After his “life-changing” Fulbright experience, Mr. Lazarus and his parents, who are Afro-Panamanian, started The Dream Scholarship, which financially supports Panamanian students who want to study English in the United States.
Mr. Lazarus advised TMALS scholars to consider applying for a Fulbright grant when they are in college.
Before departing, Mr. Lazarus asked TMALS scholars if they thought his work as a U.S. diplomat was interesting. “Yes!,” came a chorus of replies.
TMALS teacher Ms. Lucile Middleton called Mr. Lazarus a “history-maker,” someone who influences events and makes history happen. At the end of the conversation, she expressed her hope that TMALS 5th graders go on to become “history-makers” themselves.
Alison Gardy has served as a Fulbright Association board member (2000-2006, 2017 to present) and was president of the Greater New York Chapter of the Fulbright Association (2000-2002). She had a Fulbright grant to Mexico in 1988, where she was lucky to receive the stories of a family who migrated from rural Mexico to the outskirts of the capital city for a better life.