The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated an extreme gap in access to technology, food, safe shelter, mental health resources, and education for many BIPOC kids. We saw children sitting outside of fast-food restaurants just to have access to wi-fi for remote learning. We heard of students going to live with relatives or friends because food was limited. Schools became food hubs, all-of-a-sudden wi-fi mobile hubs, and later vaccination and Covid-19 testing sites as a worldwide pandemic unpredictably raged on.
We bear witness to this gap while asking: what does it look like to close it? Can we build a new bridge from purpose to vocation that anyone can walk across? And, can we sustain that bridge while teaching those who succeed to bring others with them? In his new book The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive, Dr. Patrick Reyes challenges social workers, educators, friends, parents, and whole communities to consider these questions and resist systems of oppression.
For every academic library and educator’s toolkit, The Purpose Gap articulates the liminality between what we have, what we could have, and what we wish we had as brown image-bearers. Reyes writes about living in a space between both colonized and colonizer. He invokes Bettina L. Love’s We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom and invites those living in the gap between purpose and opportunity to imagine a different future. Demystifying the hero’s myth to reclaim the responsibility given to us by our ancestors, Reyes draws on the spiritual and intellectual wellsprings on our antepasados with abolitionist teachings. Our children need to be free to imagine! He also challenges those with privilege to allow this imagining to flourish alongside those living in the gap. Reyes’ radical approach to designing the gap advocates that all people have the ability to choose one’s own purpose or many purposes. Clearly it is radical to believe that all people may not have just one purpose for the rest of their lives, but that every life will contain many purposes.
Reyes invites those living in the gap between purpose and opportunity to imagine a different future.
Closing the purpose gap is not about becoming the biggest star or the only star but creating a constellation that illuminates the whole sky. Together we are brighter than singularly, but our Americanized culture teaches us something else. Rather than trying to be the best at something, Reyes suggests that individuals pass on their knowledge so that everyone is given the opportunity to contribute and shine. To illustrate this, Reyes uses the analogy of a tamalada, a party for making tamales together. Instantly, I’m transported to the annual tamalada I have with my comadres and the ones hosted all around the city of San Antonio, my hometown. One year, my friends each brought a separate filling while I provided the manteca (lard), corn husks, water, aprons, and the masa harina (dough). Each person made over three dozen tamales and each person took home three different dozen to last them throughout the holiday season. While my family does not throw tamaladas, I began this tradition to alleviate the stress of cooking over the holidays while filling our bellies with the familiar tastes of home. Everyone had a purpose, and no one went home hungry. We ate at the table and still had enough to take home and share with our families. My friends call this comadre-economics. We all look out for each other during a time that can be hard on our pocketbooks. Closing the purpose gap requires a strong network, one large tamalada.
Everyone had a purpose, and no one went home hungry.
Reyes also highlights that intergenerational knowledge is valuable when we discuss who holds knowledge and what is “the knowledge.” BIPOC youth show up with valuable expertise. They hold the knowledge of their grandmothers, aunties, and great-grandmothers. When we privilege our BIPOC youth’s lived experiences and intergenerational wisdom, we are creating a network for them to dream and imagine. We are creating the space for access. We are reaching back multiple generations and validating our ancestral lineage. We are demystifying the notion that one person holds all the knowledge and instead exemplifying how knowledge is shared and carried from generation to generation.
Through storytelling and purpose, Reyes does more than provide a playbook for closing the purpose gap; he calls out white supremacy while privileging BIPOC stories. He invites teachers and their students to become co-conspirators in eliminating the gap between the haves and have nots, between white privilege and BIPOC ancestral wisdom. My grandmother, while never showing me how to knit or make tamales, did show me how to create something from nothing, to start new traditions si me dava la gana—if I felt like it. As a Levi Strauss factory worker and later a Winn’s fabric expert, my grandmother gifted me with the knowledge to stitch things together with whatever was available to make something worthwhile. My entire life was a stitching of sorts. I don’t think all the colors quite match, but I am honored to hold this fabric of life and teach others to stitch along with me. For my grandmother, the gap was large. She taught herself how to read and write. She is the smartest, and toughest woman I have ever met. She will tell you that she could not get through this life without Jesus. There are so many experts in our field and then there is abuelita who insists that everyone in her kitchen must learn how to make beans before leaving the house on their own. There is grandma whose prayers still carry us, whose hands still rise up to meet the sky no matter how hard they’ve worked.
Through storytelling and purpose, Reyes also calls out white supremacy.
As we live between the Covid-19 and post Covid-19 reality, we are living in tension between hope and a reality that forever etched itself into our psyche. We’ve created stories we’ll pass on from generation to generation about how our lives changed one March afternoon. We will tell future generations how buses lined up in some of our neighborhoods to drop off meals every day for a whole year so that no student was left hungry. We will tell how some of us had to go to work no matter the cost while others were privileged to work from home. We’ll illuminate the gaps. We will also tell them how we made do, how we grew our own food, how we remembered what our grandmothers taught us.
We will tell future generations how many things for us came innately, as if remembering something that we long ago forgot. We will teach them of ancestral hope. In a society saturated in pipelines that lead to dirty water, stealing of land, incarceration, caging, and executions, we must do the work that matters. Vale la pena, as Gloria Anzaldúa states, it is worth it. We must create new systems because that work is worth the fight.