Susan DuFresne’s Opt Out Bus: Riding for Schools that Children Love

This summer, Susan DuFresne boarded the Opt Out Bus, with her husband, Shawn, to bring books to America’s children. She’s been recording what she found on her Facebook page, which contains this disclaimer: “The views I express on this wall are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer. #FreeSpeech.”

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A kindergarten teacher in Washington State, where a former Microsoft executive is director of the Department of Early Learning, she has given a new face to early childhood activism, raising her impassioned voice for social justice and educational equity.

In New Mexico, one of the stops on her journey, a staggering 42 percent of Native American children live in poverty.   “I think about nature and how much the Native Americans have taught us,” she wrote in one post, in awe of the state’s otherworldly landscape.  But she’s deeply disturbed by the remnants of the institutionalized racism of government reservation schools, noting how little things have changed.  “We need schools children will love to attend,” she writes.

Below, in some edited excerpts from her notes on Gallup, posted on August 2, at 2:05 a.m., DuFresne illuminates a toxic human ecosystem for children.

By Susan DuFresne

This morning, we left the Alta Truck Stop in New Mexico with plans to stop at a more local cafe for huevos rancheros and some chili heat.  While we were enjoying our breakfast, a local Navajo gentleman approached, selling necklaces. “What’s the story?” he asked.

We told him about the Opt Out Bus “Coast-to-Coast Free Books for Kids Tour,” and asked him if he knew of any place we could find children. He recommended Twin Lakes Elementary in Gallup.

As we left the restaurant, three teachers told Shawn they had seen the bus and agreed with the idea of ending high-stakes tests. One teacher said he didn’t administer them.

Here’s what we found out about Twin Lakes Elementary:

  • As of 2014, the school was ranked 398 out of 491 elementary schools in New Mexico.
  • They are 100% non-white, with Native American and Asian children only
  • They are 97.6% free and reduced lunch.
  • Some teachers were offered signing bonuses and lodging in hopes of attracting and keeping them there.

Poverty was visible. It was  pervasive, inter-generational poverty—the kind created at the very inception of our “Indian Reservations.”

We had been informed that the most toxic environmental industry threats are located near the most oppressed peoples. Sure enough, here was Westland, and the oil bomb trains. Gallons and gallons of precious water in this high-desert country are required in the refining process, leaving pools of waste water in its wake.

“Welcome to Gallup, ‘Most Patriotic Small Town in America,'” the sign had greeted us as we approached. What does that mean, I wondered?

I read “‘Blood Money’: Life and Death in Gallup, NM,” an article in Indian Country, written by Nick Estes.

In 2015, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission convened a meeting to talk about Gallup.  While the hearing focused on law enforcement, much of the testimony by Navajo citizens, city officials, and law enforcement concerned a larger, historical problem: the city’s liquor industry. With 39 liquor licenses, Gallup has nearly 20 outposts for alcohol per 10,000 people—much higher than most major cities.

The most patriotic small town in America has another name: it has been ranked by a recent FBI reports as the most dangerous city in New Mexico.  Estes discusses the lack of justice in the community, the lack of compassion—or interest in solving the unexplained deaths of more than 40 Native Americans between 2014 and 2015.  A culture of apathy and aggression, deeply embedded in structural racism.

How do we define patriotism?

Is patriotism the culture of aggression?

Is patriotism the culture of apathy towards inter-generational poverty?

Is patriotism the insistence on culturally biased testing—used to sort and rank children in schools of abject poverty?

Is patriotism the culture of apathy that allows legislators to strip schools of funding for nurses, counselors, librarians, libraries, school psychologists, the arts, sports, field trips, and all the things that give children joy in learning?

Is patriotism the culture of apathy that funds schools inequitably for centuries and never once makes any real attempt to solve the problem?

Today, Shawn and I went to Twin Falls Elementary. We saw cars parked at the school, but no kids. Two Native American men approached us as I got out of the bus to explain why we were there. They smiled and explained the school has not yet opened, but we might be able to find children at the Larry Brian Mitchell Recreation Center.

When we arrived there were no kids yet, but the director said about ten kids would be coming in an hour, and more maybe at the building behind him. He showed me the area where the young children would come, get something to eat, and head for the gym. He was very happy we’d come. He promised to give the books to the kids.

Next we went to another building behind the center. We got the books out of the bus and three kids each chose a book. We were right next to “The Playground of Your Dreams,” created by “We the People” in Gallup. I saw a man slumped over, “sleeping” in the back of the car next to the bus, the door open.

I saw a family with a young boy at the picnic table. I walked over and asked “Would any kids like free books?” A little boy raised his hand enthusiastically and smiled.

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