Barbara Spencer / by Michael Falco

Who is Barbara Spencer?

Barbara Spencer was born in Midland, Michigan, but grew up mostly in Muskeegon, where she lived until she graduated high school. She has been in education for twenty-five years, twenty of them spent teaching high school English. She is now entering her fifth year as a coach/consultant to schools and teachers, helping them to better educational outcomes for students. She was drawn to Battle Creek because of its intentional focus on equity and moved there three years ago. Barbara has one daughter and a five-year old granddaughter.

Excerpt from interview with Barbara Spencer by Whitney Dow, 2017

Q: So, can you talk a little more about your background? Where you grew up, what the neighborhood was like where you grew up, your family, the neighborhood, was it mixed, was it homogenous?

Spencer: [16:42:09] Yes. I grew up, as I mentioned, really what I think about was my childhood started in third grade, which was when my family moved to North Muskegon. My dad was a working professional. North Muskegon was a great place to grow up. I think we had, in terms of race, maybe my junior year we opened up to school of choice, and so at that point we had maybe three black kids in our school, and that was it. It was all white. There were some—I shouldn’t say all white. There were some Asian-American kids that I grew up with that were adopted. There was a family from the Philippines also that—like, I graduated with their son. Everybody, there was no talk about race or anything like that. I say it was a great place to grow up because I remember there was water everywhere: we had Bear Lake, we had Muskegon Lake, we had Lake Michigan. We were safe; I rode my bike everywhere as a kid. So, in that sense.

But I also remember from a really young age having questions that my classmates didn’t necessarily have. I was a big reader, so even starting late elementary I read a lot of biographies— a lot of slave biographies—and I started to realize there was a difference, but there was really no one to talk to about that difference, so I just kind of let it go.

Q: And so, obviously you started thinking about that, but did you start thinking about your own race at that point, and what context?

Spencer: [16:44:01] No, not at all. I don’t think I started thinking about—I was very much thinking about the injustices in the world, but I didn’t think about my own race, I really don’t think, until I was a teacher, and maybe even the second half of my teaching career. I went and taught at a wonderful place called Covert [phonetic] and it was high poverty—over 90 percent free and reduced lunch, and the kids were mostly either Mexican, their families had come undocumented from Mexico, or we got a lot of kids who were Mexican through Chicago. They came to Chicago first and then went to Covert. And then, also, black, so, it was about a mix; probably when I started there, probably less than 30 percent Hispanic, but then it grew.

I remember them saying things like, “Oh, what kind of food do white people eat?” and things like that. And the thing about Covert was we could talk about race. People were open about it. There wasn’t a lot of conflict around it all the time, so at least in my classroom we would talk openly about it and tease each other about it, so they were saying, “Oh, what do white people eat? Tuna casserole?” You know? And I started thinking about it, and then they said, “Well, what country are your parents from?” And I said, “Well, we were just born here.” But my dad’s parents had come from Germany, but I don’t think of myself as German-American. And so, there was not a lot of conscious thought about it, and that was when it was planted, and it’s really only been in the last couple of years, probably, that I’ve really started thinking about, OK, what is whiteness to me? And I still haven’t answered that question, necessarily.

Interview Transcript