Los Angeles is known by many as a city divided into brown, black, white, and yellow communities, a city with a long history of ethnic group tensions, gang fights, race riots, and racist cops.
Los Angeles is also a cosmopolitan city of incredible wealth and poverty, a city where peoples from all over the world speaking various languages interact and often clash, a city of disparate and shifting valuations, a city where peoples mix creating new cultural identities, products, and traditions.
In all, Los Angeles does more than complicate received understandings of multicultural diversity. That is to say, Los Angeles is the mecca of cultural diversity to the nth degree.
Los Angeles is also the city where I grew up, live, and teach English. Simply put, I help students (high school and college) become better readers, writers, and critical thinkers. This unassuming work, I would argue, is very important—even a form of social activism—insofar as in helping students become more literate I also develop their capabilities to participate effectively in public debates regarding social issues that they might care deeply about, now or in the future. In other words, to have an intelligible public voice, or to be an effective social activist, you need to be fully literate in English like the affluent and highly educated are—which is where I come in as an educator who cultivates writing, reading, rhetorical, and thinking capabilities in individual students.
As a teacher in Los Angeles, I experience cultural diversity to the nth degree anew every time I start a new class. In the first four or five class meetings, I like to number out students many times over, creating groups of various sizes that allow students to both collaborate and to become more familiar with the knowledge, experience, and lived diversity of each other. I start my classes with a no-pressure, ice-breaker activity that literally provides students in groups of six with a script of sentence stems that prompt them to share basic information about themselves (as much or as little as they want) regarding topics such as what they do for work, where they grew up and live, why they’re here in college, where they see themselves in five years, and what social justice issue they care most about. Stems for this script activity can be customized for different types of classes, and the scripting strategy can be used for various purposes as a means to focus small groups on particular questions, issues, or topics.
This scripting activity also helps me become more familiar with the knowledge and diverse cultural backgrounds of my students as I walk around the classroom listening to and participating in group conversations. This summer and fall I decided to take a few notes during this activity:
- Students from Van Nuys, Pacoima, Panorama City, Sun Valley, Canoga Park, Woodland Hills, West Hills, Santa Monica, and Reseda
- High school students from Calabasas, Taft, Reseda, and El Camino Real HS
- A virtual high school student who is also an actress
- A student who just graduated from Options for Youth
- A student recently out of jail, not sure for what crime
- Students who are recovering addicts back to school
- Students who work in hospitals
- Students with kids and full-time jobs
- Students who work in hotels
- Students who work at CVS, Starbucks, and Subway
- Students in their fifties or sixties back to school
- Students who work as medical billers and telemarketers
- Students from Iran (one is Zoroastrian), Syria, Pakistan, India, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Japan, and the Philippines
- Second-generation Armenian, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian American students
- Six or seven African American students
- Six or seven unambiguous white students
- A few Hispanic/Latino students who say that they are often mistaken for white
- A few mixed -identified students who are reluctant to divulge their ethnic or racial mix
- A black-identified student who does not subscribe to stereotypic black culture in his personal life
- A mixed race student about six five (Mexican, black, white) who has learned to laugh off racial stereotypes, telling inquisitive strangers that he sucks at basketball and isn’t very athletic
- Students who say that racism is the most important social justice issue today
- Students who think that police brutality is an important social justice issue
- Students who say that species survival and how we treat one another in our daily lives are the social justice issues that matter most
- Students who think that female body shape discrimination is an important social justice issue
- Students who believe that poverty is the greatest social justice issue
This is just a glimpse of what cultural diversity to the nth degree typically sounds like in the classes that I teach. If you want to experience cultural diversity that overflows standard categories, definitions, and understandings of multicultural diversity then you might love teaching in Los Angeles public schools. If you want to live in a city that is a fluid composite of established cultures, fading cultures, evolving cultures, indistinct cultures, and cultures in making then Los Angeles might be the place for you.