The Privileged Poor - A Conversation with Anthony Abraham Jack '07 and Lola Fadulu '17

Lola Fadulu: Tony Jack was born and raised in Coconut Grove, Miami. During his senior year of high school, he transferred from Coral Gables High School, a public school, took to Gulliver Preparatory, a private school. After graduating, he attended Amherst college where he was a Women's and Gender Studies and Religion double major, in addition to being Pre Med. He's both a Master's and a PhD in Sociology from Harvard University.

Jack is now a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, an Assistant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Shutzer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He's an avid knitter and father of two cats. His first book The Privilege Poor came out in March 2019.

So to dive right in, your primary goal in this book is to introduce people to the privileged poor. These are students who come from low income backgrounds and have attended private schools, and I know that you consider yourself a member of the privileged poor. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your transition from Coral Gables High School took Gulliver Preparatory?

Anthony Jack: That's a great question. The two words that best describe my transition was culture shock. I went from being in a school where even my international baccalaureate classes were 35 students sometimes to being at a school where my largest class was 16. there were some teachers at Gables who had their PhD, but there were many more at Gulliver that did. I saw a higher concentration of wealth at Gulliver than I did anywhere near what I did at Gables.

 I'll never forget, there was some conversations about one father, who was talking to a group of kids at Gulliver, and he said, "You know, when you buy a Range Rover you only buy it in black. Like any other color doesn't make sense." And I thought to myself like, "Okay. Buying a Range Rover?" That's an assumption. And then the next step for him was what color? As if everybody was going to have one, but if... The parking lot that were a number of Range Rovers.

You know, people talked about hostels and I had never heard of a hostel before. And you know just different things like backpacking through Europe, "Why stay in a hotel when you can stay in a hostel, if you're only going to be in the city for one day?" I'm just like, "I've never done a plane before." How the hell do I get to Europe if I had never stepped foot on a plane?

There's different things like that. The conversations you heard were different. Not saying people were smarter, I wouldn't go that far, but I was saying that the resources were definitely greater at Gulliver. And so it wasn't a culture shock, my culture shock came not when I went to Amherst, but when I went to Gulliver.

LF: And I know that echoes what you heard from the students you interviewed for this book, who were also privileged poor, and I want to talk about one specific interview in the first chapter. You have this pair of friends Patrice, who is a Latina, she's privileged poor. And her friend Alice, who's also Latina, but she's what you call doubly disadvantaged. So she's low income but she did not go to a private school.

And one of the conversations between the two that stood out to me was they were talking about the college that they both went to and Patrice wasn't very critical. She was actually having a good time. And Alice said, you know, "You're elite. Shut up. You don't understand. You're Latina, but your elite." And I guess I'm wondering, sort of, how should students who are privileged poor navigate conversations about college with those who are doubly disadvantaged? So the people who have had experiences similar to you, their transition to college was smoother, how do they go about kind of interacting with their friends who didn't have the same opportunities school-wise?

AJ: Yeah. That was a pattern that I didn't notice, but it wasn't a consistent patterns where there was often tension between the privileged poor and the doubly disadvantage because they did have shared social origins, but lived ever more divergent lives before college. Right? They live in the same neighborhood, they had similar family structure and family hurdles, they even went to similar middle schools or even sometimes the same middle school, but their high schools were drastically different. And so there was sometimes it of an assumed common language and when that language... When there was a breakdown in communication, it was like, "Oh, it's because you went and went off."

But it wasn't a consistent pattern. With some students, who are able to have conversations with their peers, and peers are like, "Well, we know where you're really from." So it was some very interesting moments that tensions ran high, but other times it was the students being worked then able to label... It was your prep school's years that prepared you for that. Now there is some conversation that needs to happen about shared understanding, but I don't think it's the responsibility of the doubly disadvantage to to say something about where they're different and I don't think it's responsibility of the privileged poor to explain why they see it different. I think there is a responsibility of the university to not amplify the differences between the students. I think, because that to me is what really sparks the differences, is the way in which the university... Because of the way in which it privileges certain attitudes, behaviors, and orientations, that it leads certain students to feel like outsiders, even as they try to be involved with campus. Right?

So I don't want to say like, "Oh, the privileged poor should develop a language or a syllabus for the doubly disadvantaged." And I don't want the doubly disadvantaged that need a syllabus to the necessarily understand what the life of more privileged students are, either by pedigree or by scholarship is one of the ways in which the change university practices so that it doesn't highlight the differences between the privileged poor and the doubly disadvantaged and, de facto, the low income students and those who are not low income so that other students feel just as included as those who come from privileged or prep backgrounds.

LF: I see what you mean. And kind of in the same vein, talking about university practices, in that chapter where we hear from Patrice and Alice, there's another student that you interview whose comments stood out to me. This was William, the white student who was doubly disadvantaged, and he has a line where he says that being around some of the super wealthy people at school, "Perverted the moral and ethical development of their peers, because it encouraged students, especially those from lower income backgrounds, to pursue selfish goals." So and in line with university practices, I'm wondering sort of what role do you think school administrators or administration itself has in influencing whether students pursue selfish goals or more community minded ones? And thinking especially about students who are coming from low income background.

AJ: No. That's a great question and I want to answer it two ways. One, I think there is a funneling into corporate jobs at elite schools. And we know from the research of other scholars, like Amy Binder and even Elizabeth Armstrong who wrote Paying for the Party but with a coworker, Laura Hamilton, we know that there is this push in the way in was career services and the structure of campus life makes it easier for you to be exposed to JP Morgan and McKinsey than it is other opportunities. Right? The Office of Career Services is often times in the student's world, one of most powerful offices on campus. And they know how to place students at consulting jobs in investment banking and other places and other elite jobs like that, quote unquote. Right? So there is that understanding and so what William was talking about was just like the fact that there are recruiting weeks, not just days. Times of the year where literally the entire undergrad calendar, especially for juniors and seniors, are oriented towards when McKinsey comes to campus, when Bain comes to campus, right? Because they take over a student center or they take over a whole bunch of offices and have these interviews. The mountain comes to them. But one of the consequences of that is that everyone feels this pressure to have a summer internship, but not just any internship, a very lucrative internship that can get them a lucrative job. But the other part of the story that we need to pay attention to is how universities, but mostly individuals, always ask lower students, especially the doubly disadvantaged, "Oh, so you're going to go back home after college, right? You're going to go back to serve your community? You're going to go back home to your lower income and low income area, you're racially segregated area because that's where you're going to go."

We never ask students from Greenwich Village if they're going to go back. We never asked students from the Upper East Side, are you going to go back to the Upper East Side when you graduate, right? So there is also this, I would say, paternalistic, heavy-handed nature of, "It's okay to serve your community and that's what you should do because that's where you'll feel more comfortable." Even though the pay difference is substantial, the job security in different ways are substantial. And so one of the things that I actually wanted to do as the waiting Fellow at Amherst, with my term at the end of this academic year, is how do I empower those in the Loaves Center for Career Exploration to think about careers and jobs at the Amherst in a different way?

I hosted an event that wanted to focus on traditional careers but nontraditional jobs. Where I brought... You know, I tried to bring... Jared had to leave because the World Series, but Jared Banner was the Vice President of the Boston Red Sox for talent recruitment, but he never played baseball professionally. I brought Tariff [inaudible 00:00:10:12], who she was an athlete at Amherst and won a national championships with ice hockey, but she herself works in the media side of things now. And so branching out to get people to understand that instead of this funneling into like, okay, corporate life which is basically invest banking and consulting, or teach for America for American for all our lower... Especially for our low income students who want to go back to black and brown communities. How do we diversify our understanding of what jobs are or what sectors look like? Because not everybody who works at Bain is a consultant. Not everybody who works at JP Morgan is an investment banker or financial analyst. There are people who have other positions and I think your question, Bri, this larger thing, who feels pushed into different positions and who fills pushed into others? And, sadly, the entire university feel that there's this push towards the corporate world, which is why disproportionately students from these schools, selective schools, go into investment banking, consulting, and positions like that. And then those students who don't feel comfortable tend to go into more public facing service-oriented work partly because of the lack of resources to help them find a range of job. But then also because that's what they feel most comfortable, after having a hellish experience in college.

LF: This is totally interesting. I mean I was a student not that long ago, graduated in 2017, but I remember my senior year talking to my peers and I started seeing, "Are you going to go for the money or go for your "dream job", that it is community minded but doesn't pay a lot?" And I like how it sounds like you're advocating for neither of those and sort of broadening our ideas of what tasks are available for students.

AJ: Yeah. I'll give you an example. I would love for students to adopt a... You know how in the law school, when you go to law school, each summer you do a different type of job? Like you do a public service job, you do a private sector job, and you get your experience in both. You pay your service and then you try to land that job after school. I would love a similar model for undergraduates and one that really explored the full range of those professions. So the example I want to give is if every summer someone did the internship... Let's say a student is interning in education. Education, if you are low income students at school, they try to say, "Oh, you should be a teacher or you should be a counselor." Or you should be a front facing position where there really isn't that much movement and the pay is good, you're doing honorable work, but you're not paid what you should be paid. Let's just put that out there also.

But what if we have a career center office that was robust enough and sensitive enough to these issues where in your first summer you worked at an education think tank and your second summer you went to the public sector outside of education. And you either worked at a school or work for your senator or someone like that. And then the third one you went on the private side where you maybe did research on education, right? Just three different points of exposure to show that even education is a very, very diverse field that does not only involve teaching. Because teaching is arguably one of the most noblest professions in the country, but the way in which we funnel certain students into positions where they're under resources, under prepared just because of their social background, when there are many, many opportunities to influence education in the country. To contribute to our understanding or the development or the future of education. And we need to actually be more creative about that. Same thing with what sports. You don't have to be an athlete. You can work for an agent one summer, you can work for an advertising company for summer, and then you can work for sports law. All of a sudden you have a much more diverse perspective on the thing that you once you thought you knew. I can keep going on with medicine, right? And keep going on with a number of different fields that we have.

LF: Right. And so it sounds like students can learn about all of the different opportunities within fields that exist from going to the career center, from talking to their professors, to your advisors. I remember the second chapter of the book you write about how the views of the privileged poor and the views of the doubly disadvantaged differs significantly when it comes to reaching out to authority figures, such as those advisors and professors in the career center. And the difference being the privileged poor primarily see reaching out as a way to get to know professors, give respect, and to get help down the line. And the doubly disadvantaged primarily see the outreach as simply brown-nosing. And I'm wondering which of these strategies do you think is the most effective? They're sort of the strategy of, "Okay, I'm going to get to know my professors because, one, they're doing great work and also because they can write me a great recommendation." There's that. And then on the other hand there's the sort of, "All that matters is the work. You know, I don't need to be in my professor's office every day getting to know him or her." Which of those strategies do you think is most effective?

AJ: If the outcome is to be noticed, known, and thought of at different opportunities then the strategy that is most effective is the one in which you are engaging with faculty members. But not just what you know and who you know it's also who knows you and how well they do. When you engage other members of the university, like staff, deans, and administrators, it's more than just... It's more than networking, right? It's about building a network because networking is just like how many cards can you give out? How big is your LinkedIn network? When when you build a network, there's an investment in you. There's a reciprocal relationship in which not only are you invested in that person, even if you are invested in that person because of your own advancement, but that person is invested in you and your advancement. And so the sad reality is that being known can trump being the best. And we've seen that time and time again. This is one of the most connected and may not necessarily be the smartest and may not be the best performing, but they have a network around them that will support them and endorse them for different things. Things that they may not even know about. And so it is that strategy of being known, but also I'm not saying that just talking to everybody is the way to go. Again it's a different thing within the network and networking.

LF: I imagine some students, especially those who are the kinds that are attracted to these elite institutions that are incredibly hardworking and in some ways their academic life identity or a big part of their identity, I imagined for them this idea of being known can trump being the best is is a hard one to hear or at least one you would rather not believe to be true. And I guess I wonder sort of how... Sort of that process of realizing, "Okay, this is the case." And you actually do need to make yourself known, especially for the doubly disadvantaged who tend to see, you know, "This is not the path. And the past is actually the work is all that matters and I'm just going to be the best and I'll get attention that way."

AJ: You know I wish students did get more recognition for their work then just being known. I wish it was a system that works where we actually value hard work and value dedication and value the things that really can matter when time... Especially when times get tough, per se, but when it comes to crunch time, you know like you're three hours from a deadline and you realize something is off. You don't want just the person who was known, you want the person who is known to do well under pressure. Right? And the student who has grinded and who has worked, dedicated, that may be the better student. Can we get to that place? I don't know. I hope that in reading, especially that that chapter and my work more generally, about how social class shapes how students engaged faculty will not just inform students on how to engage faculty, but also inform faculty about how to engage students. I don't want to just stop at professors, I'm talking about I also want to include support services. Because the way in which offices of career services, study abroad, mental health, the way in which those offices have engaged students, they played catcher. They waiting for students to come to them. They believe that like if a student wants something, they will come, operates as the gold standard when that's not necessarily the truth. It's that the students who often need them the most and would appreciate knowing what they do are the students who are least likely to come. So this is not just about rewarding like who got straight A's or who tried the hardest, this is also about how students gain full access to the university in all of its resources.

LF: I see. And so I know, sort of, what we're really talking about here is a student's academic identity, what it is on campus. So you can perform really well and reach out to professors and they know... To use the example that you gave, you know, this professor will know this student, "I know them and I know that they are good at X." And that's sort of what... Part of their identity, their academic identity, is on campus. And I know that in chapter three of your book you write about the campus jobs that exist that negatively impact a student's identity or don't allow them to have an academic identity. So, you know, you gave the example of community detail where students come in during orientation and they're cleaning a toilet and they're cleaning the toilets of their peers. So their peers are viewing them as the person who cleaned my toilet rather than, "Oh. This is Lucy from my philosophy class and she's super bright and she does perform well under pressure." Or whatever you want to say. And so, I guess, I'm wondering if you can just talk a little bit more about the impact these sorts of jobs can have on students' self esteem and their academic identity on campus?

AJ: Yes. I'm very interested in the ways in which federal work studies shapes the undergraduate experience. The fact that amount of is there are some students whose entire academic career is shaped by, not necessarily just the need to work, but the mandate to work as part of their being there. How does that shape their intellectual, academic, and personal identities? Because the fact about it is oftentimes the most available work study jobs, and sometimes even the highest paying, are all manual labor jobs. Now, I'm not saying that this work isn't something that students should do. I'm the grandson of a maid, the brother of a janitor. Cleaning up, my family does it and I do it as well, that's not what what my question is meant to undercut. What my question is trying to get at is what does it mean to incentivize manual labor jobs in a place that privileges the life of the mind?

Schools are supposedly about intellectual development, growth, exploration, and yet a disproportionate number of on campus jobs at many institutions are manual labor jobs that take you away from that. And can mark you as other in the place where you are supposed to be as a full member of the community. There's also some very interesting thing that if your job then puts you in content with your peers, but you're cleaning the toilets or taking their empty bus trays or you're doing certain things that also become very public, then all of a sudden we have these very, very interesting moments of what I call structural exclusion. The way in was university policies push certain students in the margins.

So I'm very much interested in that question because a lot of students just think of it as par for the course, but universities have a role to play because universities benefit from federal work study. It's often times instead of hiring unionized labor, which costs more, and you're going to pay benefits... Not only a higher salary but benefits and other things, you are now using student labor for it. And so it's a much more complex system of players that I want to explore more of. But your question is spot on. Even if you want to engage with faculty, even if you want to be that go-getter, what happens when your work shifts gets in the way of school? And I'm talking about it as fairly... You know, very wealthy residential colleges, what happens if you're at a state school where you work off campus or you're at a community college where you are disproportionally... If you do work, you probably worked full time and then go to school. But if you are one of those students who are at a bigger school and you have to work off campus to supplement your financial aid package, right? How has working itself, whatever work is, shape your undergrad career? Because there's a fundamental difference between cleaning the dorm for 10 hours and serving as someone's research assistant for 10 hours? One gets you access to letters of recommendation. One gets you access to a professor's or administrator's networks. One gets you access to more cultural and social capital. The other gets you a paycheck at the end of the two weeks period and that's just about it. To some, I'm not trying to diminish the sense of pride that one has in doing the work, but there's a fundamental difference between the two.

LF: And on the topic of student jobs, I know that when you were at Amherst you worked as a diversity intern in the admission office and that part of that job was recruiting students from programs, such as The Better Chance and Prep for Prep, which are programs that place low income students into private schools and then into elite colleges afterward, and knowing that I thought it was interesting. In the conclusion of the book you seem to offer a critique of programs like A Better Chance and Prep for Prep, you write that they are, "Well meaning efforts but they benefit individuals rather than the collective. For every student who is chosen for one of these programs several others stay behind in underfunded schools. They reward the few rather than raising up everyone."  Yeah. I thought that was striking and I wondered how would you strengthen these programs? Or with what types of programs would you replace them?

AJ: Yeah. That statement was not to say that the programs do something sad, it's just that I don't want people to look through these programs and say, "This is social policy." It's not social policy. For us to invest more public funds into vouchers and to private schools without addressing the public schools in which these students are leaving, is to abdicate responsibility. And that's why I included that discussion, because many people will reach out to me and say, "Oh, why don't we just put more students into private schools?" One, yeah, it's abdicating responsibility and so we need to actually invest more in the school. And I mean there are different lessons to be learned. I mean the Harlem Children's Zone was an experiment that people didn't see coming, per se, right? And we learned a lot. The racial gap was closed in that. There are different experimental designs like that across the country that we have seen the racial gap and academic outcomes or social class gaps and academic outcomes disappear. But one of the reason is... So we haven't tried those things on the larger scale yet or tried the scale down what we've done.

Now, I'm not saying that those programs are perfect. What I'm saying is that there are lessons to be learned. My colleague Joel Almeda and his coauthor, Sara Finnes, wrote a book In Search Of Deeper Learning and ways in which to make high schools live up to their promise again. And so there are lessons that we can take from his work as well. And why I talk about social policy is not just addressing issues that were happening in the schools. Schools have very porous boundaries, right? Neighborhood problems quickly become school struggles. The way in which food and security was also a part of many of my students' lives before they got to college shows that when you try to do educational reform, it's not just about addressing the test score gap. So many things lead up to why students had differential outcomes in testing, that oftentimes has more to do what happens at home and at school, in route to school.

LF: I see. And so I guess sort of my last question is, this book is full of quotes from the more than 100 students you interviewed over the course of two years at renowned university, that's the name you give the school that you spent time in. And I know about halfway through the project during one, you called it a set of powerful and depressing interviews, you woke up sweating and feeling out of breath. And the stories you heard in the interviews with students who had backgrounds similar to yours, sometimes different, resurfaced events from your own childhood that you hadn't yet grapples with. And I'm curious to know what you've learned about taking care of yourself from doing work that hit so closely to home? Just from being a student at Amherst, I know that a lot of my peers pursued similar academic projects, or at least academic projects that were similar to their own backgrounds, they were ways for them to investigate the places they came from. And sometimes that can be challenging, like you wrote about, and I get... Yeah. Again, I'm just wondering what you've learned from sort of doing this work that's still so close to what you know?

AJ: Yeah. You mentioned the time that I was doing six interviews a day, seven days a week. And it was one particularly bad week where the students were talking about what happened to them before college. And it felt like I relived every one of those interviews but not over course of, you know, a week, in one sequence of dreams. And, yeah. I woke up scared. I was like, "Where the hell am I?" I felt like the fist throwing at me, the glass shattering, it was really just a bad moment. It forced me to take a pause. And people forget this time... I forgot just how powerful pushing pause can be for a second. It's made me put limits on what I will do, not just for work but for other people, because even though I was doing the interviews I was still a graduate student. I still had other responsibilities, so I have papers to write, all those things. There were real things that I had to do, not let alone family at home. As far as really enjoying and not rushing my walks along the Charles River, I made time for TV again, besides Scandal... Which when you read the book you'll see how important Scandal is to the entire story. I started going to get a massage. I started going to get mani pedis, because there are two things that you can't do when you get a massage and you get a mani pedi, is you can't be on your phone. And you can't be checking emails, right? So even taking that time to get a break in, some were free and I encourage people to do the free ones as often as possible, but sometimes you have to treat yourself. And I liked that I invest in myself in a way that I invest in my work. And that's what I'm trying to do right now.

LF: All right, Tony. That's all I have for you. Is there anything I didn't ask you that you want to talk about?

AJ: That's a great question. Let's see. Yes. The one thing that... Maybe this came out of surprise is the choices of sharing research with other universities and university officials. One of the reasons I do the work that I do is because of how pissed off I was when I realized that the problems that lower income students are facing today are those that I faced at Amherst. I graduated from Amherst in 2007, which means I got there in 2003. We're talking about 2018, 15 years later, students are still food insecure doing spring spring break and Thanksgiving break and other holidays that are sometimes closing, right? For the calendar. Students are still facing obstacles about not knowing about office hours and different things like that. If only my contribution, from the practical side of things, is to make us aware of what we take for granted. Then I felt that the book and my research has done his job. Because what I hope what happens, when we begin to question what we take for granted, is that thought process, sometimes painful, sometimes freeing, of thinking about the policies and practices that we implement that privileged privilege hurt those who are not from that group. And I've been able to work with different university officials to change their policy. So there are some that have been very responsive to, not necessarily that the criticism but for the outlining of facts about how their policies operate on their campus. But then also the data about how those decisions play out in the lives of students.