Erica DeBardeleben (1st Quarter, 2007)

1st Quarter, 2007
Mesothelioma Memorial Scholarship
Erica Debardeleben

Since graduating from Spelman College in May of 2004, Erica has been living out her commitment to justice as an inner-city school teacher and educational advocate.

A Portion Of Erica’s Winning Essay:

Erica DeBardeleben

Black America is being sedated by the media and pop culture in ways that misrepresent and mislead the community. Hip-hop artists have glamorized the harsh realities of the impoverished amongst us, black political leaders and intellectuals more readily support a “race-less” future, and the pro-black visionaries of yesteryear have been made complacent by the codification of anti-discriminatory policy. These groups, in consciousness or not, have turned the desperate condition of black America into an “invisible community”—a forgotten wasteland of vice, addiction, anger and limited mobility—all while the media provides them with celebrity status and an unapproachable demeanor that neither inspires nor mobilizes those whom they claim to represent. That having been said, I am frustrated by the marginalization of impoverished blacks and am tired of the larger community’s silence on the issues that are slowly but surely perpetuating generational hopelessness.

The issues surrounding black America have long preoccupied my thoughts. Having grown up in a “broken” home, but raised far from it, I was provided with the rare opportunity of experiencing hopelessness but not becoming a part of it. My bi-racial teenage mother, caught in an abusive relationship with my alcoholic father, sent me to live with my white grandmother—a woman who taught me that the only definition that matters is the one you create for yourself. I recognize that in today’s racially blended society, the circumstances surrounding my upbringing are not uncommon. It is unique, however, in that it is solely responsible for my perception of life and society. I have always felt that my life is a living dichotomy. I grew up in either the “white” world of Ann Arbor or the “black” world of Detroit; a single parent household or double. My childhood could be described as happy, carefree and privileged or terrorized by alcoholism, dysfunction and near poverty. Academically, I was either overwhelmingly passionate about my work or absolutely unmotivated to pursue subjects of which I had no interest. I attended an all black college and then substantiated that experience by going to a graduate school where students of color where few and far between.

Professionally, I began my adult life as a teacher in one of North Philadelphia’s toughest ghettos. My next position, in drastic contrast, was as a consultant with a prestigious educational consulting organization with strong ties to the Bush Administration. Since I live my life along clearly defined lines, my nature compels me to take a strong stand in defense of what I feel is right. It is nearly impossible for me to straddle the fence on issues of social, political and economic importance, and I always find myself in support of the underserved, the disenfranchised and the marginalized among us. The stark contrasts that I have experienced in life taught me many truths about both myself and the world that we live in.

The most important lesson, upon which I plan to base my body of work in film and electronic media, is that having varied and enriching experiences allows us to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. If one were to take this tenet and apply it to impoverished black America one would see that the problem lies neither in victimization nor lack of motivation but instead in the ignorance that they unknowingly carry. This community, reliant upon cable television, radio and other forms of media to provide them with information, is being manipulated and exploited by networks that claim to be their representatives to the mainstream. I base my assertions upon the personal and professional experiences that I have had working in disenfranchised, predominately black neighborhoods.

As a Teach for America teacher, unlike most of my peers, I chose to live in the same North Philadelphia neighborhood in which I worked. I witnessed more of what it means to be frustrated by limited mobility then, than I ever have in my life. Most of my students had never ventured beyond the six-block radius of their neighborhood and emulated the things that they heard on television and the radio as ultimate truths—a problematic norm that I would like to change. Despite being an effective and highly motivated teacher, I became “burnt-out” by the seemingly endless drama that kept my students from focusing on changing the cycles of oppression. I then decided to focus my energies on changing the system by entering the educational policy world.

As a consultant, I hoped to share the practices and insight that I gained while in the classroom to improve struggling schools. This ideal, however, proved in vain. I found that the educational system, as is the case in others, is so heavily bogged down by bureaucracy that its major players feel no connection to its true purpose. I also found that many organizations espousing to improve the system by working outside of it do so either for profit or for status and rarely out of sincere agency. In essence, I have grown quite cynical of and jaded by the system. My heart bleeds for those who are trapped in it.

After all of this, I’ve decided that I’d like to study film and electronic media. Why? First and foremost, I want to become a major player in the creation and dissemination of mass media to underserved peoples. If I were able to manipulate imagery in an effective and compelling fashion, I might be able to present information in ways that allow the people to transcend complacency. I want to make movies that inspire people and make the world a better place to live in—that heighten awareness and compel people to change their lives for the better. I have also enjoyed a hobby in film, writing and photography for some time now and would like to merge my passions with my talents so that I can feel ownership over my career.

During my senior year in college, I was part of a team that developed a short documentary called, “Femcees: Women in Hip-Hop”. Working on this film was one of the most rewarding experiences that I have ever had. I really challenged myself and my group to work in ways that would merge the women’s stories with their “inner-selves” by creating complete images within each frame; that is to say that I wanted the surroundings to tell as much of the story as the subject.

Though our novice piece had its imperfections, the response that we received was all in high praise. So strong was our body of work that even after our screening at Spelman, we were invited to show “Femcees” at Temple University and the 2nd Atlanta Women of Color International Film Festival. Even there, our audience felt the importance of the messages that we were relaying and supported us in continuing on with the work. My experience with “Femcees” proved to me the power in film. Doing more and better work has constantly been on my mind since.

The Mesothelioma Memorial Scholarship will significantly help me achieve my goal of merging my passions, talents and experiences in my quest to create a career for myself. My family’s financial situation (being that I am the first person in my family to receive any type of college degree) has made it necessary for me to live independently and without any assistance. This, coupled with the fact that I have lived in cities with sky-high costs of living and the comparitively low-pay rates of working in education and the non-profit sector, has made it difficult for me to adequately prepare myself to return to school full-time. Without financial assistance, it will be virtually impossible for me to return to school. I sincerely want to return to school to follow my dreams–the Mesothelioma Memorial Scholarship would play a major role in allowing me to do this.

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