#DesiReads: Shilpi Malinowski reads from Shaw, Ledroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History

(available at Anchor.fm, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, Breaker, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Overcast)

Hello and welcome to Episode 47 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today, in the #DesiReads segment, we have Shilpi Malinowski reading from her debut book, Shaw, Ledroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History.

#DESIREADS WITH SHILPI MALINOWSKIINTRODUCTION

Shilpi Malinowski is a reporter whose work has been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and India Abroad. She’s a recipient of a fellowship from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. For the past two decades, she has been reporting on life in neighborhoods in D.C. and within the Indian American diaspora. With a background in anthropology, she investigates how people forge their identities and feel a sense of belonging as communities change around them. This is her first book.

Shaw, Ledroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History explores the complexities of the many stories of belonging in the District’s most dynamic neighborhood. Shilpi Malinowski, a Shaw resident herself, talked with others about what it’s been like to live in D.C.’s most gentrified neighborhood. When Gretchen Wharton came to Shaw in 1946, the houses were full of families that looked like hers: lower-income, African American, two parents with kids. The sidewalks were full of children playing. When Leroy Thorpe moved in in the 1980s, the same streets were dense with drug markets. When John Lucier found a deal on a house in Shaw in 2002, he found himself moving into one of four occupied homes on his block. Every morning, he waited by himself on the empty platform of the newly opened metro station. When Preetha Iyengar became pregnant with her first child in 2016, she jumped into a seller’s market to buy a rowhouse in the area. 

In Shaw, Ledroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History, Shilpi Malinowski explores the complexities of the many stories of belonging in the District’s most dynamic neighborhood. An excerpt in #desireads .@DesiBooks

The transcript of this excerpt is also up on the website.

And now, here’s Shilpi Malinowski.

[music]

DESIREADS WITH SHILPI MALINOWSKI

[Excerpted with permission from Shaw, Ledroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History by Shilpi Malinowski. Copyright © 2021 Shilpi Malinowski.]

In 2016, I enrolled my then-three-year-old son at our neighborhood school, Seaton Elementary. Like the neighborhood, the school is gentrifying; every year, the percentage of White children increases. In 2016, the racial demographic makeup of my son’s Pre-K-3 class was evenly balanced between Black, White, Asian and Latino children. In the year that he enrolled, the proportion of White students at the whole school was 10 percent, according to enrollment information from DCPS. In 2019, his younger brother joined him; by that year, White kids made up 14 percent of the total student body, and his Pre-K-3 grade is about 50 percent white. 

The diversity went beyond what was visible through demographic data. Several children were exposed to English for the first time in that classroom, while others were the children of second-generation immigrants who spoke fluent English. The economic makeup was more hidden and did not track with race; parents quietly scanned each other and discovered through conversations at drop-off and pick-up who has similar educational and professional backgrounds. 

Upper income parents existed in all racial groups, but the school, as a whole, was designated as title 1, with more than 40 percent of the students coming from low-income homes. The school explicitly supported the various language groups, hiring staff with fluency in Spanish and Mandarin to act as liaisons between those communities and the administration. For a while, I attended a monthly parent breakfast meeting with a staff member who was bilingual in Spanish and English; the dozen or so parents who attended spoke in a circle about our experiences with the school, and the staffer translated so that everyone could understand. All of the official school and PTO communication—emails, flyers—were translated into English, Spanish and Mandarin. 

People of the same race often clustered together. The PTO meetings were packed with White parents, and the leadership of the organization was overwhelmingly made up of White moms with a couple of Black parents. Latino families could be seen chatting with each other during drop-off and pick-up, and the Mandarin-speaking community communicated with each other via WeChat. 

For many parents, this was our first time being in such an integrated environment. How do we do it? How can we be a cohesive community with so much racial, economic, and language diversity? I was deeply curious about the dynamics at play. 

As a relatively privileged South Asian American, I held an interesting role. Throughout my school and work life, I have often been a racial minority in majority-White spaces. I was very used to navigating those spaces. At the same time, I am the child of immigrants and feel huge amounts of tenderness, empathy and similarity with immigrants who are putting their kids in the public school system as a path to success. 

“How can we be a cohesive community with so much racial, economic, and language diversity?” Shilpi Malinowski reading from her debut book, Shaw, Ledroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History. #DesiReads @DesiBooks

For me, the diversity of the school was a huge plus. My husband is White, and my children are both the color of milky tea, with brown hair and dark eyes. In some situations, they are wholly accepted in White social groups; in other painful situations, I have seen them othered and excluded. At this school, they are never othered in their classes; with no majority race, all of the kids are free to be individuals. 

I know that as both of my sons grow up, they will feel that tension: do they disappear into their passably White appearance and reap the benefits of that White privilege? Can they be proud of their Indian identities and bring that with them? Will our society change quickly enough so that self-hatred about their brownness will never be an issue?

“Will our society change quickly enough so that self-hatred about their brownness will never be an issue?” Shilpi Malinowski reading from her debut book, Shaw, Ledroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History. #DesiReads @DesiBooks

At his school, my son has daily practice in seeing people of all races as individuals. Picking him up, I would often find him running around in a group with a Black child, an Asian child and a Latino child. And academically, he was being judged as an individual at Seaton not being pigeonholed in any way based on his race, and he was seeing kids of all races succeed academically. I hope their experience at the school makes them less likely to develop racial stereotypes as they grow up. 

SukI LucIer. Seaton is the most diverse elementary school in all of DCPS. It has diversity that if your core mission was diversity, you would have a hard time coming up with what has happened at Seaton completely organically. We have racial diversity, language diversity and there’s also socioeconomic diversity. 

Encouraging diverse neighborhoods gets you to an organically diverse school. It’s best when diversity happens organically. 

Looking at Shaw, from U Street to Gallery Place, it’s really one of the most diverse parts of D.C., where the boundaries are drawn does make it a little bit interesting, because you draw from Chinatown, and we draw from some apartment buildings. Policy matters in creating affordable housing, creating dense housing, having a school in a walkable area. I think all of those things contributed. 

With the whole school choice landscape in D.C., all of a sudden, the schools are commodities, and you’re competing for customers, except it is kids and families. 

School choice ends up being a weapon in the hands of White parents. If you give White parents a choice, they’re going to choose to surround their kids with other White kids. The data bears it out; this is not an opinion. There’s that perception that what is White must be the best. 

There’s this kind of tug and pull because the diversity of the school was one of the things that attracted us to it. But of course, by coming to it and being part of it, there’s some aspect of destroying the thing you love. I don’t think I really considered what impact we would have coming into that diverse space as middle-class White people. 

With fundraising, if there are families who have money, and they would like to give money to us, why should we not take their money and create opportunities for them to give it to us? 

But with money also brings a sense of entitlement and ownership. They’re like, “I gave this money, why shouldn’t I get my kid that program?” 

Where I’ve come down for the time being is that whatever monetary gain we might get from doing more fundraising events, we would lose it in the school camaraderie and the sense that we are inclusive. 

It should never be pay-to-play to be part of the PTO, to be part of the school and to be part of the activities. 

I’m okay with my kid not going to as high-quality a school, whatever that means—to go to a school that’s more diverse. My friend’s kid somewhere else is playing the flute in third grade. We’re never going to have that here. 

My opinions on school choice and charter schools have changed so radically since becoming a parent. 

It’s made me, at a fundamental level, question this whole thing of “I just want what’s best for my child,” which feels like the ultimate parent privilege—to be able to look out for your kid. And I think a lot of us probably have said things like: “Well, of course I want my kid to be in a diverse school, but I’m not going to sacrifice my child on the altar of my educational ideals.” I’m sure I’ve said that phrase myself. But maybe we should think about it. Maybe the kids like ours, with really wide margins, maybe we need to be okay with our kids having less than the best. 

Every family has to do what’s best for their kids. But maybe those of us in the positions of privilege need to rethink that. I also think we’ve kind of been sold this lie that there’s a solution to the racial problem where everybody benefits. We want it to be a win-win situation, where everybody comes out better than we are now. And I don’t think that’s realistic—I don’t. I think they have to give something. And that’s scary. That’s an investment. And that’s radical. 

You guys might have to take some steps back for other people to take steps forward. It’s easier for me to say that when I’m not struggling financially, when I have steps to take back and still be safe. My margins are wide. 

There are issues where you need to extend your cost-benefit analysis beyond your immediate family. I think it’s something that we as White parents need to start thinking radically about, and even if, at the self-serving level, are we even best serving our children by doing that? 

No, he doesn’t need every advantage. He already has tons of them. I think we better serve them by having them in diverse environments. 

Preetha Iyengar. I personally interact with everybody the same way—I try to in restaurants I guess. I know there are Black families who have been here for a while, but going to parties at people’s houses, that’s not who we are seeing there. I don’t think it’s entirely intentionally. But when we go to Florida Avenue Playground, I wonder, “How can we share this, and how do we share this?” I don’t know if it’s just that after the farmers’ market, one group is there, and at other times, other groups are there. 

I’m really happy that my kid grows up thinking that all this stuff is normal. There’s a gay couple, a lesbian couple, all kinds of mixed-race couples of every variety. You are proud of the diversity you have and where your family is from and the languages you can speak. In D.C., that’s cool; you’re cooler when you’re bilingual. Everybody has a family abroad, as opposed to when we grew up, we were trying to assimilate. We had to explain to people the dots on my mom’s forehead and what being vegetarian was. Versus here, it’s almost like you are really celebrated for your cultural differences. 


In Shaw, Ledroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History, Shilpi Malinowski explores the complexities of the many stories of belonging in the District’s most dynamic neighborhood. An excerpt in #desireads .@DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 47 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in. Today’s #DesiReads segment was with Shilpi Malinowski reading from her debut book, Shaw, Ledroit Park and Bloomingdale in Washington, DC: An Oral History.

Episode 48 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Email at desibooks@desibooks.co. And please go to the website, desibooks.co, if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. That’s desibooks.co.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

[music]

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.™
Share your appreciation. Sign up for the free, weekly newsletter.


Join the Conversation