Even as calls for school integration grow louder across New York City, there has been no single place for advocates to turn for guidance and support. But that is about to change.

The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University recently landed a $50,000 grant from the New York City Council to launch a resource center to support grassroots organizers, interested school administrators and elected leaders.

In many ways, the work is already underway. NYU and New York Appleseed, the local chapter of a national nonprofit network that focuses on social justice issues, have been organizing monthly meetings to allow advocates from across the city swap ideas and form action plans.

The Resource Center for School Diversity and Integration will build on that. It will be led by David E. Kirkland, executive director of the Metro Center, and Norm Fruchter, a former member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy.

Chalkbeat sat down with Kirkland to discuss the new center and integration efforts in New York City schools, which are among the most segregated in the country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do we already know about K-12 integration? What does the research tells us?

The research suggests, over and again, that people who are exposed to differences are more open-minded and more tolerant. They’re more compassionate. They think more complexly. They’re capable of working out difficult problems.

Forget college and career readiness. Here we have civic readiness, the ability to participate in a multicultural democracy with people who are different than you are, in ways that inspire not tension but community and collaboration.

What this is, is an idea of democracy of access, democracy of opportunity. If my friends’ parents are doctors, the dream of becoming a doctor becomes tangible. It becomes far more legible, as opposed to when I live in communities where nobody gets to be a doctor, or nobody gets to be a lawyer, or judge. The seedling of that imagination becomes within reach.

It seems like advocates have been asking for something like this center to be created. Why is it needed?

In the past, I think equity work has been limited because we work in silos. It’s been important under my leadership at Metro Center to break down silos and create partnerships, broad coalitions and relationships, to solve some vexing problems that we have in schools — particularly New York City schools.

One thing that we know: We know that schools and teachers can’t do it alone. But we also know that one-off, siloed organizations can’t either, that social inequity is a deeply complicated and deeply entangled thing, and it deserves our collective attention.

We haven’t had a dedicated space to deliberate on this idea of integration and what’s necessary to achieve it, and even to argue whether or not it’s something that we want to achieve. I think it’s worth achieving, but I do think we need to have a conversation, and we do need to have a conversation about how to achieve it. We also need to have a conversation about what it is.

How do you define integration?

Our notion of integration is different than desegregation … It is an equity cause, and not just a diversity one. Because diversity is like being asked to a dance, right? And it’s more than just inclusion, too. So if diversity is like being asked to a dance, inclusion is like being asked to dance. But equity, and integration as equity, is giving people an opportunity to dance to their own song in their own way. It’s transformation.

So would a school have an idea and brings it to the center, and you’d help them implement it? Or are you going to try to spur ideas in the first place?

All of the above. The resource network is figuring itself out. We have people who want to support schools in helping them become more integrated. We have people who want to create policy, both at the education level and beyond it. We have people who want to do other types of grassroots organizing to inform parents in communities around a set of ideas. It’s certainly all of the above, and I think we need a broad and bold solution to inspire integration in New York City.

There are also systems of ideas that have worked. We can begin to construct a blueprint based on the variety of ideas that seem to work, like controlled choice [which factors student diversity into admissions among schools in a certain area.] And all of those ideas need to be in conversation and they need to sit somewhere, a central site or organization for New York City, so we can think more deeply about integration and bring integration to fruition within the city.

We exist as a support group to multiple municipal players — the mayor, the chancellor, the City Council — in order to support the integration of New York City schools.

What kind of relationship do you plan to have with the chancellor and the mayor? They’ve both been criticized for not doing enough to help this issue along.

I’m not divisive, because our kids can’t afford for us to be divided … I’m willing to support a direction of diversity and integration that is evidence-based, that is scientific, that is conceptually, theoretically sound.

And I’m willing to work with anybody who is willing to work on those ideas.

I’m curious to hear from you about the challenges — but also maybe the opportunities — that gentrification presents, and how that plays out in schools. 

This conversation about gentrification, let’s be clear: It’s not integration. But it is a reality of cities like New York. I think as a community plan, New York City needs to think about how to protect people from being displaced, how to protect people against gentrification if they truly want to integrate. So one of the threats to integration, to be clear, is gentrification.

We [need to] have community and collaborative engagement around community and school development, so that parents who have more power don’t necessarily overpower parents and community members with less.

There actually are many diverse neighborhoods, and — at the middle and high school level — we have lots of school choice. What will the center’s role be in trying to harness that? Are there opportunities there?

New York city is this really interesting place where young people don’t necessarily get out of their neighborhoods. They may have a choice, but they don’t necessarily feel it. It’s the caged-bird effect. You can open the door to the cage and say ‘Hey, there’s a world out there, bird.’ But if that bird has been behind the cage forever, the bird is not going anywhere because its mind is caged.

People don’t perceive the choice, if there is a choice. And that perception is necessary in order for there to be a choice.