Now and then a person comes upon a book that is hard to read precisely because it disturbs the comfort zones of his or her thinking. And yet while entering into the first few pages, a small voice says: You need to keep reading this; you need to let some of your assumptions be challenged. So it is with Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America.
Tobin Miller Shearer writes about Fresh Air, the program that since 1877 has brought low-income children out of the city and into the country for two weeks of vacation every year. These pre-adolescent children stay with host families who provide food, lodging and an array of summertime experiences.
What could be better than bringing needy children into healthier environments? When the program began, many of these children lived in crowded New York tenements, where tuberculosis spread at epidemic levels, it was no small thing to let urban youth literally breathe fresh air. Over the past 140 years, 1.8 million children have benefited from opportunities to live with host families in rural settings.
Shearer, who directed Mennonite Central Committee’s Racism Awareness Program in the 1990s, takes issue with the assumption that all those children benefited from this charitable arrangement. At center stage is the issue of race. Is it possible that well-meaning and mostly progressive-minded adults who thought they were advancing the cause of race relations were actually perpetrating inequality?
What makes this book hard to read for many people of privilege, especially in today’s context, is the unveiling of implicit bias among people who assume they are part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
Though the program initially did not directly cater to black youth, it increasingly evolved into a framework to bring black urban youth into white rural homes. Through extensive interviews with guests and hosts, Shearer presents the hidden sides of helping low-income youth in settings detached from their own communities.
Most of the Fresh Air Fund activity took place in the northeast United States. Mennonites were among the steady base of host families. Those in Pennsylvania held a reputation of having the highest revisitation rates. A 1950s photo shows a single young black girl sitting in a train station, surrounded by Mennonites from the Lancaster, Pa., region. Shearer considers what this picture may be conveying under the surface, suggesting an unsettling quality that mirrors his overall perspective on the Fresh Air program.
Shearer’s critique centers on the contrast between engaging racism through one-on-one acts of charity versus trying to dismantle racism through effective social change. Focusing mostly on the mid-20th century, Shearer says white neoliberalism of this period often “focused on privatization, minimal government and reduced appropriations for social services.” In other words, folks wanted to do good without changing their lives.
It is revealing to learn about how the Fresh Air story has been told. Images of bare feet on grass, swimming in ponds and drinking fresh milk connected childhood’s purity with nature’s purity. Innocence was imputed to the guests. Abundant food on tables heightened the benefits of leaving the inner city, where food was either scarce or unwholesome. But since grass and pond and milk lasted for only a fortnight, these redemptive agents could never fully save.
Testimonials from participating youth and adults indicate older children often were marked as sassy or unruly. Shearer, however, detects an element of resistance among youth who navigated their way through complex social environments which, by all appearance, advocated for racial integration. He concludes that much of what passed for disrespectful behavior was in fact an expression of nascent activism.
Is this all a matter of the past? In 2013, a New York Times feature on the Fresh Air Fund “extolled the pleasure of running in the grass.” In 2014, the fund reported net assets of more than $138 million. To this day, Shearer contends, the program “remains a powerful indicator of racism’s persistence and an enduring symbol of the prevalence of neoliberal approaches to social inequity.”
In Shearer’s well-documented book we learn anecdotally what youth experienced when they were bused from Mississippi to Newton, Kan. Again, the discomfort that may come from reading a book like this is not so much due to the actual case studies identified by specific times and places. It comes, rather, from the subtler identification between Fresh Air and those current programs to which we are committed, which may similarly defy a full and honest moral audit.
Ted Lewis works as a restorative justice trainer and consultant and runs the Agapé Peace Center in Duluth, Minn.