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Education helps students ready for trip to Cuba

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday March 13, 2001

With less than a month left before 73 Berkeley High students leave for Cuba, the race is on to prepare the students for what could be a once in a lifetime experience. 

“We’re in a full-blown education process,” said Rick Ayers, coordinator of the Communication Arts and Sciences Program (CAS) at Berkeley High. “We don’t want them to go just as tourists. We want them to have some grounding.” 

The Berkeley students have spent the last several months organizing bake sales, car washes and concerts to raise more than $30,000 of the trip’s $120,000 cost.  

“It was one of the hardest things we had to do, but also the biggest community building,” Berkeley High student Portia Boni told the Berkeley School Board last week. 

Now comes the really fun part: getting ready to go. 

In addition to watching videos and reading books the students meet every other week for lectures from Cuba experts.  

They’ve not only read a guide book to prepare for their trip, but heard from its author, Christopher Baker, who traveled thousands of miles across Cuba on motorcycle. 

Monday morning the students heard from Tiffany Mitchell, associate director of The Caribbean Project at Georgetown University and an expert on race relations inside Cuba. 

Compared to the United States, Cuba is a very racially integrated society, Mitchell told the students. But integration on the surface masks some disturbing racial inequalities, she said.  

Poverty weighs disproportionately on Cubans of African descent, Mitchell said. Afro-Cubans often tend to have lower salaries and live in subpar housing. They are less likely to participate in higher education and are underrepresented in government and other institutions, Mitchell said. 

Mitchell’s lecture provided a welcome opportunity to view race and racism outside of the U.S. context, students said afterward. 

“Our only case study in the United States,” said senior Gabe Zeldin. “It’s really interesting to see that we’re not the only ones who struggle with this problem.” 

Sophomore Deborah Ortiz, whose godmother is Cuban, asked Mitchell about pressures to “marry white” in Cuba as a way moving up in society. Mitchell confirmed her suspicion, using anecdotes from her own experiences to show how status and race go hand and hand in Cuban. 

“No race problem in any country is the same,” Ortiz said after the lecture. She said she looks forward to discussing race and racism with Afro-Cubans themselves.  

“I want to ask them, ‘How do you see it on a day to day basis?’” Ortiz said. 

During their two week stay in Havana and rural areas nearby the Berkeley students will visit schools, hospitals and museums. They’ll make videos and prepare reports on Cuba’s health and education systems to share with their fellow Berkeley High students when they return, Ayers said.  

They’ll also lay the foundations for future trips by establishing relationships with groups of Cuban students and professionals, said CAS history teacher Tom Kordick. 

“We’re trying to do more experiential learning because we find that kids respond a lot more when they’re out of the classroom,” Kordick said of the trip.  

“In some cases they’re life-changing experiences. These trips help kids decide what they want to do with their lives.” 

Dr. Gary Bacon, a teacher at Los Altos High School on the Peninsula led twenty students on a trip to Cuba last February to study U.S foreign policy as it relates to Cuba. He said students had a hard time overcoming common U.S. stereotypes of communist societies until they’d spent a few days on the ground in Cuba. 

“Even though they went there having done a lot of reading and research they were still surprised,” Bacon said. “In Cuba there are no homeless. Everybody had a job, everybody had health care, everybody had education.” 

“We could go anywhere and do anything...What students basically saw people going about their lives in a very happy way.” 

Ayers said he expects some Berkeley High students to be surprised that Cubans live happily without so many things Americans take for granted. 

“They just don’t realized how much wasteful consumption fills up our day,” Ayers said.