Several of Ashleigh Cartwright’s seven siblings had to pass through metal detectors before entering their inner-city school buildings, which sometimes seemed to house as many police officers as textbooks. A few of her brothers and sisters attended a suburban school with better resources, but they found themselves isolated alongside other Black children in classrooms reserved for lower-level students.
Cartwright, on the other hand, took a quiet, hour-long bus ride to a competitive private school. At age 10, she’d been hand-picked by an organization that prepares Black, Latinx, and Native American students to integrate white middle and high schools around the nation.
“On my first day of sixth grade, a bunch of students wanted to touch my hair, which felt alienating,” she remembers. “I understood why I was participating in this program, but at times, the experience could kind of break you.”
Now pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology, Cartwright is applying an academic lens to her experience by analyzing the evolution of the organization that primed her for enrollment in a white school. Founded in 1963, nearly a decade after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling outlawed racial segregation in U.S. schools, the institution continues to work with about 2,000 minority students and 100 “traditionally white” public and private partner schools each year. She is reviewing hundreds of archived files that contain student applications and evaluations to construct a history of the organization’s selection and training processes. She is also observing current organizational employees and participants in action to learn how much, or how little, these processes have changed.
One finding that has struck Cartwright involves staff members’ descriptions of students chosen for the program. Since its inception, the organization has identified academic performance as its top admission criteria, yet Cartwright’s research has shown that most accepted applicants have earned average grades. Instead, she has discovered, they have consistently been lauded for “non-threatening” traits such as small stature, physical attractiveness, and pleasing demeanor.
“The schools that this organization was integrating in the 60s—they still work with those same schools. This suggests that after over 50 years, those schools still aren’t integrated. Without this organization, many of them would have no non-white students at all.”
This pattern persists in the participants she has encountered personally, and has also long permeated the organization’s training workshops, which emphasize self-presentation: how students should speak, dress, and style their hair. Cartwright, who earned a bachelor’s degree in African American studies and sociology at Columbia University in 2017, recalls them well from her own adolescence.
“Throughout the preparation process, I always felt there was something wrong with what was going on, even though I didn’t have the full capacity to understand why. I remember a staff member telling us we couldn’t use slang, like the word ‘ain’t’, at our new school. She also told us we should straighten our hair. I was being asked to change myself in order to attend a white school,” she says.
Cartwright is one of 27 Penn graduate students who were awarded a 2019 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, an honor that comes with a three-year annual stipend to support their work. This year, more than 12,000 applicants around the nation competed for just over 2,000 fellowships. Cartwright will use the resources to continue studying integration processes and to gauge their success.
“The schools that this organization was integrating in the 60s—they still work with those same schools. This suggests that after over 50 years, those schools still aren’t integrated. Without this organization, many of them would have no non-white students at all,” she says.
Throughout her undergraduate years at Columbia and her time on campus at Penn, Cartwright has met several students who completed the same integration program she did, or one that was similar. Most of them, she has found, share memories of unease and trauma.
“I want to demonstrate why it’s important to be critical of diversity initiatives and what they actually entail, because while there are assets, there are also a lot of problems. The number of people who have gone through these programs is significant, and we need to know how they’ve been affected,” she says. “This understanding will advance knowledge about Civil Rights-era integration and more contemporary diversity initiatives that require people of color to undergo such processes.”