I was sitting in the window seat of a modern-looking cafe on Nostrand, contentedly sipping my chai latte, when three black middle schoolers approached me.
"Can we interview you for a school project?" their leader, a boy in a puffy navy coat, asked me.
"How long does it take?" I responded.
"Five minutes," the spokesperson said, flipping pages on his clipboard. He was a little chubby and had close-shaved hair.
"And can we record you?" piped in a girl with braids, leaning over his shoulder.
"No, we're not recording," the boy cut her off. He turned back to me. "We're not recording."
"Ok," I said.
He looked down at his page. "Do you live in Bed-Stuy, and if so, how long have you lived here?"
"I actually live in Crown Heights, a few blocks that way," I pointed. "And I've lived here a month."
He scribbled my answer in pencil.
"What do you think gentrification means? Or do you know what gentrification is?" He asked next.
I started feeling uncomfortable. Bed-Stuy is a historically black neighborhood that is currently being gentrified by people like me.
"Gentrification is when wealthier people move into a poorer neighborhood. And rent prices go up, and shops get more expensive, and the lower-income people can't afford to live there anymore so they have to move to somewhere further away," I said.
Is gentrification by definition linked to race? I wondered. I carefully avoided mentioning race in my answers, instead talking about income. But of course it's linked to race.
The boy was nodding and writing down my answer.
"Who benefits from gentrification?" he asked me next. "Or does anyone benefit?"
"Well, the wealthier people moving in benefit from more affordable housing to begin with..." I started. The problem is, I know gentrification is a problem but I don't know all that much about what can be done to mitigate its negative impacts on a neighborhood's original residents. I continued: "I think that gentrification doesn't necessarily have to be bad, that it can be a good thing for a neighborhood if it's managed properly, because more wealth in the neighborhood can result in things like lower crime, like if more streetlights are put up. But the important thing is figuring out how to keep rent prices fair for people who were already living there, and keeping affordable stores open for those people..." I trailed off, as I wasn't really sure how that was done. Community organizing, right? Rent control policies? I looked at the boy. His classmates seemed hardly to be paying attention. He took some more notes on my words, scanned his page, and then thanked me and walked away.
"What's the project?" I called after him.
He turned back. "It's a school project called Our Voice Matters, and we chose the topic of gentrification," he informed me.
I'm glad he's being taught that his voice matters. I want to read their final project.