Thursday, August 18, 2016

Am I Radical Enough? Thoughts on Being a Black Education Activist Surrounded by White Liberals

      To my non activist friends this sounds like a silly question.  I am pretty sure, when they think of radical activist they think of me. At first it was because I used Facebook to proliferate my radical views but since returning to Washington, DC in 2011 I have attended and organized numerous marches and conferences taking my social media activism to the streets.  However, lately as I get deeper and deeper into the world of education activism I am often left wondering if I am radical enough to be a part of this movement. Or perhaps their definition of radical varies greatly from my definition of radical and that is why I feel like I am not fully welcome in this movement.  And by their version of radical I mean white liberals, because frankly they dominate the education activist movement that I am a part of. This is not surprising, given that white liberals often have the privilege including time and money to fully engage in the activist movement.  When they use that privilege for the common good, then we get one step closer to winning the war. However, when they use that privilege to dictate to others how they must think, act, and behave in this movement, then they become the oppressor no matter how good their intentions may be. 
            In July 2016 the Save Our Schools Coalition for Action organized the People’s March for Education and Social Justice and Activist Conference in Washington DC.  The Save Our Schools Coalition was originally made up of the following 8 organizations: Save Our Schools (SOS), The Badass Teachers Association (BATs), United Opt Out (UOO), Network for Public Education (NPE), the National Council of Urban Education Association (NCUEA), the BAT NEA Caucus, the Center for the Expansion of Learning and Thinking (CELT), and the Florida Opt Out Network. Members from these organizations, spent 10 months working to plan and organize the march, rally, and conference.  We had hopes of substantially growing the number of attendees from the 2011 SOS march and rally but realized that it would cost serious money and none of the coalition organizations could afford to pay for this event. So, as was done in 2011 we asked both of the national teachers union, AFT and NEA to endorse and financially support this event.  We also asked the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) for support.
            Money from AFT, NEA, and WTU was used to offset the costs of the event. In case you are not aware, hosting a march, rally, and conference cost money.  In addition to paying for a sound system and the use of space at Howard University, money was used to help members of Journey for Justice and other grass roots organizations travel to DC and take part in this event.  No one was paid to speak. Most people had to pay for their own registration although we did allow the first 100 children to register for free.  Bob George who served as the director of the event, hopes to be paid a modest fee if there is any money left over after we pay all of our expenses but that might be wishful thinking.  Anyway, that is where we got the money from and that is what is was used for. 
            Sounds harmless right? Well not according to some white liberals. Because according to them if you take money from the unions then you have been bought, co-opted, and neutralized.  It doesn’t matter what the money was for. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked to make sure the unions did not take control of the event.  No you see they wrote the playbook and in that play book under no circumstances can you have anything to do with the unions if you want to be a real education activist.  Now don’t get me wrong, I have serious issues with both national teachers union. I have been a vocal critic of their decision to align with corporate reformist agendas such as Teach Strong and I believe they should be using all of their power to protect the teaching profession by explicitly denouncing and fighting against fast-track teacher preparation programs such as Teach for America and Relay Graduate School that are wreaking havoc on the profession they are supposed to stand for.  If I had the opportunity to sit down with Randi Weingarten or Lily Eskelsen I would gladly share my views with them. But seeing as how I am not in a union I don’t expect them to come knocking on my door for advice any time soon. 
            As much as I object to decisions made by the national unions, I prepare teachers every day who will become union members.  And with the task of preparing them comes the responsibility to ensure that they support the teaching profession and that begins by becoming an active member of your union.  No the unions are not perfect but no organization is, and if you want to bring about change you need to get into the mess, roll up your sleeves, and get to work. It may be easier to complain about the unions from the sidelines and denounce anyone associated with them in anyway, but that is not how change works.  However, I digress because this really is not about unions, although it was definitely a catalyst for the personal attacks directed at me and others.   
            So the SOS Coalition for Action took union money, and that caused certain white liberals, who did not attend or help plan the event, to denounce the march and rally as a union zombie fest.  Forget the fact that Reverend Barber founder of the Moral Monday’s movement was a keynote speaker at the rally. Ignore the fact that Brother Jitu Brown, director of Journey for Justice, and Bishop John Selders gave keynotes at the activist conference.  None of that matters because union money helped to pay for the event.  In fact, according to some white liberals, the unions used the fact that the event was connected to black social justice leaders as a pretense to further their corporate agenda.  Never mind that neither Randy nor Lily were at the event and the only union influence came from the teachers who are members of their unions and did not object to their dues being used to fund the event.  None of that matters. The mighty white liberals of the movement have spoken so truth be damned. I mean come on of course white liberals who blog and teach in the ivory tower know best. How dare we ask them not to judge an event that they know nothing about? If they say that SOS, UOO, BATs, and NPE have been co-opted by the unions then we should all just nod our heads and agree because white liberals always know what is best for everyone else.
            Well that is not going to happen. Because I have seen this before and I am wise enough to know that this is how movements die.  When white liberals attempt to define movements, especially movements that have strong connections to the needs of black and brown communities, they strangle the movement to death.  Their inability to step back and realize that they do not have all the answers and do not have the right to dictate to others how to fight for their freedom leads to chaos.  It has happened before and it will happen again (think Occupy and white feminists). They fail to realize that while they have the privilege to refuse to compromise others are not afforded that same luxury.  Others are fighting for their lives, and the lives of their children, and the life of their profession. Many of these white liberals do not live in communities ravaged by school closings, no excuses charter schools, economic disinvestment, crime, and poverty. And if they do they often have the means to protect their own children from these harmful effects through private schools or even homeschooling.  I mean if we are being honest, the ability to even opt your child out of high stakes standardized testing is a privilege that many black and brown families do not have. 
            This does not mean I am against opting out. I remain a board member of United Opt Out and I will continue to encourage parents, especially black and brown parents, to opt their children out of high stakes testing. But that does not mean that I am not aware of the privilege inherent in such a move.  But United Opt Out is about more than just opting out of testing. It is about opting out of the entire corporate reform agenda.  Many white parents joined opt out because they hated Common Core and anything that came out of President Obama’s administration. But when we challenged them on charters, school closures, and racist disciplinary practices they wanted no part in that fight. They demanded that the group focus solely on testing and we demanded that they leave the group because we clearly were not the right fit. 
            One of the reasons I pushed to have UOO be a part of the SOS Coalition for Action is because I wanted our voice to be prominent. I know that unions can exert power and take control. But I also knew that we could be that voice demanding that we do not concede control to any one organization.  And we didn’t.  We took their money and we had a kick ass event.  Nonetheless not everyone at UOO were happy with the decision to be a part of the coalition but they were out voted by a majority of the board members.  Since then 5 members of the board have stepped down. Some left for personal reasons and others may have left because they did not like UOO being associated with the SOS Coalition for Action. Honestly, I do not know exactly why they left but I want to thank them for all they did to create and UOO and make it the organization it is today. And I wish them all the best in whatever they do next.  Ceresta Smith, one of the founding UOO members, Ruth Rodriguez, and I all decided to stay.  And we have added Gus Morales and Zackary Rodriguez to the board.  We are all currently planning a Civil Rights Summit in Houston in conjunction with the Houston Federation of Teachers. Our plan is to bring together civil rights leaders and education activists to dialogue and engage about the effects of privatization on public education.  Many civil rights groups are opposed to the opt out movement, however given that the NACCP has recently come out against for profit charters, we believe now is the time to bring civil rights group to the table and have a conversation about how we can fight for racially just schools that does not come wrapped in high stakes standardized testing. 
            As much as white liberals might want to denounce the civil rights groups for believing that standardized testing can close the racial achievement gap by holding teachers accountable, some of us non-white liberals know that is a recipe for disaster.  Sure we could join our white brethren and draw a line in the sand and refuse to dialogue out of fear of being seen as one who compromises.  Or we can roll up our sleeves and work with these organizations to determine (1) if we all share the same goal of having a racially just high quality public education system for all and (2) how can we work together given that the corporate education model is doing more harm than good. I don’t know. Maybe we are naïve to think this is even possible. I mean our white liberal overseers obviously don’t.  They see that the Houston Federation of teachers is involved and once again slam us for being co-opted by AFT.  I mean I guess Ceresta, Ruth, Gus, Zack and I are just not capable of fighting the good fight now that many of our white founding board members have stepped aside.  We must have gone over to the dark side, literally and figuratively. 
So here I find myself, questioning if I am radical enough to be a part of this movement.  People who I thought I knew and who I thought knew me, are quick to accept the word of a white man as the gospel and question my integrity and commitment to this fight.  Is that what it means to be a radical? To allow the voices of white liberals to dominate the movement? Well if that is what you mean by radical, then maybe I asked the wrong question.  Perhaps instead of asking if I am radical enough I need to ask whether I am willing to allow white liberals to define who I am and how I engage as an education activist. And that question is much easier to answer...HELL NO.  

26 comments:

  1. As a white ally, I see the powerful mix of intellect, passion, and pragmatism that fuels your work. (I won't say "grit" LOL) I don't know who these high and mighty critics are, but screw them. I keep learning from you, and your work and words make us all stronger. Rock on, sister Denisha!

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  2. we see this too often, as in many of the responses to the Vision for Black Lives, with all sorts of people -- mostly white but not all -- who not in the movement at all thinking they have something to say from outside about how people IN the movement define and undertake struggle.

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  3. Also want to add a plug for more careful research BY EVERYONE when it comes to deciding that money or association means influence. We all do it too often, I think, when we label groups or individuals for accepting Walton or Gates donations or sitting on a committee or board that doesn't totally align with our ideas.

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    1. I admit I have been guilty of it in the past but never have I published lies about someone because they were working with national unions.

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  4. Have pity on tired old eyes and bifocal users add some subheads or extra spacing in the next post, please. Don't want to miss anything.

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  5. Preach it Dr. Jones. movement building is not about cherry picking our causes. My grandfather took me to Dr. King's March in DC in 63. He went because Martin's movement was not only about racial justice, it was about economic justice. He took his namesake grandson along for the ride. He connected with the March for Jobs, and joined the march for racial justice. My grandfather was a labor activist who grew to understand, you can't have economic justice without racial justice. He did not try to tell Dr. King you need to stick to jobs and economic justice. He grew with Martin, and we marched with Martin. Movements are not about compromising they are about growing together. My grandfather is long dead, but I have no doubt that on July 8 he looked down proudly saying march little Jess march.
    As for our march, well I wrote about in my blog about the march "I could have been anywhere today" http://childrenaremorethantestscores.blogspot.com/2016/07/i-could-have-been-anywhere-today_9.html
    Bravo Denisha my activist sister,
    Jesse The Walking Turner

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    1. I agree with you. AND - there must be multiracial unity AND an understanding that 'white privilege' is not the head villain - capitalism is. We all have to understand the roots of racism and attack it with that understanding. Supporters of identity politics ignore the fact that there are layers within all communities. Fight WITH and FOR the working class.

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    2. Why does there have to be a hierarchy of oppression? Why does capitalism have to be worse than racism? Yes they are related but to demand that capitalism be the head villain serves to deny the serious effects racism has on people.

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  6. I am distraught and perplexed that this uncomfortable situation has come to be seen as a white/black issue. I think I understand completely what Denisha is saying. I attended the rally and workshops, and thought they were powerful and vital. I regret that some people have taken such a hard line on union involvement that our movement might be fractured. This is the worst thing that could happen. We need to work together because what we are up against is megalithic. I couldn't agree more with this statement: "Our plan is to bring together civil rights leaders and education activists to dialogue and engage about the effects of privatization on public education." This is definitely what we need to engage with. Thank you, Denisha

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    1. Yes. We need multiracial unity, not allies.

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  7. You make such an important point when you say "But United Opt Out is about more than just opting out of testing. It is about opting out of the entire corporate reform agenda. " One of the clearest points that drills down on what the movement is about.
    I'm new to this discussion so I am not sure which white liberals are being talked about. I am confused at times by the "liberal" term vs left or radical left because I see a lot of differences. I was at the 2011 SOS event, attended the NPE event in April in North Carolina and came down for the day at SOS this year on a UFT bus which we as the opposition caucus in the UFT pushed them to send - albeit with only 12 people. Which is sort of a point given that the UFT had little real interest in actually supporting the event. I am always very wary of union co-opting a movement because I have seen it happen so often over the past 20 years - where they take the teeth out and pretend to be supporting it. But I have no issues with using money from them as long as they are not attaching strings. We know that no matter what they say they really do oppose opt out - the dominant Unity Caucus in the UFT, of which Randi is a member, recently attacked our group and Jia Lee our presidential candidate for supporting opt out. We do get the racial implications of the mostly white opt out movement and are working inside NYC to reach into the neighborhoods to build coalitions.
    Norm Scott

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    1. I recently learned white liberal was insulting to white activists or radicals however that wasn't point. You can replace liberal with activist and I would still be addressing those people. Whites who are part of the education activist movement who fail to see how they control the movement. Whether they are activist or liberals makes no difference to me. And I agree about taking money with no strings attacked which is exactly what we did.

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    2. So i am white and have been part of the Ed activist movement since 1970. I'm not sure what control means without naming names. I'm not even sure what control means. Do they intentionally keep non white people from engaging? Are there parts of the movement that are led by people of color? Is your crit directed at all white so-called leaders or just some? And if so what do you suggest?

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    3. They attack and smear organizations that are run by people of color. Or they leave such organizations when the people of color demand that their issues be addressed.

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  8. Every movement that lasts will experience fractures, challenges, and changes (and so it seems we are such a moment)...this is because the fight shifts and changes beneath our feet as well leaving us not sure what right way is the way forward. but i know that without each other we have nothing ...so we must have one another's backs -the battle against privatization is huge and nearly insurmountable-misguided attacks on Denisha and others wastes energy, demoralizes, and distract us.

    The wayfarer,
    Perceiving the pathway to truth,
    Was struck with astonishment.
    It was thickly grown with weeds.
    "Ha," he said,
    "I see that none has passed here
    In a long time."
    Later he saw that each weed
    Was a singular knife.
    "Well," he mumbled at last,
    "Doubtless there are other roads."
    Stephen Crane, "The Wayfarer" (1899).

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    1. this is Monra McDermott posting BTW..not trying to be anonymous..just cant get my Educationalchemy wordpress link to post! hate technology

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  9. In my opinion, and that's all it is, there are many prongs in the attempts to demolish Public Education. These include racism and it's long history in education, economic discrimination, xenophobia, discrimination against the disabled, and oppression against just about any vulnerable group possible. It is beyond evil, fueled by hate and greed, and this country has a uniquely racist history that is being re-exposed in the attacks. To not understand that history or not "get" that racism is the elephant in the room because of white privilege cannot be allowed. Just as racism is a thing, white privilege is a thing. I think we're going to face the many-headed ugly monster and fight together or lose together. And, in a sense, all of us and our ancestors are at fault. That is to say, who do we blame for not being eternally vigilant? Who do we blame for allowing immoral, cruel, racist profiteers to run wild again? We can turn on each other or we can learn, forgive, move forward, and FIGHT!!

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  10. I am an Education Activist in Milwaukee. I share you sentiment, but I too refuse to give in. My experience is we don't see the issues with the same lenses. However, I fight for what I see as a black women to be the problems. Eventually, we work it out and get some of what we both want to be fixed. It has worked to a degree. However, even working together, we haven't been able to break thru the right-wing agenda that is defunding/destroying public education in the state of Wisconsin. The right-wing Republicans are in control in this state, but we will keep fighting.

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    1. Exactly with real enemies why go after each other?

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  11. Sometimes there are stings in the sense that when Randi helps it becomes hard to be critical and thus a whole branch of the movement allows a fundamentally undemocratically run union to operate without being challenged and those challenging are isolated. The aft has been complicit and has taken money with strings.
    Norm Scott

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