An Open Letter From The Trenches [To Education Activists, Friends, and Haters]

Jose VilsonEducation, Jose, Race13 Comments

martin-luther-king-arrestedTo my fellow education activists:

I’ve come across a few pieces that concern me and others in the last few months, and we got some shit to talk about.

On normal days, I wake up at 5:30am hellbent on kicking butt at work, metaphorically of course. The stirring in my belly long after my butter toast and coffee is the passion with which I approach my students, whether or not they believe they’re ready to learn, or society thinks so for that matter. Despite the troubling nuances of advocating for a more holistic approach to assessment and schooling after work hours, I still have to work with the reality of keeping my job i.e. working with standards I didn’t write, administering tests I didn’t create, and yes, working in a system that consistently clashes with my ideals.

The key here is, whoever walks through my door, whenever, and however, I accept them. That’s how we build communities of learning.

Thus, I find it disheartening when we advocate for educational equity and, even amongst our ranks, our personalities and biases get in the way of achieving the goal. The question isn’t whether we have good intentions, for intentions there are plenty. We have a multitude of sides, each with their own nuance about how schools should run, each with their motives for what they promote.

At any given moment, some of our colleagues can fit into any one of these categories, but if enough of us can agree with each other on certain principles, then we build coalition. What ends up happening after a serious amount of coalition-building is that people of different races, backgrounds, and cultures fall under this big umbrella, and whether we’re forced to realize it or not, we have a greater charge to be exact in our language, more inclusive, more loving.

Some of you believe we’re right to be angry, and I agree to an extent. The field of K-12 education looks murkier by the day. Yet, anger is a primary means to an end, not the end itself. Getting angry isn’t just cursing those we disagree with, but using that energy to move families to safe harbors in disaster times. Getting angry isn’t yelling into microphones and writing in capital letters on-line; it’s walking into closing schools and wondering where our kids will go. Getting angry isn’t jealousy masked in invalid arguments about teacher voice and organizational rank; it’s about converting the energy into passion, one that allows you to embrace others and push each other in the right direction.

Anger isn’t a title we parade around like doctorates, followers, and co-signers; it’s the feeling before, during, and after we approach things with love and earnest.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t be at Occupy The DOE this past weekend, but if the Education Week article is true, then I’m disappointed in hearing the words “Asian bitch” being uttered. I got a love for Ceresta Smith’s work that goes back to when I first met her at the Save Our Schools March in 2011, and beyond. I understand the source of frustration, though I can’t condone it. In no way does that devalue her wonderful work, but we all have moments of pissed-off-edness fury. Between us, as Sabrina Stevens has said so eloquently, closing schools and laying waste to schools in predominantly poor neighborhoods far outweighs the damage of awful comments from either side.

So I thank all of those who participated on behalf of us. That matters.

However, for anyone to say that racial insults are “no big deal” speaks volumes to the sorts of work people of color and anyone who considers themselves under the umbrella have to do in order to make things right. As colleague Kenzo Shibata once said, “You can’t build a movement by making allies feel unwelcome and telling them to get over it.” I’d take it one step further and say that we can’t build coalition if we continue to think we have to build a movement under one or two people’s terms. I refuse to believe that we can’t coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.

How can you say you care about children of color, but ostracize adults of color with the same breath?

The only privilege that ought to exist is the type of privilege I currently exhibit daily, working with students, many of whom don’t get exposed to adults that care about their futures. Some of my students honestly can’t get over themselves. They might come in with Doritos and soda for breakfast. They might roll their eyes and curse at me under their breath. Some of them might rarely pull out a pen or pencil even after they’ve been prodded and begged continuously for an hour. But they’re middle schoolers, an unrepentant bunch with little reason to reflect on their actions.

Adults, on the other hand, don’t get excuses. The privilege is in the hopes and dreams we have for our students, not in the ways we act towards our fellow man or woman. The privilege, to convert the anger over how our kids are treated in the system into a passion for student learning, remains at the forefront.

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

In love and struggle,


(p.s. – Thank you, MLK.)

Comments 13

  1. You’re right Jose, we can’t begin to say good examples to our children when act no better than their growing mind and temperament. Your arguments, eloquent as always, display the true function of society. Many are building a name for themselves instead of truly helping our future… the children. I applaud you and hope you continue to fight the good fight.

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  3. Hey Jose,
    Man, you are one magnificent writer who sees clearly his mission and eloquently takes his readers on his own march towards educative reform. The EdWeek article deeply saddened me, not because of those few who may have broken down walls with their rhetoric, but because as much as I admire teachers, I fear that there are many more than “few” who conduct themselves this way in the face of adversity. And we continuously face adversity. These people are on every staff, on every campus, and it becomes increasingly difficult to find yourself on their “team” and still support their cause. Yet it is the cause we all must fight for.

    It reminds me of that scene in “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” when Richard Dryfuss is sitting at the military’s table with the press trying to explain what he’s seen. Others are there too and he’s strengthened by seeing others who claim to have shared his experience. And then some other guy takes up the cause and says that he once he saw Bigfoot. It was then that anyone who was listening rolled their eyes and discarded all actual evidence. If you’re on the Bigfoot-loving guy’s team, you must all be nuts.

    As teachers, it’s important to write posts as you did because we need to keep the message on target and with the professionalism that we all know we deserve. However, it is our job to also take care of our own, making educational bullies uncomfortable or calling out mistakes and slips of the tongue. You have done a great job here in both showing admiration and reprimand. More of us should do the same.

    Congrats on a tricky post, and a well-constructed argument in favor of eloquence.

    -Heather Wolpert-Gawron
    aka Tweenteacher

  4. While I appreciate self-reflection and keeping each other accountable, I am very troubled by this whole train of events. If anyone actually listened to the whole talk, it was given by Black female teacher calling out the inherent racism behind pressing charges against black educators and Dr. Hall in the Atlanta cheating scandal while Michelle Rhee gets off scot free. There is absolutely a racial component to Rhee’s success-great privilege-that she can openly brag about taping children’s mouths shut and dismiss her involvement in Erasuregate with impunity. But for a number of predominately white or Asian males to tell this Black woman, someone who has experienced a lifetime of oppression, what she may or not say really rubs me the wrong way. I’m not saying people cannot say if/when they take offense, but that we must really look closely at power structures and privilege in this whole conversation.

    In addition, the organizers of this event have been openly critical of EdWeek. And so, when EdWeek went to the event (secretly, no one knew they had a reporter there) and purposely picked words out of context to discredit the group, I am even more disappointed in my allies. This was part of a smear campaign.

    Yes there is a place to discuss appropriate wording, the b-word may indeed have been too strong (even though Rhee often uses it to describe herself) and there should be safe spaces to dialogue. I do not think twitter is that space. Also, the speaker did write an apology to an Asian friends who were offended.

    In the end, I am upset. But I will focus on the amazing connections I made at this event and the energy and solidarity we experienced. Eyes on the prize…

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      Thank you all for your comments. Obviously, there’s lots to be said for this type of conversation.

      Let me first start by saying that this post was, in fact, not prompted by what happened at Occupy the DOE, but something I’ve noticed since before what happened this weekend. What happened with Ceresta merely sparked a conversation that further proved a point I’m trying to make about race relations in different circles.

      In other words, it’s not about her. To be honest, it was prompted by a conversation where a white man tried to tell a group of mostly people of color that racial insults don’t matter. In there lies the issue. Ceresta’s apology was appropriate, but again, it wasn’t about her. It’s most certainly inappropriate for people to pile on her for something she quickly apologized for, and inappropriate for me to tell her how to feel about something when, in the grander scheme of things, she does go through more systemic oppression than I do.

      Instead, I was hoping to focus on the ways in which race plays out from my eyes. Obviously, I’m glad that you, Katie, and others want to keep the movement going. But, before you do, and before we do, we need to look at those of us who proffer apathy for others’ concerns. That’s all.

      Thanks again.

  5. Thank you for this. Had this same language been used by “a reformer”, all hell would have broke loose. There should never be a double-standard, yet that’s what I am seeing. I commented on the Huffpo piece because it didn’t make clear that these words were coming from a speaker. It left me with the impression that the women in question were attendees, but I did write that their language was inappropriate, but shouldn’t spread a negative light on the whole movement. I was wrong. It does indeed spread a negative light and I think they should resign. or issue a public apology as Diane Ravitch felt she had too because she was also a speaker at that event. As for the comment above about Dr. Hall, I think coming to her defense is also inappropriate because I don’t think this is about race. In Rhee’s case it’s about her connections to very powerful people–including Obama and Duncan because of her actions in Washington, DC and being able to pull the wool over Randi Weingarten’s eyes. Had Rhee been Black, nothing would have changed. She would still be the star of the reform movement. And let’s remember that Rhee has many champions, including people like Oprah and John Legend. Rhetoric is important and how we as teachers conduct ourselves in public, especially at a rally, is paramount. The organizers had to know reporters would be in attendance (secretly or not). Recently a White Milwaukee superintendent made very disparaging remarks about Black parents. Like the women who spoke at the SOS rally, this superintendent was trying to defend public ed over charters. I am still trying to find out if she resigned, was fired, or simply put in her retirement papers. Either way, defenders of public ed MUST adhere to a higher standard.

  6. I wasn’t aware of her apology since I didn’t see it posted anywhere, but I am very glad she did, I still think my point about rhetoric is still a valid one. I have always stood strong with the teachers of Washington, DC and their new union leadership as I stand strong with Chicago, Seattle and other groups that defenders of public ed, public school teachers and students. I am not sure what you mean when you say “proffer apathy for other concerns” because in the case of Dr. Hall, I view her as a reformer and someone who was never a friend of public ed. I would say profit is driving them, and as a result our students will suffer. And I am awaiting the day when Rhee is finally investigated, and I am hoping the civil suit against her will bring light on this issue.
    I am a bit confused because your post did seem to be about how the message is conveyed, and you never mentioned the other incident which would have put this post in a whole new light because race does matter. I totally disagree that’s it’s inappropriate to tell someone that their actions were inappropriate. If not us, who else?? And you know I am not someone who remains silent when I see an injustice (as with someone I respect leaving out the fact that Weingarten serves on the advisory board of inBloom.) I don’t like double standards or hypocrisy. And, we can’t put the blame on EdWeek because it most certainly could have been the Post, the Daily News, Fox, or unfortunately Gotham Schools. The reformers have the backing of the media including the NYTimes. Again, I am glad she issued a public apology. And I will continue to support SOS, CORE, MORE and GEM.

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  8. As a fellow educator in an urban setting in Upstate, NY (for over 23 years), I just want to thank you for your dedication. It is sad that we are currently in an atmosphere when concerned educators are considered pariahs or leftists when speaking on the new “norms.” Students should be recognized for their individual merits rather than their school id # and standard score. Keep the faith my friend.

  9. And, we can’t let anger get the best of us, causing us to become a reflection of the injustice we witness. We can react with the same insanity being inflicted, or we can respond with a more just alternative. That is what leads the conversation and helps us to achieve what we seek.

  10. Thanks for this very good post. I have learned from reading the post and the comments below.

    I just want to raise the point that the cited insult above was both racialized and gendered, and that we need to call out insults for ALL the ways that they marginalize people.

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