Education Policy’s Roost (On Social Justice Warriors)

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

Less than a year ago, I was in a heated conversation (we’ll call it that) where a few folks who disagreed on education policy brought their frustrations to full display. Unbeknownst to the folks who I agreed with, the conservative dissenters are encouraged to engage with, start sh*t, and frustrate folks like us. At one point, after one of the folks in “my” group decided she couldn’t take the direction of the conversation, a dissenter promptly called her a Nazi. Observers from afar thought that the argument between the two groups would have cut across color lines, but not necessarily. At the point where one dissenter called one of my people a Nazi, no one in the dissenter clique decided to call him in, even the people of color. In fact, they cheered the use of Nazi actively, flooding her mentions and getting favorites and retweets for engaging in kind.

It reminded me of two lessons: 1) not all my skinfolk are kinfolk and 2) sometimes, to many people, the side of the debate you’re on is stronger than the principle of social justice you supposedly espouse.

After I rebuked this dissenter for analogizing simple disagreement with outright fascism, I too found myself in a conundrum. For those who follow me on social media and beyond, they’ve seen my patience with people who loathe my point of view on schools and beyond. Through my questioning, I work through the initial red herrings and often come to the same conclusion: there’s a huge swath of folks who prefer we keep the same structures of inequity, even if they reluctantly have to include a “talented tenth” of people who are not white, Christian males.

They’re too attuned to the idea that they’d have to actually give something up in order for everyone to get a sustainable piece of the pie and must work completely against it.

People should pay close attention to the cavalcade of folks who’s suddenly found that, when people in their circles were using “social justice warrior” as a pejorative, they were talking about them. For some, this is a classic case of “First, they came for the …” No matter how often you think you’ve aligned with “the left” or “the right” in education, or any number of education / ed-tech / education activism / think tank / higher ed / union spaces, the minute you hit a nerve, you’re reminded quickly through your skin, your gender, your pedigree, or your manners that you’re not one of them. Some of our most earnest education leaders, even people I’ve considered colleagues, espouse cordial relationships with bigots and haters, and if we can’t name that, then we’re doing a disservice to our students and the policies they help enact.

Indeed, the responses to this piece (I’m not linking any of them) made me curious about each author’s positionality in the discussion writ large, and how many discussions they decided to avoid because it was happening to people removed from their own education policy orientation.

If you’re of the framework that everyone working within education has the best intentions at heart, then some of the news about the “left” vs. “right” in education policy surprises you because you’d think everyone was working with what’s best for their students at the forefront of their actions, even if it disadvantaged them a bit. But if – like so many of us who’ve been through all this before – you believe that intentions are nothing without effect, then the controversy over social justice within education spaces is moot.

I have no litmus tests, but I do have questions. Where do these people stand on the 38,000 black teachers fired after Brown vs. Board and the Board of Examiners who continued to suppress degrees they didn’t deem appropriate for teachers post BvB? What of the rebellion against busing in Boston and the incredibly inequitable property tax laws and redlining? What about the boarding schools meant to strip Native American peoples of their cultures and rituals, and continue to contribute to their systemic oppression? What of white flight and the mass exodus to private schools, and the plethora of public schools divided into magnet and regular, perpetuating the brown paper bag tests we thought we got rid of?

Where are they when the historical rough gets rougher?

What, even, do we make of the last decade where teachers who’ve taught for social justice and were harangued, fired, and blackballed across the nation, including but not excluding Xian Barrett, Marylin Zuñiga, E. Chris Summerhill, and Jeena Lee-Walker? What about all of the students snatched from their homes in the middle of the night, hours from having finished their homework, thrown into worlds they didn’t know they came from? How supportive were they when the Chicago Teachers Union created the largest coalition of teachers, students, and parents of color of this century and would Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel approve of their positions? Where do they stand on entire school districts that supposedly need an emergency manager for the better part of a decade only to have lead-poisoned waters and infested buildings? Did they tell the student protestors in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and so many others to get back into the classroom after protesting for their own rights (without prompting from adults, mind you) or did they respect their right to have a voice that opposed theirs?

Where were you when your friends cheered the decimation of public schools not because it was ineffective but because it fit their ideological and economic model for schooling?

Are they willing to call in and out people within their own camps who dehumanize and cause harm to others in a substantive way? What of the education activists in so-called liberal camps who were told to shut up by liberals whenever we brought up race? What do we make of all the people we call out, but all the other folks within our space we never call in? On a personal note, are y’all willing to simply disagree with what I’m saying because you saw my name on it, but get inspired by what I’ve written in the past to make your point about Robert Pondiscio? Odd.

So, pardon me if I’m nonplussed by this latest flare-up. Petitions and articles, even these statuses, mean nothing if we’re not talking about the ways in which each of us is complicit in the complex ways we keep the machine well-oiled.

For what it’s worth, I do recognize different opinions within education, and I do believe opposing opinions sharpen my arguments, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken the long view on education debates. I’ve found myself at odds quite often with Pondiscio, but I appreciate his Facebook updates about his own family and even the funny quips about the Mets. I’ve had affirming conversations with Brittany Packnett about … well, everything, even when we disagree on Teach for America. I’ve been in spaces she navigates and know her to have a serious passion about cultural competence and self-determination within the TFA ranks.

We all come headfirst against contradictions we both endure and espouse within ourselves, so we all have the duty to come into this work humbly (because we don’t have the perfect answers) and boldly (because real change demands a strong disposition). I do see the value of having ideological diversity in certain areas in a profound way. I’m ever hopeful that a larger coalition of people who believe in each other’s humanity can make equity possible for all of our children. I’m more than willing to abandon our current “right” vs. “left” debate because the underlying language is not good enough for any of our students, least of all the most disadvantaged.

That’s at the center of being a “social justice warrior”: we fight for social justice. It’s a backhanded compliment, but one I’m willing to take if I’m doing good works.

We must also recognize that, even when we don’t agree on policy, we have to work with larger hearts than our current cold-blooded policies will allow. That’s the ultimate principle. It is quite possible to think we’re working in the best interest of everyone and oppress with equal force. My biggest flaw is that I’m too willing to exclude those who I don’t believe in the work, with children at the foci.

So be it.