The first time I got to meet Pedro was November 24, 2009 at around 9am. My principal took a colleague and I to one of the bigger policy conferences I’ve ever been to. By then, I gained a notorious voice for speaking up within connected education circles, but I didn’t see myself making many ripples in the iron-clad colossus that is NYC Public Schools. The bagels came with delicious spreads, and the coffee still steamed as it flowed into my cup at NYU’s Metro Center. Just then, a 6’1″ gentleman stepped to the table, poked every few seconds by a graduate student / handler to prepare for this conference.
One of the first things I managed to muster out of my mouth was, “Nice to meet you. I’ll be taking notes and blogging about it.”
Without missing a beat, he replied with a smirk, “Good, good.”
Despite what we thought in my circle, edu-blogging wasn’t that big a deal to the general populace, even in 2009. Yet, only a week after Pedro’s event, I’d gotten a chance to witness another one of the defining moments in NYC education history in the last 15 years: Chancellor Joel Klein listening to Diane Ravitch reading from her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System for ChalkbeatNY fka GothamSchools. Both Ravitch and Noguera made an impact on my educational activism for very different reasons, Ravitch the reformed reformer / scholar and Noguera the people’s public edu-intellectual. Few education professors had the clout to demand audience with Chancellor Klein, and, within that handful, few enjoyed the celebrity of Noguera and Ravitch.
From my perspective, I had lots to learn from both. Dr. Ravitch used the spotlights she attained to create a narrative around the evils of education reform and the Billlionaire Boys Club, effective on all counts. Her books were must-reads, her interviews heated and made for great television, her events filled to the brim. Dr. Noguera, on the other hand, worked with a more complicated framework. Even before I had longer conversations with him, I always noted his stringent focus on children and parents of color, even when the truth hurt. He used his mic at a Teach for America event where he and professor Marc Lamont Hill proceeded to demolish singer and charter school advocate John Legend’s arguments to a finely ground powder. He had a chair, then resigned, from the SUNY Board of Trustees over the lack of oversight in charter schools. He spoke right after me at the Save Our Schools March in the summer of 2011 in the service of public schools, but readily acknowledged that he was agnostic about the debate between charter schools and public schools. He hesitated to bash Eva Moskowitz, imploring us to ask what is working at Success Academy rather than burning the whole operation.
He’s complicated in an education world that demands two sides of a debate (I’ve winced at the last point a few times), but at the heart is an integrity that’s focused on the betterment of the most under-served, no matter who’s serving them. Respect.
That center is also the reason why he’s lionized by educators and parents who are interested in cultural competence and working with a race conscious lens. It helps that women and men fawn for him like a rock star at every event I’ve ever been to. (These days, I only manage a dap and a “How are you?” when we’re at events but more on that later.) What everyone across the education debate spectra miss is that, underneath the shallow talking points and the Finland worship is the stark reality of an education system that’s unaccommodating to children of color both systemically and individually. We need people who write with nuance, not to look at all sides of an argument and pretend that they’re equal, but to expose those truths and lay them bare.
This is part of the disappointment with Dr. Noguera’s departure to UCLA.
Like Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond before him, Dr. Noguera represents a brain drain from NYC to the West in our eyes. That’s why, when he asked me and Luz to attend his party on the night before the first day of school for students, I didn’t hesitate at all. With his closest family and friends around this unassuming bar in SoHo, Luz and I heard folks from different social circles in NYC reminisce, laugh, and build. As usual, Luz and I got into conversations about leaving a legacy and why in education spaces, people only have to use either his first name or last name to get what you’re talking about. At some point, I was pulled into a conversation about Pedro’s transition to LA, where someone speculated on who might fill in Noguera’s place as an unflinching eye and public intellectual.
Without missing a beat, I said, “No one. We need new work to be done.”
At a Malcolm X function during my freshman year at Syracuse University, poet Sonia Sanchez wrote a note to me asking for new words. We already had a Malcolm. We already had a Martin. We already had (and still have) an Angela. We need a you. Instead of becoming the next Dewey, the next Freire, the next Hammond, and yes, the next Noguera, we need to worry about keeping our eye (and fingertips) on assuring all children are learning. Compared to the more obvious press releases and intentionally disruptive managerial decisions by former mayor Michael Bloomberg and the helter-skelter leadership of governors Eliot Spitzer / David Paterson, our current leadership of Mayor Bill deBlasio, Chancellor Carmen Fariña, and the ominous Governor Andrew Cuomo offer us a simpler narrative that has shifted our rancor upstate.
Who embodies the intellectual honesty and unflinching eye towards empowerment for children of color in this era in New York City? Who’s willing to stop smelling the finely filtered air in their towers and speak with, to, and for the people? Could it be one of us?
While folks in New York debate that for themselves, I’ve decided to show love to folks without apology. I openly admire Pedro the way I unapologetically admire Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, Amherst professor Sonia Nieto, Darling-Hammond, or any number of folks I mention here regularly, not because I admire their celebrity or care for social-climbing. If anything, I prefer the folks I look up to as the fully layered, flawed humans they are. In our rush to keep people off pedestals and keep a critical eye on any and all who speak on education, we forget to sustain brilliance among us with even a modicum of thanks. Their shoulders make so many of our shoulders possible.
I’m glad to call these folks friends in this work. As for Pedro, this isn’t a goodbye, but a “see you later.” Everyone knows how much I love LA by now. (Don’t worry, Twitter, I ain’t leaving.) And just like on the day he threw a wrench in NYC’s miraculous graduation numbers all those years ago, I asked him if I could write this in my blog. Well, you know the rest.