burnttoast

Race, Class, and Acceptability As A Connected Educator [Aspiring To Karen]

Jose Vilson Jose 12 Comments

Karen Lewis matters to me for a myriad of reasons, both personal and activist. She isn’t just the leader of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and the CORE caucus that took the education world by storm with fiery oratory and community-centered energy. She symbolizes a new vision for progressive education reform, one that speaks proactively about the education deforms with the nuance that only a Black woman such as herself can. With all due respect to the past and present leaders of all sides of education reform, she embodies the voices of those most disenfranchised by the last decade plus of the newer status quo with an extra layer of earned and hard-fought classroom credibility. She bellowed twice as hard because, until these reforms get to suburban moms and dads, they burn through Harlem, several parts of D.C., and Dade County in Florida with not so much as a gavel in favor of our name.

She is why we must continue to go hard because we’re not going home.

It’s been a few months since #ISupportMDA trended on Twitter, a hashtag I started and so many of my friends backed as pushback for a friend and committed unionist. I’ve kept my mouth shut about it since because it brought the rifts that so many folks of color had experienced in our years as education activists and because I’m a teacher, but not necessarily yours. Not that I didn’t already have the ears of former NEA President Dennis van Roekel (or any other leader of any other K-12 education department at the time), but a group of us grow ever concerned that, no matter how much we support our unions, we’re still looked at as second-class unionists, because a few phone calls, a letter, or a blog post could diminish years of work we’ve put in for these institutions.

But, rather than embrace the Chicago model of developing coalition with a wide array of folks, folks consistently pretend to be about diversity. Almost as bad as not including folks of color is using folks of color as cover for not having to deal with critique when issues of race and class come up.

I fear the Internet only exacerbates this. Even though folks like Pedro Noguera, Lisa Delpit, and Gloria Ladson-Billings are the shoulders on which many of us stand, the new wave of us who talk about race unabashedly have made ourselves harder to ignore via social media. Before, when I said something about race, no one had a thing to say besides, “I can’t comment on that one.” Then Gary Younge of The Nation says something and it’s like, “Oh snap, we gotta respond!” That gets patched up with friends like Xian Barrett and activists like Jitu Brown getting on their board, but the topics still center on a “broader American agenda,” the crux of Younge’s critique.

Because my colleague Tom Whitby has a conversation about race and doesn’t have a person of color there just for nuance’s sake, even as I appreciate the fact that he got to this point where he wants to have that conversation. Larry Ferlazzo wants unpaid responses to a question about race and class … shortly after I unfollowed him for appropriating, not curating, via manually retweet, so many of our causes without so much as a dialogue. The Bammy Awards still troll me anyways, just to make sure I knew my commentary was nominated, but my “working twice as hard” wasn’t as hard as his half.

Because the NEA, who I appreciate a lot, still hasn’t put out a statement regarding Michael Brown or any other major racial incidents that have happened with the murder of Black boys and girls in America.

Because Anthony Cody and Mark Naison, who talk about race often enough from their respective soapboxes, still don’t take the next step in the work by calling folks in when the people in their circumference, mess up badly.

Because umbrellas, even though people of color usually get rained out.

Because even the UFT and the AFT, my teachers unions, have to lead the charge, before I or any of my colleagues say something, especially as the race disparity between teachers and students changes all across the country, regardless of whether they support teachers’ right to an opinion. As much as I’m grateful for their support of my employment, it unnerves me when not all educators create a safe and warm environment for our students of color to come into. I know, I know, Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew marched for Eric Garner. Yet, in order to spite them, teachers across the boroughs figuratively spat on the children.

Because Stephanie Rivera only gets praised when she speaks to their issues, but not to hers. Because Rafranz Davis has to pay her own way when others of equal (or less) caliber get the red carpet thrown at them for conferences. Because Sabrina Stevens and Albert Sykes lead fairly prominent organizations doing marvelous work, but they’ll never get the props because leadership models.

Because so many of us of color still waver between calling you in and calling you out.

Because my book is good, but, as far as some activists are concerned, it’s no Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch, (who endorsed my book, mind you), and it’s based on my blog, so it has less merit.

Because we’re OK with so-called single-issue allies like the Tea Party over the Common Core, but not OK with people of color, women, and members of the LGBT community (some are all three, mind you) calling us out for this.

Because folks of color and so many more can’t or won’t say it aloud because acceptability, Internet followers, and speaking opportunities need people to mold themselves like Vicki Davis or any other corporate-sponsored so-and-so.

Because I rarely hear the words “sexism,” “racism,” or anything that involves struggle over non-safe topics like anti-testing used by anyone but a handful of us.

Because, right after #ISupportMDA, everyone had their profile raised in their respective enclaves. Except for Melinda.

Is this the price of thought leadership on certain issues?

The Internet only seems to exacerbate the issues we have face-to-face, too. Where connections are supposed to help us thrive and congregate quicker, it often makes racist and sexist acts easier to spot, leaving unresponsive institutions in a position that’s decidedly anti-Internet. It helps people jump into molds that quickly quell the fears of uproarious and independent thinkers in the least privileged positions who go off message even when it might benefit folks to listen. People will take the last 886 words as a mean-spirit reprise of themes we thought were done already. To the contrary, this is a reminder that we all have a long way to go, and whether I consider you a friend or not, you ought to know this too comes from a place of learning.

As much as I’ve benefited from establishing an independent platform that gives me access to readers like you all without having to fit into the MSNBC / CNN mold, I often wonder to what extent putting out so much of our lives so people can re-terrorize our existences through microagression and galvanized tattletaling does anything for the struggle. How we react to our most disenfranchised and underrepresented isn’t through symbolic gesture, but through organizational refocus and pro-activity.

Which leads me back to Karen Lewis. Even as she fights her personal battles, I’m warmed by the thought that she didn’t just give it her all in 2012, when the press and groups like Democrats for Education Reform went after her arguments and her person, when they poked fun at her weight, her temperament, her unwillingness to bow down. She also paved the way in those classrooms, explaining molecules and chemical reactions to students who probably got more than they bargained for when they entered her classroom. Her husband John fought in schools too, pushing kids academically and athletically even as Chicago systemically decimated (and then some) the population of Black public school educators. I’ve never heard or read anything from Karen Lewis that I thought she didn’t feel in her heart. I never get the sense that she hasn’t listened to all the arguments, processed them, and still held tightly to her principles. Honesty gets harder when your profile gets elevated, but she remains Karen Lewis.

I aspire to that honesty, that love, that powerful sense of self. That sort of connection, intersectional and clear, is super-hard to replicate.

Inspired by this Roxane Gay post

photo c/o

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 12

  1. Joyce Reynolds-Ward

    Jose. Even though I have walked away from teaching (at least for a year, after ten years of teaching special ed in a high-poverty small rural White and Latino school, I am so burned out it isn’t even funny), I honestly cherish and respect your voice, damn it. You were one of the foundations I clung to during my last few years. This late-fifties white lady honors your voice and is saving up the pennies in “retirement” (not drawing the pension because I was in the “I got screwed” layer of pension in my state–Tier 3 in Oregon, otherwise known as ORSRP and I get nuthin, really) to buy your book. I honor and appreciate your speaking truth to power.

    It is not just happening in education. In the science fiction writing world that I frequent, we are having the same kinds of discussions, only further down the road. It is ugly. There are people abusing it of all colors and privileges, and I’ve been told to shut up because of ageist considerations. I suspect that this is a dialogue that you, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Balogen Ojetade, and Steve Barnes, Tanareive Due, Nisi Shawl, Nora Jemisen, and a lot of other good people are suffering for and still promoting.

    We honor and support you. Damn it, I wish I could do more…but I have my own stuff to keep doing as well as supporting so many that I want to see succeed. I want you to know that you also resonate with that same sense of strength, honor, caring and truth that Karen Lewis gives. Please be aware that though we may not comment, I seriously doubt that I am the only one who feels like you do…and damn it, we’ve lost too many kids of color, kids of differing gender preferences, and kids of poverty.

    Something has to change.

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  4. pdexiii

    Last year a student transferred into my class in California from Chicago: respectful, talented artist, worked well with her peers, but didn’t know much math. “From 7th grade we just had teachers who gave us worksheets,” she shared.
    Without having been in Chicago I first blamed this on both Rham Emmanuel and Ms. Lewis, putting their issues above children. What I hope that Ms. Lewis was trying to do was sweep out those in and out of the Union with less than a 100% commitment to educating young people, including those wasteful administrators collecting paycheck a but doing nothing.

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