“… when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” – Adrienne Rich
“And yet it was impossible for me not to notice that the overwhelming majority of activist educators who gathered for this conference in Chicago were white; it was impossible not to notice that the folks with microphones who made explicit calls for anti-racist activism, culturally responsive pedagogy, and the development of educators’ cultural competence were people of color …” – Chris Thinnes
“Be wary of those whose identity is rooted in opposition, those who would literally be lost without someone to hate.” – DeRay McKesson
When Anthony Cody invited me to the Network for Public Education Conference to talk about teacher authors, I was a bit nervous. Within the last year, far too much crap had happened for me to not call people out. With so many of the lessons we as educators doled out for free to our colleagues in these activist circles, one has to wonder why we even have to put up with this if our unions are reluctant to speak to social justice without carefully manufactured press releases and tawdry statements (more on this tomorrow). How much closer to home do these issues have to hit before people engage as they must? And, if people bristled at my suggestions above, why invite me when they know I won’t keep my mouth shut?
Fuck it. I’ma go anyways.
Admittedly, I felt less like I was walking into a welcoming clubhouse, but a bat cave, if you will. Even the warm reception from friends and allies from across the country didn’t quell the awkwardness I felt listening to some of the off-the-cuff commentary underlying the workshops across the schedule. Prominent Chicago activist Jitu Brown and Newark Union Student president Tanaisa Brown spoke of education activism from the eyes of the voiceless and most affected by current edu-deform. The idea that people of color had a voice that chose to uproot centuries of inequity didn’t faze the general tone of the conference. Whereas the tone towards testing, Common Core, and privatization ranged from sadness to rage, the idea that NPE could pivot towards the happenings in Ferguson, Baltimore, or even a few miles away from the Drake Hotel in its centrality didn’t spread farther than the spaces where people of color presented post-plenaries.
Disappointment reigns, but not too much. Because it means I would have expected a larger-than-life transformation from leaders who generally must placate their members, many of whom aren’t ready to hear that they, too, are complicit in systemic edu-racism.
In my questions, my prodding, and my jokes, I hoped to get attendees to challenge their own activism by expanding their own world views. I spoke to education leaders directly and indirectly about social justice education and creating new leaders that might address these issues with more nuance, but to no avail. While teachers booed and hissed American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen-Garcia about their views on Common Core, Gates funding, and teacher evaluation, I sat decreasingly enthusiastic as Rekia Boyd’s name hadn’t been dropped once. Every person in attendance was a real person, but the whole affair from the questions to the answers and the reactions felt scripted, even the erasure of these issues happening right in our classrooms. Our classrooms full of Rekia Boyds, Freddie Grays, and Blake Brockingtons couldn’t get our white educators to cede the mic to those of us who might push them towards empathy.
People wanted me to challenge Randi on her endorsement of Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul because that’s exactly the issue I give a fuck about. Because if I asked people to challenge themselves on their endorsement of the overt and covert racists within our ranks, that’s a non-issue. No, thank you.
But all is not lost. Theresa Collins (along with Chris Thinnes) will lead the Progressive Education Network to take on these issues with a strong strategy for inclusion. Melissa Katz will teach students different from her with equal parts humility, cultural competence, and empowerment. Jesse Hagopian will speak to the convergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the #OptOut movement in radical overtures as he promotes More Than A Score. Valencia Clay will continue to embrace her angry Black kids from the classroom in Baltimore, MD. Jennifer Berkshire might get yelled at for interviewing TFA leader Brittney Packnett, but the fans who understand will continue to embrace her for her growth as writer and, yes, as ally. Cynthia Liu will expose the misdeeds of Los Angeles Unified School District while helping us build the #educolor movement. The opportunity to convene with these folks and the dozens of folks who appreciate this new vision for dialogue was worth every mile I traveled over there.
Xian Barrett asked us to heed Chicago parent activist Rousemary Vega’s words, “Leaders don’t build followers; they build leaders.” To that end, Xian is that leader, complicating the routines of adults across the nation by pushing forth students and fellow activists. His guidance, along with a handful of folks in my life, make sure this lion can roar. Every chance that people get to expose my brother from another mother, you give it to him, because he works in complicated situations and snatches justice from the jagged teeth of oppression.
Speaking of which, the last event with Karen Lewis felt odd. We were asked not to touch the now-legendary union leader who, because of her treatments, couldn’t be too close to the rest of us. This probably added to the legend, but I digress. She didn’t have to say much to get us cheering. Xian, Valencia, and I sat down next to each other listening while watching her and Diane dialog, and her deflecting responsibility for the 2012 Chicago strike to the grassroots organizers who made it possible. She called out friend Michelle Gunderson from the crowd to rousing applause. She then called out Xian Barrett for his efforts. Then, she just said, “Jose Luis,” without my last name, the way my mom might reach out to me, not before she reaches for a belt, but reaches out to acknowledge me as a part of her life.
Which is odd because, when I asked her back in the fall why she was running for mayor, she said, “If you don’t see someone actually doing something, then you gotta step up, don’t you?” So I guess it’s on us now.