Shut. It. Down. (On The Battles for Racial Equity and Public Education)

Jose Vilson Jose, Race

39,000 feet above the ground, the chants still ring in my ear:

What do we want? JUSTICE!
When do we want it? NOW!
What do we want? JUSTICE!
When do we want it? NOW!

We hit a rhythm right around here:

If we don’t get it? SHUT IT DOWN!
If we don’t get it? SHUT IT DOWN!
If. We. Don’t. Get. It? SHUT! IT! DOWN!

Indeed, with more than a dozen social justice advocacy groups from across the country co-hosting an event with the American Federation of Teachers in New Orleans, LA, one might have expected a palpable ferment take over the room. The AFT’s Racial and Social Justice Conference, with its 600+ attendees, felt like a direct response to the question of whether any teachers union would respond to the consternation in our streets and our classrooms. Parent groups, community activists, union leadership, LGBTQ collectives, prison reform groups, and advocacy institutions of all ages, and many cultural backgrounds immediately charged with the task of justice, including an opening action and rally in front of NOLA’s city hall. 

This felt like the perfect space for us to challenge the inadequate resolutions that have beset those fighting for a better public education. 

The public education blueprint for many of us for years has encompassed these items: stop the privatization and charterization of public schools, decrease (if not eliminate) the amount of standardized testing, shrink class size to private-school levels, create equitable funding systems across any and all public school districts, do away with mass school closures as a function for reform, work towards minimizing child poverty, and develop better teacher evaluation systems that don’t depend on unreliable and non-sensible equations. If, on the path towards following the blueprint to the tee, we can increase recess, the arts, and teacher pay, we would apprectiate it.

Yet, that “we” is fraught with several opportunities for the erasure of agency from the folks most affected by the decimation of public schools. 

As Erin and Xian Franzinger-Barrett quickly pointed out to us this weekend, this “we” hasn’t always been “we.” This weekend allowed for the “we” to be parsed and deconstructed for a more nuanced view of our agenda. We have students who get suspended for merely speaking in the school hallway. We have parents who get shut out of their child’s learning because they look different. We have community activists who did not find allyship with their local teachers unions when they fought against racist policing or the deportation of millions of undocumented workers. We have teachers chagrined by the attack on teachers, but simultaneously pass the angst onto others, amplified by latent racism.

As I stood there listening to other people’s stories, I found myself torn in kinship and complicity. As an educator, I almost felt compelled to say “Not all of us.” As an educator of color, I almost felt compelled to say “I told you so.”

The “we” is dangerous for those of us who’ve had critical race conversations among ourselves when everyone else leaves the room and have a “real” conversation. How do educators of color (or anyone with a critical race consciousness) reconcile the public education blueprint with the vast and legitimate concerns from folks who’ve had a troubled legacy with this institution? How does the “well-meaning” white leadership of the public education debate address them in a susbtantive way? How do these leaders prevent themselves from bristling at the mere mention of race, then shoving a face of color to the mic when racial fires are set ablaze?  

This conference certainly had one answer: put race at the center of the work we do, and let everyone wrestle with the discomfort shortly thereafter. (Side note: this conference, as I expected, also had a larger representation of Black, Latino, and Asian people than the average education conference. But of course.)

Challenging each other to do this work more thoughtfully is the way forward. As a reminder, when the opt-out movement in New York State hit a peak this past March, a state legislator introduced a bill that would effectively remove consquences for upper-class schools that reported massive opt-outs … while keeping the destructive policies intact in lower- and middle-income schools across the states. While this sounds like a class issue, the faces of this will inevitably be a white child and a Black or Latino child. Families for Excellent Schools, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Eva Moskowitz will make it so.

I fear, with proof, that should all of the current public education blueprint be resolved without a critical race lens, the rabble rousers who are supposedly colorblind and not racist will go back to their segregated neighborhoods with their segregated schools, segregated funding, segregated class sizes, segregated teaching force, and segregated policies, content that they won for their child and not for othe people’s children. I fight against the continuance of crap for policy.

In this hypothetical playbook then, we must be able to adequately and thoroughly answer questions like “Why would a dozen parents go on hunger strike to fight for a high school in Chicago?,” “Why would parents of color in Brooklyn and Washington Heights, NYC, opt out their children when the movement was mostly seen as a white thing?” or “How do we build relationships with students and parents of color where all parties can feel vested in this fight?” We can’t do this as an addendum to the work, but as an interwoven part of the framework. 

Community activist Zakiyah Ansari asked us to be fearless in our works. There’s a start.

These are the elements that the conference that came to light as social justice organizations came up to speak. The conversations weren’t about wages, benefits, pensions, presidential endorsements and the rage that often accompanied the mention of AFT President Randi Weingarten. It was the collective inability of teachers to reflect on the cultural identities of students that don’t share their racial makeup.  That’s why I applaud this conference and its participants because, instead of reflexively asking their staffers of color to fix it, the AFT organizers proactively invited the challenge, moving themselves to the intersections of organizing, community, the Fight for 15, equitable immigration policy, and yes, Black lives mattering. To do it in disaster capitalism’s playground underscored the work we must do.

James Baldwin reminds us that, because he loves America so much, he insists on critiquing it early and often. 

Those of us with a racial consciousness within unions do the work because, in reclaiming the path for public schools, we find affinity with those who may not have that racial lens yet. Simultaneously, we struggle as optimists and hopers in places that have often attempted to silence us via disinvitations, phone calls to districts, and, yes, rumors in on and offline group forums. If this “we” is to truly be a “we,” then reflection, action, and growth become paramount elements of our work. Chicago organizer Jitu Brown reminds us that the current education reformers play chess while we’re playing checkers when we don’t update our strategies. 

The challenge, then, is to push each other towards a better future for public education. And if. we. don’t. get. it, they will shut. it. down. In the worst ways possible.

P.S. (At times, I wondered aloud when AFT would proffer its rank-and-file members who concurrently do social justice work, but more soon.)

photo c/o