This blog was originally published by Denisha Jones at Changing the Narrative on 8/18/16.
To my non activist friends this sounds like a silly question. I am pretty sure, when they think of radical activist they think of me. At first it was because I used Facebook to proliferate my radical views but since returning to Washington, DC in 2011 I have attended and organized numerous marches and conferences taking my social media activism to the streets. However, lately as I get deeper and deeper into the world of education activism I am often left wondering if I am radical enough to be a part of this movement. Or perhaps their definition of radical varies greatly from my definition of radical and that is why I feel like I am not fully welcome in this movement. And by their version of radical I mean white liberals, because frankly they dominate the education activist movement that I am a part of. This is not surprising, given that white liberals often have the privilege including time and money to fully engage in the activist movement. When they use that privilege for the common good, then we get one step closer to winning the war. However, when they use that privilege to dictate to others how they must think, act, and behave in this movement, then they become the oppressor no matter how good their intentions may be.
In July 2016 the Save Our Schools Coalition for Action organized the People’s March for Education and Social Justice and Activist Conference in Washington DC. The Save Our Schools Coalition was originally made up of the following 8 organizations: Save Our Schools (SOS), The Badass Teachers Association (BATs), United Opt Out (UOO), Network for Public Education (NPE), the National Council of Urban Education Association (NCUEA), the BAT NEA Caucus, the Center for the Expansion of Learning and Thinking (CELT), and the Florida Opt Out Network. Members from these organizations, spent 10 months working to plan and organize the march, rally, and conference. We had hopes of substantially growing the number of attendees from the 2011 SOS march and rally but realized that it would cost serious money and none of the coalition organizations could afford to pay for this event. So, as was done in 2011 we asked both of the national teachers union, AFT and NEA to endorse and financially support this event. We also asked the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) for support.
Money from AFT, NEA, and WTU was used to offset the costs of the event. In case you are not aware, hosting a march, rally, and conference cost money. In addition to paying for a sound system and the use of space at Howard University, money was used to help members of Journey for Justice and other grass roots organizations travel to DC and take part in this event. No one was paid to speak. Most people had to pay for their own registration although we did allow the first 100 children to register for free. Bob George who served as the director of the event, hopes to be paid a modest fee if there is any money left over after we pay all of our expenses but that might be wishful thinking. Anyway, that is where we got the money from and that is what is was used for.
Sounds harmless right? Well not according to some white liberals. Because according to them if you take money from the unions then you have been bought, co-opted, and neutralized. It doesn’t matter what the money was for. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked to make sure the unions did not take control of the event. No you see they wrote the playbook and in that play book under no circumstances can you have anything to do with the unions if you want to be a real education activist. Now don’t get me wrong, I have serious issues with both national teachers union. I have been a vocal critic of their decision to align with corporate reformist agendas such as Teach Strong and I believe they should be using all of their power to protect the teaching profession by explicitly denouncing and fighting against fast-track teacher preparation programs such as Teach for America and Relay Graduate School that are wreaking havoc on the profession they are supposed to stand for. If I had the opportunity to sit down with Randi Weingarten or Lily Eskelsen I would gladly share my views with them. But seeing as how I am not in a union I don’t expect them to come knocking on my door for advice any time soon.
As much as I object to decisions made by the national unions, I prepare teachers every day who will become union members. And with the task of preparing them comes the responsibility to ensure that they support the teaching profession and that begins by becoming an active member of your union. No the unions are not perfect but no organization is, and if you want to bring about change you need to get into the mess, roll up your sleeves, and get to work. It may be easier to complain about the unions from the sidelines and denounce anyone associated with them in anyway, but that is not how change works. However, I digress because this really is not about unions, although it was definitely a catalyst for the personal attacks directed at me and others.
So the SOS Coalition for Action took union money, and that caused certain white liberals, who did not attend or help plan the event, to denounce the march and rally as a union zombie fest. Forget the fact that Reverend Barber founder of the Moral Monday’s movement was a keynote speaker at the rally. Ignore the fact that Brother Jitu Brown, director of Journey for Justice, and Bishop John Selders gave keynotes at the activist conference. None of that matters because union money helped to pay for the event. In fact, according to some white liberals, the unions used the fact that the event was connected to black social justice leaders as a pretense to further their corporate agenda. Never mind that neither Randy nor Lily were at the event and the only union influence came from the teachers who are members of their unions and did not object to their dues being used to fund the event. None of that matters. The mighty white liberals of the movement have spoken so truth be damned. I mean come on of course white liberals who blog and teach in the ivory tower know best. How dare we ask them not to judge an event that they know nothing about? If they say that SOS, UOO, BATs, and NPE have been co-opted by the unions then we should all just nod our heads and agree because white liberals always know what is best for everyone else.
Well that is not going to happen. Because I have seen this before and I am wise enough to know that this is how movements die. When white liberals attempt to define movements, especially movements that have strong connections to the needs of black and brown communities, they strangle the movement to death. Their inability to step back and realize that they do not have all the answers and do not have the right to dictate to others how to fight for their freedom leads to chaos. It has happened before and it will happen again (think Occupy and white feminists). They fail to realize that while they have the privilege to refuse to compromise others are not afforded that same luxury. Others are fighting for their lives, and the lives of their children, and the life of their profession. Many of these white liberals do not live in communities ravaged by school closings, no excuses charter schools, economic disinvestment, crime, and poverty. And if they do they often have the means to protect their own children from these harmful effects through private schools or even homeschooling. I mean if we are being honest, the ability to even opt your child out of high stakes standardized testing is a privilege that many black and brown families do not have.
This does not mean I am against opting out. I remain a board member of United Opt Out and I will continue to encourage parents, especially black and brown parents, to opt their children out of high stakes testing. But that does not mean that I am not aware of the privilege inherent in such a move. But United Opt Out is about more than just opting out of testing. It is about opting out of the entire corporate reform agenda. Many white parents joined opt out because they hated Common Core and anything that came out of President Obama’s administration. But when we challenged them on charters, school closures, and racist disciplinary practices they wanted no part in that fight. They demanded that the group focus solely on testing and we demanded that they leave the group because we clearly were not the right fit.
One of the reasons I pushed to have UOO be a part of the SOS Coalition for Action is because I wanted our voice to be prominent. I know that unions can exert power and take control. But I also knew that we could be that voice demanding that we do not concede control to any one organization. And we didn’t. We took their money and we had a kick ass event. Nonetheless not everyone at UOO were happy with the decision to be a part of the coalition but they were out voted by a majority of the board members. Since then 5 members of the board have stepped down. Some left for personal reasons and others may have left because they did not like UOO being associated with the SOS Coalition for Action. Honestly, I do not know exactly why they left but I want to thank them for all they did to create and UOO and make it the organization it is today. And I wish them all the best in whatever they do next. Ceresta Smith, one of the founding UOO members, Ruth Rodriguez, and I all decided to stay. And we have added Gus Morales and Zackary Rodriguez to the board. We are all currently planning a Civil Rights Summit in Houston in conjunction with the Houston Federation of Teachers. Our plan is to bring together civil rights leaders and education activists to dialogue and engage about the effects of privatization on public education. Many civil rights groups are opposed to the opt out movement, however given that the NACCP has recently come out against for profit charters, we believe now is the time to bring civil rights group to the table and have a conversation about how we can fight for racially just schools that does not come wrapped in high stakes standardized testing.
As much as white liberals might want to denounce the civil rights groups for believing that standardized testing can close the racial achievement gap by holding teachers accountable, some of us non-white liberals know that is a recipe for disaster. Sure we could join our white brethren and draw a line in the sand and refuse to dialogue out of fear of being seen as one who compromises. Or we can roll up our sleeves and work with these organizations to determine (1) if we all share the same goal of having a racially just high quality public education system for all and (2) how can we work together given that the corporate education model is doing more harm than good. I don’t know. Maybe we are naïve to think this is even possible. I mean our white liberal overseers obviously don’t. They see that the Houston Federation of teachers is involved and once again slam us for being co-opted by AFT. I mean I guess Ceresta, Ruth, Gus, Zack and I are just not capable of fighting the good fight now that many of our white founding board members have stepped aside. We must have gone over to the dark side, literally and figuratively.
So here I find myself, questioning if I am radical enough to be a part of this movement. People who I thought I knew and who I thought knew me, are quick to accept the word of a white man as the gospel and question my integrity and commitment to this fight. Is that what it means to be a radical? To allow the voices of white liberals to dominate the movement? Well if that is what you mean by radical, then maybe I asked the wrong question. Perhaps instead of asking if I am radical enough I need to ask whether I am willing to allow white liberals to define who I am and how I engage as an education activist. And that question is much easier to answer...HELL NO.