Two of the most pressing continual questions in the education arena are still “If We Don’t, Who Will?” and “What will we do to catalyze positive change and build power?” As a teacher and a grassroots community organizer, I’ve continually returned towards reflecting on several important connections between public education and progressive community organizing. There is an urgent need to build and strengthen understanding of the many connections between grassroots organizing, real education reform, and schools as centers of democratic practice. In my view, we who are committed to education activism must widen and improve the quality of critical analysis and awareness if we are going to move towards widespread improvement in our schools.
Much of what I consider my specific role in our wider Reclaiming Reform project is to illustrate, analyze, and investigate the myriad dynamics that exist between grassroots community organizing and the politics of education reform. This work and hopefully resulting action has to take place within the context of the reality on the ground in various schools, districts, and communities. This reality and the often necessary debate on direction, strategy and tactics needs to inform our collective actions. Our dialogue needs to be focused on collaboratively identifying and synthesizing effective practices, techniques, projects, and campaigns. This focus must be grounded in the need to improve public education in a way that we can own and advance as opposed to the frequent exploitation of concepts like collaboration. In this process, we can advance our ownership and responsibility for what happens in our schools while reclaiming the term “reform” from its current thoroughly co-opted state.
If we intend to effectively struggle for more democratic, social justice-based improvements in schools we first have to make an honest appraisal of the general conditions and the many challenges in this broad obligation. In many schools, districts, and communities there is either a nonexistent relationship between grassroots community organizing and educational issues or a precarious relationship between the two that is tenuous at best. This is not intended to be a dismal assessment nor a somber judgement of our collective outlook for improvement in education. It is, however, a reality we must struggle and grapple with in order to know how to best proceed.
Ideally organizing for power will consist of groups of teachers, parents, families, students and community members. However, we know there are frequent challenges, division and splintered factions within each of the previously mentioned stakeholder groups. Given this reality, it’s practical to start with identifying and developing a group of primary stakeholders that can be a leadership core. In traditional organizing terms, this group (whichever mix or blend of stakeholders it is composed of) should develop the direction of the work. This work is defined by the agreed-upon issues, positions, goals, strategies, and tactics that any organization collectively chooses to undertake in building meaningful change and improvement.
For those in locations where there appears to be “nothing going on” as far as genuine grassroots organizations rooted in intelligent organizing and struggle, this requires sizing up your community from square one within schools and beyond. It’s worth mentioning that the arduous, ongoing process of organizing often requires these steps and actions regardless of what “stage” you consider your environment to be within. For teachers, this amounts to searching in either your building or your district for like-minded teachers or those that could become like-minded as you build connections. Another aspect of this is, of course, developing working relationships with students, parents, families, and community members in the various spaces and venues in which this is possible. Many of these spaces, venues, and opportunities will have to be creatively produced and often won’t be handed over to you. It should also be noted, that this brief explanation of some of the basics of organizing in education should not be interpreted as anywhere near complete, as it will undoubtedly be expanded on.
Once such a group is formed and begins to gel, normally around a “crisis” issue that pulls folks together, it’s wise to reach out and build relationships with critical leaders, members, and participants in various institutions and organizations. These categories of organizations include, but are not limited to, neighborhood-groups, block clubs, housing/tenant associations, elected officials, educational administration, academia, progressive faith-groups, labor, political parties/associations, and various activist organizations. This stage of outreach and coalition building requires short and long-term vision and goals which must be established through ongoing meetings and critical dialogue about priorities.
Of course, this introduction to the mechanics of grassroots organizing in education isn’t intended to be dogmatic or overly determined. Much of this framework is a work in progress, the same way I look at myself as both an educator and an organizer. Having detailed some of the basics, this will be instructive and useful as I get into detailing local and regional struggles. Full comprehension of such campaigns and power struggles will be achieved most effectively through a working knowledge of this framework.
Lastly, I aim to have this be practical, useful, and translatable to other locations outside my immediate knowledge base and experience. In that spirit, I’ll leave y’all with a story. An experienced teacher I was informally mentored under years ago told me about “developing my own style in the classroom and beyond”. When I asked, “What do you mean when you say ‘…in the classroom and beyond’ specifically?” This teacher, not an activist or organizer by any means, responded and said, “If you’re dedicated to this, you’ll find that your role in education will have to go far beyond the confines of the corner of whatever building you’re in today. I hope you can find and develop your own style in a way that best suits you”. I’d like to think that I’ve done just that and that I can help others do so too.