Our Power is in Our People: Whitney Richards-Calathes

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  1. Who are you, where do you work, and why do you do what you do as an organizer for education activism?

 

I’m Whitney! A fan of cats, Bronx born and raised, Mother Earth loving, slightly nerdy but still trying to keep it cool Black girl. I am an organizer-healer-scholar-youth-worker-educational-justice-prison-abolitionist-fighter. And my work is a tad unconventional! Right now, I work between two coasts, Los Angeles and New York City.

 

In LA, I work closely with an organization called the Youth Justice Coalition, which is a direct-action organizing space to address issues of mass incarceration. We operate within a community-center called Chuco’s Justice Center, which is home to host of organizations, groups from our surrounding communities of Inglewood and South Central, and is also the space for our high school, FREE LA! (Fighting for the Revolution to Empower and Education Los Angeles). Our high school serves young people who are system-impacted, young parents, neighborhood affiliated, and many other intersectional identities that often get cuffs instead of diplomas in the City of LA. I’ve worked as a teacher here, a community organizer, the Board Chair, and an overall supporter of the work!

 

In my NYC work, I am Co-Founder of Sweet River, a small team of women of color working at the cross section of education, prison abolition, cultural work, and restorative and transformative justice. (We are still growing, so no website yet, but coming soon!). Currently, Sweet River partners with a Brooklyn public school in implementing racial-justice focused restorative justice (through a Brooklyn Community Fund initiative), while also providing trainings, program support, and workshops on transformative justice, peer mediation, abolitionist education, and restorative practices. We are proud to be a team led by women of color in a current moment where funding is opening up for “restorative practices,” but is often not trickling down to people of color led organizations, grassroots based institutions, or spaces led by system-impacted individuals.

 

The last component of my work (yes, I swear I get sleep, 8 hours if I can, here is why ), involves being a PhD student. I’m in the last phase of doctoral studies at The Graduate Center at The City University of New York. I write, think about, and do research on transformative justice and Black radical imagination. Through my student status, I use research as a movement tool, collaborating with organizers and young people to do research on issues of women’s incarceration, restorative practices in Bronx public schools, and housing rights for tenants in El Barrio. (Here are some of the incredible organizations I’ve worked with: Community Connections for Youth, New Settlement Parent Action Committee, Movement for Justice en El Barrio).

 

I do all of this work – weaving between schools, organizations, and coasts – because I believe that justice work is the greatest type of education. Learning, questioning, thinking, and imagining is what education should be, and it’s critical to reclaim that. Plus, I think we can do this reclamation creatively, with radical joy, and in the most intersectional way possible. (Or maybe I just don’t like working 9-5, who knows!) Educational spaces in all their forms, as institutions, are intertwined intimately with histories of power, colonialism, prison and punishment – and our duty is to always work to undo and abolish these so the next generations can get a little bit more free.

 

  1. What five books have been essential to your formation as an education activist?

 

There are so many books! … In addition to conversations, experiences, travel, tending to my own feelings with constructive criticism, mistakes, challenges, and people, all of which have been critical to my work and human-ness. While, there are a billion books, I’m leaving off the list, here are some key ones, accompanied with links to movements that embody the spirit of each book:

  1. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes. A book that has taken me almost five years to go through because each paragraph, line, word is something that speaks right into my spirit, that I need to sit with, savor, mull over, and dream about. Written by a storyteller psychologist, this book is about the inner worlds, fires, and process of women (defined in the broadest way). About what it means to “run with wolves” – to accept, cultivate, nurture our wildish nature. It helped me think about how to be an education activist that is unapologetic, brave, and wild. Sadie Nash Leadership Project is an organization I worked for that celebrated women in a truly authentic way.
  2. Octavia Butler books, specifically: the Earthseed Series and Wildseed. Because both of these remind us of our past and our future. Cause Octavia Butler is an oracle. Because justice work is science fiction in that it is creating another world that does not yet exist. Plus, imagination is key! These folks in Durham, a land collective and a circle trainer are bringing Butler’s work to life.
  3. Robin Kelley’s book, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. I love this book. And return to it, always. Kelley writes that social movements are places for dreaming and places where new ideas, intellect and thought develop. This speaks to me – maybe because I’m a scholar (gasp, can’t believe I admitted that!), but also because more than anything, being in movements for justice has been my greatest education. And I think it is critical that as educational activists and organizers, we remember that campaigns, policy battles, program implementation – that there is an undercurrent beneath all of these that is about learning, exploding narrow boxes, erasing borders, and expanding boundaries of what can be possible. Thank you to this book for reminding me of that. Shoutout to my movement family at H.O.L.L.A! who embody Black radical imagination in action.
  4. Nikki Jones, Between Good and Ghetto. I read this once, and that’s all it took for it to stick with me. A book where I saw my own experience laid in the pages. A book that is a wee bit academic, but also crystal clear about the relationship between gender, sexuality, race, skin color, education, and criminalization. A beautiful and hard project that gives words to something many people live, know, understand. A New Way of Life in Los Angeles supports women in some of the hardest moments of their journeys.
  5. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I’ll admit, I’m reading this currently and haven’t yet finished. But wow. This. Book Here. Incredible. Many stories, examples, and threads of wisdom that uplift a plain and simple truth: the natural world – the planet – nature – animals – trees … all of this energy that gives to us everyday, and it is our responsibility, in the most practical and spiritual sense, to return that energy, to pay it forward. May we all remember water is life.

 

  1. What are three things you love about what you do?

 

  1. The relationships. My friends, my chosen family, my peers, my partners, my peoples. In movement I feel the whole spectrum of emotions – love, anger, resentment, celebration, inspiration, silliness, excited, fearful, courageous – everything! And we feel them together. And we get up, everyday and work to hold space for one another. Relationships are more important than any action, policy, or program.

 

  1. Learning to live out freedom. To be in a space where I get to live out the values of equity, and sharing space, and taking action to create change. In my work and in my life I get to constantly think about and try to practice what it means to get free. Sounds corny, but life becomes way more fun when you understand that the boxes that confine us can and should often be broken down.

 

  1. Young people! I love working alongside and in partnership with young folks. They hold space for each other and for me in ways that are challenging, hopeful, hilarious, silly, and loving. The wisdom they carry is infinite, I think that their ability to quickly cut through the rules and respectability that adults get hung up on – well, it allows for space for us to learn together, be our most authentic selves, and engage in transformative, healing, change-oriented work. There are countless young people – especially young women (shoutout to Alba, Gloria, and Maritza!) – that have pushed me to be the best version of myself, and I think there is a lesson in intergenerational learning that let’s us all reflect on better ways to honor everyone’s voice, at all stages of their life. Because freedom really, really is a lifelong struggle.

 

 

 

 

DeVos, now what?

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A few hours after Betsy DeVos confirmation as the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Professor Wayne Au posted a commentary to Facebook that provided a quick historical context to this confirmation and some ways to dust off and acting. By the next day, Professor Au’s post had been shared over 1200 times. Below is Prof. Au’s thoughts on why and how the comments were helpful as well as the comments he posted.

On the morning of February 7th, Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the Trump Administration’s Secretary of Education. The travesty of the DeVos nomination is well documented. She is completely unqualified to head up our public schools – having no public school experience herself and having played a key role in the dismantling of Detroit public schools. She is also an advocate for private school vouchers, with the expressed intention of using those vouchers to spread her form of Christianity. Ultimately DeVos’ nomination was just another in a long line of cabinet picks in the upside down bizarro world of Trumpistan: An official federal leader of public education who hates public education (and a bunch of the people in it).

News of the DeVos confirmation flooded my Facebook feed immediately after it happened. The vast majority of the response was disbelief, despair, and cynicism, especially given the fairly large mobilizations of mainstream and progressive education activists calling their state representatives and urging them to vote “no” on DeVos (side note: DeVos was one of the only nominees that Democrat politicians voted against, with many of those same politicians voting “yes” to confirm Trump’s other upside down bizarro world cabinet picks). Given the despondence of I was seeing, I spent a few minutes writing some quick points in reflection, trying to give some broader, activist perspective on the DeVos confirmation.

I didn’t expect it to, but my post went viral (well, viral for me at least), getting almost 1,200 official shares on Facebook. Friends reported that it was spreading with unofficial attribution in places like Oklahoma or that they were talking with colleagues and family members about it in meetings and over dinner tables. In the end what I think happened is that so many folks were depressed by the DeVos confirmation that they found my little post to be helpful in making sense of it all, and even a little healing in these trying times.

So here is the post, slightly edited and with some additions to clarify my points.

 

“A few quick points on the DeVos confirmation”
1. Yes, she’s terrible and this will hurt a lot of kids around the country. She will be devastating to poor kids and kids in SPED. She will likely take away supports for LGBQT kids and families and try to strip our abilities to protect our Muslim and undocumented students. As others have said, Trump hates us, and so the DeVos nomination is consistent with that hate.
2. If she weren’t confirmed, the next person up would also have been terrible.
3. Don’t romanticize the past: The last 8 years of education policy under Obama have also been about cementing free market reforms, the destruction of public education, and attacks on communities of color through those reforms (charters, “choice,” testing, anti-union, mayoral control, school closings, etc., etc.). So, yes, DeVos is like those reforms on steroids and she has some particularly retrograde cultural politics, but the policy trajectory is clear and the logics are consistent with Duncan and Obama.
4. Upside: Because many of DeVos’ policies fundamentally align with what the Dems and liberals (centrist-neoliberals) have been pushing for the last 8 years, the DeVos confirmation forces them to justify their positions and either distinguish themselves from DeVos or just go ahead and admit that they are in alignment with her – at clearly potentially great political cost (Check out T. Jameson Brewer and Mitchell Robinson’s great explanation of this).
5. The federal DOE has a relatively small budget (relatively speaking) and the Secretary of Education also has very limited power (relatively speaking). Over 90% of our education funding comes from a combination of local tax base and state funding, so the K-12 strings she can pull are relatively short. I don’t mean to suggest that school districts won’t be devastated by losing this money, which in some large urban districts can be well over $100 million, and we know that poor kids and kids in SPED will feel the brunt of this. But, we also need to recognize that federal support for education is limited at best.
6. Because of #4, there is a lot to be said for focusing our organizing at the local and state levels. If DeVos is going to be consistent, then she is going to kick A LOT of education policy down to the states. That is where a lot of the fight will now be.
7. All of that said, DeVos could really mess up higher education by making it more difficult for students to get access to loan programs – particularly if she and the rest of the Trump administration want to punish specific states and specific universities who are resisting him.
8. And all of that said, we’ve been organizing against terrible federal education reforms for decades. All the DeVos confirmation does is shift the terrain, shift our tactical focus, and give us a chance to broaden our organizing base.

 

Wayne Au is an editor for the social justice teaching magazine, Rethinking Schools, and he is an Associate Professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell. His most recent book is, Reclaiming the Multicultural Roots of U.S. Curriculum (co-authored with Anthony Brown and Dolores Calderon).

The Pedagogy of Walking Out

Read the original essay written by Keith Catone, reblogged from his website, here:

 

I write this just 15 hours before students from schools across the city of Providence (and some neighboring communities) plan to walk out of their classes in protest of the policies being promoted by soon-to-be President Trump. I write this as an adult ally who has responded to youth leaders’ call for support and who will be working to support young people tomorrow as they exercise their Constitutional right to free speech. While the superintendent of schools in Providence seems to understand that students have the right to free speech, some overzealous and self-righteous adults can’t seem to understand why young people might feel compelled to express their sense of injustice by walking out of school at the moment Donald Trump becomes their country’s president.

Ostensibly, youth attend school in order to learn. Yet, what happens when students feel compelled to teach? Sadly, not enough spaces inside schools recognize the leadership that young people have to offer and the lessons they have to teach us. Too often (and even then, not enough) young people can only find spaces in which they are treated and understood as full human beings–capable of independent thought, innovative ideas, and unconstrained agency–outside of school through organizations such as the Providence Student UnionYouth In Action, and PrYSM. That youth leaders nurtured by these organizations have come together to work with their peers in order to educate the rest of us about free speech, youth rights, and democratic accountability is no surprise.

 

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A President who high school youth had no electoral power in selecting has taken office. This absurd reality is our (adults) fault, not theirs (youth). Grown men and women put Donald Trump at the helm of this country. Ladies and gentlemen (more the gentlemen), it is we who have fucked this up. And don’t think because you didn’t vote for Trump that you’re off the hook because in some way or another we’ve contributed to the conditions that enabled his election. Instead of pretending that I know what young people should do in response to the inauguration of a President who has spewed and sparked hateful and harmful rhetoric toward them, their families, and their communities, I will be out there tomorrow in order to learn. Young people have been leading in Providence for years and have built a culture of accountability to their interests in ways that many other places see as a model. Our civic and community leaders often celebrate this leadership and it is my hope that they (and we) recognize it tomorrow during the youth-led school walkout. I don’t know what the pedagogy of walking out means comprehensively yet, but tomorrow I will seek to find out more about what it might be. The young people of Providence have something to say. We’d better listen. They have something to teach. We’d better learn.

Gearing up for FMFP Baltimore 2017!

Hello Education 4 Liberation Community!
Welcome to the blog from the Education for Liberation Network. Keep our blog handy in your bookmarks. This is a space where you can read about events and spaces being organized for educational justice around the U.S., read interviews with organizers about how they try to imagine new and more just worlds into existence. We’ll discuss hot topics in education and liberation and will repost on point essays from other organizations and individuals doing the work for justice in and for education. We hope you find the conversations here useful in pinpointing the areas of injustice in education and how some folks are working to change those realities. We believe that there is no struggle without study, and this blog is part of that ongoing practice.
This first post is to give lots of love, shouts out, and props to the many folks who gathered in Baltimore September 23-25 for the planning retreat to build next summer's Free Minds Free People. The retreat is just part of the work of planning the conference, and lots of opportunities are out there if you weren't able to make it to the retreat. Committees are being formed through the first part of October, so drop an email here if you'd like to get become involved.
The retreat in Baltimore had about 20 folks local to B’More present and about 20 folks from all of the U.S. who gathered together. We were hosted graciously and guided beautifully by the folks at the Baltimore Algebra Project. Over the course of two and half days, we built community by getting to know each other, revisiting the historical origins, goals, and desired outcomes of the Free Minds Free People conference, and imagined together the conference content and how the committees will function. And we ate some wonderful food, prepared with love to be shared in a community, courtesy of Cuban Princess Delights.
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Be sure to mark your calendars for July 6-9, 2017. Announcements for submitting a proposal to present will be out soon. Free Minds Free People!

Young people and teachers from Baltimore traveled all the way to the Oakland conference last year and are ready to bring their BMore best to the rest of us for the next FMFP. Here is a message from the folks in Baltimore:Free Minds, Free People is a national conference convened by the Education for Liberation Network that brings together young people, teachers, researchers, parents and community-based activists/educators to build a movement to develop and promote education as a tool for liberation.  The goal of the conference is to provide a forum for sharing knowledge, experiences and strategies to understand and challenge the injustices disenfranchised communities face. Our most recent Free Minds, Free People last summer in Oakland, CA, drew more than 1200 people.

 

 We’ll plan to see you July 6 – 9, 2017 in Baltimore, MD – mark your calendar, start organizing to participate, and spread the word! And just to give you a taste, check out the video highlights from Oakland!
And below is a message from the local organizers in Baltimore. Buckle up; it’s beautiful in this work.

Greetings from Baltimore, Maryland. We are enthusiastic and eager for the Free Minds, Free People conference to find its way to Birdland! We are very happy to be this year’s host city. Baltimore has a very deep and rich history of being entrenched in struggle. This is especially true for young people in schools of poverty, particularly students of color. These students are routinely disarmed by the institutional racism of white supremacy. By joining us in Baltimore for the conference, we have an opportunity to learn from one another, build bonds through networking, and connect our efforts on a national level. Us Baltimoreans will expose our guests to the ins and outs of a typical young person in the city of Baltimore.

In 2009 at FMFP, young people from across the nation gathered to draft a document that describes a set of students’ education rights which they believe should be federally protected. This document is the “National Students Bill of Rights” and has served as a banner under which a number of modern social justice victories have been won. Among these rights is the right to safe and secure public school facilities, as well as the right to free college education free childcare for students. It is evident that the system currently in place for the protection of students’ rights within school buildings is not only ineffective, but detrimental to the education and physical safety of the students. In the absence of protection for students’ rights, we allow one for profit industry (school police) to prepare and package students for inherent violations of their rights. Each NSBR violation experienced by a student detracts from their ability to actively engage with their education. Simultaneously funding is pulled from schools and poured into prisons.

As a result the path these youth take is diverted: post-secondary education is replaced with prison. While this issue is well known, there is currently no effective method for communities to intervene in this process. Therefore it is our duty as young people, educators, and community members to publicly denounce these structures. Baltimore youth and our allies have provided, and will continue to provide young people and communities with resources to combat and counteract the constant violation of our rights. We will continue to speak out against these injustices. Through this continued support of our communities, we will produce an equitable educational experience for young people of color in schools of poverty. In doing so we, the youth of Baltimore City, will create an environment where students are not afraid of being assaulted by individuals meant to protect them. We look forward to building, working, learning, and fellowshipping with you with all of you in the name of THE STRUGGLE!