Ethnic studies programs were borne from college student protest and demands to have education experiences that destabilized eurocentrism and centered the knowledge systems of Indigenous, Black, and brown peoples. Ethnic studies programs have been in existence for decades, but they have never had security in the way that eurocentric education systems have enjoyed for generations. From struggles to study on college campuses to the fight to educate society’s youngest in the ways of their peoples, ethnic studies has been both at the vanguard and vulnerable.
Many are familiar with the specific fight for ethnic studies pedagogy and curriculum in Arizona, and more specifically, the Tucson Unified School District because of media and documentary coverage of the historic showdown between culturally relevant educators and conservative politicians.
On June 27, 2017, the fight for ethnic studies programs in Arizona moved into the U. S. District court system, with the plaintiffs first arguing for the right of students of all racial backgrounds to learn about history beyond Eurocentric frameworks. This coming week, the defendants will do their best to convince the judge that learning about race politicizes students of color and imperils white students.
The struggle to study happens in multiple, concurrent forms. From thousands of Chicago Public School teachers striking and marching to protect rights to the special education teacher who attends to her students socioemotional needs instead of proliferating the number of Black students labeled with behavioral disorders, the struggle truly is everywhere. As the fight for ethnic studies is argued by lawyers, witnesses are examined and cross-examined, and a judge bears witness to the one of the most rarified battle lines for racial justice, we hold close the educators, students, and families in Arizona who seek the basic human desire and right to education as tool for liberation. In lak’ech.
Free Minds Free People is swiftly approaching. As a youth-centered space for liberatory education, FMFP prioritizes listening to and supporting youth-led visions for education justice. In this blog entry, we hear from one of the youth organizations who will be at FMFP, Rethink out of New Orleans on their thoughts this Juneteenth.
Dear Black Students in Atlanta,
I’ve started this letter five times, at least. I keep thinking about all you brilliant Black minds in Atlanta, disenfranchised by many of the same type of people as we are here in New Orleans. I could see unskilled MBAs licking their chops, bored white 20-somethings looking to fail upward in your city, millionaire supporters of charterization lining up to fund the takeover of your schools, and no people in power considering the wants you, your families, and the communities you’re rooted in. They see any your educational reality as an opportunity for free market. We’ve seen how this plays out and it is my imperative to warn you. They are lying and scheming for their own benefit, and there is so much at stake if you don’t stop them.
You have been fighting already for your school system and as you continue to fight, don’t lose sight of who you are. The ways your communities and families love and support you not wrong because your teacher or administrator cannot comprehend them. Your culture is not a commodity or in need of refinement; your people’s history must not be repackaged by those who have everything to gain from obscuring it. Don’t listen to their lies about how innovation and choice will save hordes of hopeless, helpless youth. And know that when they say hopeless and helpless they are referring to you.
I know what they’ve done to you so far and how damaging they’ve been to you. They’ve already changed the rules of the game so they win and blamed you for losing, all to obscure the fact that the state disinvested in certain schools and areas of the city long ago. Agents of gentrification and displacement have staked their claims to housing and land since the ‘70s, and are looking to bring this unapologetic entitlement to privatizing public schools.
People will tell you what I’m saying isn’t true. This letter is to tell you how to handle them when they try to hoodwink you again and again. No matter what they say, a public charter does not provide public education in ways traditional public schools do. It’s a loophole for taking public funds and massive private donations to privately manage public schools like corporations, where profit for those in power always comes before people.
I’m seeing what they’ve done, what they’re doing and how similar our experiences are. The powers that are pushing for this Opportunity School District in Atlanta act innocent, but let me tell you something—they’re trying to pull us down into the Sunken Place.
New Orleanians remember when Hurricane Katrina decimated the poorest, Blackest parts of the city and policymakers took this opportunity to fast track the plan already in place to privatize public education. We remember the mass firings (7,000 teachers and 500 school employees) to intentionally bust unions while putting out a call to “human capital” organizations (Teach for America, TeachNOLA, City Year, Americorps). We remember amendments and bills being passed with swiftness like never before to allow the takeover and justify it by changing the scale used to determine which schools were considered “failing.” We remember being denied access to enrollment after their own schools after a charter takeover, or watching the local/state authorities close schools while funding new schools in other neighborhoods. While the Recovery School District was already in place before Katrina, it got a huge breath of new life while hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians were trying simply to recover their old lives.
In realizing crucial elements of this their master plan, drafted by these architects of reform, you gain a strange perspective on time and human pain, and effort. Other cities cannot hear what I hear whenever I hear about new nonprofits, millions for “school choice” and “charter autonomy.”
Watch the ways policymakers are moving, investigating strange bedfellows and cross-sector alliances at local, federal, state levels. The bevy of policies passed in the months after Katrina and the informal group of pro-charter government officials are eerily similar to the State Charter School Commission, and their ability to find loopholes and push legislation to realize their vision. Pro-charter government officials in Atlanta, just like in New Orleans, have money and people lined up to support their cause. Moreover, they can manufacture and organize information in their favor, convincing masses that they (should) have power and control over public education because they know what’s best for success.
And as is typical, people are leveraging the manufactured success of schools in New Orleans as rationale for privatization of school systems (and housing) in Nashville, Detroit, Reno and Las Vegas, and across North Carolina. When some of the same players are involved, you know it’s time to get out. We must know our collective history lest we walk the same paths again, falling into the same traps and being fooled by the same type of folk.
Don’t believe false prophets like John White, Doug Harris, Scott Cowen, Leslie Jacobs, and Paul Vallas. They will speak to you of improving their test scores to convince you that the experiment is working. When you ask them why expulsions are up, they won’t answer you. When you ask them to explain the phenomenon of disappeared students they don’t acknowledge your question. They are invested in white supremacy and will protect it at any costs. Children of color are not whole or human to them—how can we trust them to construct a school system rooted in their dignity? Paul Pastorek (Superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, 2007-2011) consulted with Rick Snyder (governor of Michigan, 2011-present) immediately before Snyder recommended the state takeover of Detroit’s public schools. Pastorek is currently the co-executive director of the Broad Center, funded by a foundation that funnels millions of dollars to charter school development across the country.
Don’t trust those who voluntarily leave elected or appointed positions to enter into the private sector. Always question those that appear to be voluntarily giving up their institutional power. Trust and believe that they’ve found more power with less accountability elsewhere. Michelle Rhee recommended the takeover and charterization of four Atlanta public schools, the same schools Erin Hames recommended for takeover after she left a position in the Georgia governor’s office to open an educational consulting firm focused on state seizure of public schools. Her plan includes mass firings, school closures, and charter takeover of public schools. People like her are reminiscent of Leslie Jacobs, who spent time in the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Orleans Parish School Board before a failed bid for mayor of New Orleans; that same year, she opened two nonprofits with her own wealth (one focused on keeping transplants in the city by connecting them to economic opportunities, the other focused on pushing pro-charter policies). Two years later, she was the recipient of the New Orleanian of the Year award. Follow the money, and you’ll find a charter mafia. Keep a running list of all the major players and the types of decisions they make to inform your strategy; the first time they show you who they are, believe them.
Don’t let them convince you that you are to blame for schools deemed failing. Over the last 15 years, Georgia’s governors have cut over $9 billion from the state education budget, and are blaming school struggles on local, often Black leadership. Meanwhile, the College and Career Readiness Index is rife with many of the same fallacies used to grade New Orleans schools. They will consistently change the rules of the game in their favor, and blame you for losing. The narrative will never be about their architecture, but about failures and shortcomings of traditional public education.
They’ll secretly court “education service providers” to bring “innovation and choice” which is code for “largely white operators who will run public schools like private companies.” These companies will get the red carpet rolled out for them and a pile of money to support their rapid growth, all the while manufacturing data and mobilizing people who exemplify their so-called success. But we know we can’t trust any of it. At no point is real education the highest priority. Once they take over, you can expect pressure on teachers to cheat or teach only to the test or just leave the school entirely. You can expect harsh discipline and zero tolerance policies, all meant to tame the wild animals they claim us to be and keep us away from the so-called jungles we’re growing up in. You can expect to be turned against your own parents. The power brokers will tell you that your parents don’t know and never knew how to raise you. How to love you. How to see you. The trick, you see, is that they want you to hate yourselves. They want you to see yourselves and people who look like you as worthless.
You know how gentrification works, right? Of course you do. First you have to be convinced that what you have and where you live is worthless. And the very same house, the same section 8 apartment, the same land that they say is too far gone to be restored is bought out from under you or taken with no compensation. The same thing happens to Black bodies and Black minds. They want to convince us that we have no value while our entire lives are snatched away from us.
Don’t be fooled by public meetings, requirements or suggestions of community involvement, or any space for resistance to charterization or school closures. By the time you hear about these meetings, the powers that be have likely already made their decisions. Alert your people of the ways in which they manufacture consent for whatever their original plan was to begin with. They’ll get Black folks from Atlanta to tell you how they understand your concerns, your struggle, your experiences; they’ll trigger you, gaslight you, and manipulate you to support them. Be wary—not all of our skinfolk are our kinfolk.
They’ll tell you that you’re better off with young white teachers. They’ll explain that you have more choice than ever, while they warehouse-shuffle at least—abuse and miseducate at most— you from charter to charter. They’ll assure you the secret lottery they use to place students does not give preference to certain types of students, and ask you not to worry about the white public charter school’s hidden requirements (to start: exorbitant extra fees, infallible code-switching skills, and unwavering willingness to be tokenized) all at the ready.
For those resisting privatization from inside schools, they’ll make you decide between staying in your school building, and having a school at all. As soon as they shuffle you out, they’ll renovate so that the school suddenly has air conditioning after years without it, or is no longer overrun with structural flaws that couldn’t be prioritized earlier. The largest Charter Management Organizations in New Orleans and the predominantly white charter schools do not coincidentally have the most coveted school buildings.
You can only be destroyed by believing that you are really stupid, violent, too much to handle, too dumb to learn, too ghetto to exist, that you belong in a cage, that you should be enslaved.
What we’re left with after school reform is a bunch of shiny warehouses where truly educating our youth is the lowest priority and antithetical to their goals. Those of us who can’t or simply won’t to survive a white supremacist, zero tolerance, testing-driven, dehumanizing school environment staffed by droves of unskilled, untalented transplants to the city are pushed out. We’re locked in Behavioral Intervention rooms with no windows, seating, or teacher supporting their learning. Meanwhile, those of us who are considered particularly dangerous are pushed out to diversion programs masquerading as job training programs or “alternative schools,” and jails masquerading as “study centers.” Sometimes we’re lucky enough to be pushed out to our own homes, where we’ll receive four hours of instruction because we’re struggling with our mental health or are unwilling/unable to attend school.
I tell you this because I love each of you figuring out how to handle the situation they’re constructing, and I am invested in your… no. our liberation. Please don’t forget it. I know they’re going to say I’m exaggerating, but I know Black folks. I also know what those in power do to make us believe there isn’t a system built on our backs, to destroy us. Take no one’s word, but trust your experience. Know where you came from to know where you’re going.
The world is deliberately constructed so you believe what they say about you. Fight it with the truth. I know and you know the invisible labor we’ve poured into our own education throughout history. Black people have always educated ourselves and each other for protection, for survival, and for freedom.
We must resist.
We must dismantle these systems built to destroy us and transform the ways in which power is held.
I see your resistance. Over 50 school districts have already announced their stance against charterization. I see y’all fighting today across all types of connections to the school system.
Do not forget love, and how you must survive. Do not forget that liberation is what we’re fighting for, and that true education is an essential part of our path to freedom.
We can’t be free if y’all ain’t free. If y’all still fightin’, so are we.
Here in New Orleans, we see you. We feel you. We got you.
Fighting for Our Lives is this year’s Free Minds Free People conference theme. As the 2011 host city, Providence understands the power that is behind and results from FMFP. When the idea of a backyard Get Out screening was thrown out there by this year’s fundraising and finance committee co-chair, Dulari Tahbildar, other Providence-based planning committee members knew we had to make it happen.
A disturbing movie in distressing times, Get Out depicts the violence of white supremacy and shows the viewers the terrifying depths of our society’s commodification of Black bodies. Chris, the movie’s protagonist, must literally fight for his life amidst this violence.
Over 50 people came out to support FMFP youth scholarships, raising nearly $400. This money will support youth from four Providence-based organizations to attend FMFP: Providence Student Union, Providence Youth Student Movement, Young Voices, and Youth in Action. Shout outs to Adeola Oredola for graciously offering her home with backyard movie screen andChristina “V” Villareal for her signature cupcakes, kettle corn, Rice Krispie treats, and special Get Out Edition Fruit Loop treats.
A special thank to the young people of Baltimore Algebra Project for their original video sharing their excitement for FMFP, which was shared before the feature film.
Thank you Providence for showing your love. Thank you FMFP fam for all that you do.
See you in Baltimore July 6-9. Register here!
by Gabriela Fullon
The FMFP Conference is a re-energizing space for many and while it takes a lot of work to put together, seeing people from across the country connect, celebrate and breathe together is well worth it.
In New York City, our activist community is constantly pulsing and pushing at an oftentimes relentless pace and we wanted to bring folks together to pause, prepare and connect through a film night that would touch upon some of the major topics being addressed at #FMFP2017:
- Water is Life
- Intersections of Racism and Ableism
- Radical Healing
It was a wonderful screening and discussion of the films and we wanted to share the curated films and our matching curriculum with everyone, in preparation for FMFP in Baltimore.
What I Learned To Be True is a beautiful piece by Elizabeth Acevedo about how she processed the recent election:
Youth Violence -Choose Life is a powerful piece highlighting the contrasts between life and death for young people in Baltimore.
Mni Wiconi: The Stand at Standing Rock is a visually stunning intro to some of the basics behind #NODAPL and the fight at Standing Rock.
Deported is a five-part documentary series following the global movement to end deportation of Cambodian refugees from the United States.
Episode I of the series, A Grassroots Movement, focuses on the work of advocates and organizers here in the United States.
Episode IV of Deported. Beyond the United States, follows the experiences of organizers in Cambodia who have been deported from the United States.
Our last film, Keep Ya Head Up, is a student produced piece about profiling and harassment specifically of Muslim and Black communities, from our friends at the Global Action Project, who will be at Baltimore this July!
In addition to the fantastic films shown, Dr. Susan Wilcox compiled a wonderful Fighting For Our Lives Film Night Curriculum that we wanted to share as well.
We hope you’ll enjoy this mine of creativity from the different communities that will be represented at #FMFP2017 and we encourage you to share the films and curriculum with your people! See you in Baltimore!
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- What are three things you love about what you do?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Laura co-leading a March for the Ayotzinapa parents and survivor -Victor Cortes and Antonio Zavala – when they visited Chicago in April, 2015.
- Who are you, where do you work, and why do you do what you do as an organizer for education activism?
I am a mother of two Chicago public school students, and hold a doctorate in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. I am also the co-founder of Justicia en Ayotzinapa Comité Chicago. For over 12 years, I have been actively involved in the fight to preserve public education in Chicago, including the 2011, 43 day sit-in for a library and Fieldhouse, known as “La Casita.” I have also organized transnationally to demand accountability from the Mexican government in the enforced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. A Spanish teacher by training, I have taught in Chicago area public schools and I have also been a youth worker. In my paid and unpaid work, I continue to share my knowledge with communities of of color to build our capacity to fight for our human and education rights. Additionally, I helped to pass the Chicago city council’s ordinance ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2009.
My work is grounded on the belief that in our society it is the duty of all people to hold our government and other state apparatus accountable by standing up against injustices and advocating for solutions to problems that plague our communities. I believe that education is a necessary tool for people to develop their full capacity and ability to think, as well as to love more fully. I know firsthand the power of transformation in the development of a critical consciousness.
- What keeps you up at night or worries you (we hope everyone gets healthy sleep, of course)?
What keeps me up is knowing that we continue to operate under a flawed and crumbling paradigm. The capitalist, gendered, patriarchal and racialized system that we exist under can no longer sustain life on this planet in a just and equitable way. We need to bring forth systems that not only respond to the present conditions but that also challenge and provide an alternative to the ways we have been taught to exist. Our public education system can and must be a potential site for this deconstruction and recreation of society – but only if we are able to liberate ourselves from the current purpose of education – simply as a site of hierarchal reproduction.
- What misconception about education would you like to correct?
The greatest misconception about the education system, especially in the United States, is that it serves the best interest of all. We know, through years of research and testimonies that the practices of schooling in the United States has actually aided in the colonization, dehumanization, and assimilation of young people of color and their families since its very inception in the 1830’s. The history of schooling in this country is one that has allowed for the economic self-sufficiency of a very few at the expense of the rest of our children. It is built on a paradigm of competition and of cementing the ideas of human beings as capital that can be sold and traded in the marketplace of degrees and titles. It has denied and erased most of our history and continues to brainwash us into believing that to “make it” means to be the best, which in essence means that our existence has been shaped by our ability to beat others at the empty game of academic attainment.
- What five books have been essential to your formation as an education activist?
The most important books have been: Let Me Speak by Domitila Barrios de Chúngara, Pedagogy of Hope by Paolo Freire, Protean Literacy by Concha Delgado-Bernal, The Long Haul by Miles Horton and the Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Aldous Huxley.
Laura with the Comité Justicia en Ayotzinapa Chicago during the 43 hour hunger strike in Chicago, September 2015.