Building a social justice teacher caucus: The story of BMORE

Screenshot 2019-05-22 12.31.18.pngSome context: Why was there a need for a social justice union caucus in Baltimore?  

    Public school teachers around the country are engaged in strikes. They are walking out of their classrooms and schools to gain attention from state legislators, and not just for better salaries and benefits for themselves (although most American agree that teachers need to be paid more). Teachers’ main demand is for funding for public education. Teachers are calling our attention to a sticky problem that we have in American public education funding: It has remained inequitably distributed for decades, no matter what new initiative comes down the pike. Moreover, this inequitable distribution of funding falls along racial lines.

   In Maryland, just like every other state, faces this inequity. The state has repeatedly and consistently underfunded Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS) in violation of their own constitutional definition of adequacy, upheld by the courts multiple time. According to Corey Gaber, teacher in Baltimore City schools, “When adding up this gross underfunding of BCPSS, which is nothing short of the crime of theft being committed against the predominantly Black youth who attend these schools, we reach a very rough education debt to Baltimore City of 3.2 BILLION DOLLARS!”

           There have been commissions appointed, like the one formed in 2000 named after Alvin Thornton, the Howard University professor leading the commission, that recommended equity in school funding across the state. Following the commission’s report, there would be a phase in process of millions of extra dollars into districts like Baltimore that faced budget challenges every year.  In 2008, the state claimed that there were no funds to provide equitable school funding because of the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, every spring, there is an assembly of hundreds of parents, teachers, administrators and advocates rallying for additional funding from the state to ensure that schools in Baltimore schools can keep their doors open.

     In reality, the funding inequity dates back to the Jim Crow period during which Blacks paid taxes in Maryland, but received nothing in return to fund their schools. There were Black schools, but since they did not receive public money, they had crumbling facilities, second or third hand books, and poorly compensated teachers, (Baum, 2010).  In this way, governments “reasserted Black inferiority and proclaimed white supremacy the cultural and economic law of the land and the preferred social order,” (Rooks, 51). Not much has changed since. Nowadays, Black school systems still suffer from unequal funding, have inadequate facilities, like in Baltimore where they cannot even provide heat in the winter to the students.

    Part of the problem is that after the Jim Crow era, the state still has not invested in the city and its Black community. A clear example of this was when Spiro Agnew was governor of Maryland. Riots followed after the death of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968, and Agnew summoned Black leaders to the state capitol to demand that they help restore order, but offered nothing to the city or to help Black communities in any way, (Baum, 2010). This lack of investment reveals a clear disdain for the city of Baltimore. Interestingly, Agnew went on to become vice president under Richard Nixon and continued this policy of “benign neglect” of urban centers for decades to come. Cities like Baltimore around the country, therefore, lived with this divestment which compounded over four decades. We can trace the problems that many cities face today to this period.

    This disdain for the city became clear when advocates appealed to the state for funds to fix its crumbling school buildings. In 2012, the ACLU’s education reform project along with others proposed leveraging bonds to pay for school renovations that were long overdue. The state agreed as long as the city promised to shut down 26 of its 200 schools. Sheepishly, the city agreed to this, but the process of closing schools has been more difficult than the city bargained for. The city used metrics of under-performance and under-enrollment to close schools. Given the historic lack of investment in the schools and neighborhoods of Baltimore that has occurred over decades (Baum, 2010 Pietila, 2010), the blunt instrument used to determine which schools to close led to closures in the most low income and the neighborhoods with the most Black people, what is now commonly known in Baltimore as the Black Butterfly.

 In 2015, public outrage blew up when Freddie Gray, an unarmed Black man, died in police custody. Schools shut down while the city dealt with the public uprising. People poured into the streets demanding justice not just in this case, but justice for the decades of disinvestment into Black communities that resulted in the conditions that created neighborhoods in which poverty was endemic and police brutality was a daily reality. The state, once again, responded with disdain for the city. The governor called the mayor to task for not getting her city under control, and demanded that there be law and order.

    A few days later, schools opened again and teachers resumed their work without paper for photocopiers, without heat in the dead of winter, and without support for students experiencing trauma. In spite of this, teachers had discussions with their students about structural racism, the police and police brutality, inter-generational poverty, and how to get involved in making change in the city.

   Suddenly, it seemed as if advocating for more school funding was important, but not enough to ensure justice for the teachers and the children of Baltimore. The organizing work at the state level to ensure equity in funding was certainly on everyone’s minds, but there was a sense that more needed to be done, and that the leaders that had been at the helm were not going to be able to bring more back to Baltimore. A change was coming.

    

The role of the teacher’s union

   For many years, the Baltimore Teachers Union (BTU) has argued for more funding and increased salaries for its members. It was so committed to the latter, in particular, that it negotiated a contract which included merit pay. The 2010 contract was hailed by groups across the country promoting school choice as a ”progressive contract.” Many teachers were unhappy with this contract negotiation, and thought it did not address many of the issues that were important to teachers. In fact, teachers voted against the contract in the first round and the AFT (the national teachers’ union) sent in organizers to persuade teachers to agree to the contract. What is more, the superintendent at the time, Andres Alonso, who was instrumental in expanding existing alternative certification programs (i.e. Teach for America), rallied those teachers, in particular, to support the contract, which promised items inline with his neoliberal approach to reform, like an end to seniority as the only way to earn more.

 Although there was a public statement expressing excitement about the new contract, city teachers were much more divided than the press about the contract let on. Mirroring union members around the country that were disaffected with their union leadership, many Baltimore teachers wanted their union to fight for more than the bread and butter issues for teachers. They wanted a union that would fight for better conditions for teachers, students, whole schools and communities. These teachers wanted a social justice union, focused on justice for Black students whose neighborhoods have been disinvested in for too long.

   Like union leadership in other cities, the leadership in Baltimore’s Teachers Union (BTU) has been the same for many years, elected by a tiny slice of the rank and file membership. Only 1200 or 6000 members voted in the last election in 2016, giving the current president, Marietta English, her eighth term in the position. In the last recent attempt, in 2016, teacher Kimberly Mooney lost to English by a small margin. Among teachers, she lost by only seven votes (paraprofessionals also vote in the election), suggesting that there was and is dissatisfaction with current leadership. Mike Miazga, a veteran teacher, said,“I make more money than I thought I would ever be able to make as a teacher, but there are too many things I don’t hear coming from the BTU. I feel like their focus is not the focus of the teachers and students a lot of times, and I wanted a different voice.”

    Over the last several years, there have been groups of teachers trying to organize and present alternative visions of what the union could be, but none have had grown beyond a few members. In 2015, a group of teachers decided to be a little more deliberate in their efforts. They came together informally, just like some groups in the past, but began by learning. They read common texts, visited union caucuses in other cities (i.e. CORE in Chicago), and regularly discussed their vision for schools in Baltimore. Through this process built durable relationships with each other, reached out to others, and began to identify leaders among them. This group called themselves, BMORE, the Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators.

Stories that describe BMORE’s development

by BMORE teachers (Corey Gaber, Cristina Duncan-Evans, and Natalia Bacchus)

  One of the things that was important for us during the beginning was that we were just forming was getting a strong sense of who we were as a group. One key piece of that was to think about who we were in relationship to a Black city like Baltimore. As a group, we spent a lot of time talking and thinking about race. We knew that race equity and Black leadership were important qualities for us, but it took us a while to figure out what that meant, and specifically what about Black leadership in Baltimore was significant for us. We also needed to stay secretive and closeted for a long time because as a small group we knew that the people who were part of our initial group would have an outsized impact on how we would eventually be perceived. So, when establishing our own identity we tried very consciously to avoid being co-opted by strident leftists whose mansplaining alienated would-be allies; neoliberals who want to use market-based ideas to “improve” the union; and people whose animosity towards the union leadership was nothing but thinly veiled anti-blackness.

    We used this slow period to also build relationships with each other, bringing food and drinks to book club gatherings where we read about similar efforts around the country. Developing trust was crucial because there is a long history of folks claiming to be supportive of social justice movements, and then turning elsewhere when presented with an opportunity to personally rise through the ranks. We were set on this not happening to us, and to building a solid community of educators that made decisions democratically. It meant we would eventually be comfortable saying, “Cristina, can you handle that?” “Natalia, can you represent us at this event?” “Corey, can you write up something on this issue?” Over time, we were able to rely on each other knowing that our team would handle it well, without having to peer over each others shoulders. Now we have a steering committee with seven people representing elementary, middle, high school, traditional schools, charter schools, teachers, para-professionals.  Five of our seven members are people of color, and that is intentional.

      We first had to develop our knowledge base, and that happened in discussions as well as reading together. By talking though, we realized that our working conditions were severe and we needed to address them. Teaching can be such an overwhelming and isolating profession that it’s easy to not even know what’s going on elsewhere in your school, much less across the district. Consciousness grew tremendously as a result of listening to stories from teachers around the city.  Teachers of ESOL students explained, for example, their teachers work to protect their families from ICE outside of the building. These students were also being asked to take the PARCC test, and their teachers would be evaluated in part based on those results. We gained greater empathy for the work of the Black para-professionals, who shoulder a disproportionate load of the behavior management side of teaching with ⅓ of the pay.

  There was also a lot of invisible work that we needed to do to build our own common knowledge base. In our group we did research on the history of underfunding, which allowed us to properly frame the facilities issue in the context of decades of state abdication of responsibility. Bouncing different potential ideas off of other teachers we knew allowed us to craft something quickly that accounted for a variety of perspectives. Talking on the phone with principals we knew gave us another angle when considering a solution that worked for all people on the ground in school buildings. Without this prior invisible work, we couldn’t have churned out such a thoughtful list of demands that caught on and allowed concerned citizens to channel their outrage into a tangible path forward.

    That said, we feel that, in many ways the circumstances of teaching in Baltimore are the hardest that they have ever been, which gives limited energy for organizing, but the issues are so pressing that they need organizing in order to solve them. In January 2018, the temperatures dropped below freezing for days on end. There were schools across the city without heat. There were reports of teachers and students in classrooms with hats, coats, and gloves to make it through the school day. One teacher even launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for winter wear. This was a crisis. The school board got an earful from community members at their January 10th meeting, and still had no solution to offer. This was a great organizing opportunity for BMORE, we reacted quickly and it taught us how to do a campaign in a short period of time. Learning how to be public and loud was the last important piece of the puzzle that we started, and having an immediate outrage to respond to was a teachable moment.

    We put out a set of demands  in English and Spanish about the school temperature which asked for transparency, communication, a clear plan, and to close schools if the conditions were too cold for students and teachers. The district answered the demands, and eventually the governor stepped in to provide emergency funding. This campaign put us on the map, and got us working in coalition with many other groups around the city.

    After the temperature crisis subsided, we returned to our October conversation about  doing a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Baltimore, like many other groups of teachers in other cities had done. We were all 100% behind the idea, and also terrified of taking on another project on our own. Committing to something that extended beyond our current capacity forced us to reach out in partnership to other groups we admired from afar. Originally, we thought we’d get some t-shirts and do a single event. The response from Baltimore Algebra Project, Dr. Lawrence Brown, a professor of public health at Morgan State University, and so many other individuals and organizations was so overwhelming that we ended up having an entire week’s worth of events. One key event was our Black Teachers Matter panel discussion at a local elementary school. At it, we showed this video, which conveyed the loss of Black teachers in our city which stands now only at 40%.

     The week garnered enough positive attention that people now know BMORE. With our name on the map, other groups are now reaching out to us, eager to partner, and inspired by the work we’re putting in. This makes us think BMORE can be the kind of group that connects the dots between the people on the ground doing real work in the community, and lift up the voices of those who are traditionally and systematically ignored.

      The ongoing challenge that we face is the nitty gritty of organizing. We got a lot of attention. We have been embraced by Black-led community organizations, but we need to expand our base of teachers. We needed more teachers to actually show up for meetings and the work. There seemed to be general support, but not consistent energy to move folks to add an additional obligation after the school day. In many ways, we needed to remain true to what we started, and continue to build relationships with teachers as much as we can. We could not let our visibility distract us from that. It took CORE (Chicago’s social justice teacher caucus) years before they were ready to take over their union leadership, which they did in 2010. We had to take a page out of their book, and continue to do the challenging work of organizing.  We also had to recognize that the work is slow. If we just got everybody involved in BMORE, without considering that the people most likely to join up would be those with the most resources, time, and lack of discrimination on the worksite, we would be stuck with only liberal white teachers who over time, would create a white space that was no longer safe for educators of color to join and speak out at. We were very conscious of staying true to our original goal for Black leadership. After all, we are in a Black city.   

  Looking forward, we looked nationally and locally to build our power in order to transform the BTU from a service union to a social justice union. We believe educators should be proactively leading the efforts to advocate for, protect and improve our profession AND the communities where our students live.  Public education serves the common good, and labor unions do the important work of protecting it from exploitation and privatization. We understand that public education is a tool for liberation and essential to a functioning democracy.

We will work to counteract Baltimore’s history of structural racism by intentionally promoting the voices and leadership of educators of color within our group. We intend to amplify the power of the people through relationship building and providing educators the tools to organize their schools and communities.

    Part of achieving this vision was running delegates for election so that we can be represented at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) national convention in Pittsburgh summer 2018 (we have 33 candidates on the ballot). Locally, we planned a one day teacher organizing workshop as part of a week long coalition event commemorating the events of 1968, called Baltimore Freedom Summer. We submitted 850 petition signatures from BTU members to amend the BTU constitution to make voting more accessible. We are a regular presence at school board meetings and smaller work groups adding teacher voice to conversations around curriculum, teacher evaluation, and the recruitment and retention of black teachers in the district. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we put together a slate for the next Baltimore Teachers Union election. After a lot of organizing at individual schools, hosting events, and a social media campaign, we won! We succeeded ousting an 8-term union president. The Baltimore Teachers Union will be represented by teachers and para-professionals who have commitments to social justice and equity.  

 

My comments sent to Maryland’s Kirwan Commission on education

Kirwan

Dear Commissioner Kirwan,

I write to you not only as a private citizen and taxpayer, but as a parent of two public school children and a professor of education who has taught and studied education policy for twenty years. I wanted to begin by commending the commission for putting the spotlight on education equity as an issue that needs attention. My children are not receiving the kind of education that I had growing up because of its slow reduction of schooling to its bare bones- literacy and math. As a teacher and researcher, I see the inequities that schools face depending on the zip code in which they are located. In one of the wealthiest states in the nation, there is no reason that the conditions of schooling should be this way.

I know that you and the members of the commission share my concern about the state of our public schools, but our ways of addressing the problems we face are very different. For me, I think that the people that know the answers to how to solve our problems in schools are the people who are most impacted by the schools- students and teachers. We do not have any students represented on the commission and only one teacher. As a result there have been blind spots, many of which were pointed out in Dr. Toldson’s remarks on November 14, 2018. Toldson suggested that the commission pay attention to the stakeholders who were arguing for racial equity, which the commission had overlooked in its initial workgroup recommendations.  Racial equity, not just a focus on concentrated poverty, would lead to a redistribution of school funds so that the students in Baltimore, for example, where we have the largest concentration of Black students and of poverty, would not only get their fair share of funding pie, but would also get extra funding to compensate for the many years they received less than their fair share.

Another blindspot has to do with the issue of the recruitment and retention of a diverse teaching force. Teaching certainly needs to be elevated and salaries need to increase, as the commission recommends. However, research and experience tell us that in order to get the kind of teachers we want, we need to make the conditions of teaching attractive and supportive to people who teach. As a former teacher myself, I wanted three things: (1) A supportive principal (i.e. one that cared about my professional development),  (2) A flexible curriculum (i.e. that allowed for cultural responsive pedagogies), and (3) An opportunity to build culture and community with students and families. Richard Ingersoll, an expert on teacher retention, recently showed that teachers of color are leaving at higher rates than white teachers. In order to shift this, we will need more than salary increases. The commission will need to explore what obstacles need to be removed (i.e. high stakes testing, teacher evaluation based on tests) and which supports  (i.e. quality professional development) need to be put in place so that principals and teachers can have the freedom to serve students well.

A third blindspot is around how to address struggling students and schools. The commission refers to struggling students as “at risk,” which as Dr. Toldson points out, is a dated term that describes students as deficient. Thus, the solution the commission has suggested is to correct what is wrong with the students. However, another way to approach the issue of struggling students is to broadly examine the root causes why students struggle. To address those causes, the commission will find that students need more than extra tutoring or a higher bar to reach. They need access to regular healthy meals, culturally responsive curricula, and health and mental health services, enrichment programs, among other supports. The community school model comes the closest to this, but even those schools do not provide all that students need.

From where I sit, the commission has had a difficult time. One reason seems to be because it is working from a paradigm that reflects a desire to compete on the global stage. If we are truly going to compete, and I am not necessarily endorsing that as the goal for our schools, we should be asking the people most impacted by schools how to improve them. Teachers and students understand the issues of schools better than anyone. They understand the need for equity, for improved conditions for teachers, and for stronger supports for students.

There are many other issues to discuss, and am happy if I am ever invited to do so. However, for now, I am hoping that you will take these comments into consideration as the commission finalizes its recommendations.

Sincerely,

Jessica Shiller

 

Four key areas for public school advocates to work on now!

It is an understatement to say that those who work with public schools are not thrilled with the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Her aversion to public schooling is on display every time she speaks publicly. Since public schools are not getting any help from Washington, it is on all of us to defend public education now.

There are lots of issues in education to take on, and some will dispute me on these, but here are four critical areas of work that I think need to be taken on to help public schools now:

 

Screenshot 2018-03-21 18.38.34

  1. School safety: Support the the right of children to attend schools without worry of gun violence, as well as restorative practices so that schools are actively peaceful places. The drive for these changes come straight from the youth themselves, from the Black Lives Matter campaign and the Parkland students.
  2. Fight for funding and salary increases: There are teachers all over the country that are working very hard for little pay. Each year there are increasing demands on teachers from having the burden of too much testing to cuts in mental health and social supports for students, all while more and more students in poverty show up at schoolhouse doors every day.  The arts and libraries have been cut dramatically from school. The need for funding in public schools is critical, and living wage for teachers is a crucial part of increasing the funding to schools. Many states around the country are involved in battles over school funding. In Maryland, where I live, there are two bills at the state legislature now to increase school funding, but only one HB557 is demanding that school funding be increased immediately. Find your local bill or organization to support in this struggle.
  3. Protecting unions: Teachers are striking around the country. They have had it with state austerity plans that drain their schools and their pensions of funding, while asking teachers to do more with less every day. Teachers buy their own school supplies, take on second jobs, and still find time to coach, run an after school program, or sit on the PTA.  SCOTUS is considering a case now that will make or break unions. Known as the Janus case, the court is deciding whether union membership can be optional essentially. If the court decides that union membership is optional, then we can say goodbye to union protections for teachers and many other workers. This would be destructive to teachers who would suddenly have no job protection, and would discourage future teachers from going into the field.  The final decision should come down in June and will tell us if the unions will continue to strengthen or will this be their last gasp.
  4. Combat privatization: Our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is trying promote privatization throughout the public school system. She just submitted a budget in which pubic school funding would be slashed, cutting after school programs and professional development for teachers while increasing funding for vouchers and other school choice schemes. Call you legislators to tell them to turn down this budget, and to not approve a new one unless it fully supports public schools.

In the news….

Screenshot 2017-12-18 14.45.22    Recently, I wrote an op-ed in a local online magazine called The Baltimore Brew. I wrote about the state of Maryland’s appointed commission to address education inequity, The Kirwan Commission. Kirwan, as it is known locally, had as its main charge to deal with funding inequity in the state to address disparities between poor and affluent school districts. In Maryland, this comes down to a decision to fully fund Baltimore’s, mostly Black schools. The commission had a year to come up with a new funding plan, and did not. This was disappointing to many, but as I say in the piece, there is not enough political will to pressure the commission into coming up with a solution to this issue.  Rather, we are content to demonize the poorest, and Blackest communities, leaving them without the funding needed to educate and support children.

I was happy to see that a lot of people read my article, and it got me recognized in several other local media outlets. I appeared on Maryland Public Television, debating the issue of school funding as well as the Real News Network, and The Baltimore Sun. I was also able to make the case again that school closings are linked to the problems of funding because the lack of adequate funds have drained the schools of resources for years, causing their inability to meet student needs. What continues to happen in Baltimore is closing of schools that are in the center of Black communities, leaving them without community resources.

Of course, it is great that the local media is picking up this story, but there are still not enough people engaged in the debate and conversation about school funding and school closings. It is a larger conversation about whether we value public education, and for whom we think public education should be available. We need to all invest in this dialogue. Without public education, many young people (mainly Black and Brown) and their families would not have access to food, social services, community space, organized recreational activities, as well as schooling. The time is now to engage so that we can advocate for racial equity in public education.

Reflections on race, school reform, and working in urban education

I will have an article coming out this year in the Urban Review that examines the impact of closing schools in Baltimore. School closings disproportionately impact low income Black communities. The piece was not just another research report on the damaging impact that school reform has on communities of color, however. It uses the frameworks of Critical Race Theory and Decolonizing methodologies to think about not only how this policy plays out to reify racism, but it is also a reflection on my own role as a white researcher. I worked with a community organization to do research on school closings, which was a great experience, but still fraught with the problems of race and power inequity. There is no escaping these issues. I continue to reflect, but also acknowledge that there is no end to racism, just continual recognition, reflection, and attempt to shift power from universities and white faculty to Black organizations and communities.

The problem we all live with…

300px-The-problem-we-all-live-with-norman-rockwellRecently This American Life did a two part series on school integration. These episodes were  the first time I had heard anyone publicly address the issue of school integration in a long time. School integration, while tried and was successful in some places, has been largely abandoned as a school reform strategy. The first episode deals with a black school district outside of St. Louis, not far from Ferguson, that lost its state accreditation. Families in the district, called Normandy, were offered spots in a nearby white district. When white families heard about the Normandy students coming to their district, they protested. White families went into arguments about worrying about their school district losing accreditation and fears of violence when the new children came into their schools. One white woman even said, “this is not about race,” but clearly it was. What else could it be about? Similar arguments were used in Yonkers to keep blacks from moving in to white sections of town in the 1980’s depicted in David Simon’s Show Me A Hero where whites worried about declining property values.

Today we are more segregated than ever, or what some people have called, hyper-segregated. Living separate lives have led to tremendous misunderstandings, resource inequity, and violence. It’s really time to deal with racial fears that prevent us from improving schools and urban life in general.

So, when people ask me what will improve public schools? Or, how do we reform urban schools? I say we will need to deal with racism in order to improve all of our public schools. That sounds overwhelming or perhaps even dismissive, but it is neither. It is a way of saying that we need to think systemically, and to not blame poor communities of color for failed schools. We need to start with ourselves and begin where #Blacklivesmatter activists demand that we do by admitting our role in racial inequity, reconcile, and move from there.

What is happening in the suburbs? Are they the new cities?

suburban poverty When we think about the suburbs, we think affluence- big houses and lawns, not poverty. But the suburbs are becoming increasingly poor. The Brookings Institute published a report recently that explained how poverty grew by 66% in suburban communities across the country since 2000. They are also increasingly populated by people of color, and before too long whites will be in the minority altogether.

The suburbs did not start out that way, and were founded more as an escape for whites fleeing “urban” people and problems. Starting in the 1980’s, that started to change as people of color started to move to the suburbs in larger numbers and immigrants by-passed cities in favor of suburban communities.

The suburbs did not change to meet this influx of new residents though, leading to serious inequity: unequal access to employment, stable housing, and healthcare. One obvious example is transportation. The suburbs privilege transport by car, low income families who rely on public bus transportation have many more obstacles to accessing services, attending job fairs, going to work or going to school board meetings.

Problems like these do not just require a simple policy shift. They require those with power to share it in order to address the problems that are being created. That will involve spending dollars in a new way. Now that the suburbs are facing problems similar to those of cities, perhaps they can get ahead of the curve. Suburban districts need to build low income housing, health clinics, and new public transportation. Resources may need to be shifted to fund more translation services, social services, and to support bi-lingual programs in schools. These changes won’t come easy but are necessary if there is hope of equity in the ‘burbs.

My new book, The New Reality, coming out in Fall of 2015 will detail how these dynamics are playing out in suburban schools. It contains case studies of middle schools trying to sort out how to meet the needs of the students that they face when the infrastructure of the suburbs does not provide for the students and their families.

Smalltimore

thumb_white_districts Baltimore is not a large city, and one frequently runs into people s/he knows. Because of that, sometimes people in Baltimore refer to the city as Smalltimore.  Andy Ellis, a Baltimore activist and debate coach working with Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle, suggests that Baltimore’s Smalltimore-ness is a

 

Click here to view the map in a new window.

result of racial segregation in the city.  Whites interact with other whites and imagine the city to be small, but in actuality they are only interacting with a small portion of the population.  Here is what he has to say:

Baltimore City is a majority Black city. This should come as no surprise to anyone who lives here or knows anything about the city (even if that knowledge only comes from “The Wire”).

It is however worth discussing for a bit, because as such it is a relative anomaly among cities its size. I think it is important to understand how unique Baltimore is among American cities in this regard, because majority Black political entities are rare in the United States. Even more rare in large cities. Among all cities in the US with over 100,000 population Baltimore ranks 21st in size with ~620,000 residents. It Ranks 7th in Total African American or Black Population with ~399,000 residents.

This city has a long history as a central location for Black life on the east coast and in America. There are plenty of places to learn about this history and how it relates to the present. People jokingly call it “Smalltimore”, and it’s a huge part of its appeal.

I have always had an uneasy reaction to the term “Smalltimore” when used by white folks who moved here as adults (like myself). That being said, I have somewhat embraced some of the potential meanings. “Smalltimore” is a place of “memorable restaurants” where “some of the brightest minds come to this city every day” (emphasis added) to embrace diverse neighborhoods, amazing educational opportunities, and harbor front communities. All in a small setting where you can almost always run into people you know.

But what is “Smalltimore”? Why does it feel so small?

In “Smalltimore,” not only do a large majority of white people live in communities with a larger percentage of white people than the city-wide average, but in fact most live in communities where white people are the majority.

There are 55 neighborhoods in Baltimore. 31 of those neighborhoods have a percentage of African American population higher than the citywide average. These neighborhoods have a total population of 360,000.They are on average 89% black, 8% white, 2% Hispanic, and 1% Asian.

The other 24 neighborhoods, with a percentage of black population below the city average, comprise a total population of 256,000 people. This grouping of neighborhoods is on average 28% black, 60% white, 5%Asian, 8% Hispanic, 1% Native American, and 2% other. The last time Baltimore was as small as “Smalltimore” was between the 1860 and 1870 Census. Even then, Baltimore had the largest free Black population in the nation. Then as now, “Smalltimore” is not a monolith, it is a place of “diverse neighborhoods.” 24, to be exact.

Race is an important component of understanding Baltimore. The construction of Smalltimore is based on establishing and defending a series of white spaces on top of a Black City. What is interesting to me is why white people find comfort in white spaces, seemingly without the ability to see those spaces as white.

Bringing wisdom from D. Watkins

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I teach a course focused on urban education and racial equity at Towson University. I have mostly white students, and so I try to embed them in the experience of working in Baltimore’s schools, which are mainly Black. Another thing that we do is read from multiple perspectives and hear from Black authors, community organizers, and teachers. Yesterday we were lucky to have D. Watkins visit our classroom. We also invited middle and high school students that we work with to attend this session as well. The collective conversation was amazing to watch, but mostly we listened and learned. Watch some of the video here:

 

 

Envisioning equity

Screenshot 2017-10-20 15.00.25 The idea of equity is something that I have been hearing a of people talking about in schools and at the university.  With the failure of policies like No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, and Race to the Top to “fix schools” and solve intractable problems like the achievement gap, now educators have turned to equity as a possibility.  Education leaders and educators themselves have begun to realize that academic achievement will not be resolved by curriculum or testing fixes, but what do we mean when we talk about equity?

Equity is different than equality. Equality is providing everyone the same thing. Equity is acknowledging the differences between people, and providing what they need to succeed.  Equity is harder work, and forces us to examine historical and institutional nature of inequality.  Once we engage in that process, we have to go along the journey of continually checking ourselves around the ways in which we contribute to and enact inequity in our every day so  that we can interrupt it.  Those of us who are white have an important role to play because so much of what we do reifies inequity. We are blind to it often, and until we go down the road of deep self-reflection, we cannot notice how we are contributing to inequity.

For the first time, my university, a predominantly white institution, began to open up a space for dialogue and reflection around equity in education. They spent the day on October 7th listening and learning about how to apply a racial equity lens.  The whole day, which we entitled Envisioning Equity, allowed educators at public schools, universities, non-profits, community centers, to start to explore what equity can look like in classrooms, in whole schools, as part of discipline practices, in access to the arts. Here is a video one of my students made about the day. It is optimistic because they are hopeful about equity. I am a little more realistic in that I think this will take hard work, and some people will not be up for it, but I do believe it’s a start.

Helping suburban schools understand equity

Lots of people are talking now about how to “do equity” in their schools. It is gaining traction because of a failure of schools over decades to meet the needs of students of color in schools, but equity is not easy. Equity is not a program to be implemented or a best practice to be mimicked in classrooms. It is a lens through which all school practices can be seen and worked on. From classroom teaching to analyzing school-wide data to implementing just and fair discipline practices, equity is a stance that educators can take to move away from the usual practices of implementing curriculum or complying with state mandates to thinking about what is good for children and what will best meet their needs. To that end, I gave a presentation to social studies teachers in suburban Maryland about how to think about this equity lens. Teachers in suburban schools especially need to understand the notion of equity well because their demographics are changing rapidly, and given that most teachers are white, they need shift their practice to do what is right for their students.

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