Category Archives: Civic Engagement and Activism

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:

 

 

Free Minds, Free People

IMG_0916   Free Minds Free People, or FMFP, is a space where youth and adults can converge to discuss social justice and education for liberation. This year it was in Baltimore at Loyola University. FMFP is a space like no other, where folks come together to discuss praxis, the blending of theory and practice. Folks discussed the decolonization of schools and universities, ethnic studies, youth-led movements, and emancipatory teaching.

I was proud to be a member of the planning team and a presenter. But it was the youth of the Baltimore Algebra Project, who led the charge. Without them, the conference would not have come together. It was an impressive effort that should be a model for any conference on social justice. There were vegan meals, childcare, and safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ community.  There was art, music, and poetry.  And there was a march in solidarity with immigrant communities facing raids and deportation by ICE.

IMG_0918   My presentation was about how teachers are working in a classroom in the time of the Trump administration. It was a great collaboration between faculty and teachers. The well-attended workshop was an example of how folks can come together to reimagine educational spaces as well as form networks of support in a climate in which people committed to social justice are being targeted.

Kudos to the Algebra Project, and look out for Free Minds Free People 2019!

 

Public schools and budget crises

 

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Bake sales are being put on to raise money for buses to get students to and from after school programs. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s school system faces a $130 million dollar deficit, and layoffs are imminent. In a wealthy state, like Maryland, you might say that the school system and the city are being starved for funds. Locally, observers have said the city has mismanaged its own funds or the population loss  over the last ten years  has impacted funding.

Wherever you lay the blame, there is no doubt that the cash-strapped city needs help. As CEO of schools, Sonja Santilisses argues, there needs to be a new funding formula. The city cannot meet the needs of its students with the resources it currently has. Given the impact of  poverty has on students, the city needs more funds to provide the kinds of programming and services that students in poverty need, not the least of which are bus passes that allow them to get to after school programs.

The CEO is running the school system to the best of her ability, given then context, acting swiftly, for example when a city teacher lashed out at her students screaming racial epithets. Yet,  the fact remains is that there is not much in place to support the daily work of school staff. School staff in urban districts are used to working without, but there has never been a time where the need is so great. It is clear from the evidence from Detroit and New Orleans, the needs of Baltimore’s young people will not be resolved through school choice, nor will they be resolved by the school renovations proposed by the 21st century plan.  Children come to city schools hungry, tired, and having experienced trauma caused by the violence of inequity. They need resources wrapped around them.

Yet, states have been reluctant to provide their cities with enough funding to thrive.  In New York, for example, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity has gone to court multiple times to demand that the state legislature give New York City schools the funding that they needed, but have been deflected many times over the last decade and a half when they began their campaign.  In New Jersey, a court decision now known as the Abbott decision  provided low income districts with funding equal to wealthier districts, but ever since wealthy districts have fought the decision and found ways not to equalize funding.

In Maryland, there is the Bridge to Excellence Act, better known as Thornton, which required equity in school funding back in 2002. Still every year, advocates in Baltimore fight for funding from the state for the schools. Thornton has never been fully funded. This raises the question about what would be required for the state to adequately fund public schools so that there would be no annual battle over school funding.

The larger context is important here. The confirmation of Betsy de Vos for Secretary of Education, and the close vote to clear her nomination, suggests that public schools in general may not be a priority more generally. Consequently, those interested in public schools will need to fight hard for funding and for a vision of public education that might compel legislators to think of it as a priority. Public schools are the only institution in the country that serve everyone: youth of all social classes, of all races and ethnicities, and of young people of any immigrant status.  They provide meals, shelter, counseling, and education to young people regardless of who they are. While public schools need to be improved in many ways, limiting their funding is the wrong course of action. It would take away the one resources that many communities have to support their children.

 

What do schools do post presidential election?

By now the election of 2016 is over. Donald Trump is the president elect of the United States. Leading up to the election, the country was engaged– or at least glued to social media– as this election was like no other. There were personal attacks, accusations of law-breaking, tampering to gain the advantage, and grandiose promises. Comedians took this and ran. Saturday Night Live may have had its most-watched series of episodes as it lampooned the debates between the candidates.  As adults were consumed with every move that Trump and Clinton made this fall, young people were as well. In response, schools across the country held discussions, civics lessons, and mock elections. It was a great time to be a teacher of English and social studies as it was an incredible opportunity to teach debate, rhetoric, government, and the electoral process.

However, this election was also filled with discrimination and hate. There was talk of inner cities as “hell,” banning Muslims from entering the country, and objectifying and belittling of women. The election also elevated talk of law and order in response to police brutality and immigrants as dangerous.  For the most part, Trump grabbed the headlines for making these insulting remarks about race, class, and gender, and young people were listening . For schools, it was an opportunity for all teachers to discuss systemic oppression as well as tolerance  with their students in the classroom.

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As a teacher educator and partner to public schools, I saw teachers engage in dialogue  about civics and debate as well we tolerance and hate.  There were resources flying around the internet and discussions about how to teach the election. Some teachers shared their own feelings with students to open up the classroom dialogue, to make discussions less abstract, and more personal about the country’s current state and its future. As the election ended, however, things become more tense. In my blue state of Maryland, many teachers were very surprised that Trump would be elected. Many students were too, and came to school on November 9, 2016 with tears, questions, and fear as well. Teachers were tasked with helping students as young as 5 with discussing the election. In my own children’s schools, there were amazing discussions about feeling about the election, how the electoral college works, how Trump won, and implications of his presidency. With so many students and teachers who felt the same way about the election, the classrooms were by and large peaceful, safe spaces for children and teachers to share their perspectives. There were many schools that fell into this category.

In other schools I visited, however, there were different things going on. In a number of schools I was in, Latino students reported students– of all other races– saying things like, “bye, bye” and “guess I won’t be seeing you anymore.” There were reports of this around the country. From California to Michigan to my own context in Baltimore, there were reports of this kind of hatred, from micro-agressions to hate speech and attacks. There were also reports of similar incidents regarding Muslim students. On the other side, there were also calls for tolerance and unity. Teachers largely took that stand in the schools I visited, letting students know that they were safe in the school and that as a school community they should all try to get along.

Of course tolerance and unity is a positive message to send to young people, but with the teachers I spoke with, it was often a defensive posture rather than a rallying cry. It was a way to avoid talking about conflict and racism. I spoke to teachers who were not sure of what to say when students in their class made racist remarks. They were not sure how to keep their Latino or Muslim or other targeted students safe. Rather than engage, one teacher told me that she spent 10 minutes letting students discuss the election and then it was onto math! There is a long history of teachers avoiding conflict. Diane Hess, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has written:

“Even when teachers believe a topic is a controversial issue, they do not necessarily include it in their curricula. When talking with a group of high school teachers about what Supreme Court cases they think deserve attention in high schools, I encountered an example of avoidance: virtually all of them said they did not teach Roe v. Wade (1973) though they acknowledged it was a landmark case and that abortion rights were still an important controversial issue in the United States. Their reasons for avoiding this controversy fell into two categories. First, some teachers were afraid that the very mention of abortion in the classroom would cause uproar in the community. More prevalent, however, was the influence of the teachers’ own views.Thus, these teachers avoided including issues in the curriculum not because they thought it was an insignificant issue, but for precisely the opposite reason: Their strong views about the issue prevented them from teaching their students about it in the pedagogically neutral fashion they assumed was possible,”(Hess, 2004).

This is interesting. For teachers avoiding the topic of racism in their classroom, it may be because of uproar, conflict, or upset parents calling the school. It also could be because they are worried that their own views may be racist or considered racist. If that is true, then we need to be really concerned as people who teach teachers and for those who supervise them once they are in the classroom. What can we do to help teachers feel comfortable with controversy in the classroom? What can we do so that they can really be allies to students who are targets of aggression and prejudice? How can they make their classroom spaces that are free for students to feel like they can express themselves without worry? There is much to say about these questions, including research and great work being done to show teachers how they might lead discussions about difficult topics. But all of it starts with a willingness to do it. Teachers, and all of us, need not to avoid conflict and always keep the peace. We actually need to actually dig into conflict and controversy and be willing to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to be uncomfortable. That will help students develop civic capacities that would assist them, as adults, in engaging in healthy political debate, which is what we need now more than ever.

 

A lesson in civics: What can we learn from the Baltimore youth sit in?

On October 14, 2015, high school and college aged students went to a hearing at City Hall in Baltimore. The goal of the hearing was to install the interim police commissioner in a permanent post in the city. City hall hearings can be long and boring, and so why did this group of young people decide to go to the meeting?

Sit in at city hall

    In April, Freddie Gray, a black man living in Baltimore, was killed by police. The protests that followed his death have awakened a new group of youth to modes of civic participation that they had not been involved in before. While there has been a long history of civic engagement and participation from youth, especially young people of color, from lunch counter sit ins to demonstrations to watchdog journalism, there is a new group of young people in Baltimore getting involved in issues of the day.

Today in Baltimore, one of the most important issue to young people, one that they are willing to risk arrest for, is the issue of policy brutality. Black communities have been the victims of police brutality in many cities, including Baltimore, over many years, but the Freddie Gray case was a turning point. Young people have formed groups at their schools and coalitions across the city, without adult leadership, to have their voices heard on police brutality.

At the October 14th hearing, they went not only to listen, but to be heard. The emotions from the spring protests are still very raw. The city and the police department have done very little to address the anger that people have over police brutality. Protests continued this fall as the pre-trial hearings for the police in the Gray case began. Again and again, young people are saying that they want reforms in the police department, to have their side of the story heard, and to see justice in police brutality cases.

Adults have failed them. The mayor, the police commissioner, city council, the governor, and the state legislature. None of them have been able to adequately address police brutality and to bring justice to consistent attacks on Baltimore’s black community. Recently, a video surfaced of a police officer spitting on a suspect. This only confirmed what young people have been saying, that the police have no respect for the black community.

So, on Thursday night, October 14th, young people went to the hearing in city hall in Baltimore to say, once again, enough is enough. They had their voices heard by occupying the meeting, and police made arrests. Sixteen of them spent the night in jail. As they did this they were engaged in critical civic praxis.  According to Ginwright and Cammarota, Critical civic praxis is focused on the civic engagement of youth, and urban youth in particular. More specifically, it is a practice in which people are “engaged with ideas, social networks, and experiences that build individual and collective capacity to struggle for social justice” (Ginwright & Cammorata, 2007, p. 693) It acknowledges “structural constraints in communities, but also views young people as active participants in changing debilitative neighborhood conditions” (p. 693). Under critical civic praxis, people “critically assess social, political, and economic structures that uphold inequality and consider collective strategies for change that challenge injustice” (Kahne & Westheimer, 2004, p. 3). Once they identify structural inequity, they may develop strategies that put pressure on elected officials to respond and undo the structures that continue inequality.

Some may view these young people as angry and without a plan. Adults usually say that about young people who protest, but these young folks do have a plan. They demand police reform including an end to the use of riot gear by police, police accountability measures, and $27 million for community schools which would provide low income communities with the services that they need to support them, like day care, healthcare, food pantries, and recreation. They cannot be easily dismissed as young people that are simply emotional; these are thoughtful demands that demonstrate that they have thought critically and are willing to engage fully in the praxis to demand justice for themselves and their communities.

Debating the value of charter schools in Baltimore

Listen to my appearance on the Marc Steiner show on September 29, 2015, where I debate charter operators in Baltimore about the merits of a lawsuit that they have filed against the city. They are arguing for more budget transparency after the city proposed a plan to lower the dollar amount that the charters would be allocated by the city. The city dropped the plan, but the charters have kept the lawsuit going. I argue that the lawsuit is a distraction from the problem of lowered funding from the state and that the governor should be the real target of protest. Moreover, the charter schools and traditional schools should be fighting together on behalf of city schools for a bugger pot of funding that the state, up until now has decreased. Charter lawsuit

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