Category Archives: Civic Engagement and Activism

Activism is the vehicle for school change

When I moved to Baltimore, in 2010, the prevailing wisdom was that in order to change the public schools, advocates needed to pursue one main course of action: To get more funds from the state. The schools and the city had been neglected and divested from for so many decades (which was certainly true), that the city was in desperate need of funds. Every spring there was a big push to mobilize parents, students, and teachers to ride to the state capitol and demonstrate for funds, lobby legislators, testify at hearings for  increased funding. Even locally within the city, advocates pushed for public and private partnerships and pressured the city to provide more funds for the schools.

Very few people involved in this advocacy work discussed what these funds would be used for, or publicly imagined what school should look like in the city. Maybe people were so busy describing the deplorable conditions to politicians, philanthropists, and the media, that they did not have much energy to imagining possibilities. But in reality, there was a lack of public imagination beyond some well worn, yet not so successful strategies, like expanding charter schools.

Years later, I can say that the landscape has shifted dramatically. The Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators (BMORE), a small group of teachers who have been dissatisfied with their union and have decided to organize a group of their own. Inspired by CORE in Chicago and the Caucus of Working Educators in Philadelphia, these teachers have both acknowledged that they are union members, but want to differentiate themselves from the traditional union leadership that has fought for bread and butter issues, and have  articulated a serious commitment to racial justice. This is something that we have seen in other teachers’ unions around the country, especially in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles.  It has taken a while to get a foothold in Baltimore. This small group has grown slowly, but really started to hit their stride this year, and now they have taken off.

The recent crisis around the temperature in Baltimore’s schools has changed the context, and people who have been dissatisfied with the school system for many years have Black teacher matterdecided to get involved, attend meetings, go to events and demonstrations. When the schools had to close in January because there was no heat in many of them, and there was fundraising for space heaters and warm coats for students and classrooms people had had enough. BMORE was right there at the January school board meeting and testified about these unacceptable conditions. They are now working on a legislative agenda at the state level as well as ongoing activism within Baltimore’s schools to ensure that there are more teachers of color, more culturally responsive curricula, and more communication and transparency from the school district about decision-making.

This week BMORE is organizing a week of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside similar events nationwide. Next on their agenda will be pushing for legislation to earmark funding that gets generated from a local casino to go to public schools. The momentum is building to ensure that the public commitment to education has some accountability to local teachers and students. By next year, there will be a new union election at the Baltimore Teachers Union, and BMORE plans to run a slate of teachers to challenge the incumbent leaders who have held office for decades. This is an exciting turn of events in which there is a movement to advance a positive and clear agenda for public schools, not one that simply criticizes. BMORE is working in partnership with the youth at the Baltimore Algebra Project, and has the power to grow much more, and more than anything Baltimore has seen in many years has the power to change public schools in the city.

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.

Bringing wisdom from D. Watkins

Screenshot 2017-11-08 08.49.16

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



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.


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.


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