Response to the debate about the ACIC on Save Seattle Schools blog

8 Sep

I wrote the following piece as a comment to contribute to the vigorous debate going on over at Save Seattle Schools about the Africatown Community Innovation Center (ACIC).  For background about the ACIC, see here and here.  The moderator of the Save Seattle Schools blog closed down comments and ended the discussion, so I could not post this there, and I’m posting it here instead. 

I am a young teacher with five years experience working with youth on the verge of dropping out.  Almost all of my students have been low income, and the majority are not white.

I agree with a few points folks have raised in this discussion:

  1. It’s unacceptable that the district does not have a plan for overcoming the so-called “achievement gap” (I agree with  Wyking, this is not an achievement gap, it is really a form of institutional racism).
  2.   I also agree that the so-called “education reform” groups funded by  corporate folks like Gates have NOT improved the situation for Black students, despite all of their opportunistic use of anti-racist rhetoric.

However, I also have several critical questions and points:

Melissa and others who have described yourselves as long-time activists in the district: where is your plan for overcoming racism in our schools?  You have been at it for 10 years – in that time, what have you done to dismantle institutional racism?

Change comes from the bottom up, not the top down; instead of waiting for a plan from the district, we should form one ourselves, and implement it through direct action; if the district wants to support us, that’s great; if not, we should do it despite their opposition.  Right now, the ACIC seems to be one of the only groupings independent of the corporate ed. reform groups that is trying to do that.  If I’m wrong and if some of you have other projects you are working on, please share these.

I’m impressed and inspired by how the ACIC folks have taken matters into their own hands, and I hope their actions start a larger and longer process of grassroots organizing district-wide.

Several commenters are saying we should not support the ACIC because it won’t solve the district-wide problems of racial inequality.  But it’s unfair to expect one program to do that. I see the ACIC as one part of a possible solution.  If you think it’s not enough, why not support it and then do whatever other things you think are missing yourself?  I agree with Wyking’s point at the school board meeting: the ACIC could serve as a “triage unit” for Black students while we all work together to stop the situations in schools across the district that are injuring Black students in the first place.

I am frustrated to see some of the knee-jerk “progressive” responses to ACIC – folks suggesting they are pro-charter, privatizers, ed-reformers, etc., or the suggestion that we should avoid these tensions and just go camp out on the Gates’ lawn because fighting the corporate education reformers is the “real” issue.

I am firmly opposed to corporate ed reform, but that is not the only struggle going on, and some of you are missing the forrest because you’re stuck in the trees.  You are stuck in this siege mentality of defending public education, but you’re forgetting about the need to transform it so that there is something worth defending in the first place.  To do that, we need to confront the racial inequalities – and other inequalities – that the public schools perpetuate.   The ACIC issue brings this to the forefront, and it seems like some of you are  trying to dismiss it or fit it into pre-conceived strategies of building progressive unity vs. the privatizers.  It’s not that simple.

In fact, I would suggest that if we want to win against the corporate education deformers, then we need to focus on organizing against institutionalized racism in our schools.   If we don’t do that, corporate funded groups will try to use the horrible situations that Black students face in our schools to justify anti-teacher policies, privatization, charters, etc.

The ACIC folks have made it clear they want to maintain their autonomy from such forces.  They have made it clear they are seeking autonomy to develop culturally relevant and effective curriculum for Black youth, while allying with forces across the city who are sincerely trying to transform the district schools.   How can that be anything other than a positive development?  If such an alliance fails to materialize, that will not be a failure of the ACIC leadership, it will be a failure of the largely white progressive education activists for lacking a broad enough vision of what is possible and necessary.

Finally, a quick point about race and class.  It’s not a matter of one or the other.  The district is failing nonwhite youth, and is failing low income youth.  These issues are closely related.  Because of 500+ years of institutionalized racism, a higher percentage of non-white communities are pushed into poverty than white communities.  However, in terms of absolute numbers, the majority of poor folks  in the U.S. are white, and they are also being oppressed, failed, and underserved by the public schools. I see this working with youth who are on the verge of dropping it out – some of the white youth also don’t have it easy.  But because working class and poor Black students in general are treated even worse, the system is able to dampen possible resistance from white youth and their families – people think “well, it could be worse” instead of “this is messed up, let’s fight back.”

In other words, those of you who said it’s not a zero sum game are correct, but in a different way than you originally meant.  If the ACIC and other attempts to improve the situations of Black students are successful, this is a good thing, not only for Black students but also for working class white students.  In fact, I hope that working class white parents are inspired by what parents at the ACIC are doing, and choose to take a stance like that for our own kids, in solidarity with Black parents at the ACIC.

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8 Responses to “Response to the debate about the ACIC on Save Seattle Schools blog”

  1. Charlie Mas September 12, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

    From the article:
    “Change comes from the bottom up, not the top down; instead of waiting for a plan from the district, we should form one ourselves, and implement it through direct action; if the district wants to support us, that’s great; if not, we should do it despite their opposition. Right now, the ACIC seems to be one of the only groupings independent of the corporate ed. reform groups that is trying to do that.”
    What is the ACIC plan to dismantle institutionalized racism? Where can we see it?

    • mamos206 September 12, 2013 at 10:55 pm #

      My whole point was that one should not demand they produce a complete plan before supporting their efforts as long as their efforts are moving in the right direction, which I believe they are. The burden is on all of us to come up with such a plan, not just the ACIC folks. They have made it clear they want to collaborate with sincere teachers, parents, students, and community members across the district to come up with such a comprehensive strategy. At the school board meeting, Wyking described their programming at ACIC as a “triage unit” that can reverse some of the damage that schools are doing to Black kids, while folks work together to undo the causes of that damage. I think this is a very reasonable position. If the ACIC flourishes, I think it could be one among several places in the city where an effective strategy could be developed, catalyzing city-wide organizing.

      • mamos206 September 12, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

        They have a solid plan for their own programs though, as was very clear at their public forum this summer. This is based in culturally relevant curriculum, integrating education with broader struggles for social change and racial equality in the neighborhood, and building close collaboration and trust among parents and educators.

      • Charlie Mas September 19, 2013 at 5:00 am #

        If your point is that one should not demand that the ACIC produce a complete plan, then why do you make that demand on Melissa Westbrook?

        You opened your argument with this question:

        “Melissa and others who have described yourselves as long-time activists in the district: where is your plan for overcoming racism in our schools?”

        You also wrote:

        “Several commenters are saying we should not support the ACIC because it won’t solve the district-wide problems of racial inequality.” I don’t recall people writing that. Perhaps because it’s such an obviously foolish statement that I ignored it. For you, it is a strawman argument. Likewise suggestions that the Gates Foundation is the source of the problem. These claims are absurd and do not deserve a response.

        You write that the ACIC wants “autonomy to develop culturally relevant and effective curriculum for Black youth, while allying with forces across the city who are sincerely trying to transform the district schools.” Really? Does the ACIC have the expertise to develop that curriculum? Does the ACIC have the expertise and resources to deliver that curriculum? What efforts has the ACIC made to form alliances? Would you say that their occupation of the Mann building is an overture to form an alliance with the school district and the NOVA community? If so, then it’s a fine how-do-you-do.

        I like the way that you set it up so the credit can only go one way while the blame can only go the other way:

        “If such an alliance fails to materialize, that will not be a failure of the ACIC leadership, it will be a failure of the largely white progressive education activists for lacking a broad enough vision of what is possible and necessary.” Really? Because the ACIC leadership is infallible? They are blameless little lambs who can do no wrong? Good to know.

        Here’s another question for you: if the Mann building is so important to the African-American community in the Central District, why haven’t more Black students enrolled at NOVA over the past thirty years? Enrollment to NOVA is, and has always been, available equally to every student in the district. NOVA is a democratically run school; the students decide what classes will be offered, they decide the budget, they even decide the hiring. So why hasn’t the African-American community in the Central District, who hold this building so dear, chosen NOVA in large numbers and made it into the school they want it to be? Why, over the course of thirty years, have they never made NOVA their school? That opportunity has always been there.

      • mamos206 September 29, 2013 at 6:28 am #

        Charlie and Howard, thanks for your comments. I was not demanding that Melissa provide a plan for fighting racism in the schools. My question was rhetorical. I was articulating what Howard said: “I am not sure anyone is capable of producing a plan that will actually accomplish that goal.” I had perceived that Melissa was demanding that the ACIC provide such a plan and was arguing that we should not support the ACIC unless they do. If that perception was incorrect, Melissa is welcome to clarify her position, and I’ll stand corrected. If that perception is correct, I think it’s an unreasonable demand to make on the leadership of the ACIC since the problem of race in the schools is so vast and will take nothing short of massive social upheaval to solve. Since none of us have such a plan, we should not demand this of the ACIC.

        I am not claiming the leadership of the ACIC is infallible. I am simply arguing that defenders of public education should support them and should give them a chance to develop and test their perspectives in practice. As for their credentials, they are long term community organizers in the Central District, and several of them are teachers with decades of experience teaching Black youth. I have been an activist myself for many years, and I have consistently seen the ACIC leaders supporting some of the most important organizing work going on in the C.D., mentoring new generations of activists, and teaching youth at the Umoja P.E.A.C.E. center.

        As for their attempts to form alliances, you seem to think they are willfully burning bridges by insulting the Nova community. Why is it then, that the majority of Nova staff signed onto the open letter supporting the ACIC? (https://creativitynotcontrol.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/statement-by-nova-staff-and-families-educational-justice-at-the-horace-mann-building/) Why is it that Nova students held forums with their peers to discuss the ACIC and invited a rep from the ACIC to speak? It would seem to me that efforts to dialogue with the Nova community have been quite successful.

        As an alternative school teacher, I believe that many experiments in alternative education should be tried at small scales, and if they work and prove themselves over time, we should scale them up and replicate them throughout the schools where appropriate (without adopting one-sided-fits-all standardization). I think the ACIC is an important experiment, and I would like to learn from their efforts. I trust they will assess both their own strengths and weaknesses over time, and will work to improve, sharing what they learn form this process with the broader community. That will help all of us who are teaching Black youth, and all of us who care about overcoming institutionalized racism in the schools.

        You say that you disagree with the argument that we should put these discussions aside and should all just unite against the Gates foundation. I’m glad we’re on the same page about that. I never attributed that stance to you or to Melissa. But it was stated in the comments section of your blog – I was debating the person who commented, not you. You say such perspectives are not worth engaging. I disagree; I think we need to debate these kinds of perspectives because they are far too prevalent in the movement to defend public education, and this movement will hit a roadblock unless these kinds of strategies are replaced with more nuanced approaches. I saw the same attempts to forge false unity wielded as a club in the Occupy movement to suppress more dynamic strategic thinking.

        I admit, it was sloppy of me not to provide direct quotes of the positions I was critiquing, and links to the specific comments. Next time I engage with your blog I will be sure to do so; that way, we can focus more on debating the actual issues instead of clearing up confusion.

        I am not sure why more Black students have not enrolled at Nova, and I agree with Howard that ti’s a good question. I have several theories, but I’d have to talk to more folks in the Black community before jumping to any conclusions. Like Howard said, I was a newborn baby 30 years ago.

        Thanks again for commenting.

    • mamos206 September 13, 2013 at 7:57 pm #

      Also, I just saw this on Facebook.

      THE SEATTLE PUBLIC SCHOOL BOYCOTT PLATFORM
      Organization: More4MANN

      1. Maintain Horace Mann as community education center where we can implement the prevention and intervention strategies African American students in the Central Area where there appears to be no effective strategy from SPS.

      2. Implement Culturally Relevant Curriculum that does not marginalize and devalue people of African descent and their contributions to Americas and the world.

      3. End racism in school discipline that violates students constitutional rights. Implement positive discipline strategies that guide children of color towards socially productive academic goals.

      4. End overrepresentation of African American students in Special Ed and underrepresentation of African American students in Advanced Learning.

      5. Provide instructional methods from teachers that are culturally appropriate and provide high expectations for ALL students from pre-K -12 for overall student success and the closure of the Achievement Gap.

      6. More effective parent & student engagement and activation strategies. Schools should provide an welcoming environment for African American parent involvement and leadership.

      7. Apply College and Career Readiness Investment project funding

  2. freeuniverseity September 15, 2013 at 1:44 am #

    Reblogged this on Free UniversE-ity and commented:
    Concerning the Africa Town Innovation Center at Horace Mann (24th and Cherry)
    http://www.africatownseattle.org/africatown-center/

  3. Howard McCay September 29, 2013 at 1:14 am #

    I really enjoyed young teacher Mamos206’s comments and hope for the Africatown Community Innovation Center at the Horace Mann school. I wonder if Charlie Mas’s criticisms are primarily directed at Mamos206 or at the Africatown Community Innovation Center. Charlie Mas’s comments do contain some points of validity. Perhaps it was unfair of Mamos206 to demand that Melissa Westbrook produce a plan for overcoming racism in Seattle’s schools. I am not sure anyone is capable of producing a plan that will actually accomplish that goal. Charlie Mas’s question: “why haven’t more Black students enrolled at NOVA over the past thirty years?” is a very good question. The question deserves a good answer. I do not think Mamos206 or the young people supporting the Africatown Community Innovation Center or Charlie Mas will know the answer either, since most of you were young children thirty years ago.

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