Pinehurst is an alternative school in Seattle that emerged out of the social justice movements and cooperatives of the 1970s. Now, the school district is trying to close / move it. As Melissa Westbrook at Save Seattle Schools blog suggested, maybe the Pinehurst community should take note of what’s happening at the Africatown Innovation Center at the Horace Mann building, and should simply refuse to leave.
According to Pinehurst’s website, their “staff work with students using an alternative pedagogy that emphasizes experiential learning, differentiated instruction and connecting classroom learning to real-world contexts.” I met a Pinehurst teacher when we were tabling at the NW Teachers for Social Justice conference, and he emphasized that Pinehurst emphasizes hands-on learning outside of the classroom, and they also connect with various social justice efforts to provide students with chances to grow as active members of society. This all seems worth supporting and defending in an era of increased centralization, standardization, routinized classroom boredom, and top-down control.
Though they serve different communities with different demographics, advocates for Pinehurst might be able to learn something from the struggle of parents and educators of African descent, who are organizing themselves to build a school called the Africatown Innovation Center at the Horace Mann building. A broad coalition of educators and activists are arguing that the district’s pedagogy, curriculum, school cultures, and disciplinary methods are not working for Black youth, and they aim to build a center that can create a model for effective, community-based education rooted in African-centered values.
Melissa Westerbrook, over at Save Seattle Schools blog, is no supporter of Africatown. In fact, she seems highly anxious about the fact that Black folks are taking matters into their own hands; she is particularly upset they are refusing to leave the Horace Mann building until the district meets their demands. She seems to suggest this is a threat to law and order and is advising the district to crack down. She doesn’t seem to understand the magnitude of the political controversy that would erupt if the district and/or the mayor order in cops to colonize and displace people from the building. The images of the police brutality involved would quickly spread across the country, mingling with images of Chicago and Philadelphia youth protesting school closures in Black neighborhoods. Melissa chides the district for not asserting proper control of the situation; maybe the district politicians understand better than she does just how angry people are about the current state of our public schools.
A liberal is someone who asks the question: “is it legal” instead of “will it bring us closer to freedom?” By that definition, Melissa is definitely a liberal. I wonder what she thinks of the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement which straight up broke the law, or the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast programs which were public resources run by everyday people, not by the state bureaucracy. These sorts of efforts tend to fill liberals with fear because they cannot be controlled. They also send a clear message to everyone in society that direct action gets things done much faster than waiting on lawyers, politicians, or PTSA and union bureaucracies.
Melissa seems especially concerned that other people might get the idea that they can just take over schools if the district doesn’t do the right thing fast enough. She writes:
I have asked but have not seen any kind of temporary lease agreement (but now, it’s onto public disclosure). What seems to be the case – outwardly – is that the district is allowing whoever to stay in the building – probably for free – until the district finds them another space (I read Columbia Annex).
I’m done with asking the Superintendent, the staff and the Board about this. Clearly, no one is in charge.
Note to Pinehurst; hunker down and refuse to leave. It seems to work well for others.
Maybe Pinehurst folks should take her advice? She probably means it sarcastically, but I think it’s actually a good suggestion, one that might be effective in the current political climate. What if Pinehurst supporters refuse to leave their own school until the district meets their demands AND the demands of the Africa-town Innovation Center?
I wonder, is Melissa trying to do some pro-bono consulting work for the district leadership? Is that her intention in warning them they might soon have a bigger problem on their hands if they allow the Africatown folks to set a precedent? Perhaps she is correct in that assessment. I’m not sure if Pinehurst folks or other groups across the city are as prepared to take direct action as the Africatown community. The possibility that they might be seems to fill her with dread, while it fills me with hope.
When Black folks take matters into their own hands, this tends to open up cracks in the power structure. All of the skeletons that the passive aggressive white liberal politicians have hidden in their closets start to come out, and everyone has to deal directly with the contradictions of race and class that run deep through our society. Because institutionalized racism/ white supremacy is such a key stabilizing factor in our society, when it’s challenged a lot of things become possible, not only for the Black community, but for every group of people that is not happy with the status quo. Remember when the Black liberation struggle of the 1960s inspired a new wave of feminist and LGBTQ liberation struggles? Or when wildcat strikes by Black auto workers in Detroit inspired white workers to walk off the job protesting unsafe working conditions? Who’s to say it can’t happen again?
The district officials are educators, or at least claim to be. So they probably know some of this history, and maybe that’s why they’re hesitating to crack down. Do we know this history? And more importantly, are we willing to continue making it?
Maybe the Africatown struggle will teach folks at Pinehurst (and at other schools across the district) how to win demands from school district leaders who seem to understand bold actions much better than petitions and polite complaints.