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Upcoming activities vs. the School to Prison Pipeline

7 Feb
Hi folks,
     The past few weeks we’ve been working with a coalition of people who are coming together to organize against the school -to-prison pipeline.  We have these activities coming up if you’d like to join us:
1)  We will be passing out flyers raising awareness  this Sat (Feb 8th),  11 AM in front of  Grocery Outlet in the Central District/ Africatown (1126 Martin Luther King Jr Way).
2) We will also be passing out flyers this Sun (Feb 9th), 11 AM in front of the Red Apple store on 23rd and Jackson.
3) On Thurs the 13th at 6:30 pm, Seattle Public School officials will be holding a public forum at Meany Middle School, 19th Ave E. and E. Thomas St.  We will be setting up the mock isolation booth outside that meeting and will be engaging parents and community members in discussion as they enter the meeting.
We are in the process of brainstorming further actions, outreach, and workshops – if you have suggestions or would like to participate, please hit us up at creativitynotcontrol@gmail.com
Here is the flyer we’ll be passing out: Destroy the School to Prison Pipeline
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Workfare and Prisonfare (The School-to-Work and School-To-Prison Pipelines)

30 Jan

ImageHere is a guest post by Carol Issac, one of the people we have been collaborating with to organize workshops and actions against the school to prison pipeline.  She prepared the following research for the workshop we did on Martin Luther King Day, but she didn’t get a chance to present it because we ran out of time (there were a bunch of great presenters, and over 60 people participated).  Her research documents some of the bleak futures that await exploited youth these days; the pipelines that confine their lives begin in the classroom with averse discipline, isolation rooms, and disproportionate suspensions.  After a process of sorting by race, class, and gender, many of these pipelines end in forms of incarceration or state-controlled / criminalized labor. 

Workfare and Prisonfare 

In these times, there are two major forces whereby the government and the current ruling class punishes the poor.  In general, one method goes after the men and the other after the women.  Mass incarceration is also called “prisonfare”, and the replacement for welfare is called “workfare”.  They are two sides of the same coin.  While men are the primary target of mass incarceration, women, as single mothers, are the primary target of the major change in aid to the poor, the 1996 law that struck down welfare and replaced it with a work program.

We are not a nation that values solidarity, but we did, for a long time, legislate what could be called semi-compassionate social services to aid “the poor and handicapped”.  Since then, gradually during the last century, poverty changed from simply a human condition to something regarded as a moral problem.   Much of society now sees poverty as a failing of the individual, a manifestation of an irresponsible lifestyle.

There is still, however, a “deserving poor” who are a small and special subcategory somewhat worthy of charity but even they are not spoken of by society at large as “our brothers and sisters”.  The corporate media does little to point out our common connection with each other, so it is not an everyday part of the public thinking to feel more than a distant responsibility and assume we have some agency or such to take care of the “others”.  Solidarity is not a societal value here.  When compassion is its nearest common replacement even too much of that is suspect.  Instead of being “soft” we have come to prefer a strong response.  A virile warning is common, and too much charity is a weakness.  The “sting of necessity” is valued as a way to push the lazy to “get a job”.

Social service programs have been steadily reduced, especially since the ’70’s backlash, and those surviving are either inadequate or they are administered through a practice called “churning”, a term for the bureaucratic practice used by agency staffs that indicate the many little practices, tricks and harassments used to prevent a client from obtaining their rightful aid.

Where once we had a welfare program, in 1996 under Clinton that changed into a “workfare” program.  The title of the act applied was an insult in its very wording:  “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act”.   Its purpose was to wipe people off the welfare role, and into unskilled work under demeaning conditions.  Since it mainly took care of women, as single mothers, this program micro-manages poor women.  By the time this law went into effect, already every other poor household in America was not receiving the benefits for which it was eligible.  This was designed to punish the poor and make them accept their abject poverty as intransigent, i.e. the way things are.

To get even less income than they did previously, women now had to work instead at jobs chosen by the government that are too precarious and ill paid to offer security.  The programs vary per state, but, in general, they are for the lowest wages, do not provide child care assistance, or do so for less time than actually needed sometimes at distances that create great hardship.  The result is that this kind of employment is both risky and prohibitively costly for young mothers.  The unlivable income makes parents supplement with what they can get from their already fragile larger family networks and from the current precarious standby, illegal street commerce, all of which keeps pushing them deeper into poverty, the shadows, and powerlessness.  Some, in time, opt out and do things like give their children to family or friends who might be able take care of them while they go homeless alone.

Workfare policy does not aim to reduce poverty but to punish it. It carries an implied warning:  Even if you are working more and earning less, there is a fate worse, a status lower, than hard and unrewarding work:  homelessness.

In Washington, homelessness is not legally a reason to remove children from a parent; however, there was a precedent setting case in May 2013 wherein the prosecution, which was the state of Washington, got around its own law.  It  used homelessness, plus other less than stand-alone factors, to concoct a preponderance of circumstances that together were judged sufficient reason to remove a child from the custody of a parent permanently.  They created what can be pointed to now as a case that will bolster similar methods of decision making for cases in the future as though it were a piece of legislation decided by our Olympia lawmakers.

The poor seeking aid are routinely treated like offenders under criminal justice supervision.  The supervision is increasingly performed by private contracted businesses that do everything from mental health diagnosis and management, the client’s schedule management, transportation of children to and from visitation facilities when a parent’s rights are limited by court and a child is put into foster care, training for jobs that don’t exist or are precarious, or even for parenting skills that in some manner the state deems are appropriate and others are not.  All the while this is happening, the staff of these state and contracted organizations are acting like minders and writing up observations of the clients actions, words and perceived attitudes for the use by government agencies such as the courts.  Vetting of these agencies and staff for their adequacy appears unchallenged.

This past spring in a King County Superior Court courtroom one of these minders testified that she observed a client visiting with her own almost three year old when the mom was saying to the child, “Oh,___, some day I am going to get you a house and a car. …”  The state prosecutor, an assistant attorney general, used this testimony to illustrate how the mother was filling the child with non-credible expectations thus adding to the case that she was an unworthy mother. This went unchallenged in the judge’s lengthy decision.  The case had no jury, and the records were sealed, a common occurrence in cases involving juveniles.  This instance illustrates the level to which the micro-management is normalized, invisibl-ized, and seriously affects the minute details of the life of the poor.

While the social services are cut and made into tools that demean, there has been legislation that creates benefits for the class with wealth or the middle class.

The class that benefits most from social security and government protected pensions is the class that gets the best jobs.  Home owners, in general, get a break on taxes if they have a mortgage.  There are many benefits that are really a sliding scale of favors for those with more, while those with less become the recipients of less and less.

Sources:

“Punishing the Poor:  The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity”  by Loic Wacquant  2009  –  Professor Wacquant is at the University of California, Berkeley  and is a MacArthur Award Winner.

Observations of trials 2013

Workshop And March Tomorrow: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

19 Jan
info graphic from SuspensionStories.com

info graphic from SuspensionStories.com

where:  Garfield High School, 400 23rd Ave, Seattle, WA 98122

when: Mon, Jan 20th, workshop from 9:30 – 11:00 AM

march begins at 12:30 –  if you want to march with us, we’ll be meeting right across the street from Ezell’s Chicken.

what: The workshop will expose and analyze how the system stratifies the population through a set of “pipelines”. While some students are channeled into futures in management and the professions, and some into a working class, however insecure, still others are left to expect the least opportunities plus the threat of incarceration in the largest prison system in history.

Teachers, students, former inmates, and activists, will share how this is all fitting into a pattern of especially insidious racism, as well as other forms of discrimination.

You are invited to discuss these perspectives, and your own, with us. We will also discuss how we can inform, agitate, and organize together, to undo and overcome this oppression.

This workshop is one of many that will be held as part of the larger, annual Martin Luther King Day event at Garfield High School.

We will be marching together in the larger march, with posters and chants against the school to prison pipeline.  Look out for us across from Ezells at 12:30 if you want to march with us.

A free-standing isolation booth, now banned in Oregon.  (Source: KATU News, posted on http://www.policestateusa.com)

A free-standing isolation booth, (Source: KATU News, posted on http://www.policestateusa.com)

One of the teachers speaking in the workshop is the author of this piece, about how she and her students turned the isolation room in their classroom into an art project.

Here is the Facebook event page for tomorrow.  Please invite your friends.

The workshop is being  organized by a really dynamic coalition of people, including  folks from Africatown/ More4Mann, some of the organizers of the Youth For Justice rally this summer, folks from Free Us All (the prison hunger strike support committee), artists/writers from  High Gods Entertainment, Creativity Not Control, and folks from Washington Incarceration Stops Here (the group organizing against the new juvenile detention center in Seattle.)

Check out the links for more information, and check out those groups or others if you’d like get involved in struggles against the school to prison pipeline here in Seattle. There are lots of ways to get involved, from organizing and fighting back,  to educating and creating art and music on the subject.  We’ll see you out there!

Caring Not Control

17 Nov

This is a guest post by our friend Lowell, an elementary school teacher in the Seattle metro region. She writes about how she and her students turned the isolation room in their classroom into an art project.  This is part of an ongoing series on isolation rooms and the school to prison pipeline. If you have experience with isolation rooms or aversive discipline in schools and would like to contribute, please contact us at CreativityNotControl AT gmail.com.

safe_space

artwork by a Justseeds artist

During the interview for my current position teaching students with emotional and behavioral difficulties, the interviewer asked if I was familiar with the practice of aversive discipline. I replied tentatively that I was aware of the term but not how it was applied in this particular setting. Immediately I felt uneasy with such language and what this topic meant for the day-to-day expectations of the position. Aversive discipline, she explained to me in a vague way, consists of physical restraints and the use of isolation rooms. I said yes I was familiar with such methods and understood them to be absolute last resorts when all other methods failed to protect the child and others nearby during a crisis.

The interview continued on to other topics. However, I remained unnerved by the concept of aversive discipline and its application in institutions. I thought to myself, why would something be deemed a ‘discipline’ technique if it truly is used as a last resort to ensure protection after all other methods had been exhausted? The term discipline implies repetition, a technique applied repeatedly to reduce unwanted behaviors. Discipline implies subjecting students to experiences that the adults involved know are undesirable, even painful in some way, to the children. Thoughts swirled around in my head during and after the interview- my experiences of children being further escalated and traumatized by such methods, research proving the damage caused by repeated application of this discipline, and the high percentages of students with disabilities being funneled from the education system directly into the prison system.

Despite my unsettling feeling that the district promotes the use of aversive discipline in its schools, I accepted the job.

Upon walking into my new classroom, I was faced with reality of my decision. I saw a bright red button next to a door that led to the isolation cell commonly referred to as the “time-out room.” I imagined all the fear and trauma that students associate with that room, students classified as socially and emotionally vulnerable, students with learning difficulties and layers of hardship stacked against them. I began asking around. Teachers in the school. Other EBC (emotional and behavioral classroom) teachers and para-professionals in the district. I wondered how other professionals viewed that room. Stories began to unravel. The teacher that came before me used the room almost daily, I learned. I heard stories that students were frequently told that if they did not comply with teacher prompts they would be sent to the time-out room. After hearing one para’s experience, I asked, “Do you think these methods worked?” He just laughed. If scaring children into compliance is considered working then maybe, he said. As I continued to listen, all I could think was that such discipline could only be successful in achieving one thing: it teaches children to be fearful of teachers, fearful of school, fearful of institutions and other authorities. It teaches them that if they do not comply with such authorities they will be locked up and isolated repeatedly.

I thought to myself: they should be scared.

In August, I met the families and youth that I’d be working with over the course of the year. Story after story, the students shared their experiences with the time-out room. They were scared of it and scared they’d be spending time in it again this coming year. I explained my philosophies and personal style. Almost every family that I met broke down in tears, tears of relief that their child would not spend another year in and out of forced isolation.

Carrying each story close to me as I made preparations for the first day of school, I wondered how this year would play out. Should I speak out directly against aversive discipline practices? Should I gather support from peers? From families? From my principal? From my union rep? As a new person in the district, it was difficult to know whom my allies were and if I would be retaliated against for speaking out, or even for rejecting aversive discipline methods in my own practice.

After speaking with trusted people, both inside and outside the profession, I decided I would attempt to transform my room and the time-out room in order to help the students heal. I wanted them to become self-advocates and to reclaim the classroom and time-out room for their personal expression. This could be a starting point, I thought.

Since the beginning of the year, the students and I have discussed such concepts as safe spaces, self-advocacy, and how to care for one another as members of a community. Through these conversations, the powerful presence of the time-out room has begun to shift. Additionally, no one has been forced to use the room or been forced into compliance with the threat of the room hanging over their heads. As a result, the students have begun to trust me, themselves, and each other, trust that we can provide care for one another and use the support resources in our community that we were actively cultivating. We have since covered the door of the time-out room in student artwork, depicting these community resources such as the ways the students contribute to our safe space, what a safe space looks like, and what resources they use for support within the safe space. Every now and then, the students will share stories with one another of their experiences being sent to the time-out room. I generally just listen in on these conversations, witnessing the amazing support that ten and eleven year olds are capable of providing one another. I like to remind the students in these moments, that they don’t need to be sent to that room, that no one does. But I think they might already understand this on their own.

Recently, a new family joined my program. The first thing they asked me was if their child would be subjected to use of the time-out room. They explained how often this happened to their child previously. They were concerned about its effectiveness. I simply directed their attention to the time-out room door with a smile and pointed out how our students had covered it with their artwork and that is the extent of how we use it in our classroom. The mother responded with a smile and an exhausted sigh of relief.

When one reads the files of any given special education student classified with an “emotional/behavioral disorder” one can find account upon account of aggressive behavior, opposition, noncompliance, etc. The reports reflect how these young people have extensive histories of being shuffled around from school to school, placement after placement as each incident occurs, often escalating in nature as the students grow older. As these children move through the education system, they acquire trauma after trauma, carrying the wounds of rejection inflicted upon them by institutions designed to control them, institutions in which they just can’t seem to fit in. They almost never receive appropriate or adequate care. They are shamed, yelled at, handcuffed, isolated by adults who demand compliance. These are children, however, and we are the adults. What exactly is our job as teachers and adult members of a community?

If school is meant to exist as a place of care, of curiosity, and growth, it has failed. However, the harsh and punitive environments of many of our special education classrooms and the policies such as aversive discipline reveal that is not why school exists.

It would appear that our true job as teachers is to prepare children to maintain the status quo, to fit neatly into their predetermined places in society as determined by their race, class, and gender. Poor students of color with special needs do not fit neatly into the mold of productive members of society, but rather have been deemed non-conformers, impossible to control. These are the students that we have decided need to be locked up and that will not change when they are no longer of school age. This is the school to prison pipeline in its most glaring form.

How many teachers feel inadequately prepared or supported? Too many. The teachers who resort to using the time-out room most frequently are certainly among them. Rather than paying for additional highly-trained therapeutic staff for classrooms, our administrations build time-out rooms. The structure leaves teachers overworked and unsupported, which feeds the process of reproducing oppression by controlling poor children of color, their minds, their bodies, their stories. Some might say the overuse of aversive discipline is a symptom of funding issues or bad leadership, a bad teacher here and there. However, this process is deliberate and pervasive. Classrooms, particularly self-contained special education classrooms, are not designed to honor children’s voices, experiences, and their histories of resisting unfair practices and policies. Once we’ve succeeded into forcing children into compliance, we will also have succeeded in breaking their intuitive sense of fairness and justice, succeeded in upholding the mission of compulsory education in our capitalist society.

In schools there are a variety of mechanisms in place to uphold the notion of aversive discipline as something useful and common sense. The very existence of time-out rooms in classrooms serve as a concrete symbol that they are needed and should be used. Our schools are drenched in such symbols, from metal detectors to cops in the hallways. These are the same symbols that dominate our streets, commercial spaces, and most institutions in our society. In the absence of a strong movement stating otherwise, these symbols dominate our perceptions of people and how we interact with one another. In my experience as a special education teacher, I have found, more often than not, other educators view aversive discipline as a common sense option, reaffirmed by the many social and environmental cues around them.

The proliferation of aversive discipline as common sense brings to mind the struggle faced by prison abolitionists to confront the notion that prisons are common sense, that we need prisons in our society and that solitary confinement is a reasonable response to noncompliance. We need to change these notions of common sense that our institutions and economic systems dictate. We must create the changes necessary so that it becomes common sense to support people and to never lock them up.

The struggle for Horace Mann is not over: time to get clear on a few things

8 Nov

Since the summer, members of the historically Black central district community in Seattle have taken back the Horace Mann building from the Seattle Public Schools (SPS). Calling out the district for it’s racially biased suspension rates, lack of culturally relevant curriculum, and general oppression of youth of African descent, they have been running their own educational programs in the building, called the Africatown Innovation and Education Center (AIEC).  Hundreds of Black youth have participated in learning activities there over the course of the summer and fall.

 The school district wants to begin renovations on this building immediately, so that it can be turned over to a majority-white alternative school called Nova (even though many Nova teachers, parents, and students do not want to displace the AEIC).  Africatown residents have refused to move, delaying construction and creating an accelerating political crisis for the SPS leadership.    For background info, click here and here.

Horace Mann is located at 24th and Cherry St., Seattle.  Barring a police raid, there will be a Black labor movie night and disucssion there on Fri at 6 PM.  I encourage everyone to go by and check it out for yourself.

This week, the struggle kicked into high gear. In this post, I’ll attempt to provide an update based on my own observations as a participant in recent movement activities, as well as  info from reliable sources within the movement.  My goal is to provide an orientation for supporters who might be starting to get involved right now.

It’s especially important to orient ourselves because there’s been a wave of negative media attacks on the More4Mann movement  that threaten to sew confusion among supporters.  The movement responded with a powerful press conference on Saturday, and a strong presence at last night’s school board meeting.  As Kiro 7 reports, the board meeting was packed, with people waiting in line to get in.

The agenda for the Nov 6th board meeting was supposed to include a vote on whether the school district would lease space to the AIEC  to continue the educational programs they had started in the Mann building while Mann is being renovated.  This was part of Superintendent Jose Banda’s public, verbal promise to help facilitate their temporary move to another building, part of the partnership he said he wanted to develop with the AIEC educators to help close the racial achievement gap.  However, SPS legal counsel Ron English later informed him – suspiciously late in the process – that he could not make this sort of deal on his own and that it would have to be put up to a school board vote.  This delayed the negotiations, causing libertarian-minded opponents of  both Africatown AND Banda  to become more and more enraged about how much money is being lost due to delays in renovations at at Mann.

The board was supposed to vote last night, but Banda asked for a delay, using the excuse that he wants  more time to negotiate an effective solution.  I wonder if the real reason might be that he was worried he might loose the vote if it was taken tonight. This would be a problem for him because  he has staked a good deal of his political capital upon presenting himself as someone who can dialogue with activists from communities of color, and if the board prevents him from bringing a deal to the table, then he can’t claim he diffused the crisis and instead the community might just turn up the heat on the district even further.

Two of the board members (Patu and Peasley)  seemed supportive of Banda last night, and another two (Debell and Carr) seemed openly hostile.  The rest seemed on the fence, but I think they’re leaning against Banda because they kept criticizing him for “losing control of the building” and allowing Africatown residents to “occupy” it, violating district policies.   Ron English intervened only once in the meeting, reminding the board that Banda couldn’t just table the vote on the lease- that  the decision to table it would  itself have to be put up to a board vote.  They eventually did vote to table it, but some of us read this as Ron English and his bureaucracy reminding Banda who really calls the shots.

It is important that supporters of Africatown pay attention to these serpentine political twists.  I’m not saying we should have faith in any of the politicians, or see any of them as our allies.  But we should take inspiration from the fact that the actions at Horace Mann have created political tensions among the city’s managerial class, tensions that we could possibly exploit to further push our own agenda.

Banda’s opponents seem particularly angry at him because they think he has been too soft on people who have “broken the law” by holding a building to pressure the district to negotiate.   Lynne  Varner, Seattle Times mouthpeice for the corporate education “reformers”, has this to say in her recent blog post:

“ Banda has the right instincts to listen when people demand attention, particularly when it comes to the long-standing problems around academic disproportionality.  But he should not put up with, nor subject his employees, to bullying, threats and intimidation. At this point, talks about a district-Africatown partnership ought to be off until cooler heads prevail. If the group wants to get serious, get rid of the fringe element  horning in on what could be a promising community partnership.”

Melissa Westbrook  from the  Save Seattle Schools blog is worried that other groups will get the idea that they can also occupy buildings in order to get what they want.  For example, will Pinehurst  / AS 1 families and teachers occupy their school in order to prevent the district from closing it?  As I wrote here , I agree with Melissa that a cascading chain of direct actions is a possibility right now; while she thinks it’s a looming disaster, I think it’s a great idea.  In fact, I think the kind of direct action that Africatown folks have taken is exactly what we all need to do to save Seattle public schools – and transform them to meet our needs.  Black folks in the Reconstruction South took action to create public education in the first place, and it’s no surprise that the attacks on quality, relevant, anti-racist public ed. have focused most viciously on Black communities, from Philly to Chicago to Seattle.  So it’s also no surprise that the fightback is beginning most intensely in Black communities, and the rest of us should spread it into our schools and neighborhoods.

To keep this pressure going, activists at Horace Mann have set up barricades (visible in this news report).  Supt. Banda and Peggy McEvoy announced at the board meeting tonight that they were coordinating with the Seattle Police to forcibly remove people from the building.   Both sides are entrenching, and things are clearly coming to a head.

As a result, people across Seattle, and across the country are paying closer attention to this struggle, and to the much needed conversation that it has provoked about racist practices and policies in Seattle’s schools.  As numerous speakers asked on Sat’s press conference and tonight’s meeting: “would the district even be addressing these issues of racial inequality if people had not refused to leave the Mann building?”

Residents of the Central District/ Africatown, members of the Black community more broadly, veterans of the Occupy movement, and others have been attending events at Mann, and I would not be surprised if a lot of people decide to mobilize in defense of the movement if Banda does call in the cops.

At the same time, racist elements are also showing up.  Last night, a white man came by the Horace Mann building and called several of the people there “racist n*****s” .  At the school board, a man said that Africatown’s anti-gentrification rhetoric is simply designed to manipulate “people who don’t understand the hard work involved in owning property.”

Given these rising tensions, it’s especially important that supporters of the movement seek clear information from More4Mann organizers, and that we don’t trust the distorting narratives that will inevitably be spread by district officials, cops, mainstream media outlets, and hostile social media forces.   Here are some predictable  narratives we should refuse to fall for:

  1. “squatters” vs. “phds”

Tonight at the school board meeting, Superintendent Banda recognized a fact that the movement stressed heavily on the Sat press conference – that the curriculum for the AIC is being developed by highly experienced teachers, professors with PhDs, researchers, and educational consultants.

This is true. But the movement also includes working class parents and students, including folks with a wide range of experiences, from Microsoft tech workers to people who did time in prison.  Movement spokespeople have been stressing the presence of folks with PhDs  so much recently in order to counter a backlash  of distortions coming from folks like Melissa Westbrook and others who have described Africatown as a bunch of squatters with no expertise and no capacity to actually teach students.  These people are putting pressure on Supt. Banda, calling him irresponsible for even negotiating with the More4Mann movement for this reason.  (it’s worth noting that Westbrook is something like a “kingmaker”; she was influential in taking down a previous superintendent, Dr. Goodloe Johnson).

Tonight, it seemed like the Africatown Educators and Supt. Banda were both trying to convince the fence-sitting board members to recognize the expertise that the educators bring to the table, so that the board would sign the lease allowing the educators to rent space from the district (in portables at Mann and possibly at Columbia Annex) where they can run the AIC programs until the Mann building renovations are complete.

This rhetoric of “squatters vs. phds” might be a turn off to those of us who believe that education should not be something that only state-certified teachers can do;  many of are fighting for a future where teaching and learning are infused throughout society instead of enclosed within narrow professions.  We are trying to create a present where teachers, parents, and students all learn from each other.

This rhetoric might also alienate possible supporters from the Occupy or anarchist movements.  Many of them have experience squatting or occupying buildings in order to survive,  and/or because they are trying to take back resources from the system to start building a life worth living.

It’s important to keep in mind that when Africatown educators say “we are not squatters”, this is just a  temporary tactic being used by people who have themselves been taking back a building from the school district in order to build the kind of future they want.  It’s also just one tactic within a broader diversity of tactics that make up the overall strategy the movement is putting forward.

Finally, taking back the building has not just been a bargaining chip in a grand reformist strategy.  People have been serious about creating a free, autonomous zone at Mann, and the building has functioned as a hub where people can meet each other and grow community; in that sense, going there has reminded me of some of the best moments in the Occupy camp (but without some of the problems that came along with Occupy’s majority-white demographic).

Finally, people are rejecting the “occupier” and “squatter” labels because it’s  insulting to be called a squatter in a building that was once a historically Black school in a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified.  Africatown folks insist they are not occupying the building, they are simply taking it back for their neighborhood, and if the district comes in and takes it over, they will be the ones “occupying” it through the force of their occupying army – the Seattle Police.

2) Responsible activists vs. violent radicals

Tonight Banda introduced another, more divisive element to the mix.  He said that the “responsible” educators he is negotiating with have all left the building, and that those who remain in the building are not part of Africatown and hence are not part of the ongoing negotiations.  Right after Banda said that,  Peggy McEvoy reported how she was working with the Seattle Police and their legal team to prepare to remove these “other people” from the building even as Banda continues to negotiate with the educators.  Banda openly supported this.

 While Lynne Varner is trying to lump the people in the buidling in with the educators in order to shame Banda, Banda is trying to separate the two groups in order to make himself look like someone who only negotiates with what he called “certified community organizations.”  Personally, I don’t trust Banda and I think that most of his attempts to negotiate have been attempts to coopt and diffuse the movement.  But, in the  the face of mounting pressure to his right, he might exchange the carrot for the stick; he might decide that he needs to send in police in order to show his critics that he can take charge of the situation.

He had tried cooptation first because he probably knows that violent repression could just create a bigger backlash of anger against him and against the city government.  So if he does opt for the stick over the carrot, then he will probably instruct the police to apply force in a very precise and strategically focused way, in order to shape the political narrative in ways he can control.

Based on my experiences in past movements, the media often assists the police and politicians with this sort of operation, manufacturing the false claim that certain crucial elements of the movement are somehow outside of it, in order to isolate these elements and control the movement as a whole.  We saw this with the whole “good Occupiers” vs “violent anarchists” divide that Dominic Holden and other journalists pushed during Occupy, which helped the police justify some of their repression.   I predict there will be an increasing slew of media reports presenting the people who stay in the Mann building as violent extremists in order to justify a  violent police attack on them, sending a clear message to other movement participants that they will be spared this repression as long as they distance themselves from the people inside.

We should all resist this pressure to distance and isolate them. 

It is important to emphasize that this rhetoric about a split in the movement is Banda’s and the media’s, and is NOT coming from the Africatown educators themselves.

It is true that the Africatown educators are negotiating with Banda and the school board to rent a new space for their programs.  It is also true that they made a tactical decision to move their educational programs out of the Mann building temporarily in order to secure their classes and equipment, leaving other movement participants to secure the building itself.  Folks can certainly debate the pros and cons of this tactic, but we need to be clear on this: it is NOT true that they have given up on trying to take back the Mann building. Noone has publicly renounced that strategic goal which has always been central to the movement.  More importantly, noone has denounced the Africatown residents who continue to hold the building.

According to Brother Preach’s interview with Kiro News , the folks inside are staying there in order to create a place to educate Black youth.  In other words, they continue to reiterate the main, shared goals of the overall movement.

It is unclear to me exactly what the educators are demanding in their negotiations with Banda.  They may be demanding the right to return to Mann  in the fall after renovations, or they may be  demanding a permanent presence during renovations.  At several of the educational summits, spokespeople for Africatown have suggested they want to maintain a presence during renovations, and at the summits, press conference, and school board meeting, several organizers argued  that the portable space offered by the school district negotiators is not adequate.

This statement was just released by people who have remained inside the building, arguing that

“The portable they have offered, and essentially forced upon Africatown educators, is unsafe, unclean, has no bathroom, and is not ADA compliant. Also, there is a birds’ nest in the ceiling. (see attached pic. And, the portable is open for you to see for yourself). More pics to be posted at allpowertothepositive.blogspot.com and elsewhere. The 2nd portable on the property is full of mold and unsafe, as is the Columbia Annex. Because of this, the educators cannot fully move out of Horace Mann and/or do youth programs, since they cannot set up in hose portables in that condition or store their stuff in any of the offered locations!”

One Africatown source said that it may be possible to  continue educational programs in the Mann building itself while the new extension is built, then they could conduct these programs in the extension while the old building is renovated.

Africatown folks will handle all these details in the course of their strategizing and negotiations.  But what all of this adds up to is this: there is no split in the movement, just a diversity of tactics.  The people who remain inside the Mann building right now, behind the barricades, are also part of the More4Mann and Africatown movements, and are also fighting to create a community there, where Black youth can learn and grow.   They are not some radical “break away faction” or “violent extremists” or whatever else the media will want you to believe.   They have the same goals as the educators  and folks with Phds who are trying to negotiate with the district.

3. negotiations vs. direct actions, or “control your people, then we’ll talk”

Significant pressures might be put on the Africatown educators to get the other Africatown residents out of the Mann building. The district and opponents in the media might argue that the none of their demands will be met until they convince people to leave.  Or, the district might offer a barely inhabitable building for their programs, saying “we would have given you more if those people resisting the police eviction hadn’t given you all a bad name”.  It’s kind of like a union negotiation where the bosses say they’ll only give the union leaders what they want if they show they’re able to control the rank and file workers, e.g. sucessfully convincing people to end a strike.  Usually this doesn’t work because it is exactly the threat of disrupting business as usual  that brings the bosses to the table in the first place and when that’s taken away, the bosses can do what they want.

In fact, right now – before any eviction defense actions – the district isn’t offering much; hence, the lovely portable with a birds nest in it.

The best way for the educators to get what they are demanding is for all of us to keep up the pressure, through a variety of tactics focused at Horace Mann and throughout the city. Some people might continue to hold down the Mann building.  Others might provide them with food, water, etc.  Others might engage in social media outreach.  Others might start organizing  direct action campaigns against suspensions or racist discipline on a school-by-school basis.  The key thing is that we all need to remember that the act of refusing to leave Horace Mann is what sparked this movement in the first place.  Without that direct action, everything else we do could easily be brushed back under the rug and ignored.

Finally, it’s important to remember that Africatown is a neighborhood, not an organization.  It is a term that residents of the Central District have given to their neighborhood, signifying their desire to counter gentrification and to create a vibrant cultural hub among people of African decent.  Just like there are many organizations and political tendencies in Chinatowns with different priorities, so too are there different tendencies within Africatown.  The task force of Africatown residents that has been negotiating with Supt. Banda never claimed to represent or govern all of Africatown, and should not be held responsible for everything that people in Africatown or their comrades might choose to do.

It’s an old white supremacist tradition to collectively punish people of African descent for the behaviors of one or two people who the colonial settler judicial system / lynch mob decides are “criminals”.  It’s also an old white supremacist tradition to tell Black leaders that they can only get respect if they separate themselves from the rest of their people.  Non-black supporters must  separate ourselves from the  mob mentality that produces both of these pressures and must confront this bullshit whenever we see and hear it.

4)  white outside agitators

One thing we know for certain is that the power structure is going to move swiftly against both those in Africatown  who move from Mann and those who stay, so long as the Africatown movement keeps effectively developing a specifically pro-African public education project.  As the empire attempts to crush yet another Black renaissance in Seattle, workers and peoples of all nationalities and cultures must decide which side they are on. Trying to be neutral simply means to side with the empire. At the same time, those who aim for the principled course of supporting and defending their Africatown neighbors must realistically expect to be branded as “outside agitators” by media and even by some fellow activists.

This is a predictable tactic that we’ve seen deployed in the Oscar Grant rebellions and the East Flatbush actions against police violence.  By claiming that all direct action is done by  “white anarchists from the suburbs”, the system can try to silence and preempt direct action in communities of color. Ultimately, this claim rests on the racist idea that Black people are too cowardly or too stupid to take action to benefit themselves, and that when they do take action they must be manipulated by white agitators.

In any case, the facts are clear: those who began the action at Horace Mann are people of African descent, and so are the majority of people who continue to hold the building. If you see non-Black people there, this is simply a testament to the broad-mindedness of Africatown organizers who are building a beautiful home and are graciously inviting in guests.  It should also serve as a slap in the face of all the critics who are crying “reverse racism”, claiming that being pro-African means being against every person of European descent.

Here is my advice to those of us who will inevitably be called outside agitators:  it is a lump that can and must be taken in stride, as Seattle’s Black population deals with much worse stress on a daily basis than being called a negative political term. The key is, while not being intimidated by such terms, to also not behave in any ways that said terms would accurately denote. In other words, respect the  self-initiative of folks in Africatown, and its truthful saying that “nothing about us without us is for us”. This doesn’t mean uncritically deferring to every Black person you meet or waiting to take initiative until someone gives you orders.  If you have concerns or disagreements, don’t hide them.  But don’t come in telling people what to do or acting like a condescending savior either.

Note: This is also about equal access for Black workers 

The folks who are staying in the building are also protesting the fact that Black construction workers are not being given clear information about where to apply for the construction jobs at Mann and at other school renovation projects funded by the  BEX levy.  For more info, see the open letter  from members of the African American Longshore Coalition and A. Phillip Randolph Institute, or check out their film series

Conclusion 

I encourage everyone reading this to get involved in the movement.  This is a crucial struggle that will shape Seattle public schools for years to come, and could forge the kinds of solidarity necessary to reverse the attacks on public education and to challenge institutional racism in our schools.  Don’t believe the hype, investigate everything you hear critically, and stay in touch with the Africatown organizers.  There are many ways to take action – choose one and take it as far as you can!

School board treats Black workers like the kid in the back of the class whose question never gets answered

6 Nov
photo from theblacksphere.net

photo from theblacksphere.net

Every day I’m supposed to get up in front of my students and tell them to finish school so they can get a “good job”.   Never mind the fact that they are on the verge of dropping out because they know better than I do how high the youth unemployment rate is, even for people with diplomas.   They know how their friends are competing with college graduates just to get  low-wage, humiliating McJobs.

 Many of them are tired of this system that sees them only as workers to be used up and cast into prison once they are no longer needed.
 Now the school board injects an added layer of irony into this daily charade. Six weeks ago, workers from the African American Longshore Coalition and the A Phillip Randolph Institute had asked the Board basic questions about which contractors are getting the jobs created by the BEX-levy funds for school renovations.   It appears they wanted to publicize this information so that Black youth facing an even higher than average unemployment rate would know where to apply for construction jobs.  As of Halloween (10/31), the Seattle School Board still had not responded to the authors’ basic questions.   So in response, they wrote the open letter that’s posted below. 
How can the board expect teachers to encourage students to get jobs, when they themselves can’t seem to answer basic questions about where these jobs are. 
My students could tell you hundreds of stories of the times when they had their hands raised but their former teachers never answered their questions. I wish I could take a hint from Dan Savage and tell them “it gets better.”  But the problem is, it doesn’t.
 When their parents try to look out for them by making sure they can get access to publicly funded jobs, they are also treated like the kid in the back of the class with dust settling on top of his raised hand.  At least until they take “independent action”, as this letter warns.
———-
Dear Seattle Public School Board,The African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph once said “A community is

democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess”.
The white labor leader Eugene V. Debs once said

“While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Even the conservative labor leader Samuel Gompers once said “We want more schoolhouses and less jails.”
This is why organizations like the A. Philip Randolph Institute and AfricanAmerican Longshore Coalition exist today, to fight racism and discrimination and to stand for justice and equality.
The “official” African American unemployment rate is approximately twice the “national” US unemployment rate, and these figures only include people whose unemployment benefits have NOT yet been exhausted.
The Seattle BEX IV School Levy, approved by the voters this February, is a major municipal project that will infuse of $694.9 million dollars of taxpayer capital into at least 37 Seattle Public School district buildings.
Six weeks ago now, on September 18th, 2013, the AALC submitted the following (and attached) six simple questions to the Seattle Public School Board, both in writing and read aloud to the Board over the public meeting’s microphone :
⦁    Are the BEX IV Levy and its respective projects, including the Horace Mann building, covered by the Project Labor Agreement between the School District and the Seattle Building Trades Council, and/or any other Project Labor Agreements (PLAs)?⦁    If so, does this (or these) PLA(s) contain similar language regarding workforce diversity as is contained in the Sound Transit Project Labor Agreement?

⦁    What is the total projected number of jobs that the BEX IV Levy will create district-wide?

⦁    We are requesting a list of all BEX IV contractors and sub-contractors, with contact info for the person(s) in charge of hiring for each one.

⦁    We are also requesting a list of all hiring halls and job agencies (whether union or non-union) that are or will be involved in supplying personnel to the BEX VI Levy projects, with contact info for the person(s) in charge of enrolling new hires and/or new apprentices for each one.

⦁    What opportunities will there be specifically for working-age youth from the Africatown Community Innovation & Education Center at Horace Mann to be directly involved in the renovation of the Horace Mann building?

Since then, we have followed up by personally handing an extra copy of these six questions to SPS facilities coordinator Mike Skutack at the labor and contractors meeting of October 4th, and with several follow up emails to District administrators.
It is now All-Hallows Eve. If SPS had only responded to these six questions with even one answer per week, all of these questions would have been answered by now. Yet, not one of of our questions has been answered to date.
We do not understand why six seeks is not sufficient time to answer this short list of elementary questions.  Their answers may seem unimportant to people in positions of power and creature-comfort, but they are urgently needed by countless unemployed workers in the African American communities who require access to these valuable jobs.
At the same time that we have received no response to these questions, we are alarmed to hear that this same School Board may now be refusing to recognize and ratify all of the collaborative agreements developed between Superintendent Jose Banda and the heroic African American students and volunteer faculty of the Africatown Education & Innovation Center at the Horace Mann School Building.  Such a complete dismissal of our community on multiple levels would leave theAfrican working classes, both locally, nationally and internationally, with no choice but to consider our independent options of action and response.
We therefore urge this board to fully ratify these ongoing agreements with the appropriate Memorandums Of Understanding, and to avoid any scenario that endangers or interrupts the adequate physical housing of these students and educators.

Sincerely,

Gabriel Prawl, AALC Chair/ APRI Vice President

Purnell Mitchell, AALC Executive Board Member

Leith Kahl, AALC Executive Board Member

Techno-Capitalism Ruins Everything

1 Nov

NextSteveJobs

Is there something wrong with me?  Is there some reason why every time I see a “good news” story about education in the MSM, my eyes immediately jump to the part of the story where capitalism shows up and hikes its leg all over what started out as a noble thing?  Seconds later, that “Debbie Downer” horn goes off in my ear.

I really wanted to like this article on Wired.  It is about a teacher that threw convention out the window and creatively engaged with a group of marginalized students in Matamoros, Mexico.  There are some great things to love and appreciate in this story:

  • A young teacher refusing to teach standardized curriculum

  • Students from a border town overcoming difficult circumstances

  • Education practices that wildly encourage free-thinking and creativity

Outside of the framing by this particular Wired author, this IS a really GREAT happening.

However, for me, the unstated fundamental assumptions of the author poison nearly every word.   They mirror the unseen dynamics that shape nearly every interaction between humans in our culture.

Here is what I infer about this author’s fundamental views::

  • The most important attributes in life are public and economic, not personal

  • The purpose of learning is to compete in the economy more effectively

  • The effectiveness of learning can be measured via standardized tests

  • “Exceptionalism” is awesome!

Assumption 1:  The most important dimension in life is public and economic, not personal

Why does the young girl featured in the article have to grow up to be “the next Steve Jobs”?  Is it not good enough that she is “awesome at Math” or “loves to think about Science”?   The author glosses over Paloma’s internal and personal success in the present and instead flips the axis to how she would create and demonstrate value for others in the future.  This narrative shapes our reality.  What if Paloma does not want to be the next Steve Jobs?  What if her creativity and intelligence tells her that maybe escaping the rat race of capitalism and working with animals is the smartest option for her?  According to that narrative would she be a failure for not achieving someone else’s goal of becoming a “captain of industry”?

Assumption 2: The purpose of learning is to engage in the economy more effectively

The author definitely understands that the skills required for jobs today are different than the skills required in the past:

“Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy….. And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. “

However, the author does not mention that maybe innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are also critical for just being a happy, thoughtful person and relating well to others.

Assumption 3: The effectiveness of learning can be measured via standardized tests

This is a trap that many alternative educators fall into — railing against standardized tests on one hand, and then using them to prove their own effectiveness on the other.   Schools feel compelled to prove their effectiveness via measurements that ‘appear’ to be objective because it is impossible to gain credibility in our current culture without doing so.  The obvious fallacy is that most of these measurements, even in the world of “business”, are based on smoke and mirrors and are easily manipulated to prove whatever point those in power want to prove.

Assumption 4:  “Exceptionalism” is Awesome

As a parent in Seattle, I swear that I will freak out completely the next time that a fellow parent tells me about how their child is in the 99.999999% of their class, or is “nationally ranked” in whatever sport or artistic endeavor that they are exceptionalizing the hell out of.   The author obsessively builds a hero narrative around Paloma, and largely ignores the rest of the class.  Our culture puts increasingly unreasonable and unhealthy pressure on children to be “exceptional”.  In addition to the mathematical impossibility of everyone being in the 99th percentile, what about education for ALL?  What about the 37% of Paloma’s class that did NOT rank as ‘excellent’?

Alternative Schools Beware

My children have grown up attending public “Alternative” schools in Seattle.  These schools are far from perfect, but have generally been less soul-crushing than the hyper-competition and hyper-behavioralism practiced at many other local public schools.   They have been grossly under-resourced and openly attacked by the school district administration.

However, I fear that as the pendulum swings back from a more conservative educational agenda, wealthy benefactors with the same mindset as the author of this article will swoop in and “turbo-charge” alternative education with an infusion of capital. Given that they have the same underlying intellectual framework that views students as workers in training, they will be vigorously screening to find some “diamond in the rough” that can help create more capital for the economy.

Unless alternative school educators start having conversations about the underlying principles of these ‘saviors’ and identifying what principles THEY stand for, alternative schools will simply be used as more effective tools of oppression.  Future students like Paloma might turn out to be just like Steve Jobs, and never consider the weight on others of the economic pyramid that they stand on top of.