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:
- 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).
- 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.