Reflections on the second national conference of the Network for Public Education in Chicago [NOTE: This post was followed by “NPE Engages As It Must: The Statement on #BaltimoreUprising“]
Sisters and brothers,
Don’t settle for the okey-doke.
– Karen Lewis
An unanticipated houseguest — my wife and I have named him ‘Flula’ [see inset] — will inevitably keep these reflections from being as thorough as I might like. And with that brevity will inevitably come a lack of subtlety, nuance, and detail these thoughts might well deserve.
Nevertheless: I’ve just returned from a most extraordinary gathering: the second national conference of the Network for Public Education. This year’s meeting was situated in Chicago — ironically, and no doubt purposefully, the ‘scene of the crime’ for so many dimensions of neoliberal education reform as the site of the Chicago School of Economics; a laboratory for the privatization of the public sector; the testing grounds for punitive student, teacher, and school accountability policies; and the launching pad for the careers of such influential education ‘reformers’ as our current Secretary of Education. But as we were all no doubt reminded this weekend in moments of transformative power — as when, in the opening keynote, Jitu Brown explicitly framed prevailing reforms in the context of white supremacy and the colonization of communities of color; as when, in the closing session, Karen Lewis celebrated the convictions, courage, and catalytic actions of grass roots organizers and rank-and-file activists above her own; as when, in the Walton Ballroom, the leaders of the NEA and AFT pledged to refuse any further funding from the Gates, Broad, and Walton foundations — Chicago has been in many ways for decades the incubator, test site, and proving grounds of transformative allyship, organizing, and resistance that have lent the Education Spring so much of its light and heat.
When, last year at about this time, Diane Ravitch generously affirmed and shared my reflections on the first national gathering of the Network for Public Education (“An #EducationSpring in our Step“), she offered the following:
Most powerful to me was his reference to the absence of hierarchy. All of us–students, parents, educators, citizens, old, young–met as equals. It was, from all accounts, a great and empowering experience. The words I heard often were, ” I am so glad to know that I am not alone.”
This was once again my experience in Chicago. Selfishly, and for reasons I won’t get into in this post, I needed this weekend’s intimately relational experience of affirmation, authenticity, solidarity, and integrity more than I could have known. Certain simple moments that may seem insignificant from one lens, were sustaining to my soul from another: having a few opportunities to chat with Deborah Meier and to thank her for the work that has inspired so much of my direction in the last year; enjoying some quiet time with Theresa Collins and Jose Vilson to reflect, to share some smiling side-eyes, and to wonder about the direction of ‘the work’ in spaces like these; connecting no matter how briefly with guiding lights like Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, Diane Ravitch, and Yong Zhao; having my thinking about social justice pushed, and my commitments to equity and justice sharpened, by folks like Jitu Brown, Rita Green, Jesse Hagopian, and Jose Vilson; and so many more. Indeed, “I am so glad to know that I am not alone…”
At the same time, reflecting on my own vacilating senses of solitude and solidarity, I have to say I wonder — with a significant degree of discomfort — whether everyone felt they were meeting ‘as equals.’ On both ‘sides’ of the education debate — ‘reform’ and ‘resistance’ — the rhetoric of civil rights and social justice is continually deployed to make a case. I would tend to argue that the appropriation is provably sinister and strategic in the ‘case’ of the reformers; I really do believe the intent is more sincere and ultimately more substantial among those devoted to resistance.
And yet it was impossible for me not to notice that the overwhelming majority of activist educators who gathered for this conference in Chicago were white; it was impossible not to notice that the folks with microphones who made explicit calls for anti-racist activism, culturally responsive pedagogy, and the development of educators’ cultural competence were people of color; it was impossible not to notice that among this year’s Calls to Action from NPE were a number of admirable, courageous, and essential goals — to support the Tester amendment; to support students, parents, and teachers who opt-out of or refuse high-stakes testing; and to defend teachers who dissent — but that something, somehow, was missing…
What was missing, in my mind at least — and I say this as a fierce and loyal advocate for the Network for Public Education, its leadership, and all of its courageous members and organizational allies — was an explicit acknowledgment of the racialized dynamics not only of reform, but of our growing resistance; an explicit if difficult acknowledgment of the cultural incompetence of many colleagues in our professions that has subjugated students, teachers, and communities of color since long before A Nation at Risk; and an explicit Call-to-Action to ensure that a Theory of Change — if such a theory might include a generative vision for the future of just and equitable schooling beyond our immediate, urgent, and organized resistance to neoliberal policies that threaten it — features a collective commitment to the allyship, cultural competence, healing, humility, learning, and solidarity of white folks with the students, educators, families, and communities of color who have been oppressed in and by our school system since well before neoliberal reforms swept our nation or progressive resistance found its voice.
At the end of the day, I think Jesse Hagopian put it best, and offered us a model for truly transformative solidarity, in a staggering session with Rita Green on Sunday morning. Let’s start to understand “the #OptOut movement as part of the #BlackLivesMatter struggle.” Let’s advocate for “informed disobedience to a racist curriculum” in all of our schools. Let’s remember that “a key component of the dehumanization of people of color is labeling them as a test score.” Let’s inform others that “what these tests measure is not your intelligence, but your access to resources.”
And let’s — and I say this particularly to my white sisters and brothers, colleagues, mentors, and friends — problematize the racialized politics of ‘our’ resistance as fiercely and intentionally as we challenge the racist ideologies of ‘their’ reforms. Let’s acknowledge our own challenges, limitations, opportunities, and obligations for growth with respect to active and intentional inclusion, cultural competence, and socially just pedagogy in the school spaces and professional networks where we find ourselves. In authentic solidarity with ‘the civil rights issues of our time,’ we might find our greatest power, and our greatest challenge, in recognizing with Jesse Hagopian that “we have to fight to completely redefine what the purpose of education is.” We can do that, if we have the courage not only to think it, and not only to say it, but to do it ‘out loud’…
As Jesse Hagopian asked in what I found the single most compelling question I’ve heard, and internalized, in recent weeks: “Could you imagine the power we’d have if these two movements found common cause…?”
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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes