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An Open Letter From The Trenches: To Education Activists, Friends, and Haters
by José Vilson
To my fellow education activists:
I've come across a few things that concern me and others in the last few months, and we got some shit to talk about.
On normal days, I wake up at 5:30 AM hellbent on kicking butt at work, metaphorically of course. The stirring in my belly long after my butter toast and coffee is the passion with which I approach my students, whether or not they believe they're ready to learn, or society thinks so for that matter. Despite the troubling nuances of advocating for a more holistic approach to assessment and schooling after work hours, I still have to work with the reality of keeping my job i.e. working with standards I didn't write, administering tests I didn't create, and yes, working in a system that consistently clashes with my ideals.
The key here is, whoever walks through my door, whenever, and however, I accept them. That’s how we build communities of learning.
Thus, I find it disheartening when we advocate for educational equity and, even amongst our ranks, our personalities and biases get in the way of achieving the goal. The question isn't whether we have good intentions, for intentions there are plenty. We have a multitude of sides, each with their own nuance about how schools should run, each with their motives for what they promote.
At any given moment, some of our colleagues can fit into any one of these categories, but if enough of us can agree with each other on certain principles, then we build coalition. What ends up happening after a serious amount of coalition-building is that people of different races, backgrounds, and cultures fall under this big umbrella, and whether we're forced to realize it or not, we have a greater charge to be exact in our language, more inclusive, more loving.
Some of you believe we're right to be angry, and I agree to an extent. The field of K-12 education looks murkier by the day. Yet, anger is a primary means to an end, not the end itself. Getting angry isn't just cursing those we disagree with, but using that energy to move families to safe harbors in disaster times. Getting angry isn't yelling into microphones and writing in capital letters on-line; it's walking into closing schools and wondering where our kids will go. Getting angry isn't jealousy masked in invalid arguments about teacher voice and organizational rank; it's about converting the energy into passion, one that allows you to embrace others and push each other in the right direction.
Anger isn't a title we parade around like doctorates, followers, and co-signers; it's the feeling before, during, and after we approach things with love and earnest.
Unfortunately, I couldn't be at the recent Occupy The Department of Education protest, but if the Education Week article is true, then I'm disappointed in hearing the words "Asian bitch" being uttered. I got a love for Ceresta Smith's work that goes back to when I first met her at the Save Our Schools March in 2011, and beyond. I understand the source of frustration, though I can't condone it. In no way does that devalue her wonderful work, but we all have moments of fury. Between us, as Sabrina Stevens has said so eloquently, closing schools and laying waste to schools in predominantly poor neighborhoods far outweighs the damage of awful comments from either side.
So I thank all of those who participated on behalf of us. That matters.
However, for anyone to say that racial insults are "no big deal" speaks volumes to the sorts of work people of color and anyone who considers themselves under the umbrella have to do in order to make things right. As colleague Kenzo Shibata once said, "You can't build a movement by making allies feel unwelcome and telling them to get over it." I'd take it one step further and say that we can't build coalition if we continue to think we have to build a movement under one or two people's terms. I refuse to believe that we can't coalesce around building a better education system for all children, regardless of background.
How can you say you care about children of color, but ostracize adults of color with the same breath?
The only privilege that ought to exist is the type of privilege I currently exhibit daily, working with students, many of whom don’t get exposed to adults that care about their futures. Some of my students honestly can't get over themselves. They might come in with Doritos and soda for breakfast. They might roll their eyes and curse at me under their breath. Some of them might rarely pull out a pen or pencil even after they’ve been prodded and begged continuously for an hour. But they're middle schoolers, an unrepentant bunch with little reason to reflect on their actions.
Adults, on the other hand, don't get excuses. The privilege is in the hopes and dreams we have for our students, not in the ways we act towards our fellow man or woman. The privilege, to convert the anger over how our kids are treated in the system into a passion for student learning, remains at the forefront.
As Dr. King said in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":
Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.
Click here to add attending a school board meeting to your GOOD "to-do" list.
A version of this post originally appeared at The Jose Vilson.
Teacher shouting into chalk megaphone image via Shutterstock
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