As a law student years ago, I learned the elementary principle every law school teaches: Without context, the law is only words on paper. History gives law meaning; to follow the letter of the law without honoring its spirit is to lose the flower of justice in the weeds of formalism. It’s a fundamental lesson that appeared lost in the recent United States Supreme Court decision striking down voluntary integration plans in the Seattle and Louisville public schools. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the Court’s decision, took pains to justify his conclusion that the school districts’ plans were unconstitutional by quoting from legal briefs filed in another watershed case about integration: Brown v. Board of Education.
By invoking the memory of Brown, Roberts tried to equate efforts to eradicate legalized segregation with present-day attempts to create racially diverse schools. Because Seattle and Louisville used race as a factor to desegregate their schools, their integration plans, reasoned Roberts, were no different than past efforts that exploited race to separate and exclude. “The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” he wrote. Plain and simple.
For more than a decade, Urban Habitat has used community-based education in the service of justice for communities of color and low-income residents of the San Francisco Bay area. Since its founding in 1989, a central element of Urban Habitat’s mission has been creating an understanding of the regional forces that determine disinvestment in infrastructure, education, transportation, housing, employment and healthcare access. More recently we have moved into new territory, investigating educational methods that can empower and educate impacted communities to push traditional models of development toward more equitable outcomes.
In San Leandro, as part of a larger effort called the Great Communities Collaborative, Urban Habitat has been partnering with Congregations Organizing for Renewal (COR) to provide training and access to resources related to public policy, urban planning, transportation, and housing finance. This work is aimed at educating neighborhood residents on the benefits of building affordable housing as part of the new wave of transit-oriented development.
“The only way change is going to happen is from the bottom up.”
I believe that popular education starts from personal experience and builds a deliberate intentionality about trying to help people look at the conditions and issues they are dealing with on changing things and making things better.
I first heard about popular education when I was doing HIV prevention work in San Francisco with immigrant women. I started learning about some of the models that had been used in Latin America with immigrant communities, like the promotora de salud model. The premise of promotora de salud was that people in the community were the best messengers to other folks in the community. That was my introduction to popular education as a tool to help individuals learn and as a method of empowering and organizing communities.