Educating for Equity

%altBy B. Jesse Clarke
This summer's United States Social Forum was singularly successful in its use of popular education, holding over a thousand workshops in three days. This issue of Race, Poverty and the Environment opens with a quick look at the forum and then delves into the many complex ways people are using education to strengthen the movements for social justice.

We start by acknowledging that the struggle for equal education organized by the civil rights movement is a vivid example of successful social change.  From the initial trainings at the Highlander Center, (described by John Hurst) to the curriculum of the Freedom Schools (by Kathy Emery), there is much to be learned by today’s organizers about the foundations of widespread civil disobedience and mass action. 

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions on voluntary desegregation Maya Harris from the American Civil Liberties Union reviews the current state of legal strategies to address equity in education at the federal level. Michelle N. Rodriguez and Angelica K. Jongco from Public Advocates detail a successful lawsuit by parents in California fighting for equity on the state level. Jacob Rosette describes a similar effort in Maryland where a court decision to remedy inequality is going un-enforced. 

Eric Mar, past president of the San Francisco School Board, and Kathy Emery evaluate the prognosis for change at the school district level.  Kenneth Saltman and Margot Pepper look at some of the national and global causes that are turning our schools into a two-track system: one track leading into college and managerial positions and the other into dead end, Wal Mart type jobs, the military or the criminal justice system.

In all of these analyses, the critical importance of integration with an independent social movement shines through as the best avenue for winning change, whether at the local, state, or national level. 

This issue is rife with examples from California, Florida, Texas, Portland, and Oaxaca, Mexico that highlight the complex ways that movement advocates are attempting to use education to bring equality, not only to our schools, but across the board on social justice issues, such as immigration, employment, and urban planning. 

It seems that many of us came away from the U.S. Social Forum with a common sense of incompleteness. In a way, that is the deepest success of the Forum. It is abundantly clear that we need to develop new ways to deepen and broaden our work.   We hope that the materials in this issue can be a small contribution to this effort.


RP & E | Fall 2007 | 14-2 Credits


Editors Emeritus
Carl Anthony
Luke Cole

Juliet Ellis

B. Jesse Clarke

Design and Layout
B. Jesse Clarke and
Guillermo Prado

Editorial Assistance
Merula Furtado

Copy Editing and Proofreading
Diana Abellera, Cara
Bertron, Merula Furtado,
Katherine Hall

Urban Habitat
Board of Directors

Joe Brooks (Chair)

Fred Blackwell (Vice-Chair)
S.F. Mayor’s Office of
Community Development

Tamar Dorfman (Treasurer)
S.F. Mayor's Office of
Community Development

Carl Anthony
Co-Founder, Urban Habitat

Romel Pascual
Mayor's Office, City of Los Angeles
Associate Director of the Environment

Arnold Perkins
Alameda Public Health
Department (retired)

Gabriela Sandoval
Department of Sociology,
U.C. Santa Cruz

Tim Thomas
East Bay Habitat for Humanity

Organizations are listed for identification purposes only.

Race, Poverty & the Environment is published twice annually.© 2007 by the individual creators and Urban Habitat. For specific reprint information or submissions, please email RP&E was first published in 1990 by Urban Habitat Program and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation’s Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. The views reflected in RP&E are not necessarily those of the editors, Urban Habitat, or its funders.

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Photo: (Right) United States Social Forum (USSF) workshop in Atlanta, 2007.

Front cover collage: (left) participants at Transportation Justice educational event Dec.
5, 2005, (center) Jackie Tsou, HUD fellow at Urban Habitat, © 2005 Scott Braley;
(right) a UFCW supporter of Smithfield workers at educational picket at USSF,
© 2007 Brooke Anderson; (far right) participant at the 3rd National Immigrant and
Refugee Rights Training Institute, © 2006 NNIRR. Collage by Guillermo Prado.

Back cover photo: Second grade students at Rosa Parks Elementary School
©1997 Margot Pepper.

Hope in the Horizontal


Ten years after the death of Paolo Freire on May 2, 1997, his influence still imbues the practice of popular education. His groundbreaking work in teaching literacy continues to have an enormous impact across the world, spreading outward from his birthplace in Brazil. It’s fitting then, that the largest convening of popular education practice in the United States took place this summer at the U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Atlanta, Georgia. Inspired by the World Social Forum, which originated in Puerto Allegre, Brazil, the USSF’s workshop extravaganza marks a successful step in bringing Freiriean ideas into the political work of grassroots organizing in the United States.The USSF brought together over 12,000 activists from organizations across the United States, in an experiment in movement-building and popular education unlike any in recent memory. Picking up where the anti-globalization coalitions of the 1990s left off, the assembled forces had the sort of momentum that was building just before the Seattle WTO protests in 1999. But today, the political agenda is far broader and the isolation by issue is less extreme.

While still lacking in crucial elements of a successful social change movement, (including participation from organized workers and practicing people of faith) the forum drew participation from grassroots groups, the non-profit sector, and the remnant organizations of the 20th century Left. The people participating were mostly under 40, many in their 20s. A substantial number of people were of color and the conference had a visible and audible presence from the queer and trans communities. In the only serious political setback at the forum, due to logistical and political limitations, poor people and the marginalized of Atlanta had no easy entrance point and were at times specifically excluded. Despite some flaws, all in all, it was a successful expression of hope and resilience organized around the slogan, “Another World is Possible; Another U.S. is Necessary.” Given appropriate nurturance and continued perseverance, this assemblage may yet hold the seeds for the development of a radical movement in the United States—but not any time soon.

Workshop Extravaganza

The forum process was centered on the workshop exchange. Over 1000 workshops were presented, almost all by forum registrants who also attended other folks’ workshops. Every major theme in today’s social movements was represented, from immigrant rights to gender liberation. Trainings in media making, messaging, organizing basics, economic analysis, undoing racism, healthcare access, reparations—the list is exhaustive. Were this massive horizontal exchange of information, strategy, and skills training to have been conducted on a fee-driven basis it would have had an economic value of millions of dollars.
I went as part of a delegation from the Social Equity Caucus of the Bay Area, a networking group of non-profit organizations. Fellow delegates found that the workshops they attended were worthwhile. Fredricka Bryant, a young activist from Richmond, California, says that “Overall, the USSF youth workshops clearly prove that the youth movement is growing stronger because of the passionate youth activist fight for social justice, environmental justice, reproductive rights, and criminal justice issues.”
Delegate Diana Abellera, coordinator of Urban Habitat’s leadership institute, describes a successful workshop on Black relationships, in which “emotions flooded the room from both, the participants and the audience members. Anger, apologies, tears, and promises to change emerged. We could have processed what had just occurred, for days.”

While most workshops weren’t centered on such an emotional catharsis, all of the eight workshops I attended were worthwhile. From a theater image workshop from a New York City “Theater of the Oppressed” group, to a rocking session criticizing foundation funding of non-profits, to a Project South  exercise in reconstructing the social order, my impression from talking with many delegates was that the presentations and dialogues were more often than not hitting the mark and making the connections. The logistical success of this workshop extravaganza was noted by many people and particularly appreciated by those who had gone to previous World Social Forums where disorganization reigned.

Nonetheless, logistical and political missteps were clearly visible: The community-based media justice center was turned down in their request to locate in a publicly accessible homeless shelter, and instead, crammed into backstage dressing rooms behind a labyrinth of halls and stairways made inaccessible to even the alternative media, much less the masses; Security screeners kept many poor folks and Atlanta residents from coming into the civic center; Swank hotels held the meetings hostage to erratic elevator service and minimal technical support; Community venues were often so far offsite that only someone with an automobile and a local guide could have made it to any two workshops in a row. But overall, one result was clear—People learned from one another.

That’s significant. If they learned anything close to what the presenters alleged to have been teaching, these thousands of young people are in an excellent position to return home to their own communities with the confidence that in hundreds of cities, towns, and counties across this country, other people like them are struggling to solve the challenges of winning economic and social justice for all. And they should have a fistful of business cards, scribbled contact names, email addresses, and cell phone numbers tapped into their mobiles to be able to talk to those allies when they are ready to launch their own national tour.


Small Steps Forward
Small groups with regional agendas seeking national allies, visibility, and connections, staged mini-demonstrations, often just through their uniform visual presence in printed t-shirts featuring their group’s demands. Domestic workers managed to pull together a national network. Immigrant rights groups staged some national press conferences and built on their already nascent national networks. Climate change organizers strengthened their training and outreach capacities. Other national networks took advantage of the occasion to hold training or decision-making meetings of their own.

Yet, it did seem a sign of our weakness that there was no attempt made to unify around even the most simple action steps to end the United States wars, challenge privatization, or defend immigrant rights.

Connie Galambos, the SEC delegation coordinator felt acutely the lack of a central organizing thread. For her, the missing piece was the war. “Our issues all converge in war, yet I was disappointed to note very few folks in Atlanta telling that story. [Some] white folks struggled to narrow the frame of war to strictly an environmental issue, simplifying their work by not collaborating with the communities of color on the front lines abroad and at home; simultaneously, shades of brown were split up into issue-based sessions on how to address the multiple crises we face—war not included.”

Plenary Television
The attempts to “build a movement” through the plenary sessions, which were promoted as dialogues, fell quickly into a rhetorical abyss. An audience of thousands, shivering in the concert-style, over air- conditioned hall of the Atlanta Civic Center, watched small figures, seated in the style of television talk show heads perched in front of a huge red backdrop, trade speeches and sound bites to thunderous and repeated applause. The pep rally fervor, followed by semi-scripted two minute soundbites from the floor, hardly called for much heavy mental lifting and left no real room for dialogue. It felt to me as satisfying as watching a giant “red” television. On the last day of the conference, this theatrical part of the operation fell through into bickering over time limits, disrespecting elders, and laments about access. The final act pulled back the red curtain to reveal a movement that still lacks the essential capacity to work together against the common opponent and oppressor, global capital.


Do it Yourself
It seems, as the radical minority within the United States that feels the necessity to build another world, we are going to have to think small. It’s abundantly clear that skin-deep united fronts controlled by white liberals that are afraid to say the word “capitalism” are not going to challenge the dominant social order. In order to survive and transform the fragmented, alienating, and harsh conditions of capitalism in the Americas, we are going to need to look in our own wallets, in our own psychic closets, in our own close-knit networks, to build enough energy to connect to close-knit networks not our own. We are going to need friends who can keep our backs as the struggles intensify and the stakes are raised. And we are going to need allies that arise from places, cultures, and spiritualities not our own.

SEC delegate Boona Cheema, executive director of Building Opportunites for Self-Sufficiency, reflecting on unity between immigrant and indigenous communities, puts it this way, “This wall must be penetrated, torn down, stripped of its hypocrisy, its lies, its broken treaties, its ongoing behaviors and actions, which create suffering, death, and eventual disappearance of all that we hold sacred.”

Working together across the chasms of identity, sexuality, class, race, and region, we are going to have to identify the leverage points where we can disrupt business as usual, win political and social space for experiments in equality, and practice a warrior form of peace. It seemed at this conference that I felt the stirring of such ideas. But this is a young movement that will have to find a new path through battlegrounds littered with the shards of sectarian politics, infiltrations, and co-optations of the past.

SEC delegate, Jaime Alvarado, director of Somos Mayfair, an immigrant services and advocacy group in San Jose, concludes that “Most of all, the biggest missing piece is an overarching strategic framework for a progressive movement that dares to expand beyond the predictable pockets of sanctuary, in which most of us live. The biggest promise of the USSF is in the creation of such a framework. This work remains to be done.”

Educating for Equity
The organizers of the USSF centered the forum’s work on education, likewise with this issue of Race Poverty and the Environment, we frame the challenges of building effecive social movements in terms of the challenge of educating for change inside and outside of formal educational environmens.

We start by acknowledging that the struggle for equal education organized by the civil rights movement is a vivid example of successful social change.  From the initial trainings at the Highlander Center, (described by John Hurst) to the curriculum of the Freedom Schools (by Kathy Emery), there is much to be learned by today’s organizers about the foundations of widespread civil disobedince and mass action. 

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decisions on voluntary desegregation Maya Harris from the Amerian Cvil Liberties Union reviews the current state of legal strategies to address equity in education at the federal level. Michelle N. Rodriguez and Angelica K. Jongco from Public Advocates detail a successful lawsuit by parents in California fighting for equity on the state level. Jacob Rosette describes a similar effort in Maryland where a court decision to remedy inequality is going unenforced.  
Eric Mar, past president of the San Francisco School Board, and Kathy Emery evaluate the prognosis for change at the school district level.  Kenneth Saltman and Margot Pepper look at some of the national and global causes that are turning our schools into a two-track system: one track leading into college and managerial positions and the other into dead end, Wal Mart type jobs, the military or the criminal justice system.

In all of these analyses, the critical importance of integration with an independent social movement shines through as the best avenue for winning change, whether at the local, state, or national level. 

This issue is rife with examples from California, Florida, Texas, Portland, and Oaxaca, Mexico that highlight the complex ways that movement advocates are attempting to use education to bring equality, not only to our schools, but across the board on social justice issues, such as immigration, employment, and urban planning. 

It seems that many of us came away from the USSF with a common sense of incompleteness. In a way, that is the deepest success of the Forum. While folks may have gotten charged up on specific elements of the struggle, many developed an ever clearer realization that something deeply practical and deeply dangerous needs to be done. 

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

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From the Directors Desk: Educating for Regional Equity


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.

As one of the core partners in the Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI), Urban Habitat has helped organize a combination of grassroots education for community residents, with training tailored to meet the needs of city officials and department heads. In doing so, we hope to position elected leadership to advance the equitable revitalization of Richmond, while simultaneously ensuring that there is the public will to hold them accountable to this agenda.

As Bay Area housing market continues to tighten and developable land diminishes, Richmond is beginning to catch the eye of developers. In many ways, it’s a community ripe for the problems associated with discriminatory development: gentrification, increased police harassment of the poor, and the siting of toxic industries in the center of communities of color. But it is also a city with a changing political climate, which provides the opportunity for equity to be a unifying goal that brings together diverse constituencies from across the city. We saw that happen in July, when over 250 community members and elected officials turned out to endorse REDI’s policy platform and equitable development principles as part of our General Plan Campaign.

Next year marks the 10th anniversary of the Social Equity Caucus, a coalition staffed by Urban Habitat, which brings together more than 75 organizations committed to building a regional equity agenda. In 2008, we will be presenting a State of the Region to help diverse efforts across the Bay place their struggles within a larger context. In the process, we shall identify opportunities to mobilize together, such as: What can we do about the affordable housing crisis facing each of our communities? Where is the money? Where are the available commission seats? How can we achieve scale? Coupled with this event will be additional trainings to support campaigns around the region.

Each of these educational interventions is part of a long-term process of building capacity toward the goal of establishing a regional equity agenda. Such an agenda is grounded in the community, resonates with diverse stakeholders, and ultimately creates cities that distribute the benefits of new development to communities that have for decades been on the receiving end of substandard housing, minimal public transportation, second rate education, and poorly paid, health-threatening employment.

Building on our analysis of the impacts of suburban sprawl on urban communities of color and inner ring suburbs, Urban Habitat has long led efforts that ensure communities most impacted can play a leadership role in developing and implementing the solutions to these problems. Addressing the leadership challenge is critical in sustaining this work both now, and over the long-term.?

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Educating for Equity    |    Vol. 14 No. 2 |    Fall 2007 |    Credits

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Equal Education


Honoring the Spirit of Brown


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.

But what of the historical context of Brown? Had Roberts forgotten that Thurgood Marshall, the African American lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice who argued the Brown case, was urging the Court to breathe spirit into the letter of the Constitution’s promise of equality for all and chart a brave new course for the nation? That the crisis of segregation was so alarming and so damaging that the Court’s decision would define us as a nation? That Chief Justice Earl Warren, who penned the Brown decision, worked tirelessly to convince all nine justices—who hailed from both the North and South—to sign onto the majority opinion so that the Court could speak with one, powerful voice in repudiation of the archaic doctrine of “separate but equal”?


Unlike the unanimous decision in Brown, the Court’s recent decision was bitterly divided. And it is no wonder.
For several Justices, Robert’s use of Brown to dismantle efforts to achieve the very integration that Brown had promised was a distortion of Brown’s unifying legacy—a “cruel irony,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in dissent. “The Chief Justice rewrites the history of one of this Court’s most important decisions,” Stevens said.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in an emotional opinion read from the bench, reminded his colleagues: “In this Court’s finest hour, Brown…challenged th[e] history [of segregation] and helped to change it.”Brown, said Breyer, held out a “promise of true racial equality—not as a matter of fine words on paper, but as a matter of everyday life in the Nation’s cities and schools.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy rejected Roberts’ simplistic application of the letter of Brown as “too dismissive of the legitimate interest government has in ensuring all people have equal opportunity regardless of their race.” In his separate opinion, Kennedy wrote: “The enduring hope is that race should not matter; the reality is that too often it does.”

History teaches us that far from ignoring race, the Brown Court explicitly used race as a tool of inclusion. And recognizing the significant social context in which the Brown decision was made, later courts upheld the use of race to integrate, equalize, and harmonize society, instead of allowing segregation to persist.

On this score, the recent Supreme Court decision was a major setback. In ruling Seattle and Louisville’s voluntary integration plans unconstitutional, the Court threw a steep hurdle in the path of local school districts seeking to create racially diverse learning environments for all children.

Both integration plans were carefully crafted and effective, involving limited use of race and only after other factors were considered. Nonetheless, the Court rejected the plans and, in doing so, further limited the role that race can play in making student assignments to schools. It is particularly troubling that four of the Supreme Court justices who joined in striking down the plans would eliminate virtually all effective tools for dismantling racial isolation and achieving integration in public schools.

All is not Lost

Although he concurred with Roberts’ conclusion that the Seattle and Louisville plans were unconstitutional, Kennedy clarified that Roberts’ opinion implied “an all-too-unyielding insistence that race cannot be a factor in instances when, in my view, it may be taken into account.”

Kennedy’s words leave the door ajar for school districts trying to implement voluntary integration plans that fulfill both the letter and spirit of Brown. And, fortunately, a majority of the Justices reaffirmed that the government has a compelling interest in avoiding racial isolation and achieving racial diversity in public schools. The Court made clear that a range of affirmative measures, including some race-conscious measures, are still available to school districts seeking to achieve diversity in their student body.

This is particularly important here in California, where, in the shadow of Proposition 209, public schools are as segregated today as they were nearly 40 years ago.

Despite this challenge, there are examples of success. Earlier this year, an Alameda County Superior Court judge threw out a legal challenge to Berkeley Unified School District’s elementary and high school student assignment plans, finding that the district does not violate state law by considering the racial demographics of students’ neighborhoods along with other factors in assigning students to schools.

This was the second time in recent years that Berkeley’s integration efforts have come under attack—and survived the challenge. Last time Berkeley prevailed, in April 2004, the judge ruled: “Although Proposition 209 specifically applies to public education, its text does not mention voluntary desegregation plans or otherwise indicate that prohibited discrimination or preferential treatment includes a race-conscious school assignment plan that seeks to provide all students with the same benefit of desegregated schools.”

In his dissent, Justice Breyer warned that the Court’s recent decision will be one that “the Court and the Nation will come to regret.” But we don’t have to live with such regret.

We all have a role to play—parents, advocates, school administrators, elected officials—in continuing the hard but critically important work of integrating public schools, so that students from all backgrounds will benefit from a diverse educational environment and be better prepared to effectively function in our increasingly diverse society and global economy. Let’s maximize the tools we still have available to promote equal opportunity and inclusion in our schools.

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

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Williams v. California: Hope and Confidence for Students and Parents


Graciela Cruz finally had enough. Her daughter attended Huron Elementary School in Huron, California, a small farm community in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Recalls Cruz, “One day, I went to pick my daughter up from school and she was holding a book… in a matter of seconds, the teacher comes out and practically tears it from her hands. And I asked myself, ‘Why take away a book that could help her?’”1

Being from a working class, Spanish-speaking, immigrant community, the parents were hesitant to speak out at their schools and felt that their concerns were ignored whenever they approached school officials.

However, in March 2007, after over 20 years of discouragement, the Huron community was rewarded with a new tool for school improvement. Public Advocates, a civil rights law and advocacy organization, and Latino Issues Forum, a policy and advocacy group, joined with Graciela and other parents in Huron to utilize the Williams complaint process—a means for everyday people to speak out against unjust school conditions—resulting from the historic Williams v. California settlement.

The Unequal State of Education in California
California is one of the wealthiest states in the nation, and the sixth largest economy in the world. With 6.3 million children in public schools, it has one of the largest school systems in the country. But on numerous measures—test scores, education funding, teacher quality, graduation rates, and facilities—California’s school system is among the nation’s worst.

Sixty-eight percent of California’s public school students are children of color. Over half of all students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. A quarter of the students,1.6 million, are English learners. As low-income children of color disproportionately attend impoverished public schools, and more affluent white children attend private schools or public schools benefiting from surrounding wealthy communities, the poor quality of learning opportunities provided to many students echoes the racial and class patterns that existed before the United States Supreme Court declared that “separate but equal” schools were “inherently unequal” in Brown v. Board of Education, more than 50 years ago.

Reports reveal significant per-pupil spending gaps among California public schools,2 particularly in the area of teacher salaries. Higher salaries and better working conditions in more affluent, white schools attract experienced and fully credentialed teachers. Conversely, under-prepared teachers end up in schools with a higher concentration of low-income and students of color. Teacher quality is one of the most significant factors in student achievement. Students in low-achieving schools are five times more likely to have an under-prepared teacher than their counterparts in high-achieving schools. Over the course of their schooling, one in four students in the lowest-performing schools will have more than one under-prepared teacher. In contrast, only one in fifty students in the highest-performing schools will have more than one under-prepared teacher.3

Against this backdrop of unequal and substandard learning conditions for many of the most marginalized students, the state continues to pursue a largely one-way accountability system. Students and schools are held accountable for standardized test scores, but the state itself does not take responsibility for providing students with the academic resources they need to  succeed. For example, the California High School Exit Exam, a requirement for a diploma, greatly affects marginalized students. At Miramonte High School in Orinda, the mostly white and affluent students passed the English portion of the exam at a rate of 99 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, just 20 miles away, at Richmond High School, which has mostly low-income students of color, only 37 percent passed the English exam.4 These disparate outcomes are not surprising, given the different investments in the learning environments of the students. Left unchecked, these inequities will only worsen.


Towards a Two-Way Accountability System
California’s systematic under-investment in education has eroded the quality of public schools dramatically. The crisis finally came to a head in 2000, when a San Francisco middle school student, Eliezer Williams—who year after year had experienced the lack of adequate teachers, textbooks, and broken down facilities—and his father decided that they had had enough. On May 17, 2000—the 46th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education—Public Advocates, along with the ACLU, Morrison & Foerster LLP, and others, filed Williams v. California, seeking to equalize basic educational opportunities across the state.

Williams challenged the state for subjecting low-income students and students of color to learning environments with: (a) high numbers of under-prepared and emergency-credentialed teachers;(b) unhealthy facilities that were infested with rodents and lacked functioning bathrooms; and (c) outdated or insufficient numbers of textbooks that students had to share and could not take home.

This was not the first time Public Advocates had challenged the state’s under-investment in the neediest schools. In the 1970s, Public Advocates litigated Serrano v. Priest, which successfully established education as a fundamental right in California and required public school funding to be equalized. Serrano was one of the first state school finance cases in the nation (although Proposition 13, which severely curtailed property taxes, later undercut the case’s promise of reform). The Serrano court’s equal protection ruling formed a key basis for the Williams suit.

After more than four years of litigation in which the state fought vigorously to defeat the plaintiffs’ claims, the parties announced a settlement agreement on August 13, 2004. The Williams settlement acknowledged for the first time the state’s obligation to provide California public school students a minimum level of educational necessities: (1) qualified teachers, (2) clean, safe, and functional school facilities, and (3) adequate textbooks. It also established new standards, new accountability mechanisms, and $1 billion in funding to implement the promises of the settlement. As part of the settlement, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law five bills.


Making Rights Real Through Williams
Legislation under the Williams settlement paved new ways for students, parents, and community members to hold their districts, and ultimately the state, accountable for educating their children. One key measure was an improved complaint process to enable concerned individuals or groups to report deficiencies in textbooks, teachers, or school facilities.
In the past two years, Public Advocates has trained and supported over a thousand students, parents, teachers, and administrators throughout California on using the Williams complaint process to improve school conditions. Working with district, county, and state officials has been critical to making these education rights a reality. Most crucial, perhaps, has been Public Advocates’ work on the ground, in partnership with community-based organizations, to create Williams campaigns. This entails informing students and parents of their rights, providing technical and strategic support in developing relationships with the school, district, and state administrators, garnering public attention, and following-up on complaints. (For details on filing a Williams complaint, see box: “Williams Complaint Process.”)

In the San Joaquin Valley, Public Advocates staff met with Spanish-speaking immigrant parents fed up with the conditions in their children’s schools, and as they have done across the state, informed them of their new rights under the Williams settlement and how to use the complaint process to make change. And a new organization—Padres Unidos, Mejores Escuelas (PUME)—or United Parents, Better Schools, was born to make the promises of Williams a reality in the local community. PUME parents demanded prompt action on the lack of education necessities for their children. Their demands were basic but critical to a safe and healthy learning environment: provide books for their children to take home; ensure that teachers are trained to help English learners; and remove harmful carcinogens from the drinking water. In March 2007, with the assistance of Public Advocates and Latino Issues Forum, PUME submitted over 70 formal complaints, in Spanish, as permitted by law.

In the course of collecting and following up on complaints, the parents met often with school and district officials and found courage within themselves to speak up. Public Advocates’ policy advocate, Mónica Henestroza, described a meeting between the parents and a district superintendent: “A parent looked the superintendent straight in the eye and asked, ‘¿Cómo puedes esperar un día más para mejorar el agua cuando la salud de mis hijos están en riesgo?’ (How can you wait even one more day to improve the quality of the water when my children’s health is at risk?)” That afternoon, the superintendent picked up an application for funding to repair the water system.

Williams Gives Students a Voice
The Williams complaint process also provides youth—the ones most directly affected by education decisions—with a way to speak out about problems in their schools.

Public Advocates provided Williams complaint training and campaign support to two Oakland-based youth leadership organizations, Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership and Youth Together. Sophomore Tiffany Parker, described how Youth Together used their training to educate other youth: “We did massive education around the school to let students know that we do have the right to have a fair school and that we do have a right to complain. We do need clean bathrooms and qualified teachers. The PE teacher should not be teaching Spanish class!”

In Spring 2006, these students collected and filed over 700 Williams complaints from high school students throughout the Oakland Unified School District, to highlight the substandard conditions in their schools—gaining press coverage in the local media in the process. Two hundred students confronted school district officials directly in an “accountability session” to demand fixes for the problems raised in their complaints. Consequently, many longstanding problems—from dirty bathrooms to missing textbooks—were fixed throughout the district. However, while the district’s response to the complaints was exemplary in some instances, it fell far short and required follow-up in others.

Whatever the tangible results, most critical was the effect on the students who worked on the campaign. Rose Ann Leybag, an Oakland Tech High School senior, and member of Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership, describes feeling “empowered” because of the changes she helped to make happen and feels that Williams teaches adults an important lesson: “If we’re really given an opportunity to speak for ourselves, about what we think is good for us, people will be surprised how youth can make changes in our community.”

Continuing Enforcement
Because of the Williams settlement, tens of thousands of California students now have updated textbooks and properly trained teachers. Many teachers are seeking qualification to instruct English learners. And hundreds of dangerous conditions have been repaired throughout the state’s schools.5 These stories are not an end, but a beginning. Fulfilling the promises of the Williams settlement requires constant attention and consistent enforcement.

The processes born out of the settlement build public confidence and political will for improving the education system and directing more resources to schools and students most in need. While the complaint process is just one tool for fixing specific types of problems, the value to students and parents of engaging in that process is immeasurable. By training and supporting communities and grassroots organizations to use the Williams complaint process, Public Advocates has helped students, parents, teachers, schools, and state officials to work together. As communities achieve concrete improvements at specific schools, they also build a consciousness of their potential to create social change.

Graciela Cruz describes the impact of the PUME Williams campaign on herself: “There’s a saying, ‘If you don’t speak, God won’t hear you.’ What has changed in me is that I have come to realize how true this is. Not until the people rose up, did they begin to make changes.”6

1.    Translated from Spanish by Mónica Henestroza, Public Advocates.
2.    California’s Hidden Teacher Spending Gap: How State and District Budgeting Practices Shortchange Poor and Minority Students, Education Trust West (2005).
3.     The Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning, Fact Sheet 3 in California’s Teaching Force: Key Issues and Trends (2006), available at
4.    California Department of Education, Dataquest, California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE) Results for Mathematics and English Language Arts by Program (Combined 2006) for All Grades, available at
5.    See The Williams v. California Settlement: The First Year of Implementation (Nov. 2005), available at
6.    Translated from Spanish by Mónica Henestroza, Public Advocates.

Michelle N. Rodriguez is a staff attorney and Angelica K. Jongco is an attorney and law fellow with the non-profit civil rights law firm, Public Advocates in San Francisco.

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Civil Rights Movement Origins at Highlander Educational Sessions

When Rosa Parks was asked by the eminent talk show host, Studs Terkel, what the Highlander Center had to do with the fact that she chose not to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama on that fateful day in early December 1955, she answered quite simply, “everything.” As a result of its educational efforts on behalf of integration, the state of Tennessee closed Highlander in 1960 on bogus charges and auctioned off all of its property, only to have it reopen shortly thereafter under a new name and charter.

This form of adult education is now widely known as “Popular Education.” The core of its meaning and definition are clear, while the boundaries are intentionally permeable. Popular Education is, at root, the empowerment of adults through democratically structured cooperative study and action, directed toward achieving more just and peaceful societies, within a life sustaining global environment. Its priority is the poor, the oppressed and the disenfranchised people of the world—ordinary people.

I often encounter educators and others who have never heard of popular education, nor of its principal exemplars, like the Highlander Center, with the spoken or unspoken implication that therefore, it must not have much impact or significance. Myles Horton (co-founder of the Highlander Center in 1934) once told me, “you can accomplish a lot of good in the world if you don’t care who gets the credit for it.” Certainly, a very un-American and un-academic point of view. However, it is the epitome of a successful popular education effort for the people to say, “we have done it ourselves”—and they are, paradoxical as it might seem, quite right.

For example, many may have heard mention of the fact that Rosa Parks attended training sessions at Highlander prior to sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but too few realize the depth of Highlander Center’s contributions. It was at Highlander that the critical literacy and leadership training program—the citizenship school program—was conceived and developed. The program, along with its co-founder Septima Clark, were transferred to Martin Luther King’s organization to become Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s principal education program. Not only did it teach tens of thousands of Southern Blacks to read and write, so they could register to vote; it also developed the leadership that formed the organizational nucleus for the movement in countless towns and cities throughout the South.1

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was founded at Highlander from a long- running annual integrated workshop for college students. Highlander continues to this day to play a seminal role in people’s struggles for economic and social justice throughout the South, the nation, North America, and worldwide.
A fine nutshell description is Myles Horton’s, “the greatest education comes from action, the greatest action is the struggle for justice.”2

John Hurst is a professor in the Language and Literacy, Society and Culture Program at the University of California at Berkeley.
Excerpt from an article first published in Educator, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley.

1.    Tjerandsen, Carl, Education for Citizenship: A Foundation’s Experience, Schwarzhaupt Foundation, 1980.
2.    From an interview on Bill Moyer’s Journal, “The Adventures of a Radical Hillbilly,” PBS, June 1981.

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Democratizing the Public School System


Whenever popular education is mentioned, Paolo Freire is usually the first name that comes to mind.1 But students of democratic pedagogy in the United States have plenty of home grown examples of their own to study. John Dewey, for example, who saw the public school system as fundamentally authoritarian, reproducing a “superior class… [whose] culture tends to be sterile [and whose] actions tend to become… capricious, aimless, and explosive….”2 He wanted teachers to teach children not by force but by inducement; and growth itself had to be seen as an end.3 Indeed, if American society was to become truly democratic, Dewey argued, the children had to be taught to “take a determining part in the making as well as obeying laws”4

In 1932, Miles Horton—taking democratic education to an activist level—founded the Highlander School in Tennessee, on the principle that people had the means to solve their own problems without relying on experts or institutions. Horton believed that a pedagogy that helped people analyze their own experiences, and that of others, would promote participatory democracy. Many organizers of the labor movement in the 1930s gained valuable skills at Highlander. In the late 1950s, Septima Clark made the Citizen Education Program at Highlander the foundation for the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) Citizenship Schools.5 In turn, the Freedom Summer Schools of Mississippi used the SCLC citizenship curriculum as a template.

The 1964 Freedom Summer Schools arose in response to the inadequacies of the existing public school system, which was segregated and authoritarian. The teachers were given a written curriculum but were also advised “to shape your own curriculum in the light of the teachers’ skills, the students’ interests, and the resources of the particular community.”6 The emphasis on developing curriculum and teaching method based on the students’ experiences arose out of a vision that “[encouraged] the asking of questions,” and a “hope that society can be improved.”7

Like the authors of the 1964 Freedom School curriculum, Don Arnstine argues that public schools have historically failed to produce active democratic citizens. Instead, their aim is only to socialize students, not educate them.

“Socialization is characterized by imitation, participation, and obedience to instruction and command. Its outcome is the acquisition of adaptive habits, skills, and attitudes. The processes of education… are far more subtle, adding to the above processes two-way communication, initiative, creativity, and criticism. The outcome of educational processes is the acquisition of attitudes and dispositions, knowledge and skills, that are individualized and critically thoughtful.”8 


Uprooting Bureaucracy
To change a system that merely socializes, into one that also educates, would require a social movement. Not only because “macroeconomic mandates continually trump urban educational policy and school reform.”9 Or that corporate-engineered high-stakes testing has eliminated community participation in the creation of educational goals and policy.10 But because a social movement is the only way fundamental change can occur in any deeply entrenched bureaucracy. If the system can prevent a progressive school board in a progressive city from implementing systemic progressive educational reforms as advocated by Dewey or Horton, the only hope for change is outside the system.

The obstacles to introducing popular or progressive methods and goals to school districts caught up in the high-stakes testing paradigm are numerous, and range from the way school boards function as democratically elected bodies, to big business, to entrenched political interests, to the proliferation of foundational support for educational reform.

Because school boards rarely have their own line staff, board members depend upon the school superintendent’s office for most of their information and recommendations.11 (The seven San Francisco school board commissioners, for example, share one secretary.) Superintendents, in turn, are focused not so much on the schools’ potential, as how to manage the system they inherit. So, their recommendations to boards and district bureaucracies tend to focus primarily on the gargantuan task of managing 10,000 employees and 55,500 students—increasingly poor and working class—with a dwindling school budget and under increasingly complex and rigid rules imposed by the state and federal governments. Consequently, the school boards have tended to close the smaller but more effective schools for disproportionately large numbers of poor and working class students of color.


Board Culture and Structure Resist Change
It is doubtful, however, that even if the superintendents were driven by goals other than maintaining a system that essentially sorts and socializes, they would implement progressive goals and methods. Ziegler and Jennings’ research on district politics suggests “in unequivocal terms, the existence of an educational elite which is consciously self-perpetuating.”12 School board incumbents generally select their successors, and most candidates do not campaign on issues that would distinguish them from rivals.13 Even when “delegate-minded” board candidates are elected, they are quickly socialized into a “trustee” mentality and begin to identify with entrenched interest groups. This culture is reinforced by national school board meetings, superintendent sessions, and a plethora of handbooks.14

In San Francisco, for instance, few voters are aware of educational issues, and school board elections are popularity contests won by those who can raise the most money. When grassroots candidates do get elected, they are subtly socialized to “work with the superintendent,” and use meaningless phrases, such as “laser-like reform on academic achievement.” The combination of propaganda from professional associations and being wooed by big business vendors makes even the most progressive school board candidate realize that it would be political suicide to challenge a superintendent’s “laser-like focus” on creating a lean and mean school system.

School board members who suggest progressive pedagogy and curricula are accused of being “leftist ideologues” or “not about the kids,” by business leaders, the media, and fellow professionals. If these attempts fail to inhibit board members, big business can threaten to withdraw its subsidies and political will from desperately needed supplemental district funding (parcel taxes, for example). But most board members respond to the carrot enough to believe that whenever there is a crisis—and there is always one around the corner—the “business advisory board” is the group to approach for advice and support.

Interest Groups Vie for Control
School board members are not the only ones effectively co-opted by the political system. Organized ethnic or identity groups, representing very few constituents, sometimes act as gatekeepers. Leaders of these groups punish those who make decisions based on progressive educational principles rather than skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. Many a San Francisco school board meeting has been rendered ineffective by speeches from leaders of non-representative but highly organized identity groups. The largely white and middle class Parent Teachers Association (PTA) is playing into the hands of the historically disenfranchised ethnic and racial identity groups (and undermining their own political power) when they urge the school board not to be critical of the existing two-tier public school system—for fear of increasing middle-class and white flight from the schools.

As for teacher and service employee unions, having only recently found a place within the system, they are on the defensive and often fight any attempt by school boards to shake up the system. Their focus on wages and working conditions leaves little political capital for social justice issues, and their aspirations for a middle class lifestyle makes them insensitive to potential allies in school reform, viz: parents who earn less than they do. Teachers are socialized to believe in the myth of meritocracy and in their own powerlessness to change the system, long before they begin to teach.

Big business, for its part, has become adept at playing the entrenched interest groups against each other while remaining ostensibly “above the fray.” Foundations and non-profits involved with the school district intensify this dynamic when they focus on issues, such as cleaning bathrooms and community alleyways, instead of focusing on empowering the poor and working classes to challenge inequalities in the distribution of wealth and the power relationships that reinforce that inequality.

Hierarchy Overwhelms Democracy
The school system in the United States is fundamentally hierarchical and authoritarian. Hence, its structures and functions are at cross purposes with democratic aims. According to Don Arnstine, education—as defined by Dewey, Horton, and the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools—can only be implemented, if:

1.    The multiple-choice and standardized testing systems and the college admissions procedures closely related to them are changed.
2.    There’s a change in the way teachers are prepared and placed in their jobs, and… “organized for effective action.”
3.    All forms of segregation (not just race) within schools are ended.
4.    Students have opportunities to learn outside school.15

Debbie Meier in her book, Will Standards Save Public Education?, offers “six alternative assumptions” that allow “schools to instruct by example in the qualities of mind that… a democracy should be fostering in kids—responsibility for one’s own ideas, tolerance for the ideas of others, and a capacity to negotiate differences…. [T]his alternative vision isn’t utopian, even if it might be messy—as democracy is always messy.”16

For democratic education to take place, ideals have to replace standards, and teachers have to understand the purposes and interests of their students. They have to teach students how to pose their own problems and solve them democratically, in groups.17 Within the current school system, this can only happen sporadically.

Possibilities for the Future
Jean Anyon argues that there are radical possibilities in “the concentration of so many poor people in relatively small urban schools… It naturally offers a potential base for organizing a new social movement.”18 Yet, the vast majority of teachers focus on high-stakes testing, believing that they have a moral obligation to prepare their students for it. Pursuing this “moral obligation” saps most of their energy, leaving very little for organizing a social movement. It remains for those outside the school system to offer teachers the hope of fundamental  change, and support for the idea that they have a moral obligation to change the system. Simultaneously, progressive school board members need to see themselves as unapologetic activists, not “team players.”

In San Francisco, we believe we have begun to do this. Eric Mar continues to cultivate a grassroots base and Kathy Emery has co-founded the San Francisco Freedom School, which uses a people’s history of the Civil Rights Movement to show educators and other activists how to build the infrastructure for the next social movement. Teachers 4 Social Justice nourishes progressive teachers and parents through study groups and provides an outstanding local and national networking opportunity during their annual conference. The San Francisco Organizing Project has begun teaching parents how to organize in schools and establish alliances with teachers, and also to connect educational reform to affordable housing, healthcare, safety, and immigrant rights. We believe that these are the building blocks for the next social movement in this country.

1.    Freire, P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translator, Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1986).
2.    Dewey, J. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944), 84-85.
3.    Ibid. pp. 50.
4.    Ibid. pp. 120.
5.    Horton, M., Kohl, J. and Kohl, H. The Long Haul: An Autobiography. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1998).
6.    “Note to Teacher” from Freedom School Curriculum. 1964. Freedom Summer Collection, 1963-1964. (New York: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). The New York Public Library. See:
7.    Freedom School Curriculum: Introduction to Citizenship. Curriculum from “The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers,” 1959-1972 (Stanford, North Carolina: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1982) Reel 67, File 340, Page 0830.  See:
8.    Arnstine, D. Democracy and the Arts of Schooling (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 10.
9.    Anyon, J. Radical Possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement (New York: Routledge, 2005), 2.
10.    Emery, K. The Business Roundtable and Systemic Reform (Doctoral dissertation, University of California at Davis, 2002). See:
11.    Emery, K. and Ohanian, S. Why is Corporate America Bashing our Public Schools? (Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2004).
12.    Emery, K. “Corporate Control of Public School Goals: High-Stakes Testing in its Historical Perspective.” Teacher Education Quarterly, Spring, Vol. 34. No. 2. (2007): 25-44.
13.    Fantini, M., Gittell, M., Magat, R. Community Control and the Urban School (New York: Praeger, 1970), 68.
14.    Ziegler, L. H. and Jennings, M. K. Governing American Schools (North Scituate, Massachusetts: Durbury Press, 1974), 51.
15.    Zerchykov, R. School Boards and the Communities they Represent: An Inventory of the Research, NIE Grant 80-0171, (Boston: Institute for Responsive Education, 1984).
16.    Cistone, P.J. (Ed.). Understanding School Boards. 63-76. Lutz, F. W. Local School Boards as Sociocultural Systems. (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1975), (D. C. Heath).
17.    Arnstine, D. Democracy and the Arts of Schooling. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
18.    Meier, D. Will Standards Save Public Education? (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 4-5.
19.    Arnstine, D. Democracy and the Arts of Schooling (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).
20.    Anyon, J. Radical possibilities: Public Policy, Urban Education, and a New Social Movement. (New York: Routledge, 2005), 5.

Eric Mar is a member and past president of the school board of the San Francisco Unified School District. Kathey Emery is a co-founder of the San Francisco Freedom School and co-author of Why is Corporate America Bashing Public Schools?

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If the system can prevent a progressive school board in a progressive city from implementing systemic progressive educational reforms... the only hope for change is outside the system.

The Lessons of Freedom Summer


As a former history teacher and current organizer in San Francisco, my primary interest in the orginial Freedom School Curriculum is twofold:1 It demonstrates that if society is to be improved, curriculum and pedagogy must be based on the asking of questions, not the answering of them. Secondly, it proves that history is fundamental to understanding the mechanisms of repression today and to the process of empowering students to be active agents of change.

I have taken the explicit goals of the Freedom School’s Citizenship Curriculum2—asking questions to improve society and using history to understand the mechanisms of repression and liberation—as models for my own thinking about education reform today. In placing Freedom Schools within the context of the history of alternative education reform3 to promote more proactive thinking about school reform today, I have come to the following conclusions:

1.    Teachers must be a part of the community in which they teach.
2.    School reform must be part of a social reform movement.
3.    The school community must be clear about the goals of education and must explicitly articulate and defend them at every opportunity.

Teachers Work in Community
Though the Freedom School teachers came from outside Mississippi, they lived with and became part of the community in which they taught. At the orientation in Oxford, the teachers were encouraged to not rely on the curriculum except for its basic pedagogical premise of asking questions. The actual experience of the Freedom Schools was created by students and teachers in active and spontaneous collaboration, which depended upon the teachers knowing and respecting the students. This is in stark contrast to the scripted, drill-and-kill curriculum imposed on the so-called low performing schools today.

School Reform as Social Reform
Since education is inextricably connected to the social, political, and economic structures of society, school reform must be part of a social movement. It was no coincidence that students at the 1964 Mississippi Freedom School convention included the topics of integration of public accommodations, housing, education, health, foreign affairs, federal aid, discrimination in hiring, the plantation system, civil liberties, law enforcement, city maintenance, voting and direct action in their platform.4 The topics are still relevant (one could substitute the corporate system for the plantation system) and still interdependent. For example, children cannot learn in school if they are not healthy and properly housed and parents cannot support them effectively without a living wage job that is secure from arbitrary abridgment of their civil liberties.

The structures created by the civil rights movement were necessary to the emergence of over 40 Freedom Schools in Mississippi in 1964. The schools, in turn, contributed to the successful creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which began the process of dismantling the all white political structure in Mississippi. Without structural support, alternative schools cannot proliferate.

The struggle over small school reform today centers around whether they will be part of a social movement or be co-opted by corporate funding. A history of alternative school movements5 shows that corporate funding often dries up as soon as a critical mass of schools moves from an alternative to an oppositional status or when the crisis that generated the support has subsided.

The damage done to communities by the corporate system cannot be effectively resisted unless students, parents, and teachers operate within a curriculum built upon a set of questions, such as:

1.    Why are we (students and teachers) in Freedom Schools?
2.    What is the freedom movement?
3.    What alternatives does the freedom movement offer us?
4.    What does the majority culture have that we want?
5.    What does the majority culture have that we don’t want?
6.    What do we have that we want to keep?

Understanding Means and Ends
Reformers, especially educational reformers, need to understand the difference between means and ends. Raising test scores is not a goal of education. It is a means of creating obedient task completers and legitimising an increasing pool of dropouts and pushouts.6

Without clarity over methods and goals, good methods can be easily co-opted to promote bad goals. A comparison between Freedom Schools and the schools that grew out of the two alternative school movements in our history proves this point. Now, we are in the midst of a third major alternative school movement. It is no coincidence that all three movements have relied on corporate foundations during periods in which capitalism was in crisis: The progressive reform movement from 1900-1940; the free school movement from 1960-75; and the small school reform movement of today. In each case, corporate funding has allowed progressive means to be co-opted to serve the status quo.

A classic example of the co-optation of progressive means dates back to 1963 when the federal government stopped funding continuation schools in California. When businessman Max Rosenberg voiced his concern over the increasing numbers of dropouts and pushouts, it led to a coordinated lobbying effort to get state funding for alternative schools where troubled students would be taught how to re-adjust to the factory-like conditions of the mainstream schools. In 1965, the California state legislature mandated that all school districts must provide continuation education for those suspended from school for 10 or more days. That year, 700,000 students were enrolled in California’s continuation schools. By 1979, that number had reached one million.

Teachers and parents initially advocated for continuation schools because their progressive methods emphasized different ends from those pursued by comprehensive schools. The student-centered, multicultural, and experiential curricula offered more effective means of producing employable adults who would also have the ability and interest to continue to learn and grow. But state and district administrators turned the schools into dead end dumping grounds, marginalizing the schools with poor funding and paralyzing the leadership.


Business Agenda for Education
Today, the Gates Foundation has entered the school reform business by deciding to fund—and thus control—the small school movement, which began in New York City 20 years ago. The move ment has inspired educators and parents across the nation by successfully demonstrating a vision of schools in which teachers, parents, and students know each other well, and have the autonomy to create a responsive curriculum and pedagogy. But this vision is now being co-opted by the high-stakes testing agenda of the Business Roundtable,7 which, not coincidentally, strongly supports Bill and Melinda Gates’ efforts to make their goals for education part of the debate in the 2008 election season.

When the Oakland, California8 school district gave teachers a significant salary increase and decided to enroll 25 percent of its student body in small, autonomous schools, their budget deficit shot through the roof. Citing the resulting financial crisis, the state government took over the district, and appointed a new superintendent with absolute power. One of Dr. Randall Ward’s first acts was to close four small schools. He has since virtually eliminated parent and teacher participation in district policy.

Gates Foundation money continues to fund technical support for small schools in Oakland but the schools operate with highly controlled community input and must adhere to the single criterion—raising standardized test scores—that the nation’s corporate leaders wish to impose on all districts in the nation.

Onward with the Freedom Schools
Of course, there have always been individual alternative schools that have withstood the pressure to serve the interests of big business, but the Freedom Schools remain the best, if not the only example, of an alternative school movement that was given structural support by a social movement. As part of Freedom Summer, the Freedom Schools developed a curriculum and pedagogy that served the goals of the movement. But who knows, without the social movement, or the teachers who were part of the community, or the community’s clear focus on what the goals of education should be, even the Freedom Schools may inevitably have been subordinated to the goals of corporate business.

Unfortunately, schools will continue to be a sorting system and a method of social control, instead of a place in which all students learn how to build community, master academic skills, understand contemporary issues, and be active agents of social change. We are now living through the second major transformation of the public school system in the United States. The Business Roundtable is leading corporate America in a process that is transforming the public school system, so that it legitimizes the growing polarization of wealth and contributes to the disappearance of democratic processes.

Right now, educators, parents, students, and other community activists must decide how to oppose corporate America’s high-stakes testing agenda by organizing around reform that promotes and reinforces democratic decision-making and community formation. The history of the Freedom Schools and the Freedom School Curriculum can serve as an example and inspiration toward this end.


1.    Freedom School Curriculum,
2.    Citizenship Curriculum,
3.    History of Alternative Education Reform
4.    Mississippi Freedom School Convention Platform,
5.    History of Alternative Schools Movements
6.     Various papers,
7.    Business Roundtable,
8    Oakland Shools History,

Kathy Emery is a co-founder of the San Francisco Freedom School and co-author of Why is Corporate America Bashing Public Schools? 

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A School Board for the People: Baltimore Freedom Fall


Freedom Fall: We are exposing Baltimore City to the world,” reads the registration card distributed and signed by students throughout Baltimore as a pledge of support for the creation of the Maryland Freedom Board of Education. The new body is a direct response to the Maryland Board of Education’s refusal to comply with a 1996 state court decision that called for greater funding for inner-city schools. In 2006, the state of Maryland shorted the Baltimore school district by $1.08 billion–enough money to pay 1,000 extra teachers for 10 years and purchase one million new computers.

While many cities across the United States face similar unconstitutional under-funding of school districts, most of the responses from opponents have played out in courtrooms. But Baltimore’s Freedom Fall is a grassroots movement organized and run by students who actually attend these inner-city schools. Mica Artis, a Baltimore high school student and Freedom Fall organizer explains, “It’s what we need, not what someone else says we need.”

The name Freedom Fall is a reference to the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, a project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) that brought hundreds of northern college students down south to “open Mississippi up” by challenging the disenfranchisement of Black folks and exposing the racist power structure of the Jim Crow South. It is no surprise that organizers with Freedom Fall connect to this history and see themselves as continuing this legacy of struggle.
The city of Baltimore is predominately Black and—like most other inner cities in the United States—is highly segregated, systematically denied resources, and facing widespread poverty. Comparing Baltimore school districts—with their large class sizes, old books, crumbling buildings, and unqualified teachers—to the predominately white suburban school districts of Maryland, exposes a school system that is “separate and unequal.” According to studies conducted by the Harvard Civil Rights Project, there has been a rapid trend of re-segregation across the country, thanks to decisions made by the Supreme Court in the last decade. This has contributed to a “growing gap in quality” between schools in white communities and those in communities of color.

Civil Rights Roots
The main organizers of Freedom Fall are also members of the student-run advocacy committee of the Baltimore branch of the Algebra Project, an organization founded by former SNCC organizer, Bob Moses. The Algebra Project’s goal is to build math literacy, which Moses describes as the key to challenging a “sharecropper education,” an old term that could perhaps just as accurately describe our modern education system. With an understanding that inadequate math education is used as a method of exclusion from a technology-based, post-industrial United States, the Algebra Project tutors students, beginning as early as middle school. The Algebra Project encourages students who have come through its tutoring programs to mentor other students and organize for education as a civil right.

Just as SNCC registered voters and created the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, freedom schools, and community centers, the Freedom Fall project also employs a dual strategy of both pressuring the political structure and building new institutions that can meet direct needs. Students in Baltimore have been organizing for adequate education funding for years by using tactics such as civil disobedience, demonstrations, and strikes.

Like Freedom Summer, Freedom Fall began with registration cards. Students were asked to rate the education that they receive and write down a topic about which they wanted to learn. Students were also asked to help occupy libraries, cafeterias, and gyms and hold freedom schools. They educated other students about under-funding, the goals of Freedom Fall, and the topics the students wanted to learn about—from the Black Panther Party to the history of racist schools, liberation poetry, and the Algebra Project.

Following these Freedom Schools, on October 14, 2006, hundreds of students and their supporters marched through Baltimore, holding signs reading, “No Education, No Life.” At a local church they held the first session of the Freedom Board of Education, a new body made up of students and adult allies who serve as the “primary commissioners on education for the state of Maryland.” They demand that the state of Maryland “comply with Circuit Court orders” requiring that the $1.08 billion withheld by the state be paid to Baltimore schools.

In preparation for November’s elections, the Freedom Board of Education wrote a letter to all gubernatorial candidates, announcing its formation and insisting that the new governor comply with their demands. They also began discussing a new budget proposal for schools, and are asking the administration at Baltimore High School to overturn the suspension of 50 students who organized a sit-in in solidarity with their efforts.

Ultimately, the goal of the body is “to become the Board of Education for the people,” says its chair, Chris Goodman. According to organizer Fernandes Harlee, “if the system doesn’t work for us, we need to make our own. We can’t wait anymore.”

 Jacob Rosette is an organizer with ALL CITY, which organizes in New York City on student and youth issues. This article was compiled from interviews with Freedom Fall organizers Mica Artis, Chris Goodman, Chelsea Carson, and Fernandes Harlee.
Reprinted from Left Turn magazine.

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The Drive to Oust the Middle Class from Inner City Public Schools


No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law in 2001 by President George Bush, backed by both Democrats and Republicans. The backbone of the program, allegedly designed to hold schools accountable for academic failure, is standardized state testing for students and educators. Rather than improve public education, however, there is now ample evidence that NCLB testing is part of a systematic effort to privatize diverse urban public schools in the United States. The objectives of privatization have been threefold: first, to divert taxpayer money from the public sector to the corporate sector; second, to capture part of the market, which would otherwise be receiving free education; and third, to drive out middle class accountability, leaving behind a disposable population that won’t have a voice about the inappropriate use of their tax dollars, nor the bleak outlook on their futures.

“As a for-profit venture, public education represents a market worth over $600 billion dollars,” notes Dr. Henry A. Giroux, in Z Magazine.1

“The emergence of HMOs and hospital management companies created enormous opportunities for investors. We believe the same pattern will occur in education,” observes Mary Tanner, Managing Director of Lehman Brothers.2

“Bush’s proposal for national standardized testing is helping to pave the way for these EMO’s,” says Project Censored in their annual collection of most censored stories. “While the aptly named Educational Management Organizations are being promoted as the new answer to impoverished school districts and dilapidated classrooms, the real emphasis is on investment returns rather than student welfare and educational development.”3

For over a century, norm-referenced test results have been misinterpreted in the United States to support racist campaigns. IQ tests were used as an argument against integration of schools, the passage of the Civil Rights Law of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1969, Arthur Jensen used his so-called “findings”—that average African-American IQs were significantly lower than those of Euro-American or white children—to attack educational programs which benefit the poor, like Head Start.4

An influential study by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert in 1962 found that the higher the subjects’ economic status, the higher scores would be on norm-referenced tests. Similarly, higher achievement scores on the NCLB tests have been predicted according to zip codes, used by economists to sort by economic status.5

Randy L. Hoover and Kathy L. Shook note that a study of 593 Ohio School Districts show the district’s high stakes tests “to correlate with Social Economic Status to such a high degree as to virtually mask any and all actual academic achievement claimed to be measured by these tests.”6 They observe that students were “visible victims of sorting by socio-economic status… by high stakes tests that fail to meet recognized, scientific standards of test validity.”

Now, the standardized tests that are part of the NCLB campaign are being used to lend legitimacy to policies that lead to a cheap, uneducated labor pool and increased profits in the private sector. The effect of NCLB has been to dismantle public education by funneling public tax dollars directly to corporations through penalties, private tutoring companies, and vouchers. Once more, the populations paying for this policy are students of color and the poor, since the poorest schools with limited resources comprised primarily of such students perform the worst on the tests. The schools are then reconstituted by the school district, outsourced to private companies like Edison, or a portion of their federal funding is diverted to “parental choice” tutoring programs. According to Ben Clarke in a article entitled “Leaving Children Behind,”7 public school money was thus diverted to the company Educate, which runs the Sylvan Learning Centers, whose revenues, Clarke states,  “grew from $180 to $250 million in the past three years [2001–04] and whose profits shot up 250 percent last year.” And, writes Clarke, since the introduction of NCLB, sales of printed materials related to standardized tests nearly tripled to $592 million, money that was drained from the public schools, since Bush provided no funding for the increased costs.

False Reports of NCLB Success
A 2006 study by Harvard University Civil Rights Project found that the successes reported by NCLB proponents “simply do not show up on an independent national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the ‘nation’s report card.’”8

 A comparison of public high-school graduation rates over the course of the implementation of NCLB seems to confirm that the policy is actually damaging students of color. The public high school graduation rate for African Americans and Latinos nationwide has sunk from 56 percent and 54 percent respectively in 1998—before NCLB policies took their toll—to about 50 percent in 2005, according to a March 2005 report by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.9 The authors, Dan Losen and Johanna Wald, point out that “because of misleading and inaccurate reporting of dropout and graduation rates, the public remains unaware of this educational and civil rights crisis.”

In California, looking at the inverse—or dropout rates—according to statistics provided by the California Department of Education and published by Ed-Data, from 2000 to 2005, the four-year dropout rate for California went from 11.1 percent to 12.7 percent, with dropout rates for African Americans increasing nearly four percentage points from 18.1 percent to 21.8 percent. Latino dropout rates also increased from 15.3 percent to 16.6 percent during that same period.10

Middle Class Flee to Private Schools
The dismantling of the public schools is forcing those who can afford to pay for private schools to give up their right to free, equal education. Driving the entitled middle class out of the public schools furthers yet another goal of privatization, namely that of decreasing accountability, reports Dr. Giroux.11

Dr. Giroux points out, that while an increasing number of students of color may not graduate under NCLB, their failing public schools are more than willing to provide them with “the appropriate attitudes for future work in low-skilled, low-paying jobs.”12 Pat Wechsler reported in Business Week that thanks to partnerships with businesses, such as McDonald’s, in under-funded schools, students “learned how a McDonald’s works, and how to apply and interview for a job at McDonald’s.”13

It is no coincidence that one of the largest contributors to President Bush’s drive to institute vouchers, tuition tax credits, and charter schools is the Walton family—founder of Wal-Mart—who has dedicated at least $250 million to such efforts over the past six years, according to USA Today. Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the United States, with more than one million workers. Wal-Mart’s wages and benefits are significantly below retail industry standards, according to a report entitled, “The Hidden Cost of Wal-Mart Jobs,” by Dr. Arindrajit Dube, Ph.D. and Ken Jacobs.14 According to Anthony Bianco, who wrote a 2006 biography of the man, Walton “preferred uneducated workers.”15 Such workers are unlikely to question low pay, or unionize.

School failure is a product of “the political, economic, and social dynamics of poverty, joblessness, sexism, race and class discrimination, unequal funding, or a diminished tax base,” summarizes Dr. Giroux. 16

NCLB Requirments Lower Quality of Education
An illustration of class and race discrimination leading to school failure is the use of McGraw-Hill’s Open Court program by schools afraid of NCLB penalties, even though the phonics program has been proven to damage students. According to a study by Margaret Moustafa and Robert E. Land at California State University in Los Angeles, “schools using Open Court are significantly more likely to be in the bottom quartile of the SAT 9 [state] assessment than comparable schools using non-scripted programs.”17

The president’s educational program mandates any district wishing to qualify for government funding to implement “approved” reading curricula. It is not surprising that McGraw-Hill’s Open Court has a majority of these contracts, given the fact that the McGraw-Hill and Bush family connections go back three generations, notes Stephen Metcalf in the Nation: “The McGraws are old Bush friends, dating back to the 1930s, when Joseph and Permelia Pryor Reed began to establish Jupiter Island, a barrier island off the coast of Florida, as a haven for the Northeast wealthy.”18

Similarly, Neil Bush, George W.’s brother, also used his political influence to solicit contributions for his educational software company, Ignite. “In February 2004, the Houston school board unanimously agreed to accept $115,000 in charitable donations from businesses and individuals who insisted the money be spent on Ignite. The deal raised conflict of interest concerns,” reported Cynthia Leonor Garza in the Houston Chronicle.19 More recently, former first lady Barbara Bush donated to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, with specific instructions that the money be spent on Ignite.

Perhaps a more apt name for Bush’s NCLB is, No Corporation Left Behind, particularly if that corporation has strong ties to the Bush family—though we must be careful not to confuse the Bush “dynasty” with a long-term, systemic illness.
Ronald Bailey, a former fellow at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, and Chicano Scholar Guillermo Flores have identified these deliberate historic campaigns to exclude people of color from the political and educational system as a product of “internal colonialism.”

“Internal colonialism,” they write, “is nothing more than the domestic face of world imperialism.... The use of racial minorities brought surpluses to white society that contributed to the growth of monopoly capitalism.”20 In other words, cheap labor and raw materials led to huge profits for monopolistic firms, which today have become supra-national corporations. These larger forces are the real source of legislation like NCLB. Educators and activists who want real change must recognize and address this fundamental reality if they are serious about winning equal access to education for all. 

Margot Pepper is a Mexican-born writer published frequently in journals such as Utne Reader, Monthly Review, Z-net, Counterpunch, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. You can find links at

1.    Giroux, Henry A. “The Business of Public Education,” Z Magazine. (July/August 1998)
2.    “Corporations Promote HMO Model for School Districts,” in Censored 2003, Project Censored, eds. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2004).
3.    Ibid.
4.    Jentsen, Arthur R.“How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” Harvard Educational Review 39 (1969) 1-123.
 5.    Peal, Elizabeth & Wallace Lambert as cited in Hakuta, Kenji. 1986. Mirror of Language. (New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1962) 33–35.
6.    Hoover, Randy L. and Shook, Kathy L. “School Reform and Accountability: Some Implications and Issues for Democracy and Fair Play,” Democracy & Education Vol.  14, No. 4 (2003) 81.
7.    Clarke, Ben. “Leaving Children Behind,” (September 3, 2004).
8.    Lee, Jay. “Tracking Achievement Gaps and Assessing the Impact of NCLB on the Gaps: An In-depth Look into National and State Reading and Math Outcome Trends,” (Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 2006)
9.    Losen, Dan and Wald, Johanna. “Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis in California,”(March 24, 2005). 1998 national graduation rates form the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, as cited by Jay P. Greene,“High School Graduation Rates in the United States,” Civic Report, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (November 2001).

10.    California statistics provided by Ed-Data and the California Department of Education,
11.    Giroux, Henry A. (July/August 1998).
12.    Ibid.
13     Weschler, Pat. Business Week (June 1997).
14     Jacobs, Ken and Dube, Arindrajit. The Hidden Cost of Wal-Mart Jobs,UC Berkeley Labor Center, (August 2004).
15.    Bianco, Anthony. The Bully of Bentonville: How the High Cost of Wal-Mart’s Everyday Low Prices Is Hurting America (Doubleday 2006), cited in a review by Clay Smith in The Texas Obsrerver.
16.    Giroux, Henry A. (July/August 1998)
17.    Moustafa, Margaret and Land, Robert, “The Reading Achievement of Economically-Disadvantaged Children in Urban Schools Using Open Court...,” in Yearbook of the Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association, (2002) 44–53.
18.    Metcalf, Stephen. The Nation (January 28, 2002).
19.    Garza, Cynthia Leonor. Houston Chronicle (March 23, 2006).
20.    Bailey, Ronald and Guillermo Flores. “Internal Colonialism and Racial Minorities in the U.S.: An Overview,” in Structures of Dependency, Frank Bonilla and Robert Girling, eds. (Palo Alto: Stanford University, 1973) 149–60. 

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The dismantling of the public schools is forcing those who can afford to pay for private schools to give up their right to free, equal education

Education as Enforcement:Militarization and Corporatization of Schools


Public schools in the United States have increasingly come to resemble the military and prison systems with their hiring of military generals as school administrators and heavy investment in security apparatus—metal detectors, high-tech dog tag IDs, chainlink fences, and real-time Internet-based or hidden mobile surveillance cameras—plus, their school uniforms, security consultants, surprise searches, and the presence of police on campuses.1 But it would be a mistake to understand the preoccupation with security as merely a mass media-driven hysteria in the wake of Virginia Tech and other high-profile shootings, and myopic to ignore the history of public school militarization prior to September 11.

Militarized education in the United States needs to be understood in relation to the enforcement of global corporate imperatives as they expand markets through the real and symbolic violence of war. Militarism and the promotion of violence as virtue pervade foreign and domestic policy, popular culture, educational discourse, and language. A high level of comfort with rising militarism in all areas of life, particularly schooling, set the stage for the radically militarized reactions to September 11—including the institutionalization of permanent war, the suspension of civil liberties, and an active hostility from the state and mass media towards any attempt to address the underlying causes for the unprecedented attack on the United States.

I believe that militarized schooling in America encompasses two broad trends—“military education” and what may be called “education as enforcement.”

Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps—Two Agendas
Military education refers to explicit efforts to expand and legitimate military training in public schools and is exemplified by the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC), the Troops to Teachers program (which places retired soldiers in schools), the trend towards hiring military generals as school superintendents or CEOs, the school uniform movement, the Lockheed Martin corporation’s public school in Georgia, and the army’s development of the biggest online education program in the world as a recruiting tool. A large number of private military schools, such as the notorious Virginia Military Institute (VMI), service the public military academies and the military itself and are considered ideals that public school militarization should strive towards. Like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, military education turns hierarchical organization, competition, group cohesion, and weaponry into fun and games. The focus on adventure activities has made these programs extremely successful at recruitment and nearly half (47 percent) of the 200,000 students in the 1,420 JROTC army programs nationwide enter military service.

In addition to promoting recruitment, military education plays a central role in fostering a social focus on discipline exemplified by the rise of militarized policing, increased powers for search and seizure, the laws against public gathering, “zero tolerance” policies, and the transformation of welfare into punishing workfare programs. This militarization of civil society has been further intensified since September 11, as conservatives and liberals alike have seized upon the “terrorist threat” to justify the passage of the USA Patriot Act.

The “education as enforcement” trend understands militarized public schooling to be part of the militarization of civil society, which in turn has to be understood as being part of the broader social, cultural, and economic movements for state-backed corporate globalization seeking to erode democratic power while expanding and enforcing corporate power at local, national, and global levels.

Neoliberalism’s Role In Education
Corporate globalization, which should be viewed as a doctrine rather than as an inevitable phenomenon, is driven by the philosophy of neoliberalism whose economic and political doctrine insists upon the virtues of privatization and liberalization of trade, while concomitantly placing its faith in the discipline of the market for the resolution of all social and individual problems.

Within the United States, neoliberal policies have been characterized by supporters as “free market policies that encourage private enterprise and consumer choice, reward personal responsibility and entrepreneurial initiative, and undermine the dead hand of the incompetent, bureaucratic, and parasitic government that can never do good even if well intended, which it rarely is.”2 Within the neoliberal view, the public sphere—schools, parks, social security, and healthcare included—should either be privatized or put into service for the private sphere, as in the case of federal subsidies for corporate agriculture, entertainment, and defense.

Ronald Reagan entered office with plans to dismantle the United States Department of Education and implement market-based voucher schemes. Both initiatives failed largely because of the teachers’ unions and the fact that public opinion was yet to be influenced by corporate-financed public relations campaigns that make neoliberal ideals appear commonsensical.3 However, during his second term as president, Reagan successfully appropriated the racial, equity-based, magnet school voucher model developed by liberals to declare that the market model (rather than authoritative federal action against racism) was responsible for the high quality of these schools.4  The real triumph of the market-based rhetoric was to shift discussion away from political concerns about the role of public education in preparing citizens for democratic participation and to redefine public schooling as a good or service, like toilet paper or soap, which students and parents consume.

Educating to Enforce Globalization
Despite a history of racial and class oppression—owing in no small part to the fact that public schooling has been tied to local property wealth and hence, unequally distributed as a resource—and the material and ideological constraints often faced by teachers and administrators, public schooling has always been a forum for democratic deliberation where communities could convene to struggle over values or envision a future far broader than the one imagined by multinational corporations. Hence, in speaking of militarized public schooling in the United States, it is not enough to identify the extent to which certain schools (particularly urban, non-white schools) increasingly resemble prisons or serve as prime recruitment grounds for the military. Instead, militarized public schooling needs to be understood in terms of the enforcement of globalization through implementation of all the policies and reforms that are guided by neoliberal ideals.

Globalization gets enforced through: (a) privatization schemes, such as vouchers, charters, performance contracting, and commercialization; (b) standards and accountability schemes that seek to enforce a uniform curriculum with emphasis on testing and quantifiable performance; and (c) assessment, accreditation (in higher education), and curricula that celebrate market values and the culture of those in power, rather than human and democratic values. The curricula are designed to avoid critical questions about the relationship between the production of knowledge and power, authority, politics, history, and ethics. Some multinational corporations, such as Disney with their Celebration School, and BP Amoco with their middle-level science curriculum, have appropriated progressive pedagogical methods that strive to promote a vision of a world best served under a benevolent corporate management.

Education as a National Security Issue
The Hart-Rudman commission in 2000 called for education to be classified as an issue of national security, hence requiring increased federal funding for school security at the cost of community policing, and the continuation of the Troops to Teachers program. This kind of thinking is characteristic of the antifederalist aspect of neoliberalism—a politics of containment rather than investment—and efficacious in keeping large segments of the population uneducated or undereducated, and encouraging the flow of funds to the defense and high-tech sectors and away from populations deemed to be of little use to capital. Most importantly, those employed in low-skill, low-paying service sector jobs, would likely complain or even organize if they were encouraged to question and think too much.

Education and literacy are tied to political participation. Participation might mean educated elites demanding social investment in public projects, or at least projects that might benefit most people. That is the real reason why the federal government wants soldiers rather than unemployed Ph.Ds in the classrooms. Additionally, corporate globalization initiatives, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), seek to allow corporate competition in the public sector at an unprecedented level. In theory, public schools would have to compete with for-profit schooling initiatives from any corporation in the world. But by redefining public schooling as a national security issue, it can be exempt from the purview that agreements, such as the FTAA, impose on nations. Consistent with the trend, education as national security defines the public interest through reforms that inhibit teaching as a critical and intellectual endeavor that aims to make a participatory citizenry capable of building the public sphere.

Transforming the War Economy
In his book, After Capitalism, Seymour Melman argues that a central task of the future is the transformation of a war economy into a civilian one—not only for former Soviet states but also for the United States.

Considering the ways that the global financial system maintains poverty and the military system produces war, a key task for educators is to imagine education as a means of mobilizing citizens to understand these systems and steer them toward a goal of global democracy and justice. Militarized schooling can be resisted at the local level. Kevin Ramirez, for example, started and runs the “Military Out of our Schools” campaign that seeks to eject JROTC programs from public schools. Ramirez points out to parents, teachers, administrators, and newspaper reporters that school violence is an extension of social violence, which is taught through programs like the JROTC.

 I have argued that militarized education in the United States needs to be understood in relation to the enforcement of corporate economic imperatives and a rising trend towards “law and order” that pervades popular culture, educational discourse, foreign policy, and language. Therefore, the movement against militarism in education must go beyond the schools and challenge the many ways that militarism as a cultural logic enforces the expansion of corporate power and decimates public power. Such a movement must include the practice of critical pedagogy and ideally, also link with other movements against oppression, such as the antiglobalization, feminist, labor, environmental, and antiracism movements. Together, we can form the basis for imagining and implementing a just future.
1.    Chang, Nancy. Silencing Political Dissent: How Post-September 11 Anti-terrorism Measures Threaten Our Civil Liberties (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2002).
2.    McChesney, Robert W. Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Profit Over People (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999). Pp: 7.
3.    Ibid.
4.    Henig, Jeffrey. Rethinking School Choice, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Kenneth J. Saltman is an assistant professor in Social and Cultural Foundations in Education at DePaul University. He is the author of Collateral Damage: Corporatizing Public Schools—A Threat to Democracy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001) and Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Schools (Paradigm Publishers, 2007).

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Organizing as Educating

Educating and Organizing


Organizing is teaching. Not the academic type, which mostly consists of stuffing data into people’s ears. Organizing is teaching which rests on people’s life experiences: drawing them out, developing trust, disrupting old perceptions of reality, developing group solidarity, taking action, building confidence for continued action, and creating a foundation for continual questioning of the status quo. This means of education is primarily in the action. It becomes liberating only if the person develops the discipline to rigorously reflect on that action. We have to own the questions in this educational process. Our curiosity must be the engine that drives us from action to reflection to more action followed by reflection.

The organizer’s story is told in Richard Harmon’s classic essay, “Making An Offer We Can’t Refuse.” Harmon directed Saul Alinsky’s organizing project in Buffalo, New York in the mid-1960s. Harmon has the advantage of working in an organization that is in action. Action creates the teachable moments when people find that the world is not the way it is depicted in civics text books. Such situations of cognitive dissonance are the best opportunities for education.
Most organizers, unfortunately, do not do much meaningful teaching. But good organizers do, and they pay attention to the writings of Myles Horton and Paolo Freire.

Educators vs. Organizers
The difference between educators and organizers is obvious when we compare Harmon’s essay with educator Nina Wallerstein’s “Problem-Posing Education: Freire’s Method for Transformation” in Freire and Ira Shor’s, Freire for the Classroom. Wallerstein has the student describe or name a problem, then define it along with associated feelings, relate it to their own experience, then generalize it to understand why the problem exists and who benefits from its existence. Finally, students discuss strategies for solutions and how to implement them. But such an approach is not enough for people to gain the experience of building and using democratic people power.

The questions Harmon raises are more pertinent to developing an actual campaign of action: What is the problem? How many other people feel the same way? What precisely do we want? Who do we see to get things changed? How many of us should go to see them? Who will be the spokespersons? Are we willing to caucus? What is the timetable for the response? Where and when is the evaluation session? (He recommends, right after the meeting.)

Organizing has often been criticized for focusing on winning rather than on educating. But such criticism is misguided. When large numbers of people win, it is educating. To teach people who are oppressed or discriminated against that they can, by democratically developed collective action, fight and win, is the central liberating lesson of organizing. A lost struggle, especially when experienced by people who have been persuaded to give up watching TV to join their community in doing something, only reinforces the pervasive belief that “you can’t fight the powers that be.”

Two Pitfalls of Organizing
Firstly, the lessons of organizing do not inherently lead to an understanding of the larger social structure and the necessity to fundamentally change it. That kind of understanding emerges more out of reflection, analysis, and discussion, as advocated by Horton and Freire. Therefore, it is vitally important that education should go on if organizing is to do more than give one more group a slightly larger piece of a shrinking economic or public services pie, or substitute one set of oppressors for another. People need to:

1.    Discuss values—their own and those of their adversaries. Often, these are fundamentally different.
2.    Examine alternative visions of how cities, regions, countries, and economies could be organized.
3.    Learn the workings and history of the political, economic, and social power structure within which we live.
4.    Study those who sought to bring the country closer to its democratic promise in social movements of the past.
5.    Structure their own organizations to embody democratic principles.

Secondly, people know too well the nature of power in America today and either withdraw in the face of what appear to be insurmountable obstacles, or become part of politically correct groups—right on some issues but powerless to do anything about others. The educator, Horton included, tends to view the steps of power-building as co-optation. “Reform within the [schooling] system reinforced the system, or was co-opted by [it]. Reformers didn’t change the system, they made it more palatable and justified it...” he concludes.

Freire amends that view by saying: “Trying to co-opt is a kind of struggle on behalf of those who have power to do so. It’s a tactic; it’s a moment of the struggle... (I)n order for you not to be co-opted [or] …be out of the possibility of some power wanting to co-opt you, it’s necessary that you do nothing.”

Reform vs. Revolution
All significant organizing efforts and social movements face the problem of how to win immediate victories, while at the same time expanding their power, so they can address more recalcitrant problems in society. The reform versus revolution distinction does not provide guidance in formally democratic societies where the rights of free speech, assembly, and petition to the government exist along with competitive elections. A third choice is needed—encompassing both, fundamental change and something other than the immediate violent overthrow of a government.

The strategy for achieving fundamental change in the United States is to build autonomous, deeply rooted, broadly based, people power organizations that can act locally and work together in larger political and economic arenas. Good examples of this are in some of the work in the Alinsky tradition, the best organizing in the Deep South civil rights movement of the early-to-mid 1960s, and the best workplace organizing throughout American history. At their best, these movements included efforts to change major institutions, promoted mutual aid and self-help, and made education, reflection and training key dimensions of organizational life.

In organizing, people act and talk collectively; that’s how they learn. They learn both how systems work and, by reflecting on their action, they connect deeply shared values with action. This kind of reflection is a ‘time-out’ from what is immediately facing the organization; it is done in both labor and religious education. The educator has a certain luxury that is not available to the organizer because the latter’s emphasis is on building democratic power, while the former’s is to understand what that means. There used to be a healthy tension between labor educators and labor’s top leaders and organizers that, unfortunately, does not seem to exist anymore.

Democratic Movements
The difference between democratically constituted movements and organizations which come “from below,” versus government, foundation, and corporate-designed “nonprofits” or “citizen participation components” is that the former are independent, raising their core budgets from member dues and grassroots fund-raisers. Their scope of action isn’t constrained by the terms of a grant or other externally-defined guidelines, regulations, or legislation. They are only limited by the First Amendment guarantees of the Constitution and the decisions of their members. They can enter into alliances, add new issue concerns, and otherwise act as their members decide. Rather than looking for “niches” in which they can distinguish themselves from others, they look for opportunities to unite with others to build broader people power.

Leaders and organizers of independent organizations work to aggregate political resources because they understand that the solutions to neighborhood problems do not lie principally with City Hall, but with the private/corporate sector and with state, regional, and national levels of government. They often develop relationships of mutual interest with other community organizations, thus going beyond the parochialism of a local neighborhood, and end up meeting and working with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. They also are free to work on any issues affecting the quality of life of their members—whether it is cooperating with unions or challenging corporations on healthcare. In stark contrast, government-sponsored neighborhood associations, foundation, and corporate-funded nonprofits typically fight over how the pie is divided—not about how big it is, who pays for it, or who shapes it.

“Participation” that is limited by externally defined funding, guidelines or legislation directs discontent into manageable channels. It is about governance or administration. It may have legitimate purposes—as, for example, a parent advisory committee at a school where the principal listens. But it is not capable of altering the relations of power—only independent “people power” organizations can do that.

Although independent organizations may sometimes reach agreements that are not entirely satisfactory, they do so with the idea that they will return at a later day in greater strength and demand more—more justice, more equality.
Settling for a Place at the Table vs. People’s Power
As the old civil rights movement song put it, “freedom is a constant struggle.” One of organizing’s lessons is that conflict and negotiation go hand-in-hand. They are not opposites. Conflict gets you to the table where negotiation takes place. New proposals are made at the table as you seek greater justice. When those new proposals are rejected because they more deeply challenge entrenched power and wealth, there is a need for people power action—more conflict. Organizations that “settle” simply for a place at the table have been co-opted in the negative sense. Organizations that use a position at the table to demand greater justice have learned the fundamental lesson of the long march through the institutions.

Formally democratic organizations are a necessary, though not sufficient condition for true democratization. Too often these organizations come to replicate the values, leadership forms, and structures of the dominant culture. To build an alternative vision requires that we begin at the base of society—in the neighborhoods, congregations, and workplaces where most people live.

We need a broader vision that combines democratic control of the economy with a pluralist society in which power is held by independent associations, not concentrated within government. Organizers need to think about how to make corporate power directly accountable to the local communities, to break up the great concentrations of wealth, and to develop a decentralized and sustainable way of economic life.

Such an enterprise will need the contributions of people like Myles Horton and Paulo Freire—people not preoccupied by the daily pressures of organization building, but who can challenge the organizers to fully reach the democratic potential that is in their work. It is difficult for community and labor organizers to generate the proposals for structural change that we need today. Their job is to create the public space where ideas can be seriously discussed and new directions agreed and acted upon.
The educators will contribute to creating alternative programs and structures; the organizers will strategize with the people on how to build the power to meaningfully struggle for these alternatives. I believe that contemporary work-, neighborhood-, faith-, interest- and identity-based independent organizing will make a major contribution to our getting to where we want to go if they root their work in the best of the small “d” democratic tradition and biblical shalom values.

Mike Miller is the founding director of the San Francisco-based ORGANIZE Training Center.This article was dapted from 'Organizing and Education”, Social Policy, Fall, 1993. The full text is available from Mike Miller, 

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Educating with Soul


For nearly 11 years, the School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL)—an organizing skills and political education training center in Oakland, California—has conducted workshops for people around the Bay Area and across the nation, with the goal of building power within oppressed communities. For the most part, we are self-taught as educators, facilitators, and curriculum developers. We have learned what we do through years of political study and experimentation, and our mistakes.

The belief that education is an important component of movement building underlies all of SOUL’s programs and is reflected in our trainings and workshops. Political education focuses not only on understanding the systemic roots of oppression and developing a conscious action response, but also on providing a context for our (working class, immigrant, queer, and transgender communities and communities of color) experiences with oppression.

The Methodology of SOUL
SOUL’s political education and trainings are based on a methodology that encourages participants to reflect on their own experiences as a way to understand the importance of political education. Our definition of Popular Education is taken from the series “Training for Transformation: A Handbook for Community Workers,” produced in Zimbabwe by Anne Hope and Sally Timmell. It is “…a method and a philosophy of education that holds oppressed people at the center of the learning process.”

SOUL understands that education and good ideas alone cannot bring about radical change in society. It takes a grassroots movement of community organizing. So, we strive to develop leaders in the movement to fight against the systemic roots of oppression. Akua Jackson, an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, says that SOUL has helped her to “…think of organizing as a science, and to think about organizing in a politically and historically grounded way. The process has mirrored the type of leadership development and the new political reality we’re fighting for.”

As facilitators and educators, it is our role to always move people to the next level. The multi-step process for raising consciousness through political education is different for all oppressed people. And consciousness itself is not a static thing, but a continually evolving process that requires developing conscious organizers. SOUL’s Educational Alternatives Program attempts to raise consciousness through a series of 16 workshops on understanding systems of oppression and identifying community solutions to combat them. Another approach focuses on developing a framework for analysis, otherwise known as “coming into consciousness.” Our 10-week summer internship program brings 12 young organizers from around the world to engage in political education and organizing skills training. This advanced study course is designed to raise the analytical, critical thinking, and assessment skills of participants. In addition, SOUL offers a three-day training for trainers to build and strengthen facilitation skills.

Finally, SOUL offers two programs that attempt to develop the analytical and assessment skills of people trying to become conscious organizers. They are, a five-day intensive training for youth organizers at our National Youth Organizers Training Institute, geared towards new lead organizers and youth leaders transitioning into formal lead organizing positions, and Sunday School. We hope these programs help people to commit to becoming lifelong movement leaders.

To date, SOUL has trained over 5000 people. We engage in regular evaluations of our work, drawing primarily on participant feedback and by tracking the impact of our work on individuals, organizations, and the movement as a whole.

Says Malachi Larrabee-Garza, SOUL’s advanced political education coordinator, “SOUL trains people in frameworks that will help them to develop their analysis and to engage the Left. The whole process, which is very Freierian, is based on input and evaluation from participants, which requires constant refining of the curriculum. It has taught me about the broader process of consciousness raising because it forces you to check in with your base. You tailor your stuff based on what’s in people’s heads and… on reflection, action, and evaluation—not what’s solely on… paper, which is the traditional model… in the United States.”

Educating the Next Generation
SOUL’s aim is to develop youth leaders with effective political analysis and organizing skills, and an organizational capacity to create leaders who impact policy with field-wide knowledge and collaboration.

According to Yu Tong, a SOUL summer school graduate who starts law school at Santa Clara University next fall, “SOUL has made me think about educational access for the poor. I personally have been motivated to access different things… instead of waiting and… not being proactive because of my oppression. I’ve found different outlets… to do what I want to do and get where I want to go. My time with SOUL has provided certain bridges, and in some ways, outlets to help me organize and realize I can do what I want in life.”

Educating the next generation of leaders for our movements is a key element in building social movements. Transformative change takes a long time—many generations long. At SOUL, we are in it for the long haul, providing opportunities for developing consciousness and taking action for 21st century youth.

For more information about SOUL’s programs and instruction manuals, contact

Liz Derias is the educational alternatives program coordinator at SOUL. Originally from Egypt by way of Philadelphia, she began educating and organizing at the age of 17 with Sankofa Community Empowerment, Inc.

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

A Tale of Two Cities


Typical city planning processes fail to provide the context and information residents need to be effective advocates for themselves. After participating in an innovative educational process as part of the Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI), residents of Richmond, California, are prepared to take on urban planning at a whole new level.

Nicknamed the “City of Pride and Purpose,” Richmond once boasted a bustling downtown, a large and growing African American population, and a dedicated wartime workforce. Now the city is known for the toxins plaguing residents who lack buffers between their homes and the Chevron refinery, a $35 million budget crisis that caused libraries and recreation centers to close, and a near state of emergency due to skyrocketing murder rates in 2005. A recent survey commissioned by the City of Richmond found that residents rated their quality of life lowest in comparison to 212 other jurisdictions in the United States.

However, movements in Richmond are trying to turn things around. A new Green Party mayor now presides over the city with intentions of holding polluting industries accountable. The city’s commitment to recovering from the budget crisis was acknowledged by the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers. The Tent Cities grassroots movement created makeshift communities around murder sites for nearly 40 days, resulting in reduced homicides in the surrounding areas. And Richmond is beginning to catch the eye of developers as the Bay Area housing market soars and developable land diminishes.

Richmond is divided into two seemingly separate places: Scenic waterfront views, market value homes, and beautiful parks make up one city below the highway, while blight, crime, and poverty plague the urban core above the highway. The community feels broken, separated by physical as well as by socioeconomic lines. While outside investment in Richmond could revitalize the economy and help strengthen neighborhoods, it’s vital that provisions that protect the city’s low-income people and people of color must be in place to ensure that they don’t get left behind.

The Richmond Equitable Development Initiative (REDI) is a coalition led by Urban Habitat, Contra Costa Faithworks!, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, and the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Community Innovation. As Richmond updates its General Plan, the blueprint for development over the next 20 years, REDI is spearheading an effort to make sure that current and future development in the City of Richmond benefits all residents.


By bringing together city officials and those not traditionally engaged in planning, REDI hopes to increase local leadership and create a comprehensive strategy for equity. Using the General Plan Update as a vehicle for an inclusive process and implementation, REDI has brought together Richmond environmental educators, piano technicians, preschool teachers, Laotian community leaders, high school students, labor leaders, the mayor, city council members, and key city department heads. What do they all have in common? They all want the best for Richmond, and they all have participated in the REDI Equitable Development Leadership Institutes.

REDI launched the Leadership Institutes with an event that began a dialogue on equitable development that is continuing across the city. After the kick-off celebration, which brought all participants together, people split into two training tracks, the “Base Building” and the “Electeds and Staff” Leadership Institutes. Each track ran several months, offering a safe place for the respective groups to learn from each other, strategize on planning policies, apply equitable development principles to their lives and work, and build relationships with each other. REDI coordinated key intersections throughout the process, providing ample opportunities for the two groups to exchange ideas and get to know each other’s viewpoints.

Held in the heart of the Iron Triangle at the Nevin Community Center, the REDI “Base Building” Leadership Institute solidified relations between the environmental justice and social justice groups Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, and Ma’at Youth Academy. Simultaneously translated in Lao, Mien, and Spanish, the trainings were tailored to help participants feed their concerns into the city’s formal process. Participants initially felt unsure of where the workshops were going: Where was the fight? Who was the target?

Gradually, people began to realize that Richmond could address current concerns through planning for future changes. The population was growing, requiring the city to accommodate more housing, create more jobs, and ease traffic problems. Participants grew to make these connections, shifting their civic perspective from “fight” mode to becoming proactive leaders in urban planning for the future generation.

The curriculum was structured to cultivate this understanding. The first sessions focused on understanding participants’ concerns and needs through sharing stories and visions for Richmond. To facilitate connections between concrete issues and broader policy initiatives, REDI created an interactive Jeopardy game that broke down complex issues, such as amending the inclusionary zoning ordinance, instituting community impact reports, and instituting neighborhood planning. A bus tour of Richmond with the city’s planning director allowed participants to ask challenging questions about how to apply policy concepts to Richmond’s realities. The last session focused on implementing the campaign strategy: participants conducted a power analysis and practiced delegation visits with council members.

By the end of the Institute, the resident champions of equitable development were primed and excited to take action. They plugged into city-run community workshops to feed their ideas to the city. Sixteen-year-old Alyssa Hopper of Ma’at Youth Academy found prepping her message easy. “[Equitable Development] is a like a multi-layer cake where everyone—every race, sex, income level, age, education level—has equal say in the development of their community… land use, economic development, housing, transportation, and health,” she said.

On the “Electeds and Staff” Leadership Institute track, REDI members spent months interviewing the majority of city council members and staff department heads to understand where each stood on important issues and the challenges and opportunities present. Key themes emerged out as topics to address in the workshops, such as what to do with the remaining developable land and how to create community ownership mechanisms. The REDI team thus became a resource for city officials, equipping them with ideas, tools, case studies, new relationships, and community support to help everyone move towards a common goal.


The REDI Leadership Institutes represent a model for building institutional capacity and growing leadership for social and environmental justice in the region. Each set of trainings is customized to the particular needs of each community, identifying any common ground and shared visions. The institutes rarely teach participants new material; rather, the facilitators identify root causes, help understand decision-making structures, and connect issues and people to move a larger body forward in action. They enable residents to feel empowered in their own communities. Richmond Leadership Institute particpant Paul Larudee feels that “We live in a very desirable area—it’s up to us to decide how to develop.” He is now working to determine how a community land trust can preserve housing affordability in Richmond.

Graduates of the community-based leadership institute took their momentum and ran. After meeting with the majority of the city council to present their policy recommendations, the participants convened nearly 300 Richmond residents, officials, and other stakeholders at a community forum. There, participants presented equitable development principles and policies and asked the community to formally endorse the Declaration of Equitable Development with Polaroid photos and signatures, creating an amazing picture representing Richmond. Fredericka Bryant, of Ma’at Youth Academy, captured the essence of the event when she said, “For the core of Richmond to thrive, residents need good jobs and a safe and healthy environment. The people of Richmond deserve a safe and just community in which to raise their families. We call on our elected officials and community members to endorse equitable development principles for Richmond’s future.”

The response? “I am delighted to join with REDI and those who share the same values I do of economic and environmental justice,” said Mayor Gayle McLaughlin as she and other council members in attendance endorsed the Declaration of Equitable Development. “We are reclaiming Richmond for Richmond residents.”

Having been dominated for so long by Chevron, residents and city officials alike feel it is time to prioritize the people. Although still a year out from adoption, the General Plan represents a vehicle for unifying the city with long-term vision and tangible impact. Local leadership and residents are working together to actively integrate equity into planning processes for a healthy and just Richmond.

Diana Abellera is the coordinator of Urban Habitat’s Leadership Institute.

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

Florida Farmworkers Build Unity through Education and Action


With its streets full of the smells of savory Caribbean and Latin cuisine, its sounds of many languages, and its population of Haitian, Mayan, and Latino peoples, one might mentally place the town of Immokalee in any number of locations, but probably not Florida. English is seldom heard here and Americans rarely seen in this town, which serves as a bedroom community for tens of thousands of migrant workers.

Likewise, the organizing strategies of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)—the local farm workers’ association—have more in common with the grassroots struggles in Latin America than in the United States. In fact, the Coalition was founded 11 years ago by participants and allies of the campesino movements in Haiti and Chiapas, and the survivors of dictatorships in Guatemala.

The stated goals of CIW are economic justice in the fields; labor rights, including the right to work free from slavery; economic and political rights throughout the hemisphere enabling workers to thrive in their own countries; and the rights of immigrants in the United States.1 These organizing goals may sound utopian under any circumstances, but the sector in question—migrant laborers—is hands-down, the hardest group to organize.

CIW’s challenges include a constituency which is “ethnically and linguistically divided, largely undocumented… highly mobile, dirt-poor, largely nonliterate, and culturally isolated…. What’s more, farm labor is excluded from the National Labor Relations, denying farmworkers… the legal rights to organize and join unions.… And worse yet… workers pick up paychecks from three to four different companies each Friday evening…. There is no such thing as ‘Pacific Land Co.’s workers’ or ‘Gargiulo’s crews,’ there are only Immokalee workers and changing faces picking, planting, and pulling plastic in company fields on any given day.” Those who pick most of the produce consumed in the United States are, in short, “an employer’s dream and an organizer’s nightmare.”2

How, then, has this group attained some of the biggest victories for workers in recent history? How did it get Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers,’ and A&W Restaurant to almost double the wages for tomato pickers in Florida? Or get them to agree to a verifiable zero tolerance policy for modern-day slavery and the right of farm workers to participate, through CIW, in developing and implementing an enforceable code of conduct? How did CIW get McDonald’s, the leader of the $100 billion-a-year fast food industry, to agree to even more stringent conditions this past April with just a whisper of a boycott? Why is Burger King showing an early interest in cooperating with CIW?   

Part of the answer lies with CIW’s public mobilization strategy. The take-to-the-streets and put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is campaigns have moved the feet, hearts, and minds of multitudes in the United States, especially among immigrant rights networks and students. CIW’s campaigns rely on decentralized networks and go after the brand image, targeting the point of consumption rather than the point of production.3 More than 400 schools participated in the Taco Bell Boycott, and last October, CIW was able to galvanize 40 actions against McDonald’s in 21 states.

A fundamental factor in CIW’s successes in the food industry and its vision of transforming power is its base-building strategy. The underlying philosophy is “consciousness + commitment = change.” CIW’s methodologies are grounded in popular education, leadership by the base, and a truly horizontal democracy that requires staff to be voted in by members, and their salaries tied to that of farm labor.


According to Lucas Benitez, co-founder of CIW, “Popular education must be at the root of any movement that comes from the base. And it must come from the very people who are affected by the problems. Our popular education is accessible to everyone in our community, regardless of their language or level of formal education. It lets us build a broad base of leadership so that responsibility for the success of the movement doesn’t lie in the hands of just one individual whose loss could weaken the struggle.”

Popular education is also the vehicle that serves to explain the struggle to workers just coming into the community and to encourage their participation. Benitez says, “Popular education plants the seeds of consciousness that builds the commitment necessary to make change possible.”

Popular education is imparted through cartoons posted around CIW’s office and on Immokalee’s buildings. Vivid street art and popular theatre also play a part. CIW’s low-power radio station where members spin music, including traditional and political songs from back home, and share messages about workers’ rights, is yet another portal of popular education.
The education occurs in week-long training sessions facilitated by peasant leaders from Haiti or Central America, and in Wednesday night meetings led by newer members of CIW. The mottos that guide CIW’s organizing—“Everyone is a leader,” “He who does not analyze continues to be a slave,” or “From the people, for the people”—sprouted and grew out of the meetings, as did the strategies that guide CIW’s campaigns.

The consciousness nurtured by popular education is helping transform a vulnerable group into hard-core activists, many of whose members previously either did not know their rights, or were afraid to demand them. The organizing strategies have also succeeded in bringing together an atomized, dispersed population into a cohesive group with a common identity as exploited members of an unjust system who have the power to change their status. According to CIW, “It’s the shift from suing in court to assure that workers receive the minimum wage guaranteed by law, to fighting in the street as a community for a living wage; the shift from accepting as a given that farm workers are excluded from the laws that protect the right to collective bargaining, to organizing general strikes demanding the right to bargain as a collective.”4

The transformation brought on by education has spurred members to engage in sustained, aggressive action, such as hunger strikes, statewide marches, and national boycotts. The actions have, in turn, created a national awareness of the struggles of farm workers not seen in decades, and led to concrete changes in rights, benefits, and wages.  

Furthermore, the education reaches far beyond Immokalee and the 3,500 CIW members when, for three or four months of the year, the men and women move north along the migrant stream, sharing what they have learned with other farm workers.
“Today,” says Benitez, “we have a voice where we’ve never had a voice before.”

1.    Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “Golpear a Uno Es Golpear a Todos!” Unpublished, pp. 2-3.
2.    Coalition of Immokalee Workers, “Consciousness + Commitment = Change,” in Globalize Liberation, Solnit, David, Ed., (City Lights Books, 2004), 349-350.
3.    Buckley, Jordan, “Open Letter to Ronald McDonald,” WireTap Magazine, March 29, 2007.

4.    “Golpear a Uno Es Golpear a Todos,” Op. Cit.,  23.

Beverly Bell is the co-coordinator of the Other Worlds Collaborative and Winner of the 2006 PEN New Mexico Award
for Literature of Social Justice.

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

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Day Labor Program Unites Politics and Services


I push a partially shattered glass door of an incongruous looking office and walk past a group of Latino and African American men into the offices of the San Francisco Day Labor Program (SF-DLP) in the Mission district. It is a slightly chilly morning but that doesn’t deter the workers awaiting a job assignment from taking a break outdoors. Inside, rows of half-occupied chairs—like those seen in hospital waiting rooms—accost my eyes. The workers mill about, chat, read the newspaper, and one of them, Leon, reads the popular Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita. The spiritual detachment propounded in the Gita helps him overcome the despair of waiting, he claims. It is a long wait alright—barely 10 per cent of the waiting work force will work that day.

Meanwhile, an animated English class is in progress in one of the rooms.  Victor Ruiz is busy breaking down the annoying grammatical inconsistencies of the English language to a group of six men. Further inside is the modestly furnished but functional administrative office of the SF-DLP where a polite but busy Hector Valdez, a program coordinator, ushers me in. While he continues to work away, filing, answering phone calls, and responding to requests, he tells me the story of the SF-DLP, the largest of its kind, attracting more than a 100 workers, including new immigrants, to its unassuming offices everyday.

The SF-DLP, a project of the La Raza Centro Legal in San Francisco (, is an essential service center for the marginalized worker combing the city’s streets for a job. Combining comprehensive services, organizing, and leadership development, the program empowers the day laborer community, making it more economically and politically self-sufficient. Renee Saucado, a senior organizer at La Raza, notes that in an environment of extreme hostility to immigrant rights, a lot of the organizing is prioritized around oppressive bills and the current wave of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)  raids against undocumented workers.

“The working class immigrant community is in a situation of extreme vulnerability,” notes Saucado. “Trauma, addiction, high stress aggravated by the problems they face—like homelessness and extreme poverty—additionally complicate their organizing. We see ourselves as providers of vital tools to the workers so that they can then go on and fight for what they essentially should have had in the first place.”

The Women’s Wing of the SF-DLP
Jill Shenker is an organizer with the women’s collective of the SF-DLP, which was founded a few years ago to explicitly address the needs and issues of women workers. “We realized the need for an exclusive women’s collective to address the additional issues of abuse and exploitation that women as workers face,” notes Shenker. “The collective today serves as an invaluable model for bringing together labor, civil rights, and community-based organizations”—all vital in today’s disturbing vacuum for political organizing.

The women’s collective also serves as a forum to build leadership among women workers, several of them domestic workers. Today, the collective is a 70-member strong group of women who meet weekly to strategize support and prioritize women’s access to environmentally safe jobs. English and computer classes provide the additional boost that immigrant women need in order to resist and call attention to routine exploitation and abuse. While improving job skills and access to better pay is the immediate goal of the collective, they make no bones about the fact that they wish to be an active feminist forum for women’s leadership and perspectives in the larger labor movement. “We ultimately exist to build women’s leadership and their presence at the negotiating table,” says Shenker.

The collective meets weekly to provide support, make organizational decisions, and share work strategies. Collective members also get to undergo free worker safety trainings and English classes. The communal core of the collective ensures a level of professionalism on par with industry standards and also ensures the accountability that the job market demands.
Shenker explains that the center is just beginning to create a written curriculum for the workshops where the women workers are trained in the different aspects of safety related to domestic work. They have undertaken the project with the Data Center to put together information on toxic substances in cleaning products, safer alternatives, healthy workplace ergonomics, and other safety and health issues. The workshops are peer led and limited to seven to nine members at a time to make them participatory, while also enabling the members to take charge.

“We use a lot of popular education tools and strategies to inform and educate our worker-members,” says Shenker. “This means that the meetings themselves are a source of information sharing and presenting. The orally shared curricula are also empowering for women as they are many-times experts based on their experience, and this is available to new members.”
Other population education tools like agit prop theater and basic hands-on workshops help break down more complex information, especially legalese, in ways that relate to the workers’ situations and experience in the current atmosphere of hostility towards worker rights.


Connecting with Resources
With my broken Spanish and a smile, I weave my way past some of the lounging workers and introduce myself to Alex from El Salvador who has been a regular at the center for a year and a half. “We function like an informal support group. The access to basic health and legal services that we get here is crucial. Without it, we would be in a dire situation,” he states nonchalantly. More than the services the program provides, it is the informal connections and support that ensures a steady stream of members who share information and the little resources they have access to. “We get access to some computer training but we are yet to explore it fully,” says Alex. “But the center is like a home for us. Especially those of us who are homeless,” he adds, with a beaming smile.

While waiting, the workers also advertise the availability of cheap, accessible, and efficient labor. Fliers and posters are regularly distributed and posted, just like the cheap cigarettes and coffee happily shared among strangers. But the SF-DLP is more than just a hub of activity, networking, and training. It is also a crucial place for bonding, as members lookout for each other, even as they compete for the few jobs available each day.

The member meetings are informal but informational and highly interactive. Open to diverse progressive groups involved with labor, education, or immigrant rights, they seek to provide as much information as possible in the brief few hours that they meet each week. “We invite all kinds of folks committed to immigrant and worker rights to address our meetings because we believe that’s the best way to learn and use resources effectively” notes Hector.

The Day Labor Program is affiliated with a network of immigrant rights groups in the San Francisco Bay Area, Deporten La Migra, that includes the SF Living Wage Coalition and Mujeres Unidas Activas, and is also a part of the emerging Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition (BAIRC).

Worker Centers—Gateways to the Movement
Worker centers have emerged as pivotal components of immigrant working class communities consolidating their rights. Through the triad of tools these centers provide: service delivery, advocacy, and organizing, they are playing a crucial role in helping immigrants navigate somewhat steadily through the rough seas of work and legal rights in the United States. Labor expert Janice Fine calls labor centers the gateway organizations that are meeting immigrant workers where they are, while also providing them with a wealth of information and training.1

The SF-DLP, like other worker centers, provides a wide range of day-to-day work services: from one-on-one assistance to individuals who walk in the door with employment-related problems to mounting collective action campaigns to change employer, industry, or government policies and practices. The SF-DLP has helped secure back wages for a number of its workers and constantly educates its workers on their rights through their fliers and curriculum materials.

Through the trio of umbilical services they provide, worker centers like the SF-DLP are mobilizing immigrant workers to defend their rights and make their voices heard. By providing a broad political context in which to practice skills and mutual aid, the program enables participants to join the fight against regressive immigration laws and to organize their workplaces The DLP is proving that the politics and need for labor unionizing is alive and well in the heartland of capitalist America.

SF-DLP is a non-profit that connects homeowners and businesses with experienced laborers for temporary or on-going jobs, such as moving, house cleaning, painting, gardening, and more. Call Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-1 p.m. and Saturday 7 a.m.-12 noon, to hire workers for anytime.
(415) 252-5375 or (415) 252-5376.

 Preeti Shekar is a producer for the Women’s Magazine on KPFA radio in Berkeley, California.

1.    Fine, Janice, “Worker Centers,” Race, Poverty and the Environment, Vol. 14, No. 1 Spring, 2007.

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

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Training for Choice in the Workplace

Manos Home Care’s Democratic Scheduling Process 

Manos Home Care’s Adult Care department assists seniors and adults with disabilities with their daily activities in their homes, including personal care, cooking, cleaning, laundry and errands. Organized as a mutual benefit corporation, Manos Home Care’s primary purpose is to benefit its employees. Democratic education is important in carrying out our mission. Manos Home Care is a part of the group of cooperatively organized businesses loosely referred to as Manos—with six organizations providing jobs for 250 workers in 20 East Bay cities, the Manos group of businesses is one of the largest cooperatively organized businesses in the United States. Manos companies provide work in the areas: commercial office cleaning, day labor, home care for seniors, house cleaning, and respite care for children with disabilities.

Base building education at this level means teaching participants some basic skills, but it also involves un-learning undemocratic passive tactics that workers have adopted to survive in other workplaces.

 “I need a new availability form,” says Felicia McGiver, a home care aide who cares for seniors. The request is common at Manos Home Care, where workers set their own work schedules. As a part of the process in applying for work at Manos Home Care, applicants fill out a form that tells Manos Home Care when they are available to work. “I went up to Iesha [Manos Home Care Program Director] and asked her if this was a trick question,” says Felicia, laughing. Not only is the concept new, but the ability to fill out the form is a skill that workers often need to learn. The responsibility to educate applicants and employees in filling out the availability form is necessary for Manos’ offer to be truly democratic: without training people to exercise their democratic options, the choices don’t really exist.

Determining one’s own work schedule is often a new experience for home care workers. Administrative staff spends a lot of time in one-on-one sessions explaining how to fill the form out, and how to think about setting their own schedules. Allowing workers to set their schedules is one of the ways in which Manos Home Care incorporates democratic education into its workplace.

The choices for the home care aides are real; applicants must fill out a form stating their availability to work and can change that availability at any time during their employment. Felicia has stated that she can perform live-in work on weekends, and was just assigned to a client after passing a pre-employment training, criminal background check, and work reference check. In Felicia’s case, her availability matched what a client needed, and Manos Home Care managers gave her the assignment, and Felicia joined the 85 other home care aides, 90% of whom are African-American women.

When scheduling for entry-level jobs in traditional for-profit companies, managers attempt to find employees to work the schedules that their company requires by stating their requirements to applicants and current employees. The relationship is between the Manager and the employee; the Manager attempts to force the employee to conform to the company’s scheduling requirements. At Manos Home Care, we turn that relationship on its head. The workforce states their schedule, the clients state their required schedule, and managers coordinate the requests of clients and workers, matching home care aides with clients based on schedules and additional factors, such as location, client needs, and home care aide qualifications.

Manos Home Care has a four-phase process that assists home care aides in exercising their scheduling options—a new process for them. Without this training process, the democratic options wouldn’t make any sense, and home care aides would fall back into the pattern of waiting for the boss to tell them what schedule they will work. The four phases are:

  1. Application. Applicants fill out the availability form, stating the earliest times they can start and the latest times they can finish a case, both for day and night shifts. Live-in shifts are also available, and applicants also state what cities they in which they are willing to work. Applicants are free to speak to the administrative assistant regarding how to think through what their schedule is. Many times applicants put the shift they would like to work instead of the parameters of their availability—when they can work versus what shift they would prefer. After the administrative assistant is satisfied they understand the form, she accepts it and passes it to the program director with the completed application.
  2. Interview. In the interview, the availability sheet is reviewed and once again the concept of a parameter is reviewed to ensure that applicant understands that she or he is stating what times they can work, and that they can really work during these periods. The interviewer also discusses whether or not an applicant’s availability is consistent with the customer requests Manos Home Care receives. If Manos Home Care doesn’t usually get shifts that fall within an applicant’s availability, the applicant must either change their availability or risk not being hired.
  3. Pre-Assignment Training. During the first day of our three-day employee training class, the concept of availability is reviewed in the context of assignments and customer satisfaction sessions. Customers often complain about switching home care aides, tardiness, absenteeism, and requesting to leave in the middle of a shift; the trainer links these service problems, among other causes, to accepting a case that does not match a home care aide’s true availability. During the discussion of the assignment process, the trainer reviews how a home care aide’s availability is entered into Manos home Care’s customer software program, and that when new assignments come in, we match those assignments with a home care aide’s availability. The intended outcome of this training is for the aide to understand that what their availability is crucial to getting the right assignment that will allow them to succeed.
  4. Scheduling. After successfully completing the training, home care aides wait for an assignment. Schedulers call home care aides for assignments based on their availability. When the assignment is being discussed, schedulers specifically mention that the aide has stated they are available for the shift in question. If the aide refuses, then the conversation shifts to their actual availability. The assignment structure trains home care aides in the use of their availability, and they come to understand that “you really mean it when you ask when we can work.” After turning down an assignment, home care aides often fill out a new availability form and assignments are made based on the new availability.

Democratic education becomes meaningful when it concentrates on training people to exercise real options integrated into the activities of their life—work being one of these basic activities. At any workplace there are core processes in which groups of employees participate; at Manos Home Care, the assignment process is one of those core processes. Manos Home Care creates democratic action by building options into the assignment process and through training workers to exercise those options, people such as Felicia, who is currently caring for a senior in the Oakland hills. Democratic education becomes meaningful, interesting, and essential when focused on processes that include democratic actions and options.

Kevin Rath is the co-founder and Director of  Manos Home Care.

Web Special: Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

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Voices from the Immigrant Rights Movement: by Diana Pei Wu

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Diana Pei Wu: Liberation Dreams

I just returned from a week at the United States Social Forum in Atlanta, Georgia, where activists staged over a thousand two-hour workshops for over 10,000 people and conducted plenary meetings attended by thousands of people.  It was a week of late nights of intense discussions, art-making, sharing and not sleeping in the lovely sweaty heat of the South in summertime, meeting in funny-shaped hotel conference rooms, celebrating found objects, Gladys Knight’s Chicken and Waffles and each other. I was wonderful to reconnect with comrades from the environmental justice and queer rights movements, with progressive media and interpreter friends and to be part of the Immigrant Rights Caucus. In many ways, it was like coming out, again, in yet another setting.

Two years is barely enough to begin the lifelong process of transformative organizing in liberatory work, never mind the two hour blocks you usually get for conference workshops. One of the reasons we were able to achieve some real results at the USSF was that we have been doing this work together for so many years already. For many of us in the immigrant rights track, the USSF was part of a long term process of movement building, one that started before we came and one that will continue on beyond our lifetimes, or at least our tenure in paid positions and official organizations. Popular education is education for liberation, grounded in people’s experiences, and an attempt to manifest the world of justice and dignity that we want, not in some far away future, but rather in the spaces that we create every day, even if only for two hours.

Personal origins

Like many children of immigrants, cultural work became an expression of who I am and continue growing. My parents introduced me to Chinese visual arts and folkloric dance, providing an important learning opportunity using all my senses and whole body. I continue maintaining this approach in the ways that I design and run workshop trainings and meetings. Likewise, continuing practice as a capoeirista has helped me challenge my fears of singing in public and my parents’ version of appropriate femininity and gender expression. Capoeira is a body-learning of whole personhood that I bring to my work as a popular educator and movement builder. As Kayse Jama from the Center for Intercultural Organizing reflects (see page x), participatory, celebratory learning and organizing is as natural as breathing for many immigrant and refugee communities: we struggle and thrive because our ancestors survived.

When I was seventeen, I worked as a children’s summer camp counselor at the local nature center. In that job, I learned a key component of popular education: the critical importance of creating situations where everyone did something together and had the space to reflect on and share what they learned. In other words, popular education creates experiences that facilitate a particular type of learning within a liberating project, where one is not alone and solidarity drives the relationshio, as Joyti Chand of the South Asian Network describes their education and organizing work against homophobia and sexism.

Later, as a field ecologist, I learned to appreciate and see small changes that other people wouldn’t notice, like the slower rhythms of seasons changing and trees growing. That attention to detail and the recognition that deep change is a long, slow process is also at the core of popular education: our work needs to focus on more than short-term policy victories and campaign wins.  It is about the minute shifts in people’s attitudes, taking the time to honor what is already present, in order to ground our work, and taking time to establish common visions and directions that affirm dignity, justice and life.

BRIDGE: Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Era

In the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Right’s Education and Capacity Building Program, we create spaces for education in the immigrant and refugee rights movement, where community leaders and members can begin to unlearn, heal from, and educate against the racism and oppression that we have learned in our places of origin and from mainstream society. For instance, a common group agreement in popular education spaces is, “oppression exists: not in our space.” And we work to collectivize the visions for a just society that honors the histories of struggle here in the United States and in our places of origin.

We have also worked with community organizers and leaders from Indigenous people, African American and civil rights groups to build bridges between communities, challenge stereotypes and build broader movements for economic and social justice. This was one of the origins of the BRIDGE Project[Of1], or Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in a Global Economy. Even without exclusively focusing on the economic underpinnings of global flows and blockages, we understand that a key aspect of the oppression and domination of our communities is based on the whims of a global economic and political elite that controls access to resources, development, and movement, who allow the rapid flow of money and goods while increasingly blocking the movement of people as anything but labor: that is, regulating the movement of people across national borders as producers of goods, as disposable appendages of the economy, and not as bodies, hearts, or spirits. 

In the BRIDGE curriculum we honor the specific experience of people-in-place: that the experience of Colombian students growing up in South will be different from that of a young Somali woman in Portland, and that the relationships between people of African descent in the border region will be different from those of Indigenous people’s communities in California. The tools in the curriculum are designed to be living tools, being modified and shaped to match the needs and experiences of different communities.

The BRIDGE curriculum emerged from the immigrant rights movement at a time when the founders of organizations like the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights were often the only people of color and the only people without advanced degrees in a sphere dominated by professional white men. Though people of color and poor people are sometimes those professionals now, the challenges for grassroots leaders and communities to have their voices heard have not changed.

Many of the factors that lead people to migrate – war, civil strife, ecological destruction, poverty, genocide – are rooted in the political and economic policies of a global elite. The BRIDGE curriculum recognizes this and asserts that popular political education must strive to reveal and critically address those root causes of migration.

Through the BRIDGE curriculum and our popular education work, we affirm that we need to stay grounded in our values and to value our experiences as knowledge. Doing this allows members of our communities to interact in the official places of power with a strong backing and grounded in a community-based vision. Just as importantly, being our whole selves in official spaces challenges the dominant society’s definitions of legitimacy and affirms our humanity in spaces designed to strip us of the very aspects of ourselves that have survived the last 500 years of colonization, racism, displacement and fragmentation. Thus, leadership is not necessarily taken from those who have the most education, who speak English the best, and who are comfortable doing public speaking.

Some of the ground breaking work in the BRIDGE curriculum is working with immigrant and refugee community leaders to see the implications of a gender and sexuality analysis for our organizing work. This grounds our struggles in the critical orientation that our work must always be for inclusion, equality, and against homophobia, sexism and racism, helping us envision our work together as a work in progress. This creates a new type of generosity for when we make mistakes and the courage to struggle to change and grow together.

Effecting this transformation means lifting up leadership that is facilitative, cooperative, and collective, as Mónica Hernández of the Highlander Research and Education Center reminds us. Pancho Argüelles of Colectivo Flatlander reiterates the concept of acompañiamiento--to walk along and beside--as a key role of organizers, popular educators, and movement builders. We must be committed to developing leaders who will grow a movement that creates more leaders, and take that leadership from below and work to orient our communities towards the left. This is a radically different vision of leadership from dominant trends among community organizing.

My colleagues who work in the rural South and the rural Northwest remind me that there is a great need for anti-racist, anti-oppression, liberatory popular education among white people. As Kayse Jama tells it, his work with white people was, in some ways, a precondition for the Center for Intercultural Organizing to be able to begin the work of community building and development among immigrant and refugee communities; it helped non-immigrant allies to learn to step back and be supportive without taking over. This type of work and insight is applicable to all work against racism in progressive movements for justice and dignity.

The Need for Dreaming


At the end of the United States Social Forum, we could feel satisfied that each action in our short time together led to further actions and that we finally opened up a space not just for reacting, but for dreaming. From all the workshops that were run by member, partner, and allied organizations of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, I saw and heard and intuited that we need spaces for prophesy and dreaming. I give thanks for folks like Nelson Maldonado-Torres; who open up that space in the classroom; and people like bell hooks, Winona LaDuke, and Robin D.G. Kelley, who create those spaces in their written words; and all the compañer@s who encourage dreams and prophesies in their popular education, political education, and organizing work.

A liberatory practice is a collective endeavor of dream-making and drean-implementing, something which our critical abilities often do not engage without becoming uncomfortable. Our collective process is about sharing stories and developing understanding, deep listening, loving, and healing. It must come from below and move towards the left, as Mexico’s Zapatistas declare, and aim for radical transformation. And it takes more than one: it is all of us helping, supporting, challenging, and loving each other as our whole selves.

To follow the words of Audre Lorde, “We must constantly encourage ourselves and each other to attempt the heretical actions that our dreams imply.  Popular education is part of a set of tools and actions that help us create and articulate our dreams together. The heretical part may cause great discomfort because our dreams are a rejection of the seductive paths laid out by the dominator’s dream. Liberation dreams create their own desires, paths, and trajectories for the future. We have those roads to make and walk, together. I’ll see you there, on those roads, in those dreams, in our whole bodies and whole selves, and in our own time.

Diana Pei Wu is Program Director of Education and Capacity Building at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, in Oakland, California. Diana recently completed her PhD dissertation, titled “Healing and Dreaming as Radical Decolonial Practice,” in 2006, which celebrates organizing as healing, and healing as decolonizing. She celebrates life through capoeira, salsa and samba.

[1] Lorde, Audre. 1984. “Poetry is not a Luxury” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York, NY: Triangle Press. 38-39. (Lorde 1984)

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Joyti Chand : South Asian Network

Joyti Chand based on an interview by Diana Pei Wu

Taking Time To Share, Heal and Move Forward Together

At the South Asian Network (SAN) we work with youth and older South Asian people to engage them in dialogues on racism, violence within the family, and immigration. We look at how policies on these issues impact the community. The question is, how do we do that so that the community feels a sense of entitlement and ownership?

A lot of it also has to do with storytelling. Policy is often seen like this artificial thing out there, something you hear about on TV. But if you hear a personal story, it’s easier to make


connections to your own life. If you gather a group of people who have their own stories to share, they may challenge each other’s existing assumptions and understand how their issues are related. Popular education is not just about developing a formal curriculum but more about opening the space for sharing stories. It’s a place to have people share and talk about their experiences, our vision for ourselves and our communities, or policies we need.

We know one leader doesn’t have all the answers in the movement. In popular education the traditional foundation of teacher and student is put aside. Instead we learn from each others stories. We then reflect on our own experiences as a community, do our own analysis, and move forward together. This process ensures that we are critical and develop an action plan together, so that people are not excluded or marginalized or a small group of people are making the decisions.

Taking on Homophobia and Sexism Head-On

At SAN we provide a space for immigrants to talk about the experiences back home and connect them to how they experience repression here. About 3 years ago, we took a step back because there were issues that we needed to talk about— homophobia and sexism. SAN is already open to bringing out the issues, but we realized we needed to do more. We needed to build in resources to identify and address some of the key issues of the queer community. We got together some folks from SATRANG, a queer South Asian group, and others from the community who cared about building a space for queer South Asian folk and allies.

We spoke individually with all staff and board members about their comfort level with queer issues and whether SAN should move forward on addressing these concerns in our work. First we conducted three trainings and dialogues to provide a space for people to talk about how they grew up, messages around gender, immigration rights, and all the different things that impact us around sexual orientation.

We decided we needed to build internal capacity to address issues on civil rights, discrimination, and health access, particularly in terms of the needs of the queer South Asian community locally. Collaborating with SATRANG, we started the Southern California South Asian Queer Community Health Assessment. We distributed materials at public events and collected surveys on health and wellness. We were basically asking the community, “What are things that are needed in terms of social support?” Now we are in the process of collecting the results of the surveys, incorporating the findings, and trying to make changes in our curriculum organizationally.

Healing Together

For those of us who are immersed in this work, we are constantly trying to analyze without allowing ourselves to look internally. We don’t have a chance to look at ourselves historically and say that this has happened to me. We walk around sometimes really mad and frustrated; you feel like a robot and you have to perform. Popular education can help us heal these frustrations. An example is one of the pieces from the BRIDGE curriculum. You reflect on the generations of women in your family— what did your mom do and what did your grandmother experience? Tools like that help us to step back and share what happened.

For us to be able to move forward we need to be able to vocalize our own oppressions. If you hold it in, you are constantly feeling worse. If you vocalize it, it creates a sense of relief. You find that other people share or understand that historical background. Then you’re not in it for yourself since others have similar stories. That’s where the potential to heal lies— because you’re not the only one. People can share the injustices that they’ve dealt with and move on to the next step. Our clients have told us that when they share their stories, they feel that they are not alone, that this is not just randomly happening to them. They connect with each other and find comfort where they’ve had a release. They are then no longer suffering in silence but are out there and talking to people in the community.

Popular Education and Movement Building

Popular education relies on creating a sense of solidarity in order to organize and mobilize a community. There always have to be spaces to connect at that human level to know that you’re really in solidarity, not just the political analysis. If you don’t have sensitivity within a group of people, there’s no healing, and then people don’t have space to be regarded as anything but a number. Unless people are able to connect on that human level, there is no movement.

In terms of movement building popular education needs to be encouraged more. In LA I don’t enter into a lot of spaces where it is about popular education. Having more spaces for training and where people can talk about some of the missing pieces in our work is crucial to moving forward. One of the challenges occurs within movements. We are also impacted by outside society, so there are still a lot of hierarchies and divisions within the progressive community. We need a space to step back to see how external factors also play out within our community.

Popular education is a long term process. It would change the pace of work and the kind of work we do. Just challenging one policy often distracts us from the work of doing community education or creating forums for the community. It happens in my work— we focus on responding to hate crimes, employment & housing discrimination, workers’ rights— and that’s important work. But popular education methodologies urge us to take the time we need to share, heal, and move forward together.

Based on an Interview with Joyti Chand, South Asian Network, Artesia, CA by Diana Pei Wu, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Oakland, CA

Joyti Chand is a Community Rights Advocate in the Civil Rights Unit at South Asian Network, based in Artesia, Southern California.

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Mónica Hernández : Highlander Research and Education Center


“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.

Through my work, I became more and more convinced that movements need to be led by the people most affected. The way to do that is not to just go in and say, “This is what you’re going to do.” you need to start from where people are and honor their experiences. Immigrants and poor people in general are always being told that their knowledge and experiences don’t matter. Folks have a lot of self-esteem issues because the education system has failed them, and they believe it’s their fault—they think they’re stupid and dumb and ignorant. Popular education has the potential to strengthen their self-esteem around their own life experiences.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas: Popular Education and Transformative Organizing

I always go back to the experiences of Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) in the Bay Area. When women come to MUA, they are not thinking about organizing. They are coming in because they have issues that need to be resolved, urgent issues. Domestic violence is a big issue for a lot of women. They come in seeking help and support. MUA deals with some of the immediate survival issues and provides a great deal of support. Over the course of a couple of months, women start getting involved in some of the organizing, leadership, and political activities that MUA does.

This happened with a campaign to defeat Prop. 187.[1] It was a very grassroots-oriented campaign, but a lot of the folks affected by the proposition were not voters. They felt like they needed to do something, that they couldn’t just sit with their arms crossed. MUA got involved. We started trying to figure out the role for immigrant communities in these electoral campaigns that were targeting them. Strategies developed to let immigrants know about the bill and to help educate other members of the Latino community—this happened throughout the anti-immigrant campaigns in the ‘90s, throughout all the other bills with immigration-law changes, through the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform an Immigrant Responsibilty Act (IIRAIRA) and welfare reform stuff. We developed a popular theater workshop that Mujeres members would perform to educate and elicit conversation in the base.

Transformation happens within people. In many cases, immigrant women come in feeling like they’re worth nothing. They’re afraid to talk and to participate in a public hearing or a protest; they’re afraid just being out there. The fact is that their vulnerability as undocumented immigrants really hasn’t changed—if anything it’s gotten worse, because things keep getting worse. But they become stronger and stronger as they participate and become leaders and support other women to become leaders. I’ve carried their model with me to the South to give people concrete examples of how they can organize.

Highlander and INDELI: Breaking Isolation in the Rural South, Building Bridges with African American Communities

When I first got to Highlander, we had a program designed to support the formation of grassroots Latino immigrant organizations here in the South. It was an important program because it gave people the opportunity to gather periodically and network with each other and break their isolation, both geographical and psychological. You have immigrant communities in some very rural areas of the south, hostile areas that are dealing with a growing immigrant population for the first time. The opportunity for immigrants to share with other folks what they’re living with and to realize they’re not alone—that it’s happening in other communities—is really critical.

That was an important first step. When immigrants are starting out in a place with no infrastructure and no other organizations supporting them, there is a tendency to try to address the entire range of needs of the community. People see immediate needs, so they try to form a Hispanic or Latino community center. People are working under tremendous pressure, with no opportunity to take a more strategic view of what’s needed. So there’s not a lot of community organizing in those initial stages. They are surviving in the service provision model, which is necessary but limited in its potential for change.

Next, we started the process of organizing and leadership development training through our Immigrant Leadership Development Institute (INDELI, Instituto para el Desarollo de Liderazgo).

Grassroots leadership in communities is critical. We felt that leaders had the potential to transform how organizing was approached and to spur more organizing. So part of it was helping communities figure out why organizing as a strategy was important and why it was crucial to build people’s organizing skills.

Redefining Leadership

INDELI really provided people with a different model for what leadership is. When people hear, “This person’s a leader,” they tend to think of the individual, charismatic, boss-type leader. But we were offering leadership trainings focusing on collaboration, with the idea that anybody can be a leader. We believed that leadership could be exerted differently to create more democratic organizations and avoid some of the downfalls of many grassroots organizations.

Another aspect of INDELI was to give people concrete organizing and organizational skills— know how to facilitate a meeting, how to recruit people, how to assess the needs of your community.

The third component was political education focused on bringing in an anti-oppression framework, so people could see their struggles connecting with other people’s struggles. Particularly here in the South, immigrants should know more about the struggles and history of the African-American community. Political education also looked at the framework and particulars of the debate on immigration. The Fall 2005 Sensenbrenner bill was the perfect laboratory to test the organizing skills that we were trying to help people develop and to try to analyze the political dynamics around immigration reform.

One of the ongoing issues is that well-established organizations in the South like the Farm Workers Association (Florida) and El Centro (Durham, North Carolina) have been around for a while—they have resources. At the same time, the demographic shift in the South has been different in different states. Georgia and North Carolina have had Latino communities for more than 15 years and have had a chance to build organizations. Other places—Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi—are just starting to see the immigrant influx as a visible, palpable presence. So the varying development of the immigrant community has implications for where they are organizationally.

For instance, the longstanding, funded organizations are really different than a group of two to three people who are gathering to try to form something but don’t even have a consolidated organization. Likewise, a group of people who come in with an idea of organizing is very different than an organization that is primarily services, and so on. We were looking for organizations that were really grassroots, and there weren’t that many. We realized that we had to be flexible and open to some of the people who did not yet have a full political framework but did have a sense of their work being connected to social justice—whether or not they were actually organizing at that point.

Providing a Framework for Change

We had a clear sense of what we wanted to do: form small organizing committees in communities to teach people how to do “know your rights” workshops and use that as a tool to organize people. Folks weren’t ready for that. A lot of folks came back and used the “know your rights” workshop that we had, but it was on their timeline, not ours. That’s part of what it makes it popular education—you have your methodology and plan, and it can go out the window. The information was useful for people; they just weren’t ready to go out to do a workshop yet.

That’s why we had such a heavy emphasis on political education and skills-building: we provided a framework so that people would start changing the way they thought about what they were doing. Instead of just being focused on one particular campaign, they could see how it fit into a broader effort to do movement-building. We saw that clearly in the way folks looked at some of the legislative proposals from last year.

I believe that the only way change is going to happen is from the bottom up. Popular education is a key part of that process.

Based on an interview with Mónica Hernández, Highlander Research and Education Center, New Market, Tennessee, by Diana Pei Wu, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Monica is the lead person on Highlander's Pueblos de Latinoamérica project, which seeks to develop Latino grassroots leadership and organizations in the Southeast. She is also Chair of the Board of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. A native of Mexico with roots in both countries, Mónica joined the Highlander staff after working at the Northern California Coalition for Immigration Rights in San Francisco for 13 years. At the Coalition, Mónica worked in various capacities: as a hotline operator, HIV prevention educator/program coordinator, community education and action team member and co-director, and executive director.

[1] California Proposition 187 was a 1994 ballot initiative designed to deny undocumented immigrants social services, health care, and public education. It was introduced by assemblyman Dick Mountjoy (Republican from Monrovia, California) as the Save Our State initiative. A number of other organizations were involved in bringing it to the voters. It passed with 58.8% of the vote, but was overturned by a federal court. The measure prompted support for similar bills in Illinois, Florida, New York and Texas.

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Pancho Arguelles: Understanding Transformation

“Understanding the world to transform it and transforming the world in a way that changes the way we understand ourselves.”


Popular education in the global South is both a methodology for education and organizing and a  philosophy that builds a popular movement in order to bring about structural change.

In the United States, we don’t have a popular movement. We have lot of movements for social and racial justice: a lot of people trying to resist and bring change and do good things. However, the fact that people are moving doesn’t mean that we have a popular movement.

Most of the current dominant paradigms of organizations are based on the assumption that the system works. That the system is an operating democracy, a government for the people by the people. Another dominant assumption is that we live in a free economy. 

Neoliberal economists have a dogma that the free market is inherently good and an almost a religious belief that under it all things will be more efficient.

These are beliefs. The rich and those in power benefit from this, because they created the rules of the game. They don’t believe the myths, but it helps them that the rest of us believe it.

The North American Free Trade Agreement has really proven that it is not a free market.  The way capitalism is connected to monopoly, corrupt practices and militarization globally proves that.

Historically,, popular education is about putting things in context so that you get power as an individual and a group to understand your reality and be able to change it.

Starting with Dialogue

Popular education starts with dialogue. When we start retreats, we begin by connecting with values, healing— we ask everyone to bring one object that symbolizes why we are in struggle. It is one way to begin sharing our personal stories with other people so we can see how our stories relate to each other being one.

Through sharing stories, we see that there are policies and decisions made by people in groups, in their own interest. That policies are not just given to us. Policies and our current realities are a production, a historical and structural production. And the groups who made the decisions benefit from them.

Popular education also has a methodology: It is participatory, based on people's experience and knowledge; we try to break down the hierarchy of knowledge and experience. And we go one step beyond. Those who have suffered the most injustice and marginalization and have overcome the most, will have the deeper more profound knowledge of what is it to be human and how to be human.

The other part is doing the political and historical education around how we got here: the economy— the world we are living in today is the product of 500 years of colonialism by Western powers.

For me, political education is a philosophy and a practice. Praxis is integral: understanding the world to transform it and transforming the world in a way that changes the way we understand ourselves.

There is also dialogue— putting my own experience in dialogue with history and reality and other people in my community and organization, and then putting that collective group, that collective experience, in dialogue with the wider context, with history, with structures and other communities and other issues.

It is also about personal transformation, collective organizing and a commitment to resist and transform. To resist is the affirmation of our own humanity and the humanity of others. It is a radical political statement in a society that systematically denies the humanity of us in this planet. To open up spaces where people can bring their whole humanity into the room, celebrate it, acknowledge it, that is radical.

And then to commit to work together and organize, to make leadership collective, to confront problems personally and collectively through action-reflection-action.

Leadership From Below

In the United States, a lot of influential people use the rhetoric that they are the voices of the voiceless. However, those leaders would have a very hard time of embracing leadership and wisdom from below. The Zapatista definition of political leadership—to command by obeying—conflicts with the Western notion of leadership as personal. If no one is behind you, whom are you leading? Many leadership development programs create leaders of opinion based on the idea that if they can be heard, everything will be all right. Leadership in this context has a sexist male bourgeois or capitalist and heterosexual core.

The way that National Council of La Raza (NCLR), League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) approach their political work assumes that the system works and that leadership comes from above. These organizations are trying to defeat the system that oppresses us with the same kind of oppressive power. If popular movements have proved something in resisting systems of colonization, it is that we cannot beat them at their own game.

Compared with these contemporary immigrant rights organizations, the twentieth-century civil rights movement is completely radical. Last year, I deepened my study of the civil rights movement and civil rights leaders as part of training people in the South and trying to promote cross-community dialogues. I realized that Ella Baker and Septima Clark embodied a core value of popular educators: becoming unnecessary, working yourself out of a job.

They also modeled accompaniment, a central notion of popular education.  They related to SNCC or other groups that came to Highlander with accompaniment, not control.  Of course, they got into fights with more established mainstream, mainly male, leadership.

A Different Kind of Power

A popular movement does not bring down the system and put a new one there; it doesn’t work that way historically.  In reality, it happens when communities and working people force people of privilege to do the right thing—not destroying the people of privilege or taking away all their power, but confronting them with their shared humanity while mobilizing the power of numbers to bring down the system.

Some people are resistant to popular education because they see it as naïve and unrealistic due to the emphasis on participation and dialogue. They have lost contact with the part of popular education that comes out of surviving, organizing, resisting, and creating a different kind of power.

Mainstream organizations like many longstanding unions and community organizing networks are obsessed with a very narrow form of power. At the end, they end up operating in a logic that is very white and very privileged in terms of class. It doesn’t go deep enough in terms of transforming what and where power is.

That is the sense when we engage in these legislative campaigns with partners in Washington, DC. They invite us to join in a trip, but we were never asked where we wanted to go. And when it comes time to evaluate if the strategy worked, these groups cannot be held accountable.

We cannot control them, but we can control the way we engage. If it doesn’t work for us, then we can just pass—say no, thank you.

Mainstream groups speak to their own privilege; they are disrespectful of the wisdom of people’s survival. But identity, autonomy, and strength become real when you have a group that is locally based. As they say in the United States, all politics are local. And all organizing has to have a local dimension. National actors, regional groups, and Washington-based policy specialists need to think how they are going to build relationships with the local groups.

We just had that conversation with the people in the new sanctuary movement. They were giving us an update, and it was so frustrating to hear them define what is possible based on the climate in the beltway, not based on a consultation with the groups. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The history of struggle and survival means that we must have memory to have hope. When we don’t have hope, there is no resistance. We have to remember how we have gone through so much to find the strength, joy, generosity, and courage to face sometimes brutal armies. And it’s still happening, so we have to keep hope going. Our work in the present draws from the strength of our memory of the past and our vision for the future.


Based on an interview with Francisco (Pancho) Arguelles, Colectivo Flatlander, Houston, TX

by Diana Pei Wu.

Francisco (Pancho) Arguelles Paz y Puente is a co-founder of Colectivo Flatlander for Popular Education, based in Houston Texas. He has been instrumental in the establishment of the BRIDGE Project at the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR), the Institute for Development of Leadership (INDELI) at the Highlander Research and Education Center, and the Immigrant Rights working group at the National Organizers Alliance. Before moving to the United States Pancho worked as a popular educator in Chiapas, Nicaragua, and other places. He is principal of Paz y Puente, LLC and father to Maria and Antonio.

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“Understanding the world to transform it and transforming the world in a way that changes the way we understand ourselves.”

Kayse Jama: Center for Intercultural Organizing

Privilege and Power and White Allies

Popular education works with immigrant and refugee community leaders because it is something they can relate to based on cultural and historical background. It’s a style that we know as indigenous cultures, for example, myself as a Somali refugee. It’s based on people sharing knowledge and having open space to solve and create space where people work together. So it’s part of our culture even though we may not have the same words for it.

Everyone brings something to the table, to share, and everyone has a certain expertise, life experience, or different training, historical techniques or information. For me, a key principle is that we are all equally responsible to learn from one another.

Another key aspect of popular education lies in decentralizing information and knowledge. you can take it to the people—into their neighborhoods instead of assuming or insisting that they come to the organization.

The Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO) started 4 years ago when a Somalian Muslim leader, the head of a mosque, was arrested in the airport. The police could have picked him up any time, but they arrested him at the airport, shut down the entire airport just to create fear. So we started to organize.

For the first year and a half, we held public forums two times a month where local community members came, shared and discussed their issues. We wanted the center to be grounded in the immigrant and refugee community, to be led by immigrants and refugees.  At the same time, We opened the gates for everyone. Quickly, we found that we were over-run by white allies—more and more white allies were coming, and less and less refugees and immigrants. Then we realized we had a big problem on our hands. So we spent 3 months restructuring and defining our constituency. Over that time, we defined the structure to a membership organization and defined who is our constituency and who is our allies and who is our supporting members.

Making Space for Refugee and Immigrant Community Leaders, Redefining Leadership

In our leadership development work, the work with immigrant and refugee community leaders is done in parallel with the work with white allies. To eliminate racism we have to engage folks on race issues. The white and Anglo community needs to be challenged to eliminate and understand racism itself. Our work is divided equally in engaging the white community and the work with immigrant and refugee communities.

In the popular education trainings we examine who has the power, how is it created, who makes the decisions, who is disadvantaged. So that we help people to understand power. For example, if you are first generation you’re are a "constituent" member.  If you are second generation U.S. born then you are an ally. When someone joins, they learn the roles. It’s not perfect but it is part of the process of learning.

We do ongoing training with immigrant and refugee community leaders and members to build their analysis, organizing skills develop the tools they need to have an impact in their community.

We define the popular education style at the beginning of the process. We help folks move away from the “I thought you guys are experts” mode. As soon as I define it people love it and feel impressed and feel free. It creates a level of trust and relationship with everyone. In a lecture style class, 1 or 2 people speak, people don’t get to know each other. In a popular education, the dialogue is not directed at the facilitator, it is the interaction between the participants. 

“You can’t just learn and walk away”

Generally after students graduate we ask them to an action. You can’t just learn and walk away. We ask them to do a small project to practice and have impact in the community. Eventually, in the last two years we see multiethnic immigrant and refugees groups are creating strategic campaigns to impact community issues and work cooperatively.

CIO, is still young, but I can see that we’ll be thinking about popular education as a model for decentralizing power to build the movement.

Last October in Portland, Oregon, we passed a resolution to protect rights of all immigrants. Portland is the first city to pull out of joint task force with FBI. The Mayor is now proposing to establish a day laborer center. There are some pretty severe political repercussions, including a series of raids in the last few weeks but we have made some progress. 

We are now planning to get ready for the 2008 election and 2009 legislation and we are expecting to have to fight at least 3 anti-immigrant ballot initiatives.

We have also just started a community leadership development program, with a heavy emphasis on refugee, Arab and Muslim populations. In this program, we also work with other organizations in Portland that organize with progressive white, Latino and African American communities, as a way to build our internal analysis, and also build bridges between communities. Other trainers have worked with the Native American community, so we have modified the BRIDGE immigration timeline to reflect Oregon’s KKK history and add Native Americans’ experience of children being stolen to attend federal government boarding schools. That conversation showed us that refugees from Europe and refugees from the global South have some very different understandings of racism and colonialism, and still, that there are class differences in the refugee community, based on skin color and education.

At CIO, we are not talking about black and brown, we are talking about Somalis and Ethiopians, Congolese and Liberian, Mexican, Korean, Palestinian and Afghani community leaders working with other Latino leaders, African American leaders, and progressive white folks. And we are working on redefining leadership to honor the contributions of people who are leaders in the community but not recognized as formal leaders in the city. To open the space for their leadership, we have had to work with the progressive white allies to step back and support the work as appropriate, and also to challenge the version of leadership that is exercised by gatekeepers in the refugee and immigrant community. That’s our vision of new refugee and immigrant community leadership for Portland: vibrant, diverse by race, origin, age, and a leadership that opens space for future generations of leaders.

Based on an interview with Kayse Jama, by Diana Pei Wu.

Kayse Jama is the interim Executive Director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO), based in Portland, Oregon. Before that, he was a New Voices Fellow at the Western States Center, working as a Trainer/Organizer. Born into a nomad family in Somalia, Kayse left when the civil war erupted, and finally found sanctuary in Portland. An original founder of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, Kayse is also an adjunct instructor for University Studies at Portland State University.

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Oaxacan Teachers Organize for Justice


Few social movements in recent history more clearly crystallize the central role of education in building democratic participation than the struggle for better working conditions and people’s political power in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico in the past decade. Last year, as the teachers union carried out their annual strike for a cost of living adjustment, increased funding for school infrastructure, free school breakfasts, and free textbooks and uniforms for students, they were met by fierce police repression from the Oaxacan state government. A peaceful sit-in in the zocalo or town square suddenly turned into a pitched street battle when government forces tried to re-take the plaza by force. After the initial shock of this naked display of military power, which left dozens injured and several killed, the people of Oaxaca mobilized with a passion and cool coordination that stunned the government and resulted in an ongoing uprising for the next six months.

Nancy Davies, a journalist based in Oaxaca, when asked whether popular education played a role in creating the intense engagement of the population observes, “You’ve got it exactly backwards; civic engagement leads to real popular education. It is the process of defending people’s rights that’s central to popular education.”

“Civic engagement came when people’s rights were violated, when their heads were smashed. People rushed in so quickly. The education came as they organized in self-defense. Within three days after the attacks, the people were in place. But, really, there were many preliminary preparations. They knew what they were reaching for and they had the whole assemblia culture of Oaxaca behind them.”

Teachers are intent on defending more than just their own paychecks, according to  Jill Freidberg, a film maker who has made a compelling documentary about the teachers’ organizing efforts, called Grains of Sand.

A central struggle has been educators’ attempts to fight privatization of the publicly run rural colleges that have offered their students—many from poor, indigenous communities—free tuition, free room and board, and guaranteed employment as schoolteachers upon graduation.

Looking for the motivation behind the repeated attempts to privatize education and to make teacher training less accessible to indegenous people, she says, “Part of the function of destabilizing the public sector is so that there is no time for anything but survival, much less struggle for cultural relevance or empowerment.”

The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca
In fact, central to the popular mobilization was a process of deep-rooted education organized by social movements that once waged their own distinct struggles for autonomy or better working conditions, and   are now working together to create a more democratic Mexico.

Jacob Muller, a journalist and activist with the Oaxaca Solidarity Network, says that many in Oaxaca city weren’t so sure that they supported the teachers when the strike began. But when the attacks on the teachers occurred, it brought the question into sharp relief: “Do we want to live in a police state where the government can viciously attack a group of workers demanding their rights?” The answer from the other workers in the city of Oaxaca was a resounding “No!”

Davies points out that the teachers’ support extends far beyond the urban core. “Ninety percent of Oaxacanos live in small communities outside of the central urban area. These teachers are in close relationship to their students and, of course, to the parents of their students. They are the ones buying school supplies with their own money, they are the ones teaching with no materials in inadequate buildings that were funded but never built.”

And beyond their role inside the classroom, many of the teachers are acutely aware of the larger social forces that impact their communities.

Genaro Vasquez, an educator in the Mixte area—an eight-hour bus trip from the city of Oaxaca—explains the core motivation behind his commitment to return to teach after receiving a university education in Mexico City.

“To awaken is fundamental because, in the majority of the towns and cities, ignorance is the normality of our time. It is a grave danger. Education rooted in our communities is the only solution to this profound threat.”

George Salzman, a retired professor who lives in Oaxaca and is a frequent commentator on Oaxaca in the alternative media, observes that “when the indigenous people come in from the countryside to support the teachers, they bring an agenda of their own. They want to gain control of their own lives. Getting rid of Governor Ulisses Ruiz is only a first step. The determination is to change the form of social life itself.”

Vasquez explains, “Standardized education is only about the numbers, it does not reach the intellectual or spiritual element. They are infatuated with computers but education is a problem of the human conscience. We must be teaching cooperation, solidarity, intellectual autonomy, and independence.”

Salzman attributes the wide-ranging challenge to the values still present in indigenous culture. “They want to move toward a world with no political parties, where decisions are made by consensus in assemblies, where each community has its own autonomy. It is a whole different concept of how to live and you can see it in the forms and structures that have been developing to coordinate the struggle.”
One of the organzations threatened with firbombing by government-backed para-militaries, was the base community group EDUCA. Their crime: educating the population to advocate for their rights. In the interview accompanying this story (pg.55),  Marcos Leyva, EDUCA’s director, explains just what this sort of organizing looks like. He also points out that the teachers themselves have a long way to go in implementing popular education within the school system.

“Despite the public school teachers’ participation in the rebellion, the schools themselves are not truly part of the process. The teachers cannot use the educational installations, materials, and facilities, because they “belong” to the official programs. They can’t do it inside the schools. If they do, they’re fired.  Teachers have to perform under official rules, so what they do is they teach outside their schedule and outside the formal system.”

Teachers have only just begun to challenge the paternalistic methods taught by the government schools, and the process of shifting the curriculum, using popular education in the government schools, and creating a truly liberating educational system is barely underway. “We’re confronting a 500-year history of colonial domination,” says Friedberg. The processes that can change such huge historical forces are, by their nature, slow and complex. But clearly, the rebellion in Oaxaca is one step in meeting such a challenge.

B. Jesse Clarke is edtor of Race Poverty and the Environment, Urban Habitat's journal of social and environmental justice. 

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

Marcos Leyva: Building the Base


EDUCA (Servicios para una Educación Alternativa) focuses on three areas: promotion of integral communitarian development, strengthening of communitarian organizations, and support of initiatives that strengthen civil society.

The first program, “Building Citizenship,” focuses on promotion of integral communitarian development. It generates actions to help people develop an awareness of their rights that can lead to informed participation. This goes beyond the mere act of voting; the goal is to generate activities that allow political involvement, such as participation in communal development councils.

The second program is aimed at strengthening of communitarian organizations by generating economic activities, such as savings banks and cooperative supply stores in the Oaxacan indigenous communities.

Finally, through supporting initiatives that strengthen civil society, the third program deals with municipios* and the indigenous communities that live there. Our activities here are aimed at building a closer relationship with the indigenous authorities; we instruct them and help them form democratic systems so they can perform as municipal authorities.

Process, not Success, is Key
In all of this, we use the experience and the pedagogical/political proposal of popular education, which Paulo Freire started in Latin America. Like Freire, we firmly believe that starting from such educational and organizational processes enables the population to regain access to their rights to demand participation and better living conditions.

Since we start from the concept of popular education, we deal with processes that are not enclosed in a one- or two-year project timeframe. For example, we’ve been working during the last seven or eight years in communities, such as Santiago Izcayutla. There, we have had various collaborations aimed at generating political, organizational, and economic capacities. As a result, the municipio’s inhabitants are becoming empowered  and claiming their rights.

When we started with the Building Citizenship program, the residents were fighting a local cacique.* He wouldn’t allow them to elect their municipal authorities and imposed his personal choices for the municipal presidency. In response, a process of reflection and organization began taking shape. The first years of struggle we had plantones.* These were hard battles, which sometimes resulted in deaths. But, after a great deal of sacrifice, the community finally gained the right to elect its representatives. From that moment, community members started to support economic and capacity-building projects with municipal authorities.

In this case, we’ve achieved our goal. First, community members got to know their rights; second, they came forward to demand these rights; third, a process of active, gender-inclusive participation has been generated in that municipio. The methodology and the perspective of popular education have been fundamental in generating educational activities that build people’s capacity to take possession of their new roles.


Building the Solidarity Economy
Five years ago, we began working with community groups to organize economic activities that would create changes in the social structure. We now have 20 projects grouped into a network of communitarian economic projects.

This network has allowed us to focus on economic, social, and cultural rights, in addition to economic issues. An awareness has been generated that you need more than economic projects to improve your living standards—you also need to link them to political processes, and vice versa.

Women and Culture
Inherent to all of these programs are the two strategic axes of indigenous people’s rights and the issue of gender. These are not separate topics: they are implicit and spread through all our programs. As part of the methodology, we start with men-only and women-only groups and then they share a common space for discussion. This leads to more mixed groups because women feel that they have a space to discuss things from their point of view.

There are some tensions due to individualism. We try to grapple with that by recalling that in the deeper sense, we are dealing with persons, not individuals. We insist on collective processes that help in the formation of persons. It’s hard to overcome the tendency toward individualism without communitarian processes that emphasize the formation of persons. We strive to find an equilibrium. It is difficult, but we concentrate on concientization* processes. We believe that when people internalize communitarian principles, they will understand that their efforts are going to have a positive effect to achieve social benefits.
We also ensure that the people’s cultural rights are taken into account and that the educational content is culturally relevant. We have 16 different indigenous languages and use a translator from the villages to help in the communication process. Educational materials are translated to convey the values of tolerance, diversity, and respect to their cultural background and start from the premise that each of us knows something and has something to say.

Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca
The uprising was the result of 10 years of consciousness-raising by the teachers’ unions on behalf of people’s politicization. It achieved a lot, even if not enough.

But despite the public school teachers’ participation, the schools themselves are not truly part of the process. The teachers cannot use educational materials and facilities because those “belong” to the official programs and are meant to be used for formal education purposes. Teachers can’t do popular education inside the schools, so they teach outside their schedule and outside the formal system. This kind of popular education work by teachers aided in forming this solidarity system. The churches—especially the Catholic church—also helped, since they adhere to liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor. They have carried the spirit of solidarity and responded to popular needs since the 1970s through forming Christian groups and doing capacity-building. Leftist parties have contributed in forming leaderships, too. And then there are non-governmental organizations like ours. These four are at the base of this movement. Together we have been able to encourage people to take the path of increased awareness and demand their rights. Most of this is due to popular education.

Prospects for Change
We’ve struck a big blow to the political system in Oaxaca. We have to strike again so it falls, but I believe the system has received a deadly hit. Many things are happening in our communities. We think we’re on the path that leads to deeper changes—not only the change of the Oaxacan governor but the transformation of Oaxaca. Despite our struggles and our accomplishments, power is still centralized. Changes are slow to come. Yet, people are participating and becoming mobilized. We hope that people keep on participating, but it’s tough. At this moment we’re simply full of hopes.

Based on an interview with Marcos Leyva, director of EDUCA, by B. Jesse Clarke, Oaxaca, April 2007. Translated by Franco Munini. 

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

One-on-One Organizing for Affordable Housing Near Transit


I've never really been involved in something outside my family,” says Dan Martinez, a 33-year-resident of San Leandro, who is working for affordable housing near transit with Congregations Organizing for Renewal (COR) and Urban Habitat’s Transportation and Housing program.

Community members are encouraged to get involved through COR’s organizing model, which builds on one-on-one conversations. “One-on-ones” draw out each person’s concerns and explore how COR might address those concerns.

Dennis Davis is the deacon of St. Leander’s Catholic Church, which has been a COR partner for about four years. He says that one-on-ones help social justice movements to reach outside the small activist groups that traditionally agitate for change.

“They give an individual a safe place to express their feelings and to hear what we’re presenting,” Davis says, adding that one-on-ones offer nonpartisan education about issues.

COR begins a campaign only after assessing an area’s needs through these conversations with community members. Beginning with one-on-ones ensures that the issues COR campaigns around, such as the lack of affordable housing, tackle residents’ greatest concerns. As the campaign continues, one-on-ones continue to raise individuals’ awareness of the issue, whether or not people choose to become further involved.

In San Leandro, the issues have always been housing and health care. Over two years, using the one-on-one organizing model, COR built the support and momentum needed to pass a 2006 inclusionary zoning ordinance that requires 15 percent of units in the all new residential developments in the city to be affordable to moderate-, low-, and very low-income households.

COR is now partnering with Urban Habitat to strengthen affordable housing provisions in San Leandro’s downtown through a Specific Planning process. The downtown is both amenity- and transit-rich. In addition to BART and local AC Transit service, a high-speed Bus Rapid Transit route will connect Berkeley, Oakland, and San Leandro in 2009.

Downtown’s transit access makes it the best place to build housing for low-income families. Transportation represents the second-highest cost after housing—Bay Area working families spend the most on housing and transportation of any other region in the nation. By placing subsidized housing in downtown San Leandro, the city will be creating needed savings for families in both their housing and their transportation budgets.

Urban Habitat Partners with COR
Urban Habitat and COR are partnering to ensure that COR’s members are well-prepared to weigh in on the Specific Plan. Community members are powerful spokespeople for the cause, using their own experiences to illustrate how affordable housing can benefit community members. They meet with each other in local organizing committees and with elected officials and city staff in research actions. They are the ones who ask the questions and get the answers.

Martinez, who became involved with COR because his children could not afford to live in San Leandro, spoke about his children at a meeting with a city council member early in his involvement. He was encouraged. “The councilwoman was touched by [my story]. She had the same situation in her own family.” Testimony by Martinez and Davis also helped convince members of the Citizen Advisory Committee responsible for developing a draft of the downtown Specific Plan, to increase supportive language for affordable housing within the draft that will go before City Council for a vote in September. Their testimony spurred the Mayor of San Leandro to make strong statements supporting affordable housing to the Committee.
Raising public awareness and having community members demonstrate personal investment gives officials political protection, says Davis. When constituents show how lack of affordable housing affects them and their families, politicians can take action.

Community education also appeals to potential developers. One company that plans on redeveloping a major site within San Leandro’s downtown recently met with COR and community leaders to discuss including housing for working-class and low-income families, and affordable childcare in its project. Public education and involvement—beginning with one-on-ones and leading to public meetings—mean that the opposition that often arises in response to affordable housing developments may be prevented or moderated. COR-developer cooperation early on in the process helps COR to win affordable housing and services and the company to gain the community support it needs for its project.

On the ground, local organizing committee meetings allow leaders to practice articulating their needs and priorities among friends and other church members. COR organizers also meet with individual leaders to discuss the roles the leaders have played in local organizing committee meetings and research actions. Leaders are encouraged to conduct one-on-ones and to participate in other campaigns and actions.

Dan Martinez has become much more politically aware since joining COR, he says. Last fall he worked a phone bank for Prop. 86, which would have levied an additional tax on cigarettes. One man he called was smoking at the time, but said he would vote for the proposition anyway. It was heartening “to try to get people involved in the community in that way, by their vote.”

Martinez wouldn’t call himself a leader, though he puts in three to four days a week during especially active campaign times and speaks at COR meetings with city councilmembers. He’s only been involved with COR for eight months, he explains.
By other standards, though, Martinez may be a leader. Deacon Davis believes that a community leader is someone “who brings information to people… with a life experience, so that when people hear them speak, they see their own history.” By speaking out at public hearings and in small group conversations with San Leandro’s decision-makers, Martinez has already helped convince individuals of the need for affordable housing. The Mayor’s testimony and Citizen Advisory Committee endoresement of stronger language supporting affordable housing in the downtown Specific Plan is evidence enough. 

Cara Bertron is an environmental consultant and former intern for Race Poverty and the Environment. 

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SAJE Learnings Defining the Issues and Demystifying Jargon

Popular education breaks down seemingly complex information by connecting it to peoples’ life experience, so that everyone can understand it. Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE), an economic justice and community development center in Los Angeles, has been building economic power for working class people since 1996, using a variety of such popular education tools.

SAJE used popular education with the Figueroa Corridor Coalition for Economic Justice to negotiate the nation’s most comprehensive community benefits agreement with the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The agreement, signed in 2001, requires the developers to include affordable housing, living wage jobs, local hiring, and parks, in their $1 billion, four million square foot sports and entertainment district. With large print maps and interactive community games, SAJE facilitated the construction of a grounded lively narrative. “Popular education allowed us to build a common analysis and campaign around who the developers coming into our community were, what they were doing and why,” explains Davin Corona, organizing director at SAJE.

Land use planning, redevelopment, and housing issues present perfect raw material for popular education. Community members intimately experience the impacts of these policy decisions every day, and are uniquely poised to take action. SAJE recently hosted a community “planning school session.” Participants took a look at new planning areas in downtown Los Angeles—prime spots for gentrification—and demystified the arcane operations of the city’s planning department. “We used a Spanish game similar to Jeopardy—‘Quien personas dicen’,” explains Davin. “Although it might seem a little cheesy, folks had a great time. The way we framed the session created space for people to put themselves out there!”

Like most popular education tools, the game helped to demystify jargon and break down language barriers, and encouraged people to move past their fears of public presentation towards hands-on advocacy.

Interactive Information
SAJE’s popular education process starts with monthly tenant leadership committees, where residents of a neighborhood identify the hottest topics that they want to focus on. After initial research and brainstorming, SAJE staffers bring their ideas back to the tenants and work with core leaders on the design, development, and use of the appropriate training tools. While there may be some audience-specific nuances, the overall effectiveness of “social change through popular education” holds true, no matter who SAJE works with. And “popular education” could range from something as simple as teaching groups to form meeting circles and set agendas, to building an environment where knowledge is created as a team.

Standard schooling teaches one form of learning, but does not take into account the significance of human experience and emotions. Whereas, popular education helps you tell the compelling story that will not only be heard, but will move people to action.

“Let’s face it: we’re the MTV generation, and the audience wants real, interactive information now!” says Davin. “Here at SAJE, we get folks to define the issues for themselves because they are the ones experiencing it.”

 Connie Galambos is the Social Equity Caucus coordinator at Urban Habitat.

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Poverty Scholarship


There are many things this poverty scholar can teach you—but in reality, no more or less than any of the poverty scholars you see, or more than likely don’t see, everyday. Homeless families, poor youth of color, migrant workers, panhandlers, sex workers; sitting, dwelling, camping, soliciting work, convening. I am them, they are me.

We are in a revolutionary struggle to not be lied about, incarcerated, mythologized, and misconstrued; to be truly heard and recognized for the deep scholarship we all hold; to survive while battling the looming jaws of poverty, the criminal injustice system, the police, the welfare system, and the gentrifying landlords.

But the one thing this poverty scholar must teach you is to re-think your notions of scholarship itself. Who is considered a great scholar? How is scholarship attained? How is greatness honored? And with what tools do we assess this canon?

At POOR Magazine we have a radical concept of scholarship: who deserves it, how it is attained, and how it is used. This scholarship has a new canon, with new designations for greatness. Survival itself, through extreme poverty and crisis, houselessness, racism, disability, and welfare, to name a few, are what you need to qualify for poverty scholarship.

Conversely, a person who is formally educated with a Master’s Degree and no poverty scholarship would be considered inexperienced and therefore, should not be writing, lecturing, or legislating for and about communities in poverty. The formally understood “signs” of scholarship, such as writing, researching, critiquing, publishing, require inherent privilege. These signs afford people an ability to be heard and recognized. Personal Journey.

My personal journey out of poverty, homelessness, and a life of marginalized otherness led me to identify this new definition of scholarship. Exposed to the revolutionary writings of Trinh Minh, I began to understand the privilege of thinking and writing itself. This was my truth, my struggle. I was a homeless child who had to drop out of school in the sixth grade to support my family; I did not have time away from earning a loaf of bread. More importantly, I did not have the privilege of knowing what I would be doing from one moment to the next. Had it not been for the innovative intervention of a civil rights attorney who converted my several thousand dollars of fines and jail time for being homeless, into a community service assignment writing about my life, I would not have been able to express my ideas, my solutions, and my poverty scholarship. As a result, I was afforded the privilege to establish my vocation as a writer, turning my unrecognized street scholarship, which all poverty scholars possess, into a documented, understood, and “heard” tract.


POOR’s Methodology
In the first year of our organization, we developed the notion of poverty scholarship, which was inducted into POOR’s core practices with the clear realization that poor folk had to flip the power of media, voice, and authorship. Poor people are inherently denied a voice in the media, the creation of legislation, and academic scholarship. Consequently, it became POOR’s goal to listen, conceive of policy, and reassign authorship to folks on the frontline of poverty and racism. In our formal workshops and leadership meetings, we established our radical notions of poverty journalism.

We also decided that poverty journalism must include an attempt at solutions. For example, in the Homefullness issue of POOR (Volume 1), we discussed the problems that poor folks have staying housed as a result of gentrification, displacement, and crisis. The solution developed by the poverty scholars was to address those obstacles, along with the danger of isolation, and disenfranchisement. Understanding the strength of the “village” and the importance of equity to create long-term economic self-sufficiency, we proposed a sweat equity cohousing project. And using a small slice of the Arts Commission grant, we realized the idea in a small apartment in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

In the year leading up to the release of the Hellthcare issue, we conducted a series of six-month-long workshops with very low income youth, age 12 to 17, who were interned in group homes and closed mental health placements. We launched a formal collaboration with a Bay Area agency that ran locked placements and schools inside and outside the public school system for severely emotionally disturbed youth. Unlike our previous workshops for youth, these spanned a semester and included a series of literacy exercises that tied in with the kids’ curriculum and were part of their school day.

At this point, we instituted POOR’S multi-generational learning and scholarship model. Our belief was that all members of the community needed to learn, grow, resist, and heal together, overcoming our collective experiences of broken school systems and/or broken or disempowered families that had been impacted or destroyed by the crime of poverty and or racism. Each workshop included a media literacy and social justice component that questioned the unjust society of haves and have-nots, raising awareness of the system that most of these youth were caught in, and the mythologies of capitalism that they were being spoon-fed by the corporate media on a daily basis. We integrated hip hop, spoken word, and grafitti into every lesson, redefining what journalism and art are, and could be, talking about how some of the best are on the walls of our neighborhoods, and in rhymes and raps. As Eduardo Galeano has so eloquently said, “The walls are the publishers of the poor.”

“Who do you think makes your shoes? Do you think the workers at Nike are getting paid fairly?” These questions would open the discussions, inevitably leading to a critique of media messages and corporate product-pushing, opening the students’ minds to other forms of survival and success.

“Who Would Call Themselves Poor?”
Perhaps the most important thing we dealt with was the shame inherent in the life of a poor kid. A shame so powerful that a kid would shoplift or take part in some form of unsafe underground economy just to attain the right shoes. A shame that would make a kid lie about being homeless, so they would not be “the homeless kid” in their school. We created a safe space for kids who had been the abused and the abusers, who had bullied and been bullied, and who were so confused about who to be and what to be. After an intensive discussion, we proceeded to create a series of images and stories that paralleled what the adult participants of POOR were digging into.

We asked them to describe through image and story what “poor” is. Most of them described everything but themselves. Everyone who had experienced poverty was everyone else; this is oddly like adults, never realizing their own colonization, always finding it easier to act as though it’s happening to someone else. Those stories opened up the discussion further into more specific explorations of the issues we were dealing with. For example, how was their mother or father treated when they tried to get medical help at a county emergency room?

In another class we asked the question: What is “work”? This led to a fascinating examination of underground economies and economic survival through alternative means. The kids knew very well that if you had to live on welfare you would need to do some kind of “alternative” work.

The youth aced POOR’S empathy exercise, one that college students are routinely stumped by, a two-part question that asks, “What has been your worst financial crisis?” We then set up a virtually impossible scenario, one faced by most very low income parents: You are a single parent with three children aged one, three, and five. You just acquired employment, which was very difficult for you to obtain because you have no high school diploma and it’s a very competitive job market. It’s a 40-hour-a-week job but you can only get childcare for 15 hours a week. This means you will only end up with enough money to cover the cost of your childcare and utilities, but not enough for rent. What would you do?

“There is no ‘legitimate’ solution,” the kids would immediately blurt out at every version of that quiz. “The only thing that mama can do is something that isn’t legal or ‘acceptable.’” The kids were poverty scholars and survivors. They had been there with their poor parents, making those impossible choices, diving into that vicious cycle. They knew that you did what you had to do to feed yourself and your children, and that might mean committing crimes of poverty. That year-and-a-half of workshops inspired me, terrified me, and brought me to endless tears. These kids needed us there for a lot longer, but the limited funding we’d gotten from a grant for the workshops ran out, and we had no money to stay on for free. In our last group of classes, they each gave us a book with their pictures, and pages filled with promises to keep on writing, resisting, and caring for their communities and families.

The process of true integration, true recognition of poverty scholarship occurs in many ways. In media production, it means a through-line of involvement of the process and the ownership of a story. A story on homelessness in Alameda County should be co-authored by homeless poverty scholars in Alameda County. In service provision, it would mean that community-based, poverty, race, and disability scholarship would lead the discussion on service provision, school, and healthcare systems. Solutions that truly “serve” folks, like schools that truly integrate families and community, would be proffered and established rather than 1.2 million dollar poverty pimp programs, county hospitals, and No Child Left Alive. In activism, it means the understanding that poverty, race, disability, elder, and youth scholars must lead the resistance movements against globalization, environmental racism, and economic justice. These movements must come from and speak to the direct experience. In academia, it means that truly grassroots poverty scholars are integrated into teaching and learning. Community models of teaching and learning are recognized, and poverty, native, youth, and elder scholars are credited for the teaching they are already doing in the community and neighborhoods with poor communities of color.

Tiny a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia is co-founder of POOR Magazine and author of Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America. 

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

Community Newsroom Turns the Microphone Around


During the U.S. Social Forum (USSF) in Atlanta, June 27-July 1, San Francisco-based Poor News Network (PNN) ran the Community Newsroom, a popular education project that aimed to “turn the microphone around.” Poor and disenfranchised people, who are usually media subjects rather than producers, got the chance to frame and report stories and post them to a blog on the USSF web site.

In the community newsroom we begin with introductions. We talk about where we come from, what privilege and experience we bring to the table. We have to own the “I” behind the reporting eye.

Marcy Rein: I grew up with the privileges of white skin, economic security, and an upscale education. Even as a teenager, I knew that privilege makes blinders, and I itched to know the world beyond my quiet corner of upstate New York. I crisscrossed the country by bus, and listened to countless strangers’ stories. My first preparation for journalism came from “Greyhound U.” And you have to know how hard this is to write, how Laure kept saying, “But what about you?”

Laure McElroy: This is how we do it at POOR; using the “I,” the first person, we centerpiece our own knowledge. We choose to use who we are and what we’ve personally experienced as both, the keystone narrative for any story we write, as well as the lens through which we interpret it. We believe that doing this is the best way to be honest about where one’s point of view is coming from, and that the journalistic cult of the third person in this country is not objective at all, but rife with hidden, mostly privileged bias.

Rein: At the June 30 newsroom, we take our place in a large and growing circle of folks sitting on the floor and in chairs in a corner of the mezzanine of the Atlanta Civic Center auditorium. PNN buys pizza for newsroom participants, so people help themselves to fat slices and begin introductions with the subdued din of other conversations and workshops all around.

McElroy: The Ida B. Wells Media Justice center at the USSF was proposed by POOR. Our vision was to create a space for non-hierarchical story generation, print, radio, or blog. The USSF seemed like the perfect place to model a setup for media creation that was not elitist and that did not reflect mainstream hegemonies—powerful interviewer/passive interviewee; outsider writer who interprets event; “expert” outsiders who provide “facts”; and actual event participants or those affected by event, relegated to pictures to give the article “color”—with its power relationships.

Rein: At the newsroom on this day, we have the San Francisco Bay Area, Atlanta, New Orleans, Miami, Nashville, Portland, and Olympia in the house. We’re Latino/a, African-American, Native American, and white, and range in age from 20 something to 50-plus. With our introductions over, PNN Project Director Lisa Gray-Garcia (a.k.a Tiny) opens the floor for story ideas.

“We need to seize the media in a lot of different ways,” she says. “This is the third day of the community newsroom and we believe the revolution will be televised and it will be our TV. Things that happen to us or people we know, things we witness and deal with, they’re all news.

“We need to connect the global-local poverty dots: poverty, race, disability, border fascism, criminalization, youth injustice, gentrification, indigenous resistance, and police brutality in Atlanta,” she says.

McElroy: We needed a room that was big enough to have our Community Newsroom, with the actual community of Atlanta involved. People like the residents of the inner city housing project that is about to be destroyed to make way for privatized “mixed use” (read: not for the poor) housing; people like the houseless folk and workers from the Task Force Shelter in Midtown Atlanta.

Rein: Despite the challenges, today the newsroom seems to be accomplishing its mission. One of the participants from San Francisco starts talking about the massive redevelopment project on the site of the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Residents know the site to be heavily contaminated with asbestos and other toxics.

Redevelopment, gentrification, and displacement have hit several in the circle.

“Land is the new gold in Miami,” one person says. She talks about the project that tricked 850 low-income people into moving out of their public housing in the Liberty City community—and how the community organized to get replacement housing for them. Another notes that New Orleans faced the same loss of public housing as Miami—before authorities used Katrina as an excuse for mass displacement of poor and African-American residents.

A third talks about Atlanta.
“This is the number one foreclosure city,” she says. “Everyone lives two paychecks away from losing their homes.”

‘McMansions’ going up next to small bungalows raise the property tax assessments for everything on the street, and threaten to make whole areas unaffordable.Loss of public healthcare also threatens many of those present. Atlanta residents face the closure of Grady Hospital, the only one that treats the uninsured and homeless. People in Nashville, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia are in the same boat, one man says.

In true popular-education fashion, people see large social patterns emerge from their own lived experiences—and they learn by doing. Once all the story ideas are on the table, Gray-Garcia asks for volunteers with more media skills to collaborate with participants newer to news production.

Also in the popular education tradition, participants move from understanding to action.

Gary Spotted Wolf, talking about how land theft displaced the indigenous people of this country, proposes a symbolic action. He wants to buy back the land under Atlanta’s huge Fort McPherson for the same price the white settlers paid for it: a bottle of whiskey. Participants decide to hold the closing session of the Community Newsroom the next morning at Fort McPherson.

McElroy: It didn’t work nearly as well as it should have or could have. We needed a space big enough for the houseless folk who, by city ordinance, can be arrested simply for being anywhere within a five block radius of the Civic Center, to tell their stories, working with a POOR trained writing facilitator.

Rein: Popular education has intrigued me for years. It has baffled me too, though I have read about it and talked to people who do it and tried to adapt its methods in my organizing work. After sitting in the Community Newsroom and then talking about this piece with Laure, Cheli, and Teresa, I got it in a whole new way. I walked away from our conversation with my head exploding.

“Even the middle class among you are not secure,” Laure said in the Welfare Queenz performance. Contradictions seep into the Forum itself: the Media Justice Center sitting down the stairs and around the corner, rather than in the Task Force on Homelessness. Tight security not letting people in without their tags, security that came down on one of the panelists even. Not letting people in who get the butt end of all the troubles we’re talking about and haven’t yet started organizing. Any effective pop ed project calls out social relations. The poverty scholars working in the Community Newsroom challenge us to think about these.

Marcy Rein covered the USSF for the AFL-CIO and is a communication specialist at the ILWU.
Laure McElroy is a Poor News Network journalist, poverty scholar, and teacher at POOR's Race, Poverty and Media Justice Institute.

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

Youth Media and Popular Education: Change from Within


All I have to say is that if you end up with a staph infection, please, please don’t scratch, pick, or peel at the scabs and bumps! It’s transferable to other people, so don’t be a jerk and pass it on.” Penguin is a San Francisco homeless youth who is trying to prevent the spread of staph infection. Health information is scarce on the streets; resources and services, even more so. Often, information from fellow homeless youth is the only way to learn about something.

Getting the word out to youth about health issues is only one aspect of several Bay Area programs that focus on providing media access to local youth and others excluded from traditional media channels. Roaddawgz concentrates on homeless youth, the First Voice Apprenticeship program at KPFA provides access for women and people of color, and Youth Radio is geared towards high school students.

Roaddawgz Takes a Bite out of Homelessness
Started in 2003 as a safe space for exploring and bringing into the public forum the stories and ideas of homeless youth through writing, art, and multimedia, Roaddawgz today is a four-day-per-week drop-in center offering training in computers, creative and news writing, and digital media, to homeless youth.

Self-published zines, youth magazines, and the Roaddawgz website are used to publish participant works. These outlets, especially the website, not only bring the stories of the struggles of homeless youth to a greater public, they also serve as a network for friends and family to reconnect with young people they have lost touch with, “if they want to be found,” says Machiko Saito, Roaddawgz Program Director.

Yet, far beyond any end result, Roaddawgz’s individualized education model focuses on each participant’s needs in the immediate present.

“Roaddawgz is the only place I have where I feel comfortable enough to get something done. There is no time limit, no due date, and no teacher standing over me and telling me that it has to be one way or another,” says one participant.
“There was a day last year that I really wanted to get high,” adds Jade, another participant, “instead, I ended up sitting at a computer at Roaddawgz writing about how I felt. Halfway through writing about how much and why I wanted to get high, I felt the chaos inside me leave and I no longer felt the desire to use.”

Choices like these most homeless youth don’t have when living on the streets.

Sickboy, another homeless youth, writes, “[Roaddawgz is] a place where we can be comfortable enough to create all those dreams we get told to forget, all the fantasies about adventure and excitement; we can live them, make our dreams solid concrete reality with enough determination and stamina.”

Empowering this population can inspire creativity, believes Saito. The creative process of articulating their stories becomes for them a way of helping themselves and changing their situations. This is confirmed by Donovan, who says: “I’ve been coming to Roaddawgz since I was homeless back in the winter of 2005. Since then, I’ve gotten a job and an apartment, but I still come here frequently for several reasons.”

Roaddawgz welcomes all homeless youth, regardless of background. In other settings, this would inevitably spawn tensions but Roaddawgz has never had any problems—with violence or otherwise—within the group.

“Even though [these] people are considered to have the same identity because they’re homeless youth, [in reality] we have such an eclectic group that represents all [the] diversity in society,” says Saito. Building a grassroots community of tolerance and respect has been a main focus of the program and perhaps its most effective and tangible contribution to the young residents of the streets.

Many Find a New Voice at First Voice
The grassroots community-building process seen at Roaddawgz finds a parallel at KPFA’s First Voice Apprenticeship program started in 1985 to give people of color and women a voice in the media.

Jessica Johnson, a 20-year-old program participant, says, “First Voice invites people to engage in a dialogue that is not sprinkled from the top down by the media. This is from the ground up. We are creating news and sharing experiences.”
More structured than Roaddawgz’s educational model, First Voice’s 18-month program encourages self-exploration and critical thinking, providing participants with the training to become strong media producers and civic journalists in their own communities. This creates a ripple effect as the consciousness and critical thinking developed by each participant is shared with the community.

Three times a year, First Voice holds an open house during its weekly program, Full Circle, at which community members are invited to join a roundtable discussion on current issues.

Beyond its effect on the greater community, First Voice also seeks to have an impact on KPFA and has challenged the internal system to ensure that the apprentices have a long-term presence at KPFA.

According to Rainjita Yang-Geesler, program co-director, “There are elders here who [should] have the ability and skills to pass down knowledge, and create space for the fresh talent and voices emerging from the apprenticeship program. After 25 years, this is not happening, so we [First Voice] are now moving in a new direction for economic self determination.”

A Teen’s Best Friend
Youth Radio’s Denise Tejada is only 18 but she has been producing media for four years. Last year, she won the Mission Cultural Center Film Festival’s Best Youth Producer award for her video letter to the mayor from a San Francisco Mission District girl’s program. When accepting the award, she spoke about the ability to share her skills with others.

“When I was 14, I was someone who had so much to say. I was lucky because I found a place I could express myself. It was almost like a weight was lifted from me. Now, I feel that I can give a voice to those who are not being heard.”

Although each youth media education program is different in terms of approach and the population served, they all do provide a space where youth are valued and their voices cultivated. Most often, the youth that enter these programs are not the youth that walk out into the world—confident, skilled, and motivated.

Says Tejada, “[Now] I really understand what the saying, ‘hard work pays off’ means. I now have so many opportunities in front of me. I am really excited about what’s out there and what’s next.”

Samantha Calamari is a freelance journalist recently re-located to New York City. 

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

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Classrooms in Community

The Critical Classroom

If we want transformative classrooms to help movement-building to resist the corporate university, how shall we approach this work as educators? Revolutionary theory is a tool for transformation, but to make it mass-based, popular education is necessary.

People can come to analysis and theory through different paths. Some come through studying social and political theory in the academy. Others come through the social struggle itself and the need to have the wisdom of past generations. The existing body of theory and the reflection process are located in the particularity of the group’s experience. The people themselves are developing their collective analysis and leadership. They make the change.

In locating intellectual and political practice in the university setting, the critical classroom is a necessary site of struggle. In this context, there is no such thing as the neutral classroom or objective professor. This is an important point. Students and teachers are conditioned to think that the texts, the writers, the experts are “objective and unbiased.” Those of us with an oppositional viewpoint are treated as “subjective and biased.” Many decades of objective knowledge have been critiqued in the sciences and social sciences. But this way of thinking still persists.

Those involved in transforming the curriculum understood that knowledge is situated. Power, interests, and particularity structure our understanding of the world. For example, the English canon was decided by an elite group of white men at Ivy League institutions.

The critical classroom is a space where activists, scholars, and students co-create knowledge for working toward social transformation. It is also a space where we draw upon the knowledge and histories of communities in struggle. The voices of those in struggle do matter. For example, we would teach Mumia Abu Jamal in a criminal justice course, or Ida Wells-Barnett in a course on black history or women’s history. But the point is how this knowledge and these ideas are used, not just that they are used. Are they being used to challenge traditional assumptions as an oppositional force? Are they being used to center discussion and analysis around movement-building?

Relationship-building between scholars and students and the broader community is also essential for scholar activists. Each organization has its own mission and purpose, and professors sending their students into the community need to understand each organization’s goals.

Today, the language of the university speaks about community engagement, service learning, and community-university partnerships,  i.e., the public university. This language and the practice that informs it are profoundly and intentionally flawed. This is driven by a history of universities exploiting historically marginalized communities through both, research “on” these communities and by geoexpansionism into these communities.

In the service learning model in its most vulgar form, professors can get by without having a relationship with the communities where their students are supposedly “helping,” though some faculty do bring in some analysis of why these communities are in need.

But faculty should not be deluded that by doing this alone these communities will be transformed. At its best, this can contribute to critical consciousness-raising.

If we don’t struggle around the difficult and messy relationships between the academy and the community, we cannot build a movement that scholar activists are a part of. This cannot happen unless scholar activists go into spaces that are community and movement-building and make the commitment to listen first, to recognize and accept the leadership of the community, and to be there for the long haul.

A lot of the internalized oppression among historically marginalized communities plays out as deference to “experts.” The most accessible model we have is to be like the oppressor. Scholars have to resist this trap and its privileges of class, race, nationality, and gender.


Liberatory Learning and Teaching
We offer a theory and practice of liberatory learning and teaching, which is democratic and rooted in the ongoing struggle. It is based on shared power and equality and the transformation of society and the world. The philosophical and theoretical underpinnings are dialectical and historical materialism. Theory and practice are united in the production of knowledge and other forms of consciousness grounded in people’s lived experience and the organization of social life to meet human needs. History is the unfolding of human agency, especially of those most marginalized, to create another world.

This historic moment of renewed social struggle compels us to re-center our curricula, syllabi, and pedagogies around movement-building. This means building community change beyond service learning. Relationships and partnerships between scholar activists and grassroots activists and organizations must be nurtured over the long haul. They will be grounded in trust and shared power and resources. Indigenous knowledge and community-based knowledge will exist in a catalytic relationship with scholar-based knowledge—with keen attention to language, framing, presuppositions, discourse, and the matrix of power of current understanding. The dynamics of the classroom must generate student agency. Facilitation and engagement, peer evaluation, lived experience, and a dialogical teacher-learner/learner-teacher process will be the reality.

This article is excerpted from the Project South Critical Classroom Toolkit, which is available for purchase at:

 Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty and Genocide is a leadership development organization based in the Southern United States.

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The Corporate University

The university is a microcosm of the larger society. The domination of corporate interests in the larger society and global economy is expressed in today’s corporate university. While there has always been an interrelationship between corporations and the university, under current conditions there is a weakening of the idea that the university is a space independent of the economy and that university actors (faculty, administrators, boards of trustees, etc.) are autonomous. Some of the main features of today’s corporate university are the merger of corporate interests with intellectual production in the university—making intellectual production property that corporations can appropriate and use to make profits. We see this in corporate funding of laboratory research, especially in the sciences, e.g., the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. In the social sciences and humanities they are considering claiming ownership and copyright of all written materials produced. Government officials and corporate representatives often sit on boards of trustees to consolidate this relationship. Fewer and fewer progressive foundations today even fund liberal scholarship.

The American Association of University Professors reports that the percent of full-time tenured faculty has fallen from about 37 percent in 1975 to 24 percent in 2003. Overall, tenure-track faculty have dropped substantially, from 57 percent in 1975 to 35 percent in 2003. In contrast, the percent of full-time, non-tenure-track faculty has increased from 13 percent in 1975, to 19 percent in 2003, while the percent of part-time faculty has gone from 30 percent in 1975, to 46 percent in 2003.

This makes for a total percent of contingent faculty at 43 percent in 1975 and at 65 percent in 2003.

Clearly, more than half of all faculty today are in the contingent category.

The corporate university, like its business counterpart, embodies a business model of rigid hierarchy and centralization, so-called cost-effective programming, and paying for services. This erodes the jobs, wages, and working conditions of university workers—from faculty to janitors. For faculty, this means fewer full-time tenure track positions and extensive use of graduate assistants and contingent faculty (adjuncts, part-time instructors, year-to-year appointments). These contingent faculty have no job security, few if any benefits, and lower wages. All faculty face larger classes with less support.2

Research universities look to faculty grants that need to be bigger with larger overheads to fund the university. Faculty who fail to do these things often do not get tenure to begin with; and if they have tenure, they are subject to post-tenure review with criticism and static salaries. This is academic speedup with no support—we are expected to do more and more work with less and less support. Support staff, from administrative staff to electricians and janitors, also face speed-up–doing more with less. Unions on campuses are fighting for their survival and fewer university workers in any job are unionized.
In some universities, there are preferential purchasing agreements between the university and the state prison system to buy equipment and supplies made by prison workers, predominantly men of color. The prison industrial complex meets the university.3

The corporate university increasingly denies access to students by multiple means possible. Soaring tuition costs and higher and higher admission criteria are the most obvious means. Once students are there, they find that the quality of the educational experience is deteriorating, especially for students of color and poor and working-class students. Whether students graduate or not, they are shouldering huge debt with high interest and a short time to pay it off.

Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

Hands-on learning at U.C. Berkley Labor Center

The UC Berkeley Labor Center has been offering training and education programs to labor unions and community groups in California since 1964. Although the Labor Center is based at a university, its educational philosophy is more rooted in the interactive, popular education model developed at places like the Highlander Center, than the pedagogical model typically found on university campuses.

“We did quite a few case studies and we also did exercises in modeling leadership, where everybody got a chance to be up front, either leading the exercise or reporting out,” says Blake Huntsman, a worksite organizer for SEIU Local 1021, who attended the Labor Center’s C.L. Dellums African American Union Leadership School. “It’s important that people are challenged to actually do some of the work. It was real hands-on interactive training, not just having folks come together and listen to the ‘experts.’’’

Labor training programs often emphasize nuts and bolts skills like contract negotiations, arbitration, and handling grievances. While these skills are critical, the Labor Center’s programs are more focused on leadership development—helping union activists become visionary leaders who can step back from their busy daily schedules, analyze the larger political, social, and economic context in which they’re working, and create strategic and effective campaign plans.

The Labor Center’s trainings typically start with an intensive first session that’s about a week long and covers such topics as power structure analysis, strategic planning, organizing, and coalition building. After the week-long intensive, students are encouraged to attend periodic follow-up sessions throughout the next year at which they evaluate the progress they’ve made since the first training session, and re-work their strategic plans. Through the follow-up sessions, the Labor Center hopes to create a network of peers for its students, who can provide each other with support and feedback as they try to implement new types of leadership in their unions.

“One important teaching technique we use is to ask students to come in with projects,” said Steven Pitts, a labor policy specialist who has been a trainer for the Labor Center’s leadership development program since 2001. “They’re able to apply the tools we teach them, to projects they’re currently working on, which many students say has helped them in their work.”

The Labor Center also uses teaching techniques that help students relate to groups of people they may feel like they can’t identify with. For example, Pitts has instituted a module on immigration that helps African Americans understand their own migration experiences. In one exercise, the students create a timeline that displays the dates of their own migration to California, as well as the dates of major African American migrations in the United States, like the migration of Blacks to California after World War II. As the students talk about their own families’ reasons for migrating—be they to escape violence and social restrictions in the South, or to seek better paying jobs in urban areas—they learn that their own experiences may not be as different from the experiences of Latino immigrants as they might have thought.

As this article goes to press, the Labor Center’s funding is under threat from Republicans in the California State Senate who object to the very idea of a training and education program for labor unions. While training business leaders at institutions like U.C. Berkeley’s Haas School of Business is considered standard academic fare, training for labor unions—especially using popular education techniques—is considered a threat to the state of California. 

Andrea Buffa is a communications specialist at the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center. 

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

Y-PLAN: Teaches Youth Why and How to Plan

In the spring of 2006, a class of ninth graders at Emery Secondary School in Emeryville, California, did an assessment of their community’s needs and assets, then developed a vision for programming and building a school-based community wellness center.

Ninth grade?

Yes. Local high school students have been helping the city of Emeryville envision a place where youth can participate in important decisions about how their community is designed and operated. These students are participating in a model of youth engagement in city planning—called the Y-PLAN (Youth–Plan, Learn, Act, Now)—which uses the redevelopment of urban spaces as a catalyst for community revitalization and education reform.

“Instead of simply talking about our government, students were actually sitting in City Hall, a place that they should be able to see themselves in some day,” says Emery Secondary School teacher, Max Monroy-Miller.

A Plan for Positive Community Planning
The Y-PLAN, established in 2000, is based at the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Cities & Schools. Y-PLAN facilitates positive community outcomes by partnering university “mentors,” local high school students, and teachers, with government agencies, private interests, and other community organizations to work on real-world planning issues. Past projects have included proposals to redesign an abandoned park in West Oakland (2004) and the redevelopment of the historic West Oakland Train Station (2005). The Y-PLAN is a pedagogical and professional development tool, as well as a planning studio that addresses specific issues in local communities.

Success of the Y-PLAN depends on its meeting the following three conditions1:
1.    City and school leaders, professional planners, elected representatives, and city residents must work with students on authentic problems. All of the participants—young and old, professional and student—must focus on a real planning challenge in their community and work together to create a “community of practice.”2
2.    Adults must share decision-making with young people, giving them a meaningful role in the outcomes of the projects.
3.    Projects must be successful for the students and institutions involved, in order to promote the sustainability of student-driven redevelopment projects.

The Y-PLAN provides an opportunity for project-based learning in classrooms and challenges professional planners to explain what they do in youth-accessible terms. How do current planning practices limit the involvement of youth, families, and schools? What are the alternatives?

When Emery Secondary School students presented their proposals for the Center of Community Life and the Family Resource Center—a school-based community wellness center—to the Emeryville City Council, they learned a valuable lesson about the political and financial dimensions of city planning.


Emeryville Gives Y-PLAN a Serious Chance
Y-PLAN 2007 built on the work done in Y-PLAN 2006 and for 10 weeks this spring, ninth and tenth graders at Emery grappled with the questions posed by school and city leaders, State Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, and the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG). Students expanded their thinking on the planning of the two centers after further community-based research, and in coordination with other regional planning projects.3 With help from their U.C. Berkeley mentors, students explored the connections between regional planning and local issues. In accordance with the Emeryville General Plan Update, they addressed client-driven questions in a local context, and developed strategies for accessible community spaces, housing opportunities, and a vibrant street-life. Finally, they created a presentation for the city council, detailing their experiences and visions, and a proposal for implementation of their plans. In the process, the students were able to hone their skills in data collection, critical thinking, and public speaking.

Emery Social Studies Department Chair Ruth Mathis sees the Y-PLAN as a way “to give real opportunities to students to actively engage with themes, such as the creation of democracy, conflict and revolution, and social justice.” Mathis integrates Y-PLAN into her curriculum to meet “the needs of a diverse population and to create active, engaged, and socially conscious citizens.”

Students made their final presentation to the Emeryville City Council, school leaders, and their families in May 2007. They emphasized their critical analyses of race/class disparities between the city and school districts, and articulated actionable items for themselves, their teachers, the city council, and the planning department. Students also requested affordable housing in Emeryville for their families and increased safety through better street lighting and secure fences. They asserted their willingness to contribute to the General Plan Update Process, and asked council members to identify other ways in which they could contribute to the decision-making process in Emeryville.

Mathis reiterated the students’ analyses and asked the council members to address these two questions:
1.    How can Emeryville create real spaces for diverse young people to participate in the decision-making processes?
2.    Is Emeryville ready to do the necessary work of dismantling the social and economic inequities identified by the students?


Y-PLAN Creates Hope and Cautious Optimism
Various working committees across Emeryville are grappling with the issues raised by the Emery Secondary School students. Recently, the City/School Committee, a joint group that includes members of the city council and the school board, and the General Plan Update Steering Committee added student representatives to their committees. As Miguel Dwin, a member of the steering committee and the school board put it, “As leaders in this community, we have the chance to develop a model to bring students to the table and to let this sector of our community, [which] is rarely heard, be a part of the decision-making.”
Y-PLAN students are cautiously optimistic about their ideas being integrated into city plans. At the same time, they continue to ask difficult questions about next steps, opportunities for input, and the sustainability of their vision. On an individual level, the Y-PLAN provided opportunities for students to explore alternative careers and reframed the possibilities for a post-secondary education. Many have been inspired to improve their grades and explore two- and four-year colleges. “The past semester has shaped me for college,” claims one student, while another maintains that the Y-PLAN “made me more focused on my future career. Now, I… really want to go to college and be somebody.”

At the mentoring end, the Y-PLAN has fostered new thinking among U.C. Berkeley students in the areas of city planning, architecture, and education. The intensity of working on the Y-PLAN—dealing with professionals, learning the dynamics of classrooms, and connecting with diverse students—has also influenced their career trajectories. Pauline Lauterbach, who recently completed her master’s degree in city planning, crystallized the connection between teaching and planning: “By breaking down highly structured relationships between planners and the public, meaningful participation can be achieved, which engages participants and planners alike in shared learning and problem-solving.”

As of now, based on the work already accomplished under the Y-PLAN and the ongoing commitment of city leaders in Emeryville, U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Cities and Schools is developing a research agenda, technical assistance tools, and professional development strategies for youth participation in city planning. Emeryville will serve as a model as the Center expands its work with Assemblywoman Loni Hancock’s office, and with civic, school, and community-based partners in the region. Over the next few years, it will document and analyze the innovative and deep partnerships that bridge city planning and school district practices to meaningfully engage youth and school stakeholders across the region as part of its Youth, Schools, and Planning Initiative.

Ariel H. Bierbaum, MCP, is program manager and Deborah L. McKoy, Ph.D, is the founder and director of Collaborative Practice at the Center for Cities & Schools in the Institute of Urban and Regional Development at the University of California, Berkeley.  

1.    McKoy, Deborah L. and Vincent, Jeffrey. “Engaging Schools in Urban Revitalization: The Y-PLAN (Youth–Plan, Learn, Act, Now!),” Journal of Planning Education and Research, 2007, 26: 389-403.
2.     The concept “community of practice” is grounded in theories of situated learning, which assume that learning takes place in the context of social participation rather than solely in an individual mind. See: Lave, Jean and Wenger, Etienne, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1991) and Wenger, Etienne, “Communities of Practice: Learning as a Social System,” Systems Thinker, June 1998.
3.    Specifically, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock sought youth feedback on her “Destination: San Pablo Avenue” initiative: 

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

Student-Centered Education at Berkeley City College


As I take roll, noting that nearly a third of the class is absent, I scan the faces of my students. As usual, the international and immigrant students—representing Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Pakistan, Korea, China, Mexico, and Guatemala—are present. The rest are a diverse mix from Berkeley, Oakland, and the greater Bay Area.

But it’s Nancy and Alex who most embody the twin challenges I face as a community college instructor attempting to implement, insofar as the system will allow, the principles of popular education or critical pedagogy. Nancy is having greater difficulty learning the Standard dialect of English used in academia than either Kaman who is Thai or Daniel from Mexico. Alex is one of roughly half of my students who are African American and who have gotten  inadequate education in the public school system of California but who still hope to find their way to the other side of the tracks, through California’s community colleges.

Instruction in skills requires a focus on the text (and the “mechanics” of writing), while the development of critical thinking or “conscientization,” requires a focus on the macrocosmic context. While I attempt to implement popular education with these two aspects of my curriculum, like most instructors using this approach, I frequently find myself caught between student expectations and the limits of a system which seeks only to reproduce itself.

Formidable challenges confront the teacher who tries to forsake rote pedagogy in favor of developing consciousness and other creative routes to knowledge. My students’ expectations are created by the very system that oppresses them and are firmly established during the twelve or so years of education prior to my class. In that system, based on punishment and reward, creativity and critical thinking are unwanted interlopers. The teacher may invite students to attempt creative solutions to problems, but the students, almost universally, are only concerned about “good grades,” which implies giving a “correct,” rather than a “creative” answer. Not surprisingly, the “correct” answer is always the one which reaffirms the coercive system. So, an instructor’s first task in the liberation of his or her students, is to win them over to their own side.

All of my students believe that the power to improve their lives and the lives of their families is only available through the educational system—a belief propogated by a system that says that those who do not “succeed” have only themselves to blame. (Fully 75 percent of college students expect one day to become millionaires, according to a survey conducted by Ernst & Young.)1 The truth, of course, is that there is a systematic failure in education within the United States.

A recent San Francisco Chronicle front page story on the “No Child Left Behind” program shows that one third of California’s high school seniors neither gained skills to have meaningful work lives, nor received diplomas in 2006. The “education” agenda of the capitalist system too often leaves children and youth behind, offering people like Alex the option of going to future illegal wars, or working as near-slave labor in the prison-industrial complex. (Unemployment among black youth in Oakland is around 80 percent.)

Jenny Lowood, head of the English Department at Berkeley City College (BCC), has incorporated many aspects of Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” into the teaching process. Among them is the choice to use texts, such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, in her basic skills English class. I, too, have chosen not to use traditional textbooks and select my readings from websites, such as and, in addition to writings by Ehrenreich, Zinn, and others. One semester, my class spent several sessions uncovering the Bush administration’s lies about Iraq, then wrote critical essays based on the readings.

Predictably, reactions to the readings vary, depending on student background. Students of color tend to be aware of social inequalities and skeptical of government propaganda, whereas Caucasians are often surprised by the real history, the experience of low-wage workers, or the reasons for the war in Iraq. Even so, ignorance of particulars and the reasons behind the injustices tends to be fairly universal. But through the process of group discussions, clarity often emerges. And clarity of thought, as Orwell pointed out, is essential for clarity in writing.

Student-Centered Learning
Beyond the texts, a Freierian approach to education also means changing the directional flow usually set up in institutional models. “We call it ‘student-centered’ learning,” says Lowood, of the approach taken in BCC’s Writer’s Workshop.
The Workshop is a writing lab where students revise and finish papers for other classes. Although an instructor is present, the student assistants—many of whom have sharpened their own writing skills in that very workshop—are the real teachers. The curriculum, processes, and procedures of the lab were designed by the assistants and Lowood. Working from the premise that everyone has knowledge, or that “most people are intelligent,” as Lowood puts it, and that the aim of education is to build on and extend that knowledge, the workshop takes an inductive and Socratic approach. Rather than edit the papers, instructional assistants are encouraged to fill in gaps in knowledge, and ask critical and productive questions of the students. They push writers like Nancy and Alex to recognize their own wealth of knowledge and to find their own solutions to the problems in their papers whenever possible.

Although helpful in learning new skills, the critical approach does nothing to address the social and political structures of the system that may exclude the students from the very workplaces they are training for, or to change the system that recruits them to fight or support illegal wars. But inefficient and unreliable as it may be in undermining the system, critical education is one of the few legal instruments at hand for such a task.

Clifton Ross is a freelance writer and videographer who teaches at Berkeley City College. 

1.    Chronicle of Higher Education,

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

Seven-Year-Olds Lead A Strike


For over a decade I’ve been teaching my six-, seven-, and eight-year-old students to strike against me in the classroom. I drew the inspiration from “the Yummy Pizza company” labor unit1 and my own experience as a teacher and writer. Instead of producing pizzas, students at “Pepper Ink.” produce laminated bookmarks of the best poem they’ve written in a year-long study of the genre. This year, however, the experience took a different turn when one of our potential Pepper Ink. workers was forcibly removed from the school.

Students begin the year in my second grade two-way Spanish immersion class by comparing indigenous and first world points of view on the conquest of the Americas, go on to study Africa, women, and finally civil rights and labor heroes. They engage in internet and library research for their own books, questioning contradicting sources, and examining information critically. They sit in heterogeneous cooperative groups in which they rotate the job of teacher, who is to assist anyone needing help, if the group cannot. They can also file complaints in a box about one another’s abuse of power, including mine. From this process, my students develop a healthy sense of justice and participatory-style democracy. Students often refer to the Doug Minkler poster on our wall, which includes the slogan, “All of Us or None.”

In the initial days of Pepper Ink., students typically fill out skills preference surveys and job applications. Next, they interview for one of four positions in our bookmark factory: artist, color-er, glue-er, and inspector. Student observers coach one another on how to improve.

“I’m a good artist, only sometimes my mommy helps me and sometimes I don’t like to,” one child responded.
Hands went up immediately. “Just say you’re a good artist.”

Pepper Ink. workers are typically offered specific jobs and a contract to sign with the terms: bookmarks will be distributed to sell for $2; workers keep one dollar as pay, the other dollar is for class funds toward a party, prizes, or game. After a couple of days, I announce that Pepper Ink. has made, say, $20 towards the purchase of a classroom set of Legos, but now I want more for myself; workers will have to produce twice as much. This means no talking, no getting out of their seats. My supervisors are to issue warnings to violators of company rules and keep workers from striking. Grudgingly, students sign the new contract. Usually, a couple won’t hand it in. It then becomes wonderfully quiet on the floor as Pepper Ink. workers work diligently, silently, sullen-faced. The supervisors prance about, issuing yellow and red warnings, getting the workers increasingly annoyed with their peers’ abuse of power.

As lunch time approaches, I offer my supervisors an irresistible snack. Popcorn works well; my office microwave flooding the factory with the tantalizing aroma. Responses have ranged from outright defiance and strike threats to secret lunch meetings during which, something akin to a union is formed. With particularly well-behaved students like this year’s, I have to give workers hints, like reading Si Se Puede by Diana Cohn, about the Los Angeles Janitor’s strike, or encouraging them to engage in a tug of war with me over a jump rope in which they all have to join together to bring me down. One year, the students snuck into the classroom and made picket signs out of construction paper, masking tape, and poles made of linked markers or meter sticks. I’ve found it’s best to demote supervisors to a non-managerial position just as we go to lunch, so they will feel a sense of solidarity with workers, instead of terrorizing them into complacency, as nearly happened this year.

Once workers realize I’m powerless before their united action, they immediately overthrow all class rules. They scream until I surrender. After the class quiets down, I quickly explain that some rules exist to benefit the boss, the others, for the good of all. They ratify each rule anew, and have consistently thrown out the new contract as benefiting only their employer. This year, my second graders decided to rewrite the contract to exclude supervisors altogether, as well as specific job assignments. During the three miserable hours toiling under the contract which drove them to strike, they produced five quality bookmarks. Now, organizing their own labor, they produced twenty in the first half hour.

Deportation Hits the Classroom
This year the classroom project took a different turn since the family of one of our top “workers,” Gerardo Espinoza, was ordered deported by ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under the law, as a United States citizen, Gerardo could have stayed behind, but for all intents and purposes, he too was deported. My last day as his teacher was on Valentine’s Day.
In the week that followed his forced removal, I saw visible signs of trauma in my students similar to the kinds of fears I had heard expressed after the September 11 tragedy. They began having nightmares and even my Anglo students expressed fear that ICE would come for them next for having been friends with Gerardo and other Latinos.

Drawing on all the lessons I’d taught them based on my decade of work with California Poets in the Schools, the students wrote moving poems in Spanish about and for Gerardo. Then, with the help of John Oliver Simon’s Poetry Inside Out program, they translated them to English for Pepper Ink.’s bookmarks. The art work they produced for these colored, laminated bookmarks surpassed anything ever produced at Pepper Ink. I, in turn, wrote a letter trying to convince a judge to allow Gerardo to stay. My letter was translated into Spanish and was published in newspapers and circulated on the internet.

Before long, the story of Gerardo’s unjust disappearance, along with his older brothers Felipe and José, hit other media, including the San Francisco Chronicle. This fostered an outcry of community support. Aided largely by Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action and with the help of Le Conte Parent Teachers Association President Cary Sanders and the Berekely Federation of Teachers, we organized a large immigrant rights teach-in. Parents, teachers, labor activists, and city officials packed the Rosa Parks multi-purpose room. My students performed the poems they had read for Gerardo and recited quotes by Cesar Chávez and Rosa Parks.

We sold so many of their beautiful Pepper Ink. bookmarks that we raised 300 dollars for the Espinoza family. We raised yet more when two of my students joined me for a talk about Gerardo in honor of Cesar Chavez before a panel which included the Berkeley Mayor and labor leaders. I called the Espinozas with the good news. They seemed to take some solace in the fact that their tears have been the seeds germinating a reinvigorated immigrant rights movement in Berkeley.

Our teach-in and pressure from the community culminated in Berkeley’s strengthening its City of Refuge resolution, the teacher’s union approving a resolution to educate and protect immigrant school parents, and our raising over $1000 for Gerardo. Then Flavio Lacayo and Univisión came to our classroom to film a special on immigrants, which aired in July. Our collective statements on the television drove home to many the injustice of United States immigration policy.

On the last day of school, reminiscing about the year, Flynn Michael-Legg spoke up, almost in verse, to share his thoughts with the parents we had invited to join us in a farewell. “I feel powerful. Small doesn’t matter. Big doesn’t matter. Your voice matters. Birds can fly and so can I with my voice!”

Wounded Little Bird

You are deeply wounded
like a little bird falling
into the depths of water.
You can’t breathe.
You try to reach the surface to breathe
but can’t.
Poor little bird,
when are you going to fly and make a new rainbow
for me again?
When the water has swallowed you,
there will be no songs in my heart.
Poor little bird,
Please don’t forget me.

Little Angel

I met him as a silver sun shining with the stars.
I knew him furiously defending his family with love.
I knew him marching and fighting with his words.
I knew him like an upside down “u” with two dots inside
I knew him escaping from the guns of la Migra.
I knew him walking in a field without flowers.
I knew him playing like an angel,
flying without love nor peace.
I knew him crying at the border
because he wanted to be with his friends.
I knew him saying, “I am a wall of shade
the corn of a sick eagle.”
I knew him rising from the dark peel
which falls from the rising moon.
I knew him riding a horse holding
the flag of Cesar Chávez
I knew him united with the Latino race
fighting for our freedom. 

Margot Pepper is a Mexican-born writer. The poems above were created in Margot Pepper and Regina Maradiegue’s 2nd grade Spanish Immersion Class at Rosa Parks School. Poet Teachers: John Oliver Simon and Margot Pepper.

1.     “Yummy Pizza Company” written by Bill Morgan, Sam Frankel, Fred Glass, Phyllis Chiu, Tom Edminster, John McDowell, June McMahon,and Linda Tubach, a committee of the California Federation of Teachers. 

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Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

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I met him as a silver sun shining with the stars. I knew him furiously defending his family with love.


ACLU Northern California
39 Drumm Street
San Francisco, California 94111
(415) 621-2493

Books not Bars
Ella Baker Center
344 40th Street
Oakland, CA 94609
(510) 428-3939

Center for Cities and Schools,
Institute of Urban and Regional Development
316 Wurster Hall #1870
Berkeley, CA 94720-1870
(510) 642-1628

Coalition of Immokalee Workers
P. O. Box 603
Immokalee, FL 34143
(239) 657-8311

Congregations Organizing for Renewal
21455 Birch Street
Hayward, CA 94541
(510) 727-8833

Day Labor Program
474 Valencia Street, Suite 295
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 575-3500

(Servicios para una Educación Alternativa)
Calle Escuadrón 201, #203
Colonia Antiguo Aeropuerto
CP 68050, Oaxaca,
OAX, México
(951) 513-6023

Education not Incarceration
3280 Morcom Avenue
Oakland, CA 94619
(510) 868-1870

KPFA Radio
First Voice Apprenticeship
1929 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 848-6767

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
310 8th Street, Suite 303
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 465-1984

POOR Magazine
255 Ninth Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 836-6306

Project South
9 Gammon Ave.
Atlanta, Georgia 30315
(404) 622-0602

Public Advocates
131 Steuart Street, Suite 300
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 431-7430

Rethinking Schools
1001 E. Keefe Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53212
(414) 964-9646

275 9th Street
San Francisco, CA 94104
(415) 923-9085

Strategic Actions for a Just Economy
152 W. 32nd Street Los Angeles, CA 90007
(213) 745-9961

School of Unity and Liberation
287 17th Street, Suite 225Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 451-5466

U.C. Berkeley Labor Center
2521 Channing Way
Berkeley, CA 94720
(510) 642-0323

U.C. Berkeley Center for Popular Education and Participatory Research
1501 Tolman Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
(510) 642-5345

Urban Habitat Leadership Institute
436 14th Street, #1205
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 839-9510

Youth Radio
1701 Broadway Avenue
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 251-1101

For additional popular
education and immigrant
rights resources, see page 53.

Educating for Equity | Vol. 14 No. 2 | Fall 2007 | Credits

Educating for Equity; Release Event, Oct 24, 5:30 p.m.


Please join us in celebrating the release of the new issue of Race, Poverty & the Environment: Educating for Equity, another 80 page special issue packed with over 30 articles and interviews from across the United States and Mexico.

At the event we will be exploring the question:

"How can popular education strengthen social justice movements?"  We hope to use a bit of popular education methodology to involve everyone in the discussion, so come ready with ideas. Leading us in the conversation will be some of the many fine authors included in this issue.

Reception & Release Event

Wednesday, October 24, 5:30 p.m.
At the Urban Habitat conference room and office
436 14th Street, #1205 Oakland, CA

Refreshments provided! RSVP or for more information

call (510) 839-9510 or email
Space is limited!