What have I learned?

Grassroots Organizing as an End Unto Itself.

John Dewey’s The Public and Its Problems gave me a philosophical framework for events I had noticed in my life, but didn’t fully understand the scope of. I grew up in my local community center; I went there after school, I began competitive gymnastics there at 6, I stayed as a volunteer at thirteen, I was employed at 15, and I became a mentor for new coaches at 18. This space is where I made the positive memories I associate with learning and living, so much so that college essay prompts always brought me back to the profound affects of the support system it gave me throughout everyday life. Mentors I trusted and respected were there to support me all day: my community was not limited within the walls of my school, but was instead the whole geographic space of my hometown because of the connections I made at my community center. Dewey defines the impact of neighborly dialog as the basis of participatory democracy. Through this project I learned that my experience is far from unique, or limited to rural spaces: a cohesive geographic community is even more important in urban spaces, where place-based power is eroded by the availability of school choice outside of one’s neighborhood. 

I am more frustrated than ever before with the educational policies at the current federal level, because practices that avoid addressing the systematic injustices of our schooling system by prioritizing school choice do a disservice to urban communities, where schools tie communities togethe. Schools, previously, provided a place to come together, build power, and  demand community interests. Without the children of a place going to same schools, parents and other village-makers realized why school was important: it is not because of schooling itself, but what one learns when they speak with and share with others. These urban communities have come together to hear each other’s voices, organizing to prioritize positive experiences for families and opportunities for children to learn in their neighborhood. Similar to my community center, Bronx centers offer places to make positive memories of learning and living in the place where one is from. At my community center I became confident that knew my home well enough to improve it. Dewey describes this phenomena as the people identifying themselves, to become able to take action on their own behalf.  This project taught me the power of those who get to have similar experiences with place attachment.

This project also taught me that learning and organizing are interwoven, while learning and schooling do not need to be. Both educators and organizers offer moments where people can identify themselves. Schooling, particularly when it exists outside of the context of a student’s time and place, does not necessarily help one learn their power. Horton and Freire’s We Make the Road by Walking, a book about educating organizers, unveiled for me that a useful educator teaches with authority, not authoritarianism. Learners can be people at any stage in life, including those who teach, and dialog must always begin with what the people already know. It is learning, which can occur anywhere, not schooling that is aids communities in better identifying and working toward their own needs. Schools, particularly in urban spaces, are full of ideas and practices that erode a child’s potential rather than protect it. My project was, in part, bearing witness to and celebrating the way in which communities like the Bronx have wielded learning to combat hurtful schooling. 

This semester, I have confronted what it means to be an American in each of my classes. In Urban Education and Community Organizing, I am coming to understand how our institutions, like schools, have racist and classist pedagogy that works against participatory democracy and for those who would profit off of survivalist tactics. For me, this knowledge has legitimized grassroots organizing as an end unto itself. If we do not create our own shared spaces, that benefit us, we cannot build the power to influence these entrenched shared spaces, like schools. Bettina Love taught me about the power of consciously choosing the struggle to understand others and love them, for all they have been through and all they are. Rather than allow myself to wallow in the tragedy of the current circumstances of urban education in America, I can choose to celebrate and care for those doing the work to improve it. This project was one way to seek understanding of places different from any I have lived and celebrate their place-based power. We must go forward always beginning with what the people know; I now know the power of togetherness is the basis for participatory democracy, and will go forward prioritizing communities of learners and organizers above institutions and those who erode place-based power for there own gains. To be American is not to accept its flaws, but to uncompromisingly empower those improving it.