Last year, when I learned that New Orleans had decided to convert most of their schools into charters, I was surprised but saw I had no conflict with this decision. I myself had gone to a KIPP charter school for my middle school years and I had a great educational experience. As I’ve learned more about charter schools from a broader perspective, though, I’ve begun to understand why there has been a lot of backlash against the proliferation of charters and the decision to turn most of New Orleans’ schools into charters. Creating this website and examining the work of grassroots organizing around issues of public education and supporting educators of color, both nationally and in New Orleans, has provided me with much needed knowledge. Often times, charters have been cited as a panacea to the issues surrounding public education. I myself once believed that converting schools into charters would benefit all students. The proliferation of charters, however, has negatively impacted many communities, especially those of color. Black teachers have been pushed out of classrooms to make room for non-unionized white teachers from other communities and black students have experienced a sense of loss when the teachers who shared their cultural understandings were forced to leave. Black students in New Orleans have experienced this loss most excessively as most of the 7,500 teachers who were fired were Black. Charters, then, do not always improve opportunities for academic success and often times, can make issues around education worse than they were before.
This project has also taught me the benefits of having black educators in the classroom. Their presence does more than bring comfort to black students (though that is another plus); their presence improves the academic success of black students. I myself can testify to the positive effects of having a teacher of color. Having educators with similar backgrounds gave me the confidence to dream big and believe that I myself could accomplish what they have.
Having opportunities to teach is also economically beneficial to black individuals who are seeking social mobility in their process of eliminating social inequalities. In fact, historically speaking, schools were one of the public industries to hire black people. Thus, I’ve learned that recruiting black educators is beneficial to adults and students alike in the Black community.
This project has also deepened my understanding of community organizing. Organizing can go beyond protests and petitions to creating space for dialogue on Twitter or other social media outlets. For example, Educolor hosts monthly chats on Twitter where community members (as well as non-community members) can engage each other on issues like how to center students of color in the fight against gender based violence. In addition, this project has highlighted how anyone can be an organizer. Students, parents, and educators alike have all attempted to affect that the issues that concern them and have been able to enjoy both small and large victories.
Even more, I’ve seen how issues of public education are intricately tied to other issues in urban areas. Most of the grassroots organizations that I studied have had to organize around issues of economic and environmental justice as well. Schools are not a bubble that insulates students from the issues that surround their communities. Instead, all the issues that affect the community at large seep into the school and require those who want educational equity to establish equity throughout the entire community itself. While this can seem discouraging, it reminds me that students can use the knowledge that they acquire in their classrooms to positively impact their entire communities. Just like the community affects the school, the school can also affect, change, and improve the community.
Going beyond this project, this entire semester has provided me with so much valuable knowledge about the principles of community organizing. The students, parents, educators, and community members and organizers that we’ve studied have all demonstrated the power that organizing has: it breaks down barriers and compels systems to change while empowering those who have taken it on themselves to enact change. Studying prominent organizers such as Ella Baker, Myles Horton, and Paul Freire has taught me the importance of dialogue, reflection, and community building and meeting educators and organizers like Edwin Mayorga, Keith Benson, Stephen Fleming, and Dave Steiber has shown me that the spirit of organizing is still alive, well, and active. I’ve been encouraged to challenge systems head on and to make attempt to change the systems that I find problematic.