I had never deeply considered how important one’s style of leadership is to the goals they wish to accomplish before taking Community Organizing and Urban Education. I had not questioned society’s ideal of a strong leader leading supposedly less capable people to the “right answer.” This image of a great leader seemed natural and logical to me. I didn’t think to question- what exactly makes this right answer right? Who decides? Why do they have the power to decide? What are they gaining from this being the right answer? Enter: Ella Baker. Learning about this incredible woman really changed my perception of what leadership can and should look like. Her idea that “strong people don’t need strong leaders” changed my entire mentality towards leadership. Baker left a legacy of leading people to their own right answers and developing their own abilities so that they didn’t need to be lead by someone else. Her style of leadership was selfless; this is proven by how few people even know her name today. She opposed leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, who valued leader-centered groups instead of group-centered leaders. Of course, Ella Baker is not the only organizer who supported the model of group-centered leadership, but her story in particular affected me because of her large yet under-appreciated role in the Civil Rights movement. Her story made me question what I had considered the “right answer” while being educated in the United States’ public school system. Like most American children, I had always been taught that King was the golden standard of leadership and I had never even heard of Ella Baker. It had also never occurred to me that someone could be opposed to Martin Luther King’s leadership! For me, learning about Ella Baker changed the narrative that I had accepted unquestioningly.
Paulo Freire’s idea that politics is not and cannot be separated from education was also a turning point in my way of thinking. I had always thought that the best teachers were those who were able to keep their opinion completely outside of their work and remain “neutral.” However, reading about Freire’s ideas and participating in our class discussions taught me that what a teacher chooses to teach and how they choose to teach it is inherently political- and that’s not a bad thing. I now know that acknowledging biases while not trying to eliminate them is essential to good teaching. Educators cannot remain neutral because there is no neutral; not challenging a system can be as large of a political statement as challenging it.
The Opt Out movement and other anti-standardized testing efforts have gained momentum because less standardized testing and new methods of evaluating students, teachers and schools are what the community wants. The Opt Out movement is an incredible example of people who rallied around a cause, and not a person. This movement was able to spread because people from all different places are facing the same problems created by a system that was not designed in collaboration with those it’s supposed to serve. The organizations I’ve included in this website are addressing the lack of teachers and parents in policy-making that has lead to top-down testing reforms that negatively impact children’s education. These organizations understand that the intention of using standardized testing as an equalizer does not fit the lived realities of the children they affect. They know this because teachers, parents and community members are the people who best understand these lived realities, not politicians and board members who only understand how the test “should” function to serve the needs of public schools. These grassroots organizations place people as the experts of their own lives and their children’s lives and seek to help parents and teachers create the best version of public schooling for children. In fact, one of the main reasons for less standardized testing is so that teachers, who are truly the professionals when it comes to educating children, have the agency to do their job as they see best for the students they serve. Thus, both the vision and execution of this movement has fit perfectly with the philosophy of supporting the people who the problem affects while they lead the way to its best solution. It is also an example of how the way in which students are taught does serve a political purpose and is the result of political issues, as much of the debate surrounding testing policies is political. It was really amazing to see these concepts I had learned in theory in class come to life as I designed this website.