The grassroots organizing for ELLs essentially takes three forms. The first is advocacy for resources within the school, such as increasing the number of bilingual teachers. Juntos and Asian Americans United are examples of organizations involved in that form of organizing. The second type of organizing takes the form of efforts to make structural changes to the way education is delivered to ELLs, such as by the institution of dual language programs. The D.C. Language Immersion Project and Dual Language Education of New Mexico are examples of this kind of grassroots organization. The third type of organization provides supplemental programs that can assist students in achieving and maintaining academic success in school, such as Casa Central and Sociedad Latina. All of these groups were formed by stakeholders, whether they be community members or educators, who care about ensuring that ELLs receive the best possible kind of education and support.
Many of these organizations that end up impacting the education of ELLs are not exclusively or primarily focused on bilingual education. In fact, many are immigrant rights groups, highlighting the connections between immigration status, language, and education. While not all immigrants are ELLs, most ELLs are immigrants or children of immigrants. This means there is a heavy overlap in terms of immigration rights issues relevant to students and language access issues in schools. For example, many immigration rights groups provide English classes for young children or adults to help them navigate educational systems (as a student or parent) and other civic institutions. While there is not total overlap between the populations of immigrants and ELLs, there is enough that many of the organizations that aim to serve one group inevitably support both.
Just recently, in October of 2017, a number of groups highlighted in the Overview section of this page and/or featured elsewhere on this website worked together to successfully advocate for Philadelphia to hire more bilingual support staff. The administrative leadership involved in the hiring project recognized “the advocacy organizations that worked with the Council and the District to come up with priorities: Africom, Juntos, Vietlead, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, Asian Americans United, Youth United for Change, the Working Educators caucus and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers” (Windle, 2017). As most of these are grassroots organizations, this successful hiring change represents a major victory for grassroots organizing on behalf of ELLs. This decision shows the impact that these organizations are having on the ground and the changes they are successfully implementing in schools.
Despite their successes, those organizing on behalf of ELLs face numerous obstacles to their success. A major impediment to the bilingual education movement has been the English-only movement, which seeks to make English the official language of the United States and to “limit the role of languages other than English in federal and state government agencies and the work place by eliminating bilingual services such as bilingual ballots and bilingual education” (de Jong, 2011). Recent federal education legislation has also limited the potential for bilingual education to become the norm in the United States. De Jong (2011) explains how No Child Left Behind disrupted federal policy on bilingual education, making it so that “while bilingual education is not prohibited under the law, funds are no longer allocated under NCLB to support this type of program for ELLs.” Some have also claimed that the Common Core, with its focus on English literacy, may go against the ideals of bilingual education and make it harder to implement successful bilingual programs (Bale, 2015). English-only challengers in the U.S. continue to make attaining an education a difficult experience for ELLs. These challenges, combined with the major funding issues that Philadelphia and other urban areas have faced that limit the amount of money going to support ELLs, make it difficult to make serious progress on behalf of ELLs.
The testimonies of individuals who have been involved with these organizations show the impact that they have had on the lives of the people they serve. Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, an organization in Philadelphia that, among other services, provides early childhood education to ELLs, provides on their website the story of two students whose behavior and ability to take part in schooling turned around entirely after they received the individual attention that these programs are able to provide (“Stories | Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha,” n.d.). For these students, had they not had access to any early childhood education, or been placed in a less welcoming or culturally sensitive environment, they may have not reaped the same benefits that APM was able to offer them. While these stories show the impact on those who receive services from these organizations, testimonies from those involved in organizing themselves also demonstrate potential benefits of these organizations. One member of Juntos named Marisa Piña Rodriguez, at a rally to protest the repeal of DACA, declared, “Local activism is our most powerful tool to set an example for what we expect to be carried out at the federal level” (“DACA Recipients Speak Out. ‘Local Activism Is Our Most Powerful Tool,’” n.d.). This quote shows how being involved with the grassroots activism of Juntos has made Rodriguez feel politically powerful and like she has a voice. These testimonies serve to show the power of grassroots organizing, and of these organizations in particular, to transform the lives of those that come in to contact with them.