A Lifetime of Lessons
A parent community activist reflects on more than 40 years of organizing for better schools
I’ve been fighting for better schools for over 40 years, so sometimes it’s hard to remember which lesson I’ve learned from which struggle. But a few lessons stand out.
One is that’s important not to let the system keep you in such an anger mode, such as a finger-pointing and/or a fighting mode, that you forget that the goal is to improve the educational achievement and social development of our children.
There are times to fight, and times to collaborate and work together. I’m not opposed to fighting, or doing what needs to be done. And I don’t think that anyone should ever “get over” their anger. I’ve learned to have a method to my madness. If you’re always in a confrontational mode, the powers that be, the people in charge, will always try to keep you out of the room and away from the discussion table.
I have learned that anger is not the only tactic in battle. I refuse to allow the system to reduce me to only one way of thinking and one way of organizing. As long as I stay true to my principles – and after 40 years, I’m not about to give up on those principles – I feel okay with different tactics.
A second lesson is that it’s essential to keep grass-roots, community-based organizations alive. And it now seems harder to do than ever before.
Back in the 1970s, at least in this city, community-based groups and grassroots organizing were valued. They were seen as providing a unique contribution, and as part of a broader struggle. These voices were part of that struggle for equal educational opportunities and justice.
This is no longer the case. The funding and philanthropic world and corporations are no longer putting money into our community-based organizations – even though they still use our voices, ideas, and strategies. They claimed them as their own. Today, it seems that if you are not a “research-based” organization, or tied to a university or business group, it is difficult to get recognition or get funded. The majority of persons who make the decisions regarding funding and recognition have never walked in our shoes, have never known our experiences and struggles, and sometimes have never even been in our communities. I don’t believe they will ever have the same level of involvement and compassion that we have for our communities, our children, or our public schools.
Passing on the Torch
Third, it is critically important that those of us who are social justice advocates and activists think about preparing someone to step up and fill our shoes. This is one area where I feel I have been remiss, i.e., grooming and developing leadership.You see, my initial involvement was personal – my children – but I found it a lot more rewarding and systemic as I moved on to organizing and advocating for not only a better classroom for my children, but a better school system and outcomes for all children.
It sometimes scares me, not knowing what will happen when the folks who are now active move on. We haven’t always paid enough attention to making sure there’s someone waiting in the wings. You will never make a lot of money doing this work, but the rewards pay bountiful soul and spirit dividends.
Finally, we can’t forget the words of Frederick Douglass, “Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Our struggle must continue to be a collective struggle with, and on behalf of, our families, communities, and schools – specifically those least served by systems because of their race, class, gender, language barrier, or special need.