Occupy Movement Spurs Education Activism

Photo:© 2011 Reuters | Nathan Armes
A former student who owes $50,000 in school loans at Occupy Denver

“Banks got paid off, teachers got laid off” sounded through the streets of downtown Seattle as education activists and protesters from the Occupy Seattle movement marched on Chase Bank Oct. 29. The action, organized by Occupy Seattle and Social Equality Educators (SEE), exposed how education in Washington has been affected by the fact that banks like Chase pay no taxes on interest from mortgages. A month later, SEE joined other educators in an occupation of Washington’s capitol to protest state budget cuts to public education. Two days later, more than 500 students from Seattle’s Garfield High School walked out of classes and rallied at Seattle’s City Hall.

In cities throughout the country, education activists have linked up with the Occupy movement, contributing skills, energy, and enthusiasm to the campaigns, and strengthening connections between education activism and other struggles. The Occupy movement has been enormously successful in changing the conversation in the United States—from blame the deficit, blame the unions, blame immigrants—to talk about people’s rights to jobs, housing, food, free speech, and democracy. This has created an opening for education activists to move beyond defending ourselves against the latest attack. In city after city, creative demonstrations, strong demands for education justice and equity, and new levels of collaboration are blossoming.

A few examples:

In New York City, an Occupy the Department of Education action grew out of teachers’ involvement with Occupy Wall Street. As Rosie Frascella explained to AlterNet reporter Sarah Jaffe: “We were doing these grade-ins at Occupy Wall Street. . . . And while we were grading we were thinking about ways we could bring the Occupy movement to education.” They decided to use the people’s mic tactic, which has been so successful in democratic decision-making at hundreds of Occupy sites, at the meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP), the rubber-stamp committee that has replaced community-controlled school boards in New York. More than 200 students, teachers, and parents showed up to the Oct. 25 PEP meeting. As the meeting began, one activist after another addressed the panel. Each phrase they spoke was picked up and repeated by everyone—the people’s mic in action. The official panel soon left the stage, but parents, teachers, and students continued their teach-in on the state of New York’s schools. (Watch the NYC DOE action: youtube.com/watch?v=YbmjMickJMA.)

In New Mexico, student and other activists in Albuquerque decided to alter the “occupy” name out of respect for the area’s indigenous communities, which have been forcibly occupied for centuries. Instead, according to an article in ColorLines, organizers are calling their protests (Un)occupy Albuquerque to connect corporate greed with the ongoing fight for indigenous land rights.

Activities for children and youth were a major focus of the Nov. 3 general strike in Oakland, Calif. Teachers collaborated online, sharing age-appropriate curriculum to use in the days leading up to the strike. The day of the strike, more than 1,000 K-12 students, accompanied by parents and teachers, walked out of schools across the city to join the march. At noon that day, families gathered at the main Oakland Public Library to join a march on the banks; a few hours later families reassembled at the library for art, sign-making, a mama’s mic speakout, and a children’s brigade to the march on the Port of Oakland. An afternoon teach-in, organized by Asian Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership, included activities on the U.S. economy and discussion among the youth about the economic issues in their own lives: parents who’ve lost jobs, immigration, lack of health care, the defunding of public education, the rising cost of college, and student debt.

Check out Teach Occupy Wall Street to share ideas and information: www.facebook.com/groups/teachOWS.