National Growth of Community Organizing: Essential to School Transformation Published on April 3, 2012
Author: Keith Catone with Mark R. Warren
The recent "A Match on Dry Grass" conference at Harvard Graduate School of Education underscores that community organizing has become a powerful force for education change, and nurturing its growth is key to achieving equity for underserved youth living in high poverty.
The persistent failure of public schooling in low-income communities is one of our nation’s most pressing civil rights and social justice issues. Many school reformers recognize that poverty, racism, and a lack of power held by these communities undermine children's education and development, but too few policy - and decision-makers seem to know what to do about it.
Community organizing represents a fresh and promising approach to school reform as part of a broader agenda to build power for low-income communities and to address the profound social inequalities that affect the education of children. In AISR’s work in New York City and elsewhere, we have seen the power of communities, parents, and youth to transform their schools when they engage with educators and researchers to demand change and develop informed decisions. An emerging national field of education organizing reflects the growing visibility and power of this movement.
Last week, several AISR staff attended a conference that represented a significant step forward in the emergence of education organizing as a national phenomenon. Three hundred community organizers, parent and youth leaders, researchers, and educators from across the country converged on the Harvard Graduate School of Education for A Match on Dry Grass – The Conference, which was held on the occasion of the publication of the book A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform and was sponsored by the Community Organizing and School Reform Project.
The buzz surrounding the conference (it sold out almost immediately) reflects the rapid growth of education organizing as a powerful force for educational change, and the conference surfaced several significant new directions and challenges that have come as a result of that growth. For instance, six years ago, when the last education organizing conference was held at Harvard, there was little discussion about efforts to organize at the federal level, since education organizing was considered an entirely local or, occasionally, state-level affair. In contrast, this year panelists drew lessons from the national Dignity in Schools campaign and Communities for Excellent Public Schools, and referenced national networks such as the Alliance for Educational Justice, and Communities for Public Education Reform. The Dignity in Schools campaign reflected broad concern by participants around discriminatory school discipline policies and offered new opportunities to disrupt the all-too-common school-to-prison pipeline through restorative justice and other alternative policies. Organizing groups across the country have started campaigns to address this issue, and the conference brought many of these leaders together for the first time.
Another change that the expansion of education organizing has brought about is the larger inclusion of and need for youth voice. The conference incorporated youth leaders in a variety of panels, including a special Youth Town Hall meeting on the campaign for a National Student Bill of Rights. But that level of participation proved insufficient as youth leaders asserted their voice strongly throughout the conference. Young people challenged panelists about “adultism” and asserted the importance of their voice being present on all panels and in any discussion of education reform.
Youth aren’t the only crucial partners in an expanding organizing field. Many panelists at the conference stressed that it will take more than organizing young people and parents to create the transformation needed in public education. The conference featured lively discussion of efforts to build collaborations with teachers, school district leaders, researchers, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders.
The debate at the conference was especially passionate about how to engage teachers in positive ways and how to collaborate with teacher unions. Many teachers attending the conference discussed the variety of ways they seek to partner with communities and engage young people in critical education and social change, but participants frequently cited teacher unions as a hindrance to the efforts of parents and young people to reform public education. Addressing these concerns, Eric Zachary, the newly appointed Human Rights and Community Relations Director for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), presented a refreshing new paradigm for community engagement based on regular outreach, communication, and relationship building between local teacher unions and community organizations that his national team is working with local AFT chapters to adopt.
By nurturing these connections – between local and national efforts, between youth and adults, between community members and teachers, and between organizing groups and school/district leaders – the conference took a major step toward building the power necessary to continue growing the national movement of education organizing. Our hope is that the movement’s expansion will eventually lead to an equitable national investment in public education for low-income children and children of color.