Students of color and their parents, community organizers, and educators have been fighting systemic racism in schools by creating a new intersectional educational justice movement. Their movement also addresses immigration, LGBTQ rights, labor rights, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Their stories of resistance are collected in Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out!: Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement. Written by Mark Warren with David Goodman, Lift Us Up! will outrage, inform, and mobilize parents, educators, and concerned citizens about what is wrong in American schools today and how activists are fighting for and achieving change. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with Warren and three of the contributors to the book—Jitu Brown, Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, and Jonathan Stith—to ask what they feel is the most important thing the educational justice movement needs to do and other questions. This is the second part of the roundtable post.
Christian Coleman: What do you believe is one important thing your group or alliance has accomplished?
Mark Warren: Unlike the other people in the book, I am not exactly in a group or an alliance, so let me just say something about what I believe that I have accomplished or tried to accomplish as an education researcher. That is, to create a different way of thinking about how we are going to transform the education that our young people receive, particularly youth of color in our urban and rural communities. I believe that the current way that education researchers and the education policy world approaches this is broken. It’s a top-down method that just focuses on technical changes or organizational changes, the kind of curriculum are we teaching. It doesn’t get at the systemic racism that our young people are facing in our schools. The school-to-prison pipeline is a very good, essential example of that. I believe that the only way we’re really going to be able to change what’s going on in our schools—and not just try to improve them a little bit here or there but actually transform the education that our young people receive—is with a ground-up strategy. Because I believe that the failures of our educational system are part of the disempowerment in communities of color, the broken relationships with young people, with parents. To change that, we have to organize from the ground-up so that our policy solutions and our policy approaches come from working with people who are the most affected by educational injustice, and not trying to impose something in a top-down way on them. I won’t go into all the examples, but I think the book is filled with examples and we’ll have some of them here, showing what parents and young people and communities have been able to achieve by organizing themselves to build power, and to form larger alliances with educators, advocates, and others to create the kind of change we need in our communities and our schools.
Jitu Brown: There is so much that I’m proud of that Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) has accomplished. We’ve got a lot more to do. I think if I had to point to one thing, I would say that J4J has brought together some of the most brilliant black organizing minds in the country, and that people have actually won real tangible victories. Because of that, I think J4J has really impacted the education justice organizing world by helping to create and push the notion of sustainable community schools, by impacting the language that we use, impacting the NAACP and inspiring them to call for a moratorium on school privatization. I think that J4J has really brought together many of the people that are directly impacted to say that we can solve these problems ourselves, and we’re stronger than we often think we are.
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar: I’ll start with the most recent victory, which I think is huge for Racial Justice NOW!, which is the story that I talk about in the book. Racial Justice NOW! was the organization I co-founded about eight years ago. The most recent victory was a statewide moratorium on suspensions and expulsions for Pre-K through third grade students that we had been organizing and working on for about six years. I feel it’s important because I know that other states have done it. I know that other communities on the coast have done it years ago, but this one is particularly important to me, because we did this in a very conservative state like Ohio, with two conservative legislators and a Republican Governor signing the bill. I don’t know if that’s the case in other places.
These were black parents, poor, working-class black parents, working directly with the Republican legislator, Peggy Lehner, for years. We didn’t know whether we could trust her, but she was our representative. Who else were we going to talk to? She was the Chair of the Senate Education Committee. We had to talk to these people at some point if we wanted to change some policies. What’s important about that relationship is that she really listened to us. She took our feedback, but not only that; we pushed other organizations in the state, like ACLU of Ohio, Children's Defense Fund in Ohio—all of these other advocacy groups who have been there for years, who were afraid to push the envelope and ask for what the parents really needed.
We’re not advocating on behalf of ourselves; we’re advocating for ourselves. When we sit in those rooms and in those meetings at the Ohio legislature, we just said what we wanted. We said, “This is what we need.” Now, did we get everything that we needed? No, because that’s what happens in the negotiation process. But I do think that is going to definitely save some lives of some young people, black students in particular. Black students are still the most suspended and expelled around the state. I’m most proud of that most recent victory, because it's a statewide victory. Again, it was led by poor and working class black parents in Dayton, Ohio.
Jonathan Stith: I think one of the things we can look at—and we talk about in Chapter One—is that for many, the idea of a school-to-prison pipeline did not exist, and so now it is almost common language and an accepted reality that black and brown young people face discriminatory discipline. It came at the death of Trayvon Martin before the Obama administration really talked about it to try to move the conversation forward. Now we’ve been able to stop suspensions in the long scale. The number of suspensions have gone down, but the racial disparity remains the same. That, I think for us, beginning to look at what is the next set of work that needs to happen to really get at the root of racial justice in schools. That’s part of a thread in the book, and it runs through all of our experiences. I think for the Alliance for Educational Justice, I’m looking at the assault at Spring Valley, and how the Alliance has moved into action, and then what it’s creating on the back end in terms of how this movement is pushing for police-free schools.
CC: In your view, what is the most important thing the educational justice movement needs to do?
MW: I think that there are a lot of things that social justice movements need to do. It’s obviously not only what the movement does, but how those in power choose to respond to the movement, oppressing it or opposing it as opposed to working with it. I will say that I think one of the big challenges that we face is connecting the work that we are doing to transform public education with the struggles that people are leading for immigrant rights, for LGBTQ rights, for housing, for economic development. The problems that we’re facing in schools are systemic problems in our larger society that are connected to poverty and racism, and we're not going to change that only by targeting schools. We like to say that it can’t just be a Route-One issue, because people don’t live single-issue lives. Young people are affected by what’s going on in the economic status of their families, in the environmental pollution of their communities, as well as being oppressed in schools. A challenge for all of our movements right now, particularly in the Trump era, is to find ways to connect with each other. We do address this quite centrally in the book, and we have folks who are thinking about it from a point of view of the labor movement. How does the labor movement need to support the educational justice movement, and vice-versa. We do believe that in many ways, education lies at the intersection of a lot of these forms of oppression. It centers the lives of youth of color and low-income communities. Education is not just an issue; it’s fundamental to democracy, to the liberation of peoples, going back to the struggles of slaves for the right to learn to read and write. We do believe this is key to our future, what happens in our schools, not narrowly be thought about, but in a bigger way. Will young people end up as cogs in a corporate machine? Will they be fodder for prison? Or will they be our next generation of social justice warriors?
JB: First, I want to acknowledge what we’ve already done. We have, to a large degree, stopped working in our silos. For example, Jonathan and I have worked together since 2007, 2008. Zakiya and I worked together. All of us worked together. We are all allies. I think that we are actually building campaigns that go across issues. I think we need to continue to do work like that. To make it plain, we need to kill the privatization movement, and we kill the privatization movement by advancing our vision, advancing our vision through organizing wins. Not just what we’re against, but what we’re for. I believe that the movement is picking up steam. We’re winning more and more significant victories. I think what Zakiya mentioned gives you a sense of how powerful the worker has been—that in a state like Ohio, which historically has no love for people that look like us, they were able to move a Republican-elected official to actually pass something so significant. There are stories like that happening all over the country. One of the things we’ve been able to do is make sure people around the country know that we’re winning in different places. That has inspired people to wage the fight. Something that’s happening now, is we’re starting to hear on a regular basis the connection between school privatization, the loss of affordable housing, and the removal of black people from urban spaces. That’s becoming a regular part of our messaging. That’s important as we begin to organize across issues.
ZSJ: I definitely think that a lot of our movements in this country are often siloed. I think there should definitely be more of a supportive ecosystem around all the different movements in a place where we can find our important intersections of common interests, and begin to work in those particular lanes together. I definitely think that there should be some kind of coming together of these movements, and especially around displacement and gentrification and housing, affordable housing. All of that impacts education. To Jitu’s point regarding killing the privatization movement: I believe the privatization movement is just another iteration of white domination and white supremacy. I think our goal is to kill white supremacy and white domination and capitalism. I mean, you know that’s pie-in-the-sky, but I think that still needs to be within our vision. Because we’ve had movements in the past, we’re the next iteration of picking up the mantel, so to speak, from the human rights and Civil Rights movement, and continuing to push toward that goal of liberation. That’s my goal: ultimate liberation from oppression.
JS: I think the education justice movement needs to read and study this book. Use it as a handbook to guide your struggle moving forward. I would like it to be seen or be used in the same spirit of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, for education organizers, so that we can understand the educational struggle, particularly for black folks and people of African descent. When this country started, when we first got here under penalty of death, lead to now that it is, it leads into that story, and it’s a roadmap of where we left off and where we’re supposed to pick up this struggle should advance from. I think we’ll have to fight the forces that will privatize our schools or turn them into prisons. Like Jitu and Zakiya, I think they are the same forces, and that there is a fight ahead. For us, beginning to advance this idea of overthrowing the notion that society shapes the school. All of the problems that we see in the larger society are of schools. Our revolution is to flip that, transforming schools that can then transform society.
About the Speakers
Mark R. Warren is professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the founder and cochair of the Urban Research-Based Action Network. The author of three books, including most recently A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform, Warren studies and works with community and youth organizing groups seeking to promote equity and justice in education.
Jitu Brown is a community organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization in Chicago. He is cofounder and national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance.
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar is cofounder and former executive director of Racial Justice NOW! in Dayton, Ohio. She is the national field organizer for the Dignity in Schools Campaign.
Jonathan Stith is national director of the Alliance for Educational Justice. He is the father of three young people who went to public schools in Washington, DC.