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 about the inspiration behind the collection and more. This is the first part of the roundtable post. Stay tuned for part two.
Christian Coleman: Why did you feel it was important to put this book together?
Mark Warren: I’ve been working, studying, and working with community organizing groups, working with parents and youth of color and communities, low-income communities across the country, for many years. I felt the work that parents and young people in communities are doing to fight for educational equity and justice was important. Over the past ten years or so, I saw that local organizing groups were now coming together in new ways to form much more of a larger movement for educational justice. This movement was often led by people of color, as are represented in the book, but that most people don’t know about this movement, and in many ways, different parts of the movement aren’t always as connected to each other as they could be. Putting this book together was a chance to work with amazing organizers, education activists, and other kinds of movement builders to help them tell their stories of how they’re working to build a movement, present some of their hard analysis of systemic racism in our schools, lift up successful strategies they’ve been using, and organizing efforts, and tell these stories and bring this out to a national audience. It was also the opportunity for different parts of the movement to be represented all together in one book. We have organizers, teacher activists, teachers from other movements like the LGBTQ movement, who are working with youth of color, LGBTQ youth of color, and others to build a new movement for educational justice. I feel that this movement has to be brought to light so that people can understand why we need a movement led by people of color to really fight for educational equity and justice in this country.
Jitu Brown: I think Mark has done excellent work in the past, helping to shine light on work that people have done for educational justice. I think there’s a level of trust for who the messenger would be. There’s an old proverb that says, “Until lions have their own historians, the story of the hunt will be told by the hunter.” I think it’s really important to take every opportunity to share what the state of public education looks like through our lens. Often, people make policy systems based on racist assumptions and opinions of other groups, as opposed to people’s real-lived experience. I think that’s really the reason I feel it’s important to make sure we’re taking every opportunity to share our perspective and to put our worldview out in the public.
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar: I felt it was important to contribute a story, particularly from black parents’ perspective. For me, I came to this work really organically, responding to my son at the time who was being pushed out of preschool. Just as a response, pushing back, not accepting the narrative that the school system was providing regarding my son, asking questions, but not only that, taking it a step further to engage other black parents in that same space, to ask them the same question, “Are you having this experience?” When I realized that it wasn’t just me and this was much bigger and had been happening for decades in this country, I felt the need to start an organization to continue to organize our particular community, the parents, to push back on the cradle-to-prison pipeline, and make sure that black parents knew they had a voice, that they had a right to speak up, that they had a right to ask questions, and that they had a right not accept what the school system was saying about our children.
Jonathan Stith: I think it was important to tell the story of young people, particularly black and brown youth, and what they’ve been experiencing in their schools, and how they have sought to organize themselves to fight for assistance to reach the highest level in influencing federal policy. This felt like the moment to document our struggle up to this point so that we can learn from it and so that others can learn from it as well. The book harvests the fruits of about a decade—maybe a decade and a half—of education organizing.
CC: How did you get involved with educational justice?
MW: I’m primarily a scholar and I’m a professor and a writer, but at the same time, I would say that I also consider myself an activist and an organizer for educational justice. My own story starts from growing up in an all-white, segregated, blue-collar family and community in Springfield, Massachusetts. In that family, my father, who was a big influence on me, was a union activist in the Teamsters Union, and really taught me that working people had to fight for their rights if we were ever going to make any real gains for our families and our communities. Unusually, for a white, working-class man at that time, he was also an anti-racist. He was a very clear supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and raised me to believe that working people of all races had to find a way to work with each other and support each other, and create a larger movement for freedom and justice. Those are the values I took with me into my life. I actually did work as a community and labor organizer for many years. Then when I went back to school and got my PhD to become a professor and a scholar, I wanted to use my privileges, my skills, and my position to help support the movement that I saw happening for educational justice in communities across the country.
On a personal note, I’m also a father. I’m married to a black woman, so my children are black, bi-racial girls. I had the personal experience of seeing them and their friends face racism in school, and particularly harsh discipline, the school-to-prison pipeline has impacted many of their friends. I think that has also strengthened my commitment to really finding ways to work with people. Not to be a scholar above people, but to go out into communities and work with people to help them build a movement. I consider myself part of a larger, educational justice movement, and I’m always encouraging other young scholars to think of themselves that way.
JB: It’s a winding, twisted tale, so I’ll make it short. I was in the music industry and was on PolyGram Records and had done a promotional visit to a school and was challenged by a young person, basically saying that everything I was saying sounded good, but he knew I wasn't coming back. I lived in a neighborhood that was beginning to gentrify. I saw a lot of issues, liquor stores on every corner of our block, and I was presented an opportunity. We were able to get a release from PolyGram Records. I was offered the opportunity to either sign with MCA Records as a solo artist, or to volunteer at the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. For whatever reason, I made the right decision.
I left the industry and started volunteering at this local community organization where I learned so much around the core issues that are going on in our community, and also real strategies to make change. That it really wasn't about finding a leader, it was about creating the spaces where the people can be their own leader. That first experience with youth changed my life. It gave me a sense of purpose.
I worked with young people. My first organizing victory that I was a part of was working with students to hold a grocery store accountable for the conditions. This was in 1993. I couldn’t believe that a group of students could make a grocery store that’d been in our community since the 1940s clean their act up, but we did. I was sold. This is what I wanted to do. This work has done everything from teach me discipline, teach me humility through messing up, to also helping me develop a sense of what I can really contribute by winning some things, and building my sense of myself as a man. I owe everything to the struggle.
ZSJ: I entered as an organizer, not through any formal training or anything like that, but again, really out of being directly impacted by the system as a parent. Similar to Jitu, I’ve learned a lot from organizing black parents, particularly poor and working-class black parents. I tell people, “If you can organize in a small town like Dayton, Ohio, and win some pretty significant victories, you can organize just about anywhere.” Dayton is a very small town, really impacted by the removal of the auto plants. Many of our parents are working in the service industry, barely making it in a lot of ways. When they realize after the organizing and a couple of victories that Racial Justice NOW!, the organization I co-founded, was able to win in the local school district, many of them became galvanized and realized their own power as parents. They had been so oppressed and depressed in a lot of different ways by the ecosystem, just in the community when it comes to schools, hospitals, all kinds of other things, have just been impacted in a way where the community feels totally abandoned.
Having those small victories helped to solidify that a small group of people who are determined and pushing back and making sure that people know we’re here and we have a voice, has been transformative for me, even as I’ve moved on to the national organization, Dignity in Schools. It has helped shape how I work with other organizers, how I work with parents, in particular, and helped me to work with other parent organizations within our membership.
JS: I’m not going to tell you all mine, because it’s in the book and I want you all to read the chapter, so no spoiler alerts. But I will talk about the first time I discovered Ella Baker, for youth organizing and education justice and really carried that tradition. I remember we were, as a organization in the book, we talk about how I came to youth organizing. One of the after-stories around that was that as we were trying to figure out how to do these organizing meets, started to read, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom. I remember coming in excited the next day to my other co-worker. We both said to each other at the same time, “Ella Baker.” That just became the motto of what we wanted to be about in our organizing. The other side of the story was the guy who introduced it to us didn’t actually believe in youth organizing. I remember many years later, after the youth education alliance, the youth group that I used to lead in DC, had won the School Modernization Act of $2.3 billion. I got a newsletter from his organization, talking about how they had won 535 million. I kind of chuckled to myself and I was like, “Yeah, you might not believe in youth organizing, but I do, and it produced results.”
Stay tuned for part two of this roundtable Q&A.
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.