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An Activist Scholar’s Journey to Educational Justice Movements

By Mark Warren

Mark Warren - Lift Us Up Don't Push Us Out

This essay appeared original on Powells.com.

I am a college professor, but started off as a college dropout. And the story of my rocky road through the academy helps explain why I wrote a book on educational justice movements.

I grew up in a segregated community in the ’50s and ’60s—an all-white segregated community, that is. It was a blue-collar community called Hungry Hill in Springfield, Massachusetts. My father was an unusual white working-class man for his time, maybe still would be. He was a warehouseman and a Teamster Union activist, but had a broad, progressive vision. He supported the civil rights movement and taught me to oppose racism. He also taught me that working people had to organize and stand up for themselves if they wanted a decent life—and that working people of all races needed to support each other. His vision of a world where all people would be free has inspired me throughout my life.

I was the only boy in my neighborhood to go to college—and I went to Harvard on just about a full scholarship. I got radicalized during my first year, but also became isolated and depressed as a small-town, blue-collar kid in the big and elite world of Harvard. I knew I wasn’t doing my best work and I was miserable. So I dropped out to do something important: work as a community and labor organizer. It broke my father’s heart. He liked my commitment to helping people, but his dream was for his son to do what he never could: graduate from college—and from Harvard on a full scholarship to boot!

I worked for seven years in a variety of organizing positions. I learned to respect organizers and community and labor leaders as “organic intellectuals,” that is, people interested in analyzing the social and political world around them and debating theories and strategies for change. They may not have had academic degrees, but they had a lot to contribute to social and political understanding. I enjoyed community organizing, but it’s tough, hard work. After seven years, I decided it was a good time to return to college. Harvard took me back. And, thankfully, Harvard gave me another generous financial aid package.

Having found myself and gained confidence through organizing, this time I couldn’t care less about Harvard’s elite culture and students. In fact, I discovered that I loved the academic world. Eventually, I ended up in a PhD program, again at Harvard.

I brought my deep experience in organizing and a commitment to building social justice movements with me to graduate school and decided to write a dissertation on successful models of community organizing. I studied the Southwest Industrial Areas Foundation, led by Ernesto Cortes, which was doing pioneering work organizing parents in low-income communities of color to improve their schools and fight for educational justice. I wrote my first book, Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy, to document the critical role that community organizing played in fighting for quality and equity in public education.

I started to call myself a community-engaged scholar or an activist scholar because I didn’t want to study people and communities “from afar” in the traditional, detached scholarly way. I wanted to work with people, to help lift up their voices, so that my research could contribute to the kind of transformational change we needed in schools and communities.

I got my first faculty job at Fordham University in New York, but left after six years to take a position at Harvard once again, this time in the Graduate School of Education, where I focused on educational justice organizing.

I knew that working people and people of color had many issues to fight, but I cared about educational justice for some personal reasons. Public education had opened up the world to me, but not to my friends from Hungry Hill. They were supposed to get well-paying factory jobs like their fathers, without a college degree. But deindustrialization hit Springfield with a vengeance. While I went back and forth to Harvard, my friends struggled to find jobs.

By this time, my oldest daughter had entered an urban middle school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the racist treatment of children of color became personal to me. I had married a black British woman and we had two beautiful black, biracial daughters. Her middle school adopted the same kind of zero-tolerance discipline practices I had witnessed across the country and began suspending black students—the beginnings of the school-to-prison pipeline. 

By this time, I had just finished a book called A Match on Dry Grass with a faculty colleague at Harvard, Karen Mapp, and fifteen doctoral students, documenting community organizing efforts in six localities across the country. These were very important efforts to build the leadership of parents and students and to create real change in schools and education policy at the local level. 

But something was changing by the time the book came out: a new movement was rising that knit together all of these local groups. I set out across the country to study how parents and students were organizing to build a movement to combat the school-to-prison pipeline. It was a powerful experience to meet parents, students, and organizers who were fighting a racist system. It was also traumatic to hear story after story of racial discrimination, bullying, and even violence. 

For example, when I was in the Richmond, Virginia, area, I attended a meeting at a school where an African American mother was challenging a security guard’s treatment of her son. Her son had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that allowed him to go out and cool off on the school grounds when he needed to. When he took a break that day, however, a security officer followed him outside, handcuffed him, and dragged him along the ground. He arrived home with his clothes full of mud from the assault all the way down into his underwear. 

No one from the school or district seemed to care that the child had been abused. No one apologized or offered to do anything to help. In the end, the mother felt she had to accept a district offer of $100 to replace her son’s damaged clothes in exchange for agreeing not to pursue any further claims.

I heard countless stories like this as I traveled across the country. In Chicago, I saw metal detectors and armed security guards everywhere; many schools had police stations located in the building. Meanwhile, most schools in the city lack art, music, and physical education classes, and for decades there was no recess for children. In Los Angeles, I learned that schools were so militarized that the district’s police department owned a military tank and semi-automatic weapons.

The movement for black lives has exposed police brutality and killings on the streets, but black and brown children are brutalized in schools and their parents are bullied and demeaned. We need a social movement to address this kind of deep-seated and systemic racism in our public school system and in our broader society. 

While I witnessed racist treatment, I also had the privilege to meet parents, students, organizers, educators, and other movement builders who were standing up to demand a voice, oppose these dehumanizing practices, and call for a quality and humane education for all children. Their organizing led to many successes—policy changes to end zero-tolerance school discipline practices and implement alternatives like restorative justice or positive behavior intervention and supports, for example. But their stories were not being told.

I wanted to produce a book that would highlight these struggles, lift up campaigns and successes, and address the tough issues facing American public education. I wanted to give voice to those activists who are actually building the movement today. So I reached out to the organizers, educators, and leaders whom I met and worked with across the country. Rather than write about them, I helped them write their own essays, assisted by David Goodman.

The educational justice movement is about demanding a voice and a seat at the table. So, this book provides an opportunity for parents, young people, organizers, educators, and other movement builders to have a voice—to present their powerful stories, lift up their organizing successes, and offer their analysis and reflections on movement building. I hope you will take the opportunity to read the passionate and insightful essays written by these parents, young people, organizers, and educators and learn, as I have, from their deep and powerful reflections on their experiences becoming changemakers in their schools and communities.


About the Author 

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 “Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out!”: Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement and 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. Follow him on Twitter at @mark_r_warren.