Crossing Boundaries for Social Justice

(written for The Christian Citizen: (pp.

22-24) Image

As more and more schools in the United States shift their social mission from community service to social justice models, this is a good time for churches to explore the implications of this shift for church youth work.  Service projects foster community, expand exposure, and facilitate meaningful work in the world.  However, service projects fall short of the potential for social transformation that is at the heart of churches’ work in the world.  They focus on one aspect of Jesus’ story — namely, Jesus as helper – but neglect another — Jesus as social radical.  What might it mean for youth groups in our churches to connect with the radical side of Jesus?

Healing, giving, and welcoming were as much vehicles for connection between Jesus and people who were different as they were acts of help.  Many of these connections were forbidden.  While Jesus’ message has often been interpreted as “help others,” those stories of helping are also stories of crossing boundaries, models for getting close to people who have been culturally, religiously, economically separated from us.  In a world of hierarchies and inequality, boundary crossing challenges a status quo that holds people apart.  In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), for example, the Samaritan helping the Jew is crossing boundaries of culture and religion: this is what it is to be a neighbor, Jesus explains.

What would it look like to put aside the helping narrative for a moment, and focus on the boundary-crossing narrative?  After all, helping relationships often place us in boundary-crossing situations that are exciting, challenging, and confusing.  Boundary-crossing involves looking inward as well as outward, paying attention to the blocks within ourselves as well as power systems that perpetuate and exacerbate divisions.    The segregation and polarization that rack the Unites States today indicate that we have a long way to go in learning how to cross boundaries.  It is often said that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week — cause for despair in churches like mine, where the congregation would like very much to be more diverse.  Given the challenges of crossing boundaries, how can we hope to guide our young people in living out this part of spiritual community?  Perhaps we should let them be our guides.

The movie The Children’s March opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking in a Birmingham church, urging the African American citizens to come and get arrested with him, fill up the jails, and change the racist system.  The grown-ups stay quietly in their seats.  But the young people start standing up.  King and other Civil Rights movement leaders forbid the young people from getting involved.  Too late!  The children had already gotten the bit in their teeth: the young people of Birmingham, including children as young as 6 years old, mobilized.  Days later, they left school, marched downtown, and were arrested by the thousands.  The “Children’s March” set the stage for the March on Washington and helped to shape the principles, the energy, and the actions of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

The young people were crossing boundaries that their parents couldn’t, yet.   They were defying the rules, limits and expectations of the adult world.  This defiance, the Civil Rights movement came to understand and proclaim, was deeply rooted in Jesus’ radical work of overturning established conventions and assumptions.  Are our churches today supporting the potential of our young people to fight forces of division and inequality?

Youth group parent leaders at my church are experimenting with changes in our approach to community life with our youth group, and exploring the possibility that these changes could also breathe new life into youth programming.  We are questioning our assumptions about what we expect of our young people.  Does our church tap their energy, creativity, and resilience?  Where do these qualities intersect with the theological questions and community life that occupy our church?  Namely, what would it mean to walk with our young people in the tradition of social justice?

We decided to develop a social justice project focused on crossing boundaries – not on helping, on good character, or on bible study.  We are spending the year visiting other houses of worship (temples, synagogues, mosques, churches of different denominations and nationalities), and meeting with the youth of those congregations.  The question we bring everywhere we go is, “What is social justice in this community and what is the role of your religious community in living out the meaning of social justice?”  For crossing boundaries not only carries a political charge; it also sparks inquiry.  It puts us in the territory of questions, dialogue, and the unknown.  We are hoping that the inquiry we are collectively engaged in will help us to learn from one another – Christian from Muslim, adult from adolescent, individual from group – and begin to reconstruct for ourselves what the tradition of being a neighbor, as Jesus described in the story of the Good Samaritan, means for us today.

We are at the beginning of our journey, but one thing is clear so far: the defiant Christian is a very different proposition from the pious Christian.  We began with a trip from the far north of Chicago to the far South of the city, to visit St. Sabina Church, whose priest is a boundary-crosser of tremendous stature.  Father Pfleger, a white pastor in an African-American church, lives out his Christian faith through civil disobedience, breaking the rules, challenging the status quo.  He questions Catholic hierarchies and white Christian piety from the pulpit.

Our young people are standing in a space that they have been separated from by the unwritten laws of segregation, participating in unfamiliar rituals and listening to what people in St. Sabina name as being a neighbor.  They are not doing service.  They aren’t helping anyone.  They are experiencing boundary crossing… and we adults will be listening when they tell us what it means to them.



Against an Economy of Learning



Dog people in Chicago know that Dog Beach is a space of boundless curiosity, delight in strangers, and freedom.  Usually dogs live their lives bounded by separate houses, yards, streets; their encounters with each other and the world are multiply controlled. At Dog Beach I never see fights; tensions are quickly dissolved in the sand, the flying feet, and in the sheer multiplicity of dogs.

We human companions exult in our dogs’ romping that so pungently expresses our own love of play.   Even when we aren’t partaking of the sniffing, capering, pissing extravaganza, we do loosen up with the other humans on the beach following their dogs around.  We are all offleash.

The dog beach is the best analogy I can find to the mode of learning I saw during my night at the San Francisco Exploratorium last Thursday.  Hundreds of people running around following their noses, their senses, leaving their marks in sand, in light, in sound waves, reeling past crazy mirrors as omnipresent and enticing as the lake here at Chicago’s Dog Beach.  A dazzling display of curiosity.


I had stumbled upon Adult Night at the Exploratorium, which I think much more closely resembles Dog Beach than the usual family experience during the day.  While the Exploratorium specializes in “offleash” play, “Adult play” at the Exploratorium is an especially offleash experience.  True, kids don’t get enough chances to play and explore, but generally they get more than adults.  And adults are cripplingly play-deprived.

For me it was a novelty to be at the Exploratorium without kids in tow, observing, wandering, listening, touching – just taking it all in. I realized how habitually I formulate, distill, analyze, express – focusing on output and not a whole lot on input.

Back in schools, we teachers also habitually concern ourselves with the output of our students; the economy of learning in this country dictates that the value of inputs is measured by output.

Play defies this economy.  Play is input that resists measurable conversion into output.  This doesn’t mean the input just sits there though.  When I look at some of the ripples of the input of my childhood experiences of the Exploratorium, I realize they are actually waves – forceful and generative.  For example, playing with the many different kinds of mirrors in the Exploratorium, the way faces and bodies merge, shift, and multiply, entered into my developing understanding of multiple and overlapping identity.  It drew me to be fascinated by complexity and ambiguity, and attentive to patterns – interests that enable me to keep learning.

Giant Mirror Exhibit at The Exploratorium

There is an extravagance and dignity to the activity of taking in without having to put out right away.  It is vital that people have as much access as possible to exploration that is not constricted by forced output and rigid measurements, whether they be tests for children or evaluations for adults.  Even in places like Chicago, sorely lacking an Exploratorium, we can trust in “offleash” play to help our children — and we adults — grow as human beings.

The Outsourcing Game

 Our Pakistani exchange student has stirred up my interest in an issue that I hadn’t given much thought to before.  For his exchange program, he is required to choose a social issue in his home country to address while he’s here in the U.S.  He started out planning a project about making better traffic rules for drivers in Pakistan, so that streets would be safer for pedestrians.  That seemed like a good project, but it was a stretch for him to think about it; he didn’t have a burning interest.  I asked him why not focus on the issue that he has been talking about since the day he arrived: the drone attacks on Pakistan. 

Mateen decided that his project would be to do what he was already doing — asking people questions: “Do you know about drones?” “Do you think drone warfare is making the U.S. safer?” “Why do you think the Pakistani government doesn’t stop the drone attacks?”  “What would it take for the U.S. government to stop the drone attacks?”; and collecting stories, statistics, and research about drone warfare.

Mateen has converted me.  His questions have got me asking new questions.  I already opposed drone warfare, but I hadn’t been connecting it to other issues.  For instance, when Malala Yousafzai’s visit was the lead story in the news a few weeks ago, Mateen asked, “why is there all this concern about education for girls in Pakistan but not about the girls who are being killed in the drone attacks?”  He got me wondering if the media hype around Malala was a diversion, as Murtaza Hussain suggests in an article asking why no one was listening to 9 year-old Nabila Rehman testifying before Congress (though only a handful of Representatives showed up to hear her) about the drone attack that killed several members of her family.

But what Mateen’s questions have also helped me to notice is the phenomenal expansion of the outsourcing game.  Drones allow the U.S. to do an end run around the public institution of the army, to conduct warfare without public consent or knowledge.  Similarly, paramilitary forces both within the U.S. and abroad are instruments of warfare by remote control.  Until I started digging a little deeper, I assumed that such instruments were more efficient because they could be precisely targeted and leaner to operate than the unwieldy public institutions of police and army.  But when thousands of innocent people are killed in drone warfare and in paramilitary strikes, we must ask how well it works to wage war by remote control.  And how do remote control policies evolve when their use abroad has played out and the drones come home?

Of course, the U.S. weapons also provide excellent cover for the governments of the countries we’re attacking.  These governments are also skilled players at the outsourcing game: in Pakistan, the U.S. drones handily assist the government in controlling its tribal areas.  Who is the puppet master here; who is the puppet?

The big boys can worry about the question of who is controlling whom.  My question is if we as a public really want to be playing the outsourcing game at all?  Because if we continue to allow public knowledge, debate, and oversight to be bypassed through outsourcing, we are just being played for fools.

Questioning action against a background of education reform

At a time when people from outside of public schools are deciding what public education is and will be, in our cities, we teachers in private schools hesitate to speak up.  We don’t want to be making pronouncements about good education without knowing what it’s like to teach in high-poverty neighborhood schools.  At the same time, we know we can’t silently ignore the fact that our public school colleagues are under pressures that seem to be worsening year by year.  So, how do we respond to the assault on public education?

Recently I have been a part of groups of private school teachers from all over Chicago and all over the country who are asking these questions.

Their responses are strikingly different from those of the education reformers who are making changes from outside of the public schools.  The reformers are fixated on taking action at all costs.  They talk a lot about “fixing the broken education system,” and implement measures that they think will do so.   If they ever ask themselves if they know what they’re doing, they give no sign of it.

The private school teachers, on the other hand, are full of questions – of themselves as much as of the world around them.  As education leaders of the best schools in the country, they know to ask themselves often whether they know what they’re doing — and how they know if they know what they’re doing.  Self-examination is indispensable for good education, whether you are a teacher or a student or an administrator.

Education is about questions, uncertainty, doubt. It is about listening and looking and thinking and changing your thinking.

Sometimes education is about action too – but not apart from ongoing inquiry.  I call this activation: the inner change that shapes the outer work.  Education reform that is all action and no inner work betrays the very essence of education.

My colleagues are very aware that they don’t know enough to be able to advocate for a particular course of action.  Two separate groups of educators I met in the past two weeks determined that being in solidarity with the public schools meant they need to learn a lot more about what is going on in and around them.  To do so, they need to find ways to be in dialogue with people in public schools.

Where is this dialogue happening?

One of the consequences of recent education reform actions is that my public school colleagues, at least in Chicago, are increasingly unavailable for dialogue.  The pressures of increasing standardization and teacher evaluation, in addition to other destabilizing factors — from poverty and violence to the effects of school closing and massive staff cuts — are taking a huge toll on teachers and students.

These are not good conditions for dialogue.  In one of our recent progressive educators’ meeting, one teacher asked why our public school colleagues hadn’t come.  Another teacher said, “why would we expect them to come to our meetings?  We should be showing up where they are instead.”  Our inquiry, then, starts with relocating ourselves.

We in the independent schools don’t yet know how to be in solidarity with public schools.  But we have a better sense of the questions we need to ask, and where we need to ask them.

Questioning national boundaries, mental boundaries


What questions are off-limits as subjects for inquiry?  Are these limits different from school to school, from city to city and country to country?  What happens when we test the ground of off-limits questions?

I have been working on setting up a dialogue between my students and a class in St. Petersburg, Russia, exploring immigration policy and anti-immigrant attitudes in our respective countries.  Colleagues warned me that this topic might be too touchy for a Russian school to allow.

I knew that migrants from the former Soviet republics have been segregated and distrusted in Russia, and I got the impression that the discourse about the former Soviet republics is more political and theoretical than based in a consideration of the lives of actual migrants in the cities.  The questions I heard people in Russia discussing were how to limit the problems migrants brought into the cities — drugs, employment – not who the migrants are, what their lives are like and the perspective they offer to the country.

While the landscape is different in the U.S., especially in Chicago where immigrant communities are not as bounded and blamed as in St. Petersburg, nevertheless the topic of immigration leads straight into very uncomfortable questions.  For my students this year, I’m guessing what may get uncomfortable is the basic question of political analysis: Cui Bono — Who Benefits?

That’s the uncomfortable question for me, anyhow.   I see a lot of immigrants going through detention and deportation.  Who is benefiting from this cataclysm in hundreds of thousands of lives?

An immigration lawyer came to talk to my students about immigration policy in the U.S.  The harsh immigration laws that passed in Arizona, he explained, are written by ALEC, which is hired by the Correctional Corporations of America to find legislative mechanisms for increasing the population in their for-profit prisons.  This notion appalls me; I really don’t want to think that my government is operating this way, or that whole corporations of human beings would be so cynical and indifferent to human lives.

Though it’s uncomfortable, I feel strongly that it’s the touchy topics that most urgently call for inquiry, dialogue, lots of thinking.

A Russian colleague has agreed to develop an immigration policy idea exchange between our students.  Her response to me was overflowing with cautiousness — I know that her sense of the mines in the field of inquiry will be crucial for us moving forward.

Already in our initial teacher-to-teacher exchange, I notice that when my colleague articulates her perception of the boundaries of our inquiry, she enables me to start seeing boundaries on my side that weren’t so apparent to me before.  When she indicates reluctance to question assumptions about migrants in Russia, I am able to search out the areas of reluctance in me, and think about what they mean.

I’ll be keeping track of this internal inquiry over the course of this exchange, as much as of the ideas, policies, and current events pertaining to immigration.  Once I see the boundaries, I can think about how far they can be crossed.

What would a People’s Board of Education look like?

6:48 AM – 26 Sep 13



 “I love THIS Board, the People’s Board.  I no longer recognize the legitimacy of the Mayor-appointed School Board.  They hurt us. They closed our schools.”

On Wednesday night Chicago students, parents, grandparents, and teachers testified at the People’s Board Meeting at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church.  They described what was happening in their schools: high school students who, with overcrowded classrooms and few resources, felt shut out of the kind of learning that will lead them to college; parents in fear of the increased violence in neighborhoods their children were walking through; local school council members discouraged from questioning CPS policies.  

They were met with a Board who responded to them by listening, speaking in response, and immediately declaring motions to address the concerns. 

 Everyone was asked to fill out a detailed evaluation of the process before they left.

The contrast with CPS Board meetings could not have been more pronounced.  Most of the people who attended the People’s Board Meeting were veterans of CPS Board meetings who take their precious few sick days to head downtown on a Wednesday morning, stand in line for hours, listen to Board proceedings for hours, and, if they manage to get to the mic, are limited to 2 minutes of comment.  CPS Board members offer no response; the testimony goes unheeded.

For years community members have felt degraded, distrusted, and mocked by the undemocratic environment and process of the public school leadership.  The People’s Board meeting offered a model of a way of conducting business that is humanizing, community building, and educational.

CPS parent Rhoda Gutierrez’ testimony offers an example of the kind of analysis I heard throughout the meeting.  She listed the undemocratic processes the Board engages in, for instance:

*Blaming teachers and parents for the problems in public education, and calling schools and children failures, which diverts attention from having meaningful debates and discussions about education

*Stating that there is a fiscal crisis and declare that the only way to solve it is to follow a formula for closing schools by the proprivatization Broad Foundation by announcing 300+ schools may be closed, then pairing that down to 100+ then to 50, creating chaos across the district and setting up sham community hearings with appointed commissioners or paid hearing officers and disregarding any recommendations that don’t gel with the mayor’s plan for “right-sizing” the district

*Stating that there is a fiscal crisis, close a record-number of public schools, and fire 3,000 teachers and school workers and then fund massive private development projects (i.e. DePaul University stadium) diverting tax money away from public schools

Whereas people leave the CPS Board meetings downtown shaking off the atmosphere of hostility and division, at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, people walked into the night with hope and purpose, ready to bring new energy to their schools, their neighborhoods, and their families.  That’s how education in a democracy should work.

Here’s a Progress Illinois article detailing Wednesday’s CPS Board Meeting and People’s Board Meeting proceedings.

Democratic Education: Look for Progressive Schools’ Missing Link in Neighborhood Schools

neighborhood schools pic

What you need to understand is in our culture, when there’s not enough, we don’t quit, and we don’t close…When our children’s book bags are underutilized, we don’t kick them out, we fill them up. When there’s not enough potatoes, you don’t stop cooking dinner. When there is not enough gas, you don’t give away your car. Goldblatt is not an underutilized building. I’ll say it again: Goldblatt is not an underutilized building. It’s a greatly-utilized school. Don’t get schooling mixed up with the building…If you want to see progress, you got to keep our schools open.

– Marcus Brady, Goldblatt School Security Officer

 Unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately resolve its most urgent problem: to find out and identify itself…For it will be alive and flexible as well as stable, responsive to the complex and world-wide scene in which it is enmeshed.  While local, it will not be isolated.  Its larger relationships will provide an inexhaustible and flowing fund of meanings.

–John Dewey, The Public and its Problems

When Public Education is Under Attack, What Do We Do? STAND UP, FIGHT BACK! This   protest chant illuminates an important source of democratic education that have been left too long untapped by progressive education practice: struggle in community.  This value is at the heart of John Dewey’s writing on education, but its relevance to the progressive education that developed out of Dewey’s work has not been developed, because the people carrying out struggle in community were by and large not in progressive schools.  The fight for public education in Chicago challenges the progressive education community to decide whether democratic education matters enough to join in the struggle in community.

Recent analyses have focused on political implications of the fight over school closings at both local and global levels, exemplifying the kind of critical thinking schools should be nurturing in students.  But the school closings controversy also brought to the wider public voices in the community that teach us precisely the practices that we urgently need for democratic society today.  Coming from a progressive school context, I am interested in the meaning of struggle in community for progressive education.

In the Chicago Public School Board’s “community engagement” process over the past several months, community members spoke to the meaning of the school as a community.   Students, parents, faculty and administrators and staff across Chicago neighborhoods and schools all describe school as a place of belonging, continuity, trust, and safety.  They describe the nexus of relationships at the school: the school is a space where families come together with one another and with other families, in peace and hope.  Children find the protection and affirmation that they need to grow.  Adults find resources and encouragement for employment, health, and financial and reading literacy.  These are real-world supports that schools offer — and that the school closings now jeopardize.

Thousands of Chicagoans of every age, class, and race have been explaining to the Board of Education that school is not just an appendage of the state.  That it is not just a building in which to warehouse, test, and sort children.  That education is a broader field than academic progress — and that the measures by which they are considering academic progress are deeply flawed, with little correspondence to people’s actual strengths, nor to the capacities that are actually demanded by today’s world.  That investing in the economic, social, and physical health of the neighborhoods will improve education more surely than any strategy propagated by Central Office.

Community members’ testimonials describe exactly the kind of schools that the great education philosopher John Dewey proposed for America: community schools.  Dewey saw the school as the living source of democratic society: the closer its connections with the community, the stronger the learning that happened in it.  At the same time, he was clear that education viewed only in terms of academic growth is both rationally incorrect and socially dangerous. In “The School as a Social Centre,” he writes,

The intellectual life, facts, and truths of knowledge, are much more obviously and intimately connected with all other affairs of life than they ever have been at any previous period in the history of the world.  Hence a purely and exclusively intellectual instruction means less than it ever meant before. And, again, the daily occupations and ordinary surroundings of life are much more in need of interpretation than ever they have been before.

Education for today’s world requires breaking down the boundaries between academic learning and the challenges and opportunities of real life.  Over and over again, community members of scores of schools like Lafayette, Jackson, and Stockton, point to the community partnerships that enrich children’s education, like HEART, Merit, and multiple museum partnerships — that the school closings kill.  “Community” is not just being nice to each other and collaborating.  It lives in diverse relationships and in respect for the many parts of the learner — the musical learner, the ethical learner — parts which the School Board doesn’t recognize.

What does all this have to do with progressive education?  Progressive education philosophers knew that community didn’t just exist; it had to be fought for.  As Benson, Puckett, and Harkavy argue, however, in Dewey’s Dream, Dewey betrayed “the dream” of democratic education by shrinking from the battles that sustaining such a model required.  After founding his Laboratory School, he left Chicago and withdrew into philosophy that was removed from struggles surrounding real-life schools in cities like Chicago.  This left progressive schools to develop to spectacular success one dimension of Dewey’s philosophy, child-centered pedagogy — while leaving undeveloped the social implications of his philosophy.

Progressive education is anemic without struggle in community.  Dewey explained better than anyone how schools could and should be the vehicle for social transformation.  “The educational end and the ultimate test of value of what is learned is its use and application in carrying on and improving the common life of all,” he wrote.  Dewey saw schools as the place where people came together across diverse backgrounds, and co-created “the common life.” This necessarily included intelligently standing up to the powers that threatened the common life: “Obviously a society, to which stratification into separate classes would be fatal, must see to it that intellectual opportunities are accessible to all on equable and easy terms. A society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements.”

Writers and thinkers from Dewey’s contemporary George Counts to present-day philosopher Maxine Greene have lamented Progressive Education’s failure to take on the fight for the democratic work of the schools that Dewey envisioned. In “Dare the School Build a New Social Order,” Counts writes,

If Progressive Education is to be genuinely progressive, it must emancipate itself from the influence of this class, face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in all its stark reality, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become less frightened…Progressive Education cannot place its trust in a child-centered school.

Counts, along with other progressive philosophers, seeks to change the paradigm of education.  Schools, according to this paradigm, are not for preparing young people for success in the real world.  Schools are for changing the world.

Progressive education has not made much progress on this goal in its 100+ year history.

But community schools have.  Built up by people in the neighborhoods separated from the schools Dewey founded, community schools offer wrap-around supports for the improvement of the neighborhoods.   They grow community. 

Dewey said, “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community,” but he didn’t know how to actualize the neighborly community.  People in the neighborhoods did, and do.  They repeat over and over again that the measures that CPS uses are don’t fit the real work the schools are doing to strengthen communities, that these measures are limited, low, and ignorant.  As Andre Perry explains,

When we remove our eyes from the higher standard of community, we don’t see the intersectionality of community problems. When you’re community focused, you can’t be vigorous about school reform without being spirited about prison reform…When we have faith in community, we can never believe in a theory of improvement by deletion. Community members don’t go away. They may be literally locked away in jail and prison, but people are still here.

The people closing the schools (many of whom, of course, send their children to progressive schools like Dewey’s Laboratory School) are viewing public schools in a narrow and anti-progressive light.  Meanwhile, the people in the neighborhood schools are growing the potential of schools for furthering social change.  They know how to strengthen the school’s function as a social anchor of the community.

The people in the neighborhoods fighting together for their schools have been fleshing out the democratic implications of progressive education, which have been largely missing from progressive schools.   Their teachings offer a vital resource for a society struggling for democratic community.  The Chicago Public Schools Board didn’t listen: they summarily closed 50 schools yesterday.  I wonder if people in progressive schools can listen better — to foster democratic education in solidarity with our public schools communities, and STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!