Just Numbers

 Their hope bursts out of a system designed to thwart it.

                                                        –Program Notes, Just Numbers

Darius pokes his head around the corner to make sure the coast is clear.  He holds his breath, all senses on alert.  Is there graffiti warning him of new territorial shifts? Not this morning.  He sprints to the bus, gets on it safely, and can breathe while the bus takes him across the city and drops him off a few blocks away from his school.  He gets off and skirts dangerous territory, passes under an overpass where new tags are going up.  The taggers look at him but don’t follow him.  Darius survives another morning commute.

And gets to school 5 minutes late.  He is sent to the principal, and to detention.

It doesn’t take a whole lot of brains to understand that a child whose commute is anything like this is not in a state to learn.  And that rather than sitting that child in detention, or in a test, or test prep, we adults need to offer healing now and community safety long term.  Once our children are safe, we can turn our attention to education.

Darius’ story is one of six that, along with impressive ensemble poetry, make up Just Numbers, the new Chicago Slam Works play.  Why do adults need to watch other adults performing a play from kids’ perspectives?  Because we aren’t listening to the kids’ voices.  Students are hidden from public view in their schools, in segregated neighborhoods.  But over and over the students in the play remind us: they aren’t blind; they see exactly what’s going on.  They see they are pawns in a game of powerful players whose rhetoric of student achievement masks self-serving economic and political machinations.  Students’ actual lives, interactions, and thoughts are presented against a background of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s speeches on education policy, which sound distant, irrelevant, and offensively glib.

Chicago Public School students are very clear about what they need: safety, health, parents who can be present for them, who are not forced to work multiple jobs, who are not in prison, killed, or deported, and teachers who will not be replaced next year or next week.  And in the classroom: an education that respects students’ intelligence and humanity.

In case white parents in Chicago – half of whose children don’t go to CPS — don’t understand why teachers voted to go on strike next week, this play offers a point-by-point lesson: from the questionable funding, operating, and staffing of charter schools, to the high-stakes testing forced on Black and Brown children.


This is not public education.  Public education means that all children are valued, that people hold accountable the system, its architects and decision-makers, not individual teachers and students.  Many Americans have bought into the education reform emphasis on test scores, but the world’s most successful education system rejects testing — and calls out the testing profiteers.  Finnish education minister Pasi Sahlsberg insists: a successful public education system is based on equity of quality education.  It values informal learning and emphasizes reciprocal trust between students, teachers, parents, and administrators.  “Measuring of what matters in school is difficult, if not impossible. It is character and mind that matter… not being among winners in knowledge tests.”

Public education requires that the voices of people in schools – students, teachers, and parents – are at the center of decision-making about schools, both in the classroom and in the district.  Not bankers, realtors, and politicians.  Let’s act like a public: let’s listen to public school students and teachers, take seriously their stories, their questions, and their ideas, and demand that our leaders stop treating them like “just numbers.”

“Invisible Borders:” Walking Tour of Istanbul

And before long, the music, the views rushing past the window, my father’s voice and the narrow cobblestone streets all merged into one, and it seemed to me that while we would never find answers to these fundamental questions, it was good for us to ask them anyway.
–Orhan Pamuk


Istanbul is known to be the crossroads of the world.  In visiting the city, I am curious about how different groups have lived together there in different eras and conditions.  How do people compose their community life in day-to-day relationships, regardless of how news headlines and history texts portray them?  How do they create the “in-between” space that Maxine Greene describes as the key to public life, “where people speak in terms of ‘who,’ not ‘what’ they are”?

These questions take shape around borders: How do borders sustain respect? How do they abuse human dignity? I know a little bit about the waves of conflicts and oppression, the written laws and unwritten customs used by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities – and many languages, cultures, and other subgroups within and across these communities – to co-exist over the course of Istanbul’s history.  And the news shows people all over the world engaging in a range of collective behaviors, from nationalist xenophobia to democratic inclusion to indifference.

The scale of these views is too large for me.  I am looking for small, local processes of relationship building across differences.  Neighborhoods are where people are listening and learning and growing side-by-side, day-by-day, in many contexts over time and across countries.  But media and politics tend to ignore these local spaces and the knowledge and struggles of their residents.

My daughter is studying in Istanbul; she arranged for us to take a walking tour of a few intersecting neighborhoods of Istanbul: Fener, Balat, Dramond, and Edernekape.  The tour focused on demographic and architectural changes, but the subtext is, “how do people live with another across class, ethnic, religious, and cultural differences?” We spent about an hour in each neighborhood, covering a few blocks and several “invisible borders.”


Our guide, Gaye, lives in the neighborhood we are walking through.  She describes her view of neighborhoods: spaces where people want to be in relationships with other people, where they experience otherness as a rich resource, not as a threat.   She, along with a team of students and professors at the university, is developing what they call “active anthropology,” engaging people from different communities in asking questions about identity, social change, and culture.  In contrast to widespread media attention to ethnic conflict, the anthropologists are interested in “how we’re nourished by intersocial relations between different groups in a place.”  They wonder if the increasing societal emphasis on private life is “a deliberate plan to create distance between people.” These neighborhood researchers demonstrate “intersocial” commitments in the way they approach us.  Gaye urges us to ask questions, “not because I’ll have answers, but so we can all learn from what you are asking about.”

The framing question she has for our group of western visitors, mostly university exchange students, have to do with patterns of gentrification: Would you choose to respect the historical quality of the neighborhood or to respect people’s daily lives and choices – including their self-interested changes to the historical buildings of the neighborhood? Pointing out historical markers like “jumba windows” of the Ottoman period, she emphasizes that homeowners may or may not preserve such features when they remodel.

Gaye is studying gentrification in this particular community because in Istanbul, “Usually gentrification happens too quickly to track.  Here it’s happening slowly enough that we can watch it as it unfolds.”  She classifies two types of gentrifiers: Type A gentrifiers, who are investors, and isolate themselves from the neighborhood with fences, bars on the windows, and general absence. Type B gentrifiers are the hipsters, who seek out relationships with neighbors, sensitive to problems in the neighborhood.

Gaye puts herself in the Type B camp.  She originally comes from a neighborhood across the river on the Asian side.  She tells a little story about learning the language of neighborhood life: “Women express themselves with cleaning.  There’s a discourse of laundry in this neighborhood. Ropes strung between buildings are used to express connection and conflict. I wanted to hang laundry and arrived at my window at the same time as a woman on other side of the street.  She glared. I smiled a little, she smiled a little, gradually, smiling more and more.  We silently came to an understanding and shared the rope.” Gaye shows us how she “reads” the streetscape, including doors and windows, empty space, sounds, and, of course, people.

She describes what happened when scores of Syrian refugee families came into the neighborhood recently.  She took part in a community response: people in the neighborhood rented flats for the refugee families, taught them Turkish, provided food and other supplies. But the refugee families sold the food, left the flats.  The activists researched – what went wrong?


I feel ambivalent.  I appreciate Gaye’s team’s deep interest in neighborhood relationships and their creative intellectual work.  At the same time, I think their research stance carries dangers: they are experimenting and intellectualizing, a response that seems irresponsible in relation to the vulnerability of the people in their neighborhood living through humanitarian crises.  On the other hand, is it less irresponsible to do nothing?

As a place-based educator, I am fascinated by these university researchers’ “active anthropology.” I’m also disturbed by it.  I won’t assume that gentrification in Istanbul works the same way that it does in Chicago and other U.S. cities, where the influx of wealthy, trendy folk assaults the integrity of lower income neighborhoods.  But, like American gentrifiers, the Turkish gentrifiers don’t seem to demonstrate the self-reflectiveness that is necessary when people of privilege enter into more vulnerable communities.

Gaye is exploring her own conditions, the neighborhood she is over time making herself part of. She is studying gentrification from within.  Her focus is still, though, on the other, on other people, on buildings, on streetscapes, not on herself: her reactions, people’s reactions to her.  Without such reflection, her study is incomplete and likely to unintentionally perpetuate an “othering” approach.

Even though they’re on the lookout for othering, the team’s faith in their anthropological method may block them from doing the kind of self-examination necessary to interrupt objectification.  Without examining their own prejudices at every turn, they are perpetuating stereotypes.  Gaye’s research questions can sound like veiled accusations: “Why did you sell the rice we gave you?” “Why did you leave the apartment we put you in?” “Why aren’t the Syrian men working?” “What could change this problem?”  She doesn’t hear the power she wields in her voice, her stance, her freedom of movement, and without being alert to this, she is likely to alienate the neighbors who are most different from her, the ones she is most interested in connecting with.

If the enterprise of peaceful co-existence subordinates local knowledge to common understanding, it will always be the more powerful who set the terms and maintain order.  So, local knowledge is always threatened, never fully respected.  As an outsider to a community, who wants to learn how to be in relationship with people in it, I am wondering if there is a way I can hold awareness of the danger I as an outsider pose within my respect for the community.  Does attention to the ways local knowledge is threatened, including my own gaze and narrative as an outsider, make my relationship in another community more possible – or less so?

Borderlands Consciousness- part 2

Because the future depends on the breaking down of paradigms, it depends on the straddling of two or more cultures.  By creating a new mythos – that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves and the way we behave – la mestiza creates a new consciousness.

–Gloria Anzaldúa

The photographer stepped out from behind the camera standing at the doorway of the classroom.  He leaned toward the class of 11th graders and said, “Actually I want to say something to you.”  They looked at him.  Young and thin, he could have easily passed for a student in this school in the Texas border town of Hidalgo.  It was the first time I had heard him speak; for two days I had seen him only behind the camera.  He said something like this:

Where you’re from is important.  I grew up in Corpus Christi, not far from here.  I thought I had to leave my community to be successful: people would always badmouth it.  I have gotten the chance to travel a lot once I got to college, and see amazing places.  I meet new people when I travel, and I tell them about the culture of my community, about my roots.  When you’re traveling, you meet people who have never been to this area, who don’t know anything about it. You realize that what people will know of where you come from is what you tell them.  You tell the story of where you came from – you don’t need to keep telling the same old tired story.  The negative story about this area is only one story.  What is the story you want to tell?

Misael got me thinking about how much I accept others’ versions of reality rather than doing the creative work of describing reality for myself.  Misael’s words to his younger colleagues reminded me that going away and coming back helps us get the perspective we need to be able to recognize the stories of hope and determination and courage that make us who we really are.  When we’re at home, wrapped up in the familiar routines and worries, we forget that the reality we inhabit is a story.  When we go away, and look back home, the deeper resonances that lie within the voices of our families and communities can emerge.  Listening to them helps us to challenge the faceless authorities that dehumanize us.

After coming back from the 2016 North Dakota Study Group meeting in Texas, (“Movimiento Sin Fronteras/Movement Without Borders”), I have been thinking about why Misael, and other university students I talked to in South Texas, are so adamant about young people coming back to their communities.  I heard people talking about coming back as a kind of a border-crossing: an act that was not only geographic but also spiritual.  By seeking out the stories of their parents and grandparents, they are growing stronger understandings of love, commitment, education – as well as of racism and exploitation.  By speaking and hearing Spanish in educational spaces, they are standing up to a history of English-only school policies that demeaned their families. By learning Nahuatl language and literature, they are reclaiming wisdom that preceded the conquest and colonization of the Americas, and that expresses spiritual resistance to oppression.

I wondered what coming back might mean to the high school students in Hidalgo who were listening to Misael.


When I returned from South Texas, I shared with my teacher education class the video of the NDSG meeting there, created by Misael Ramirez and his colleagues Jesús Sierra and Arnulfo Segovia.  My students, who have been focusing on systems of racism in education, were inspired to learn about teachers and students deepening their understanding of community, place, and story.  They talked about how education based in humanizing relationships could counter testing oppression, corporate control of education, and other ways that schooling systems disrespect students’ lives.

Alongside the NDSG video, my co-teacher Marcus Campbell and I shared Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade’s “Roses in Concrete” Ted Talk, which emphasizes the importance of students in urban communities coming back to their communities, and “creating rose gardens.”  This was an important image for my students from marginalized communities, and also for students from privileged backgrounds, who are struggling to find their place as teachers in urban schools with students who don’t look like them.  Many of them are realizing that they are part of an education system that is structurally designed to benefit White people at the expense of communities of color, and they are asking how to challenge racism from within the education system.

One student, a young white woman from a wealthy community, realized that she unintentionally supports students’ marginalization when she assumes that they need to leave their communities to succeed:

This idea made me think of the volunteer work I have done with children from the inner city of Baltimore. My mindset working with them was always to help them get out, and essentially get into the world in which I exist. I think I have been conditioned by society to imagine my world, the mostly White world, as the ultimate goal. I sincerely wanted to help these children, but in my mind helping them was getting them into my world and leaving their world behind.

Though these realizations are painful, they are also liberating.  For my student coming to terms with the assumptions she had made, “coming back” means value and dignity.  She is coming to question her “helping” narrative, which distorts who her students are and who she can be with them.  The more she learns to respect where her students come from, the more she can know of their reality – and of her own.  Her stories are changing; her range of meaning is expanding and deepening. To quote South Texas native Gloria Anzaldúa, “Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”

Intergenerational organizing for freedom: notes on Mississippi Summer conference

Young people have a feeling of the future in a soulful way”

— Timuel Black


I hadn’t heard much about SNCC* before moving to Chicago, but when several people who I respected a lot were introduced to me as leaders of SNCC, I hurried to learn more about it.  It is important to my development as an activist and an educator to dig under the Hallmark version of the Civil Rights movement, to know about what people learned, and not only how they engaged in the struggle with injustice in the world around them, but also how they struggled between themselves and within themselves.  I am particularly interested in knowing how outsiders, both Black and White Northerners, entered into the fight for Civil Rights: how did they come into Southern communities as activist strangers, without disrespecting local knowledge and leadership?

In her book on Ella Baker, Barbara Ransby pays close attention to this question, showing how Baker challenged Civil Rights leaders who imposed their norms and goals on local communities and insisted that movement leaders must take their lead from local people.  Ransby’s book also illuminated for me powerful differences, as well as synergies, between the SCLC**, where Martin Luther King Jr. and other middle-class, mostly male Black clergy led, and SNCC, which was younger, more interracial, and more grassroots-focused.  Ransby emphasized Ella Baker’s work to support the leadership of the younger group, which involved not only working with the more politically powerful SCLC but also challenging its methods and its biases.

Then, as now, people working for social change wrestled with the limits and possibilities of radical action.  Though people often think this means hostile and divisive behavior, radical tactics respond very directly to a context of extreme hostility – where hierarchies and profits push out basic human rights like education, health, and life.  Ella Baker explained:

In order for us as poor and oppressed people to become part of a society that is meaningful, the system under which we now exist has to be radically changed. This means that we are going to have to learn to think in radical terms. I use the term radical in its original meaning–getting down to and understanding the root cause. It means facing a system that does not lend itself to your needs and devising means by which you change that system.

For SNCC, this meant fighting for voting rights, through education, organizing, and political action.  The Mississippi Summer Project was a SNCC campaign launched in 1964 to register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi.  Young people came from all over the country to stand up to the intimidation and violence of the racist white establishment that kept Black people from the polls.  They were welcomed by Black Mississipians, who, above and beyond allowing young White and Black northerners to organize in their communities, accepted loss of job, safety, and life for taking part in the campaign for voting rights.

Last week in Chicago, as part of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, SNCC leaders gathered with youth leaders from Fearless Leading by the Youth and other groups organizing against police violence, and students from local schools and universities.  The conference, “Come, Let Us Build a New World Together,” was “designed to connect the past with the current wave of youth activism and the socio-economic crises of ‘endangered communities.’”  The intergenerational discussions at the conference highlighted how SNCC confronted systemic racism 50 years ago and how this fight continues today.  Tracing the evolution of the struggle allows for cross-generational exchange of perspective, strategies, and stories.

The conference was a model of intergenerational respect, expressing not so much the expectation that young people pick up where the older generation left off but the commitment of older and younger organizers to fight together.  One SNCC leader commented, “We get free when we get engaged – it’s a very spiritual thing…we’re looking at you young people, seeing the effects of what we did then – you can go into restaurants, to integrated schools, you can vote.”  In a country where political power is tied to money, grassroots power has to have a spiritual base, expressed in song and art and love.  SNCC leader John Hardy said, “There’s a personal commitment at base here – we have to have faith that change is going to come. If you don’t believe it, you can’t achieve it. Politics begin when two people get together.”  For SNCC folk, inner commitment took the outward form of carefully planned tactics: “With SNCC, there was always a plan and a procedure to move forward.”

SNCC leaders talked about strategies that guided their work:

*put young people on the ground, at the source of the problem.

*non-violence as a tactic (it frustrated those in power, who expected and hoped for violence)

*direct confrontation

*let the local people speak (vs. SCLC, where the clergy was out in front.  When King came to Chicago – SCLC leadership squelched local leadership; they never regained power after that)

*equip the youth with knowledge of how to attack these problems (know your opponent; study leaders of the past)

*educate each other

As leaders of a group that used racial difference, privilege, and tension as both political tactics and educational processes, SNCC leaders had a lot to say about cross-racial organizing.  One pointed out that “[SNCC leader] Stokely Carmichael told people to go back and fight racism in your communities.  White people could go to Mississippi to fight racism but couldn’t fight it in their own communities.  They started the women’s movement, the peace movement, the environmental movement – but they couldn’t face racism.”  Watching the Democratic presidential candidates deal with the challenges young Black Lives Matter activists put before them, it is clear that progressive politics have been handicapped by a refusal to engage in the truth-telling and restorative processes of addressing racism in America.

Angel, a young Public Allies leader who, along with SNCC leader John Hardy, facilitated our intergenerational discussion group, closed our circle with powerful words: “what are the lessons learned?  My generation hasn’t learned the lessons, because we haven’t sat down and reflected on the history.  But when we do, when we understand what the older generation is saying, we can break it down for the younger ones, so they can relate. Earlier, Dr. Al Bennett talked about the bricks that everybody here needed to be laying to build the path to the future.  But when you place the brick you don’t just put it there.  You stand on it and say this is my brick. Go forth with fire and burn!”


*SNCC (“snick”): Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization of young people founded in 1960 by African American college students engaged in direct action for Civil Rights

**SCLC: Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a national, intergenerational Civil Rights organization; following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the founders in 1957 and the organization’s first president.  Ella Baker worked for SCLC and helped to found SNCC as an organization allied with but separate from SCLC.

Chicago Folklore Ensemble

P1010224-150x150“…And then the Elders started jamming!”  My daughter Lucia is telling me about the potluck she hosted in her tiny Rogers Park apartment for the Elders, musicians from Ghana, Argentina, Jordan, Serbia, and Thailand.  Each brought a dish from their home country. Lucia’s contribution was a spicy Mexican red pepper soup, but the real star was the Jordanian baba ghanoush with yellow pomegranates that Baha brought. Lucia and her partner Sam had been listening to and learning the stories and music of each of the Elders over the past year, and tonight for the first time the Elders were meeting each other.  The interest they had in one another was powerful.  “Jovan (from Serbia) and Baha (from Jordan) started exchanging philosophies within moments of meeting.”

Lucia posted a short video they took: “The music was just itching to jump onto the table, and before even finishing eating, they were all playing together. Serbian violinist jamming on Thai khaen tunes, Ghanaian keyboard player backing up Argentinian singer. Here is a little taste of it!”

Lucia spent a year riding a bike and carrying a fiddle around Central Europe – Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Kosovo, Serbia, Turkey – on a musical pilgrimage.  She came back to Chicago ravenous to hear the music of immigrants in this city.  Together with Sam Hyson, she launched the Chicago Folklore Ensemble, to seek out stories and songs that are rarely heard across cultures and neighborhoods.  They assembled a string quartet and a storyteller to perform the music and stories of the Elders.

At times like this, when immigration is a fraught political issue and detention and deportation are ever-present threats in immigrant families, hearing the Elders’ music and stories is balm for the City’s soul.

The set of performances run through November 8, beginning at 7:30 tomorrow night, at University of Chicago’s International House.

Learning from Grace Lee Boggs


In honor of Grace Lee Boggs, who passed last week at a tremendous 100 years old, I am posting an excerpt from my book, which was influenced by meeting Grace and studying her work in Detroit.  This section of the book focuses on the North Dakota Study Group meeting in Detroit in 2014, which was hosted by Grace and other Detroit activists and educators.

When educators and students cross borders between schools and between schools and real life and between hierarchically divided groupings of age, race, and culture, they are taking part in the democratic work of coalition building.  I offer here a brief sketch of a group that has practiced democratic coalition building continuously over the course of generations, and between generations.  A strong collective history of community organizing in social justice movements enables North Dakota Study Group (NDSG) participants to recognize and nurture organic connections between the different constituencies in and around schools – from parents to policy makers to community organizations.  By choosing to fight for the dignity of every child in every community, following the lead of the families in these communities while remaining aware of their own identities, these democratic educators step outside of prescribed roles and foster a new kind of freedom.

Learning in Community Partnerships

Instead of trying to bully young people to remain in classrooms isolated from the community and structured to prepare them to become cogs in the existing economic system, we need to recognize that the reason why so many young people drop out of inner-city schools is because they are voting with their feet against an educational system that sorts, tracks, tests, and certifies them like products of a factory because it was created for the age of industrialization.  They are crying out for the kind of education that gives them opportunities to exercise their creative energies because it values them as whole human beings.

–Grace Lee Boggs

I will touch on a moment from my own experience at a NDSG meeting to provide an example of how school-community exchange leads to greater understanding of student learning.  Every time I attend one of these NDSG meetings, I hear stories of young people taking leadership and exchanging wisdom with elders in their home contexts, whether in Texas or New Orleans or Hawa’ii.  The young people describing artfully designed partnerships with older generations have deeply influenced my thinking about education.

The 2014 meeting was in Detroit, at the invitation of Grace Lee Boggs, a powerful social justice leader almost 100 years old, who along with other Detroit community organizers and educators introduced NDSG to the work Detroiters were doing “re-imagining and re-storying” the city.  In the weeks leading up to the conference, participants read articles like James Boggs’ “Community Building: An Idea Whose Time has Come,” which argues,

our first priority must be the rebuilding or the regeneration of our communities because it is in community that human beings have always found their personhood or their human identity as persons.  You can’t find your human identity out there by yourself.  It is in the community that our human identity is created because it is in the community that love, respect, and responsibility for one another are nurtured.  (2011, p. 334).


Grace Lee Boggs describes the growth of local community power in her speaking and writing as an “organically evolving cultural revolution.”  Detroit, like thousands of other local communities fighting for social justice, is “growing the soul” of interdependence and resistance to dehumanization.  “In ’this exquisitely connected world,’” Boggs writes, quoting Margaret Wheatley, “the real engine of change is never ‘critical mass;’ dramatic and systemic change begins with ‘critical connections’” (Boggs & Kurashige, 2011, p. 50).

At the 2014 meeting of the North Dakota Study Group, participants continued a many-year inquiry into the relationship between education and sustainability.  One of the community sites that participants had an opportunity to visit was EMEAC — Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council.  At EMEAC’s beautiful site, a gilded age era mansion called the Cass Corridor Commons, which houses several social justice organizations, leaders talked to a small group of educators not about plants and pollution but about learning, relationships, and personal growth as environmental issues.

At Cass Corridor Commons, young adult leaders from the community engage teenagers only a few years younger than them in “hip hop literacy.”  This community organization is not the kind of external partner that impose top-down change from outside of students’ experience, but the kind that supports critical analysis people in the schools may not have access to, such as structural analysis of race and power and interpersonal relationship building.

The young EMEAC leaders explained the educational premises of this literacy pedagogy to the assembled educators, who are mostly teachers a generation or two older and uneducated in the meaning of hip hop.

Hip hop literacy, we learn, presents the conditions and issues that are most real in young people’s lives within a critical framework that enables young people to construct meaning and connect with values that affirm them culturally and linguistically.  In hip hop art, “Maturity and power can be triggered through vocabulary,” Todd Ziegler, one of the young EMEAC leaders, explains.  Hip hop is a deeply democratic art, an expression of healing and hope: “Hip hop,” Todd narrated, referring to histories of violence in urban communities that drove people into isolated and fearful private spaces, “came out of people bringing people back on the street…bringing music outdoors…the message was, ‘stop staying indoors, come together!’” The hip hop modality of sampling is also democratic education: by setting iconic musical “texts” in new relations to each other and connecting them with contemporary rhythms and beats, hip hop music traces the knowledge and the histories that span the generations.  In this way, young people can connect to the cultural legacy of musical traditions of past generations like jazz and blues; hip hop puts them in dialogic relationship to past knowledge and power that they can build on.

Because they were so recently teenagers themselves, and were themselves mentored in empowering ways, these young community educators have powerful insights about liberatory educational relationships.  Through dialogue, conversation invoking values and recognizing capacities, drawing on what both adults and students know and don’t know, a learning exchange unfolds between educators and students.  In this reciprocal exchange, it isn’t “students’ learning” or “teachers learning,” but learning as the field that connects them.

As I listened, it seemed to me that this approach was more natural – and thus more possible – with young African-American leaders in educational relationships with African-American youth.  When I asked how this exchange might translate for white teachers of students of color, EMEAC leader Will Copeland responded with the story of a young white teacher who came to teach in the neighborhood school.  The first thing she did, he said, was learn where the young people spent their time out of school, and go there.  Even though she didn’t live in the community, she spent her free time in the community spaces where her students were.  She knew that she didn’t walk in the door with the kind of relational capital that a colleague who is a person of color might, and that she faced a steep learning curve.  By respecting students in their neighborhood environment, trust developed that could nurture strong reciprocal learning relationships.  This white teacher was doing her part in the “re-storying” of Detroit, by basing her teaching in the close company she kept with her African American students, in their neighborhood.

I highlight the educational work of EMEAC not as an exceptional program with exceptional people (though they are exceptional!), but as an example of the kind of local knowledge and democratic practices that thousands of ordinary people all over the country (and the world) are engaged in.  The social knowledge that blooms in grassroots organizations is a transformative resource for our schools, as the scores of schools in Detroit who partner with such organizations understand.

A speaker at the NDSG meeting later that day underscored what was so important in the approach the white teacher took in the Cass Corridor neighborhood.  Former Black Panther Ron Scott emphasized that unacknowledged racial tensions poison education in America.  Of education reformers who make claims about transforming kids and communities, he said, “we never put ourselves in uncomfortable situations to transform ourselves.”  “The charity model,” he continued, “created a dynamic we can’t handle.  It’s crippling.  You want to come into an area and you don’t want to respect the indigenous knowledge that’s already there – a wall goes up.”  Unlike the white teacher Will had talked about earlier, many educators as well as education policy makers assume that they are doing good without taking the time to learn how to enter a space respectfully.  In this way, a white supremacist master narrative remains unchallenged.

As Boggs and other NDSG leaders showed us, adult society needs to learn to take young people seriously, not only respecting their agency in their own lives, but also recognizing them as leaders who have an important role to play in democratic progress.  Instead of pinning them to individual measures on standardized scale, schools should be nurturing youths’ understanding of themselves as part of a vibrant collective leadership.  They should be helping students learn the language and methods of collective power.  We have the ability to change the rules that make up the structures of our individual and collective lives – and thereby change the structures themselves.


Boggs, G. L. & Kurashige, S. The next American revolution: Sustainable activism for the twenty-first century (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2011).

Boggs, J. (2011).  Pages from a Black radical’s notebook: A James Boggs reader. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University.

— excerpted from Teaching and Learning on the Verge: Democratic Education in Action

For other writers’ posts on Grace Lee Boggs, click here.

The civic responsibility of teachers: a view from Russia

epishkola - kto ia?

Late last Spring, my Russian colleague Mikhail Epshtein publicly shared a letter he had originally sent to the school community of which he has been principal for over 20 years. Epishkola is a private progressive school in St. Petersburg, born in the liberalizing era of the early 1990s. It is a school that continues to evolve its philosophy and practice of progressive education – albeit in an atmosphere of increasing fear and repression. In his letter, Mikhail mourns the dismantling of a “cornerstone of civil society” in the city. TSRNO, a non-profit incubator whose beneficiaries included Mikhail’s school, was targeted by a new law that designates non-profit organizations as “foreign agents,” effectively removing them from society and shutting them down. However, Mikhail’s letter doesn’t focus on the threat to his own school and other non-profits posed by this event. Rather, it focuses on his own complicity in what happened. His interpretation outlines the civic responsibility of teachers. My translation of Mikhail’s letter follows (click here for the original Russian version); in an upcoming blog post I will discuss connections with the education context in Chicago.

ABOUT CITIZENSHIP: Reflections at the broken trough

by Mikhail Epshtein

I wrote a private letter to colleagues – teachers, graduates, parents of students at the school, in which I have been working for 20 years. But writing it, I realized that what had happened could be important beyond just this community. I decided to publish my thoughts more widely. As an opportunity for all of us to reflect… on our near future.

This is the situation, which, unfortunately, has recently become the usual: prosecutors come to a non-profit organization in order to close it, or at least drastically complicate its life. The formal reason for coming? The organization has received grants from foreign foundations. Informally, though, the reason is that the organization has dared to act independently: it comes to public authorities with new ideas as to how they can improve their activities for the benefit of their citizens.

And for our government such impertinence is offensive, so, instead of stretching out a hand of cooperation, it clamps down on troublemakers by establishing draconian laws against NGOs.

This time, prosecutors came to check on the St. Petersburg NGO Development Center (TSRNO). The specialist found that TSRNO has committed two serious offenses (in essence – criminal offenses): it receives grants of foreign funds, and engages in political activities. So, under the guise of the Center, a nest of “foreign agents” has hatched.

And so, the employees of the organization get to choose one of two things: either “with feeling, with propriety, with deliberation,” drowning in a sea of ​​bureaucratic problems, or, self-destruct immediately.

TSRNO is one of the oldest non-profit organizations of the city. It helps other nonprofit organizations to operate more efficiently; it organizes dialogue between the community and the city government and business. I believe that TSRNO today is one of the cornerstones of civil society in St. Petersburg.

Our private school is one of these non-profit organizations. We have cooperated with TSRNO for many years. And, along with other colleagues involved in this work, I have been friends with people in this organization for almost 30 years. I know their motives and am deeply aware of the importance of this organization for the city. Of course, they are not in any way “foreign agents” – in whatever sense this term is used. They are people who freely and thoughtfully try to make life in Russia better.

What exactly is the “political activity” TSRNO does? It is charged with the desire to actively cooperate with the state, preparing draft legislation, participating in the examination of laws and so on. Today, this is called “undesirable activity.”

I, like my colleagues at TSRNO, believe it is important to cooperate with foreign counterparts – for the common good. I do not see why we have to be closed off from the outside world. I have lots of friends and partners in different countries, and I know that they wish us only well. And our organization has received numerous grants from foreign organizations and we used the money to develop the school. Should we therefore be considered foreign agents?

I see what is happening in the country – again, as in the 1930s and at the turn of 1940-1950-s: mutual hatred is being sowed, people are being forced to hang labels on others, labels which will block and ultimately shut down their activities.

But why do I go on at such length and with such pathos?!

Because this story is very personal to me.

* * *

The fact is that that prosecutor, who came to TSRNO and charged it with being a “foreign agent,” happens to be a graduate of our school.

What are my feelings and thoughts about this?

First. I consider it necessary to apologize to my TSRNO colleagues and the entire nonprofit community of the city. I apologize for the fact that it was a graduate of our school who was the prosecutor taking part in this awful event.

We took part in his education for 10 years. Hence, we bear some of the blame for his choice.

Second. I feel personally guilty in this situation.

Guilty in the first place toward our graduate who is now working in the prosecutor’s office. Obviously, we were not able to make school a place that would help him understand the value of civil society. We weren’t clear enough in telling him about the persecution of the Communist regime, the atmosphere that prevailed in the country during that time, the role of the interrogators and the judiciary, and about the mechanisms that initiated and maintained the persecutions. We did not create the conditions for kids to be able to get experience in civic participation in the life of the school, city and country. In the time that he was in our school, we didn’t succeed in instilling in him a sense of the joy of freedom – his own and others, and of the need to defend this freedom.

This guy always wanted to be a lawyer. And we didn’t succeed in warning him about the moral complexities that he would inevitably face while working in the prosecutor’s office at this time.

Third. I do not think it’s right to gloss over the situation. It is necessary to talk about it and to draw conclusions.

Many believe that a particular contractor is not at fault. They submit that this decision came down from above, and the employee of the prosecutor’s office just did what his bosses told him to.

But I do not think it’s right to put this all at the feet of the system. There are always specific actors. Remember, like E. Schwartz in the play “Dragon?” “I was taught …” – “We were all taught…” -“But why did you have to be the best student, you bastard?!”

Yes, of course, we can blame Stalin and the Communist Party in general for the repression way back then, but there were also those many individual neighbors and co-workers who “knocked,” and the many specific investigators who abused people in the dungeons, and took pleasure in it.

There are always specific people who could have, in their particular situation, done something differently.

It’s convenient to hide behind the “system” in doing harm. But I think that in these cases, the country must know the faces of its “heroes.” And it is important to publicly name all those involved: including that official, who had the power to make the lives of a large number of people really hard, and the school in which he was raised.

Maybe, if this kind of public naming had been done at the time, we would not now be experiencing this apparent return to the past.

Finally, the fourth matter. We need to think seriously about what this story pushes us to change in schooling. This young man was our student for 10 years. And he was a very diligent and successful student. In terms of learning the curriculum.

But his participation in “the TSRNO story” once again shows that academic success is not enough: it is important to help students to make ethical decisions in difficult situations – for example, when it comes to a choice between conscience and career.

We need to understand – as we continue to work to the socio-political situation that is emerging now in this country. The difficulty is that we are in a very contradictory situation.

We in the school can not (in fact – we aren’t allowed) to actively and thoroughly acquaint children with the current political situation; we can not articulate our point of view on what is happening. If we do, we pull children into political debate, and they and their parents may have different ideas about what is happening. Plus, there isn’t enough time for anything but physics-mathematics-geography …

But teaching the values of freedom must be more central in the educational program of the school. We must not fail to warn children about the time in which we live today, what difficulties they will face. They did not live in the Soviet Union, but we did, and we have experience.

Otherwise, I fear, very soon we too will find ourselves “foreign agents,” and our graduates will come to designate the school as unreliable and close it.

So I ask: Is it worth ten years of diligently providing children with an arsenal of intellectual tools, only then to see them put to use as prosecutors who destroy what is civically and humanly precious to us?