Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Prisons and Schools: Institutional Education and the State


Miles of ink have been spilled debating and dissecting the fabled school-to-prison pipeline, a problem endemic to the U.S. education system that almost-exclusively affects its most socioeconomically disadvantaged students; students for whom realistic options for survival and resistance were always slim and high-risk. Less commonly discussed, however, is what options exist for these students' educational attainment following their likely incarceration at the hands of an oppressive capitalist state – and what options for survival and resistance remain in this most-restrictive of environments. March 2017's Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll features some powerful reflections from Lena T., a PhD researcher and teacher living in Oakland, CA, and a perennial MRR reader as well as contributor in more recent years. Her column focuses on the importance of not-for-profit prison higher education and solidarity in the post-reason era. Lena can be reached at lena.tahmassian@gmail.com

On February 1, 2017 inmates took over a wing of the Vaughn Prison in Delaware, protesting Trump and demanding better conditions and “remedies conducive to reform and rehabilitation” with education at the top of their list. A guard who was taken hostage died and there is now, at the time of writing, a civil rights coalition asking for a transparent federal investigation. Little more than that information was made known to the public. While most prisons are public institutions, there is not much common knowledge about what goes on in them. Whether or not there will be a further degradation of prison conditions under Trump (there could easily be), this act holds symbolic weight: members of the most marginalized group in society (most can’t even vote) protest an administration that will more than ever place private profit over people, an administration that has already made explicit that various (disproportionately nonwhite) sectors of the population are essentially disposable.

Returning to the prisoners’ demands, this column is in defense of not-for-profit higher education in prisons, not only because I believe that people are not disposable, but also that teaching and learning go both ways. My higher education teaching experience to date has been split between graduate student teaching at an elite university and volunteer teaching for the accredited college program at San Quentin State Prison. I got involved in the latter because there was a need for my particular skills, I wanted to do something less self-serving than just getting a PhD, and to expand my teaching skills. In general, I was up for the challenge of teaching people whose experiences would mostly be very different from my own.

While I’ve taught in two radically different learning environments, my basic objectives are fundamentally the same: to teach them to create meaning out of texts and to critically think and rethink the basis of knowledge production. One notable difference of prison higher education, other than the technological lack (only pen and paper are available), is that when your everyday reality is the very definition of confinement, the classroom acquires a new liberating dimension. Students are eager to speak and share their experiences, and the classroom is, unlike their cellblocks, racially integrated. For us as instructors, being a volunteer in a free program is also in itself liberating (provided you can make time for it). This dynamic does seem to partially inform the students’ attitudes which shift more towards “Thanks for teaching us!” rather than the “Hey, I’m paying for this!” vibe of the increasingly neoliberal academy. That said, I’ve had many considerate and inquisitive students at the traditional university, but some do treat education like a product to be consumed. I suppose in defense of the student-as-consumer mindset (from their perspective), one must recognize that the astronomical cost of higher education and the fact that many students will be indebted into the foreseeable future places increasing pressure on them to see learning as a serious financial investment on which they must see a return.

In my experience, incarcerated students tend to ask “is this how they do things at… (Stanford, Berkeley, etc.)?” They want to know that they are being challenged and not patronized. It’s also a good practice for me to always question and reflect on my methods by having to explain why we assess learning a certain way. I’ve come to believe strongly however that it’s not just about importing and adapting methodologies from the elite academy for those who in many cases were never afforded the opportunity of higher education, but that prisoners also have a lot to teach us. Bringing all of their diverse life experiences to the table opens up new possibilities for discussion. Also, many of us tend to slide through life avoiding our problems, burying our traumas, making the same mistakes, and never facing our insecurities head on. For those seeking rehabilitation, self-reflection is unavoidable and often involves identifying and extirpating the markers of toxic masculinity. I’ve seen how the various programs offered, including college education, help develop self-awareness, discipline, resolve, and a spirit of cooperation that I have not seen anywhere else. For prisoners it can be a matter of life or existential death. Those who go through the rehabilitation process have accomplished the very difficult task of confronting their issues head on and facing those whose lives they have potentially damaged. To thrive within the walls for the time being, you have to be able to imagine something better beyond them. Perhaps this is something we can all learn from.

Upon advocating for prison higher education, I know that on ethical grounds maybe I am mostly preaching to the choir in this column. But for the naysayers (maybe they’ll be at your next family function), it also makes a lot of sense from a utilitarian standpoint. Even though most of us don't have much of a clue what goes on in prisons, we nevertheless fund them through our taxes. Like it or not, most prisoners are eventually released, and access to education while incarcerated dramatically decreases the rate of recidivism. Yes, there are dangerous people who are probably incapable of not harming others–those who fit this profile are not typically eligible for rehabilitation programs in the first place.

Thus higher education in prison is good for both prisoners and society, and those who initiated the Vaughn prison uprising surely knew that. But the current rise of corporate fascism is indeed a double whammy, as it seeks to designate enemies of the state and profit off of their subjugation, which can take the form of public prison labor and private prison contracts, border walls, armaments, etc. Now more than ever, electoral political discourse is beyond logic and reason, with no longer even a semblance of concern for others (unless you’re white and poor, then there is just a semblance of concern for you, but seriously, wake up people: those industrial jobs are not coming back and its not brown people’s fault).

However, on a positive note, there is a whole new generation of resistance cropping up who is questioning what they’ve been told about who the “bad guys” are in the first place. The consensus has fallen out. Let’s hope that sliding back to corporate liberalism is not the best we can do. Specifically, on the topic of issues that impact incarcerated people directly: last year Obama did bring back Pell Grants for prisoners for the first time since 1994 when Bill Clinton pulled the plug on all federal funding for prison higher education by signing the Violent Crime Bill, which was actually written by the then senator Joe Biden. The democrats of old may have reversed their stance on that disastrous bill, but the damage is surely done. Also, I can’t say for sure, but my best guess is that Pell Grants for prisoners will be going away again. (Is the incoming Education Secretary seriously a semi-illiterate billionaire and advocate of for-profit education and arming schoolchildren?)

These days, a lot of people seem to be asking a variation of the question: “What is our responsibility to people we disagree with?” (“Is it ok to punch a Nazi?”) I don't claim to have all the answers (Yes, it’s ok to punch a Nazi). I think there’s actually a simple formula for this: if your worldview is defined by exclusion and denying people’s humanity, then you’re actually the one shutting down the possibility for discussion. Aside from the more extreme examples (unfortunately, I think they’ll be increasing), should we try to change people’s minds? We need to build our resistance, but is there a tool to measure the distance between our ideas, to determine when it’s no longer worth our breath? I think teachers are in a privileged position to promote dialogue, expand minds, and also build empathy bridges in the classroom, but also way beyond. A lot of the students share my worldviews, many don’t. In light of the current reality, I’m all for increasing the possibility of encounters with people you would probably otherwise never engage with. Sometimes I feel like our social media echo chambers will be the death of us. I’ll carry on contemplating the limits of our responsibility.

On a final note, I highly encourage grad students, graduate degree holders, and faculty to get involved with prison higher education in your area. There are also organizations that take book donations to send to incarcerated people–I’ve met inmates who have accessed important literature this way! If you live in the Bay Area, I can point you in the right direction. You will talk to a lot of interesting people, learn about the prison system, and subsequently become a prison abolitionist or at least an advocate for the humanity of those who deserve a second chance, or even an actual first chance at a decent life. Compounded by the fact that American reality is now producing marginality at a rapid rate, it has been reassuring to hear the marginal voices growing louder and more plentiful in the last weeks. We must continue to also defend the basic rights of those who have no voice at all. -Lena T.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Yvette Felarca: Building the Movement to Stop Trump

December 2016's Teaching Resistance is written by the one and only Yvette Felarca, a bay area-based educator, activist, and tireless voice of anti-fascist resistance who is an inspiration to radical teachers everywhere.

Building the Movement to Stop Trump
Lessons From Victory in Berkeley by an Anti-Fascist, Civil Rights Educator

Donald Trump has used the presidential election in the U.S. to build a movement modeled on the semi-fascist ultra-right wing immigrant bashing parties of Europe, like the Le Pen National Front, and the historical experience of the rise to power of Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s Nazi’s. With Donald Trump’s assumption of the presidency, the first step would be taken in the creation of a fascist power over the American government and the American people. The feeble electoral tactics of Clinton’s Democrats have failed to prevent this disaster for democracy in the U.S. and around the world. Both the Democratic Party and the American news media have proven bankrupt in defeating Trump or even in speaking the plain truth about the threat he presents and the real character of the movement he heads.

Trump and his movement can be defeated, but only by a new mass movement committed to the principles of democracy, equality, diversity, and openness. Only such a movement can defeat Trump, his billionaire club backers, and his mass lynch-mob followers’ struggle to undermine those principles in order to carry out draconian attacks on immigrants, organized labor, and all oppressed communities. Trump’s movement is at war with the new majority-minority America with its progressive commitment to diversity, tolerance, and internationalism. Trump’s demagogy and even his personal image promises a return to a reactionary utopia of white-skin privilege and male power over women.

To defend the democratic gains of the past, and realize the potential for a fully human liberation in the future, and to avoid the destruction of both Americans’ most cherished principles and a world of increasing division, hate, and violence, we must build a new mass movement to defeat Trump and everything he stands for. The building of such a mass democratic movement is the greatest and most urgent challenge of our times. Our new mass movement, by mobilizing everything that’s best in us, can defeat Trump and his ugly mob, which concentrates everything that is worst in American history.

I know this first hand, because I just won my own victory against Trump’s Nazi and KKK backers. My name is Yvette Felarca. I have been dedicated middle school teacher in Berkeley, and longtime civil rights and trade union activist. I came under attack from the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) administration for my work as a progressive teacher and for my political activity. I teach ELD (English as a Second Language) and Humanities at Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, where I’ve taught for 10 years. I consistently received strong teaching evaluations and support from students, co-workers, and parents. As a teacher and a political activist, I believe in engaging young people in their education by encouraging them to connect their learning to their own lives and struggles for social justice.

On June 26, 2016, during summer vacation, I protested self-identified neo-Nazi and KKK Trump supporters who scheduled a rally on the steps of the capitol in Sacramento. Instead they violently attacked us, and nine anti-fascist protesters, including me, were stabbed by the Nazis. These same fascists had already stabbed and almost killed black and Latino protesters in Anaheim earlier in the year, and had gone to Sacramento to try to do the same thing. The day after the Sacramento rally, violent threats were made by Nazi and racist Trump supporters against me and against my school if I was not fired.

Instead of defending me, the neo-liberal BUSD administration attacked me and began their witch-hunt. Four days after I was stabbed, the District issued me a formal discipline, then later, on August 31, they took my entire August paycheck. On Wed. Sept. 21, three weeks into the school year, the BUSD administration removed me from a faculty meeting, escorted me to my classroom to collect my personal belongings, and then marched me out of the school. I was placed on administrative leave.

Every witch-hunt includes a shameful round-up, and Berkeley was no exception. I found out that the same day I was placed on administrative leave, several of my immigrant and ELD students were removed from class and questioned about me by the school district’s lawyer, without their parents being notified or present. They were also questioned about their off campus, outside of school political activities and activism. They were forced to answer questions in English, which is not their native language. My other immigrant and international students, and only my immigrant and international students, were rounded up and questioned on a variety of days during the time that I was on administrative leave. Even Latina students who had been my students years earlier, but who had spoken out in my defense at school board meetings, were also interrogated by District officials. And just when it seems like it couldn’t be more shameful, students were told by BUSD lawyers and administration to keep their "interviews" a secret and to "tell no one."

The initial shock and fear that I and my students experienced from this victimization soon gave way to anger, and that anger galvanized me and my students to take action. Before I even left the school on the first day I was suspended, I asked my co-workers to announce what happened to the rest of the staff, and to urge them to get to the school board meeting that evening. Teachers, school support staff, students, and parents filled the school board meeting to speak out in my defense, and even shut down the meeting to demand the right of one my students’ parents to speak. The following school board meeting we had twice as many people there and shut down the meeting again. Me and other teachers, school employees, students, parents, and community members attended every school board meeting since then, and held mass organizing meetings where we voted on demands and a plan of action from week to week. Students, in particular, were incredibly courageous and inspiring—making speeches at School Board meetings, writing and circulating their own petition, wearing stickers and buttons, even organizing each other internationally to call in to the School Board meetings to make speeches from Mexico City. I spoke to the media every chance I got. And even though there were days where the pressure and uncertainty certainly took their toll on me, the movement sustained and bolstered me far more than anything else could have. I knew that I had to speak up, because if I didn’t, not only me, but other good teachers would get run out of teaching if I didn’t.

I am a union and civil rights activist. I am member of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) Executive Board, a founding member of the Equal Opportunity Now/By Any Means Necessary (EON/BAMN) Caucus in both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). I am a national organizer with the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). If not for my experience as a political organizer, and the support of my national organizations, I would have felt too isolated to fight the way I did. Thanks to EON/BAMN and to teachers in my school and others who supported me, I got my union to file a grievance to restore my pay and to also advocate for my swift return to my classroom. My lawyers in BAMN also filed lawsuit on my behalf against BUSD for discrimination, violations of free speech, due process, and academic freedom. They also filed a lawsuit on behalf of my students and their parents for discrimination, racial targeting and intimidation, and for violating the students’ freedom of speech.

It’s a huge mistake, however, to rely on either the union bureaucracy or the court system to win justice. By far, credit for our Berkeley victory goes to the movement that spread nationally and even internationally with each passing day. Building that movement would not have been possible without the backing and movement organizing methods of EON/BAMN. Despite the best efforts of Trump’s racist threats and policies, our movement won, and I was returned to my classroom after six weeks.

The outcome of my struggle was and is vital to the rights of other teachers and to the struggle against racism and the growth of American fascism. In the context of growing violent racist and far right-wing attacks being waged across the globe, and by the racism and xenophobia of Donald Trump’s cabinet, the decision of BUSD to discipline and suspend me for my off duty political activities and political affiliations and activism place Berkeley on the wrong side of the historic struggle to stop the rise of the far-right wing and their violent attacks. That, in turn, discredited that neo-liberal school board members with each passing day. More importantly, I urge more teachers who face the same kind of threats and attacks in the future to stand up and wage a public fight, too—and to contact me and BAMN. We beat the neo-liberals who rolled out the red carpet for Trump. Now let’s defeat Trump! Se se puede! --Yvette Felarca

Liner Notes for the MRR Radio "Teaching Resistance" segment

---You can download or stream the MRR Radio broadcast featuring Teacher Punks (co-hosted by John No, editor of the Teaching Resistance column) right here: http://www.maximumrocknroll.com/mrr-radio-1522/

Cops and Teachers: Both have been the subject of shit-talking by punk bands since the first day some zitty kid from nowhere decided to pick up an instrument they didn't know how to play and immediately sing songs about how and why things suck, especially things they have to personally deal with. Both teachers and cops were and are worthy targets of hatred – cops always, teachers frequently. Both serve as instruments of coercive authority that is often institutionally supported, and both can act as lethal agents of oppression in that capacity (often in tandem). Both tend to treat their 'charges' in very different ways depending on the levels of structural privilege said 'charges' have from their individual circumstances and specific context, with highly dissimilar personal outcomes based on race, gender, sexuality, class, and other factors being the norm. In their modern form, both policing and teaching sprang from colonialism and capitalism, and both are subject to overwhelming, relentless top-down pressure from those who explicitly support those toxic practices/philosophies.

The difference between teachers and cops, however, lies in their basic functions on the social and individual level, and in the methods by which they work. Philosophically, the difference is simple and stark: Teachers are (at least on paper) expected to nurture, support, and protect their students as human beings, while the function of police is to protect private property and enforce law by capturing and punishing those who they suspect of breaking it. On the surface of it, these professions should not share any common ground. In practice, in the modern world these professions often dovetail into interconnected mechanisms of social control that explicitly and implicitly (quietly) maintain established hierarchies of structural inequality and injustice. We ignore the history of these institutions at our peril, and the history of both policing and modern state-directed teaching practice are full of stark disparities that forcefully (and often lethally) marginalize many while others benefit from levels of structural privilege carefully calibrated to maintain the status quo.

Punks are (and have been) right to go after both teachers and cops, as both have long track records of serving as agents of oppression. Yet we need to keep in mind that the basic function of these professions is different at the core. There is no way that policing can be utilized in a liberatory fashion for marginalized people who have to come into contact with police, and almost always ends up as purely toxic to those people who are being “policed”. In contrast, it has been shown time and time again that teachers who are genuinely dedicated to the core (non-institutional) philosophies of their profession can, through radically innovative practices and active subversion of the institutional aspects of their jobs, play a major role in helping empower their students to take greater control over their own lives and potentially become catalysts for affecting real structural/social change.

This difference is why there are punks who are teachers, but there are no cops who are punks, at least not by any definition of “punk” that makes any sense at all.

In celebration of the 20th entry of the Teaching Resistance column (this one), I (John No) recently hosted a segment on MRR Radio on the theme of radical teachers in punk, with a focus on songs from people who happen to be teachers and play in bands. These people also combine their teaching practice, radical principles, and the aesthetics+ethics of punk (the smart kind) into a deliciously flammable cocktail to lob at the nearest cop car or shitty administrator, all while simultaneously teaching students how to make a similar cocktail to lob at whatever they like. You can find it at http://www.maximumrocknroll.com/mrr-radio-1522/, and here's a breakdown of some details on what songs were selected. There will be more of these in the future!

1. SEEIN' RED: “Resist” (Marinus 7", Ebullition 1996) (tough choice between this one and "It Must Fall" from the Critical Pedagogy comp 12”, 2000)

Probably the most obvious choice of bands to lead this comp off with, Dutch HC legends SEEIN' RED are the first band punks usually think of when they imagine teachers in bands. Jos from SEEIN' RED is a teacher in Holland, and has been since before LÄRM morphed into SEEIN' RED in the late 80s. Radical politics are woven deeply into their music and life practice. SR continued to be really good through the 90s, which is when “Resist” was recorded. Though I didn't play it on the show, the song "It Must Fall" is also great, from the same period, and was the crucial “Critical Pedagogy” 12" comp put out by longtime teacher punk Athena K. on her label Six Weeks Records in 2000...a worthwhile record indeed.

2. THE OVENS - “Bureaucrats Know Best” (from "Settings", a cassette- and bandcamp-only release, 2012)

The OVENS are a queercore band who play early KRS-influenced, distortion-saturated punk with catchy vocals, and this song also has the distinction of being the only song in this set that is actually about specific issues that teachers face in our line of work. I think both Heather and LB from the OVENS are public school teachers in Chicago, and LB also writes the excellent, radical teaching-focused zine TRUCKFACE. . Chicago has become one of the most embattled school districts in the country under neoliberal overlord mayor Rahm Emmanuel (a former Obama administration official, natch). Under Rahm's forceful attempts to privatize public education, he has closed dozens of schools deemed to be "underperforming" in standardized tests, mostly in the poorest districts. This policy has forced students from these closed schools to either travel huge distances to go to the nearest public schools, or to attend private charter schools where profit motive is the main administrative priority and students can get kicked out for pretty much anything if they are threatening to bring down the school's test score or behavioral metrics. Here is some writing in TRUCKFACE a little while back from LB, talking about what was happening:

"Today I spent 8 class periods in the library, dressed as a zombie for our world war z book festival. Over 600 students came to the festival to play games about the book (bingo, zombie musical chairs, jeopardy) and get their faces painted. We dressed as zombies while other schools heard their sad fate.

We will survive, while other schools will not. Though we have received repeated threats this year and have begun to wither due to the excessive stress, our school was spared. We still remain on probation, an arbitrary designation when our test scores are higher, our attendance levels are higher, and graduation rates continue to move upwards, we still have that label affixed to our beloved school as a way to scare us, threaten us and control us.

Five years ago, i got a job at at a school that will be spared while thousands of other hard working teachers, just like me, will no longer have jobs. and thousands of students out there will no longer have passionate teachers. It was luck to get a job at a higher performing school. And as many words that the politicians will spill about resources and test scores, they are unwilling to admit that they are driving good teachers away either through school closings or excessive bureaucratic control.

To say it plainly, businessmen and women are destroying public education.

After an exhausting day of celebration with my students, I mourn the losses around the city and know that anyone of us could be next if we don’t do something first." --LB in TRUCKFACE

3. STRANGE FACES - “No Peace” (off their 2016 demo, also on the “Frequency of the Truewave Volume II” tape comp from Nervous Intent Records *shameless plug*)

Ben from this killer new bay area darkwave band (he also plays in KAPITAL and formerly of NEW FLESH) is currently inching his way closer to a masters' degree and doing a lot of teaching along the way, and I believe April is a health educator for at-risk youth. They are also recently played a benefit for the striking teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico, who have come under extreme government repression (including murder) for standing up for their own rights and those of their students as they battle pretty much exactly the same neoliberal forces of public school privatization and related "accountability" issues (i.e. union-busting) that we are dealing with as teachers in the US. The violence and repression that these teachers have faced, however, is markedly worse, and solidarity right now is super important. Also see the Teaching Resistance column in issue #401, which is dedicated to the subject of the teacher revolt in Oaxaca from first-hand perspectives.

4. DIAMOND GLAZE - “Diamond Glaze”, streaming on bandcamp, 2015

-Nani, who lives in London and recently visited here in the bay area, is a teacher who has worked at a school for students with severe learning difficulties for 13 years. She focuses on expressive arts there, helping students figure out a way to express themselves via art and music. I think she works with Richard Phoenix as well (with whom she also plays in the raging teacher-centric punk band KICHIGAI). Some of the most recent work Nani and Richard did was helping the students (all high school and junior high ages) form and record two band projects, ROCK PENGUINS and DIAMOND GLAZE - this is a powerful, snotty and noisy early postpunk (ala RAINCOATS) jammer from DIAMOND GLAZE!

5. SCHOLASTIC DETH – “Killed By School”. From the 2002 “Killed By School” 7” on 625 Thrashcore

-You really can't fuck with short-lived thrashcore legends SCHOLASTIC DETH, who formed in 2002, put out a bunch of music, and broke up that same year because B (of the crucial JUD JUD) was going off to graduate school – thus the song “Killed By School”, duh. B came back after a bit and has played in numerous innovative hardcore combos since including CONQUEST BY DEATH, NO STATIK, and REPLICA. In the latter, Julianna and Alicia are both teachers in Oakland, B is now a professor, and Dharma just schools everyone anyway. Just gonna go ahead here and say it's a crime that I didn't also include such a teacher-centric bay area modern band as REPLICA on this playlist, but I will get them in on the next one.

5. LOS CRUDOS - "Tiempos De La Miseria". From the 1993 "La Rabia Nubla Nuestros Ojos..." 7”.
Martin of Crudos, Limp Wrist, etc. was a teacher for many years. As is evident from this CRUDOS song and many others, just because you work as a teacher does NOT mean you have to act as an agent of a fucked-up government and structurally racist, capitalist system. If you are a teacher, resist that system and help your students acquire the tools to do the same. And while you are at it, teacher punks/punx/ponx/puunx/etc, submit a guest column to Teaching Resistance and let us know what is going on! teachingresistance[at]gmail.com --John No, Teaching Resistance Editor


The People and Teachers Unite Against the State and Neoliberalism in Oaxaca

While Teaching Resistance has frequently addressed the many problems with so-called public school “reform” efforts, it is important to note that the hypercapitalist and neoliberal forces which have forced teachers to defend themselves and their profession from destruction are not restricted to the United States. In Mexico, the teachers of Oaxaca state are in a state of open conflict with the government over its efforts to privatize the public school system there. This conflict, which has recently turned openly violent (generally violence inflicted by the state), has flared into the global news cycle a few times over the last several months – but while attention from the rest of the world comes and goes, the violence and repression by capital in full collusion with the Mexican state continues unabated.

The author of August 2016's Teaching Resistance is Scott Campbell, a radical writer and translator based in Oakland, California. He previously lived in Mexico for several years, including Oaxaca. His pieces appear frequently on El Enemigo Común and It’s Going Down. He can be found online at fallingintoincandescence.com and @incandesceinto on Twitter. Solidarity to our Mexican colleagues, and power to the people everywhere against hypercapitalism and imperialist hegemony over public education.

The People and Teachers Unite Against the State and Neoliberalism in Oaxaca

In the fall of 2008 while in the city of Oaxaca, I walked with David Venegas in the plaza in front of the Santo Domingo Cathedral, a massive four-block church and former monastery whose construction first began in 1572. We were returning from the courthouse nearby, where Venegas had to report every 15 days. A prominent member of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) and the anti-authoritarian group Oaxacan Voices Building Autonomy and Freedom (VOCAL), Venegas was arrested, beaten and tortured in April 2007, held for eleven months on charges of “possession with intent to distribute cocaine and heroin, sedition, conspiracy, arson, attacks on transit routes, rebellion, crimes against civil servants, dangerous attacks, and resisting arrest,” and eventually conditionally released. Until he was found innocent in April 2009, one of those conditions was his semi-monthly presentation at the courthouse. As with any trip he made in public, Venegas had at least one person accompany him to provide some security against being arrested or disappeared.

During this walk he recounted a story from July 2006, about a month after the people of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca rose up in open rebellion against the state government. From the plaza in Santo Domingo, which served as the center of the social movement in 2006 after it was forcibly removed from the city center – the Zócalo – one can see an auditorium on a nearby hill called Cerro del Fortín. This auditorium was built by the state government specifically for the annual celebration of the Guelaguetza. Guelaguetza is both an event and a concept. It is an indigenous Zapotec word meaning reciprocity or mutual aid, an important tenet of communal indigenous life. It is also a state-run occasion which brings dancers from Oaxaca’s seven regions to perform “traditional” dances, modified from indigenous festivals which marked the beginning of the planting season. The state’s biggest tourism draw, tickets to the annual July Guelaguetza cost around 400 pesos (at the time around $40 US dollars), beyond the means of the average Oaxacan, thereby excluding them from a celebration of their own culture.

Just before the state-run Guelaguetza was to be held in July 2006, Venegas told me, “During those days of freedom, I was walking here in front of Santo Domingo and saw people up in the auditorium painting ‘FUERA ULISES’ in huge letters on the seats.” (“Ulises Out,” referring to then-governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.) Opposition was so great that the state ended up canceling the commercial Guelaguetza, while the APPO organized its own, free People’s Guelaguetza.

The above anecdote of an anecdote serves as a microcosm for a story still unfolding. A story told standing in the shadow of a building which serves as a reminder of the 500 year legacy of colonialism, by a survivor of state repression, about a social movement not only fighting against a despotic regime, but at the same time working to reclaim and reimagine life and culture outside of the structures of an authoritarian state and an impoverishing neoliberal system. While the 2006 Oaxaca Commune was crushed by federal police and military force five months after running the state government and police out of power and administering affairs via popular assemblies, the embers which led to that rebellion remained smoldering. Fast forward a decade later, and the resistance in Oaxaca has just finished celebrating its Tenth Annual Teachers-Peoples Guelaguetza. For good measure, they also set up blockades around the Cerro del Fortín at 6am the morning of the second of two commercial Guelaguetza performances, causing the festivities to occur in front of a largely empty auditorium.

Just as in 2006, what started this year’s revolt was a teachers’ strike. Teachers belonging to the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), a more radical faction of about 200,000 inside of the 1.3 million-strong National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), the largest union in Latin America, have been on indefinite strike since May 15. Their primary demand is the repeal of the “Educational Reform” initiated by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013.

A neoliberal plan based on a 2010 agreement between Mexico and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the reform seeks to standardize and privatize Mexico’s public education system, as well as weaken the power of the teachers’ union. Publicly supported in his efforts by pro-business lobbying groups such as Mexicanos Primero and the Employers Confederation of the Mexican Republic (COPARMEX), Peña Nieto set out to implement the OECD agreement and then some, changing Articles 3 and 73 of Mexico’s Constitution. Together, they create a standardized system of teacher evaluation, as well as granting schools “autonomy” — that is, autonomy to raise funds from the private sector — in other words, to become privatized.

A standardized evaluation system that is imposed from above without the input of teachers, yet at the same time placing the fault for low scores solely on teachers’ shoulders, is extremely problematic. The attempt to create a monoculture, one-size-fits-all education system that produces a certain type of student, as Gallo Téenek noted, “doesn’t, knowing the cultural diversity that exists, take into account the reality and local conditions of each of the regions, municipalities, communities and states in the country, as well as the inequality and poverty that prevail throughout the nation — for example, in regions of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero, contrary to the better conditions that exist in cities such as Monterrey, Guadalajara and the Federal District.

The second major aspect of the reform, making schools “autonomous,” opens up each school to be directly influenced by capital. As CNTE Section 22 from Oaxaca explained in a letter to parents, “Parents will have to pay for the education of their children, since the federal government has disowned its responsibility to maintain schools, meaning it will not send funds to build, equip or provide teaching materials for schools. It also clearly states that parents and teachers will manage the financial resources to maintain the operation of the schools, which will lead to the establishment of compulsory monthly, bimonthly, or semiannual fees.”

By forcing schools to continually fundraise in order to exist, CNTE Section 9 in Mexico City points out that the legislation “opens the door for, in the name of autonomy, and with the pretext of involving parents in the management and maintenance of the schools, the de facto legalization of fees, allowing the entrance of businesses into schools and turning the constitutional provision guaranteeing free public education into a dead letter. This has a name: privatization.

The teachers are also demanding more investment in education, freedom for all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, truth and justice for the 43 disappeared students from Ayotzinapa, and an end to neoliberal structural reforms in general.

While the CNTE has been fighting against the educational reform for the past three years, a teachers’ strike in and of itself is fairly uneventful. It occurs annually in Oaxaca as a tactic used by the union leading up to the beginning of the school year in the fall. Usually the strike happens, followed quickly by negotiations with the state. A compromise is reached and everyone goes home. This year, however, the CNTE upped the pressure by announcing a national strike instead of on a state-by-state basis. And this year, like in 2006, the state refused to even talk to the union, instead deploying thousands of federal police and gendarmerie to areas where the strike is strongest — primarily Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacán and Mexico City, though also in states such as Guerrero, Tabasco and Veracruz.
In another echo of 2006, it was a brutal act of state repression that turned a labor dispute into a widespread revolt. Ten years ago, it was the pre-dawn raid and destruction of the teachers’ encampment in the Zócalo of Oaxaca on June 14. Following the beginning of the strike this year, there were several police actions against teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico City and Chiapas; as well as the arrest of the Oaxaca union’s leadership.

In response to police attacks, teachers in Oaxaca began setting up barricades and highway blockades around the state. By mid-June of this year, the CNTE controlled 37 critical spots on highways throughout the state, blockaded in part with 50 expropriated tanker trucks. The blockades were so effective that ADO, a major first-class bus line, indefinitely cancelled all trips from Mexico City to Oaxaca and federal police began flying reinforcements into airports in the city of Oaxaca, Huatulco (on the coast), and Ciudad Ixtepec (on the Isthmus).

Given the climate of escalating state repression, in a statement released on Friday, June 17, the Zapatistas posed the following questions:

They have beaten them, gassed them, imprisoned them, threatened them, fired them unjustly, slandered them, and declared a de facto state-of-siege in Mexico City. What’s next? Will they disappear them? Will they murder them? Seriously? The ‘education’ reform will be born upon the blood and cadavers of the teachers?

On Sunday, June 19, the state answered these questions with an emphatic “Yes”. The response came in the form of machine-gun fire from Federal Police directed at teachers and residents defending a highway blockade in Nochixtlán that for a week had been successful in preventing hundreds of federal forces from reaching the city of Oaxaca.

Initially, the Oaxaca Ministry of Public Security claimed that the Federal Police were unarmed and “not even carrying batons”. After ample visual evidence and a mounting body count to the contrary, the state admitted federal police opened fire on the blockade. In total, eleven were killed that morning in Nochixtlán. At the time of this writing, a total of fourteen have been murdered by the state in Oaxaca during the course of the conflict, including Salvador Olmos García, aka Chava, a community radio journalist and pioneer of the anarchopunk movement in Huajuapan, who was kidnapped, beaten, run over and left for dead by police on the streets of that city on June 26.

Following the Nochixtlán massacre the struggle has taken on an increasingly popular dimension. This has looked like direct actions, marches, material support and expressions of solidarity from across Mexico and beyond, in numbers far too large to recount individually. By way of example, here are some of the actions that have occurred since. Parents and teachers took over toll booths in both Mexico City and Durango for a day, allowing cars to pass through for free. On July 3, an explosives device was detonated at the headquarters of business associations in Mexico City who have been lobbying the government to crush the uprising. There were three days of intense mobilizations from July 5-7 in Mexico City. On the first day, there were at least 70 simultaneous blockades and marches, followed by four mass marches on July 6, and at least ten blockades on July 7.

The Zapatistas have continued releasing statements in support of the teachers’ struggle, stating, “To say it more clearly: for us Zapatistas, the most important thing on this calendar and in the very limited geography from which we resist and struggle, is the struggle of the democratic teachers’ union.” They also went further and announced that they were suspending their participation in the July 17-23 CompArte Festival for Humanity, which they had called for earlier this year. Instead, they sent delegations from all the Zapatista caracoles to donate the food they would have eaten during the seven day festival to the teachers in resistance in Chiapas. This amounted to 290,000 pesos (15,600 USD) worth of food.

In recognition of the contribution of the people to their struggle and the fact that the people have demands which extend beyond the immediate concerns of the union, on July 9, Section 22 of the CNTE in Oaxaca called for a gathering of teachers and indigenous leaders to “build a peoples’ agenda against structural reforms.” The union met with authorities from 90 municipalities in the state. Important to note is that these authorities are selected as the moral leadership of their communities not through a vote based on political party, but through nominations, discussions and agreements reached in community assemblies. A second such gathering was held in early August.

At the same time that all these actions have been occurring, the CNTE and the Interior Ministry have been holding negotiations – negotiations which the state agreed to following the massacre. They have met a total of seven times, addressing political, educational and social issues. At each meeting the teachers come prepared with specific proposals and ask the government to do the same. After each meeting the end result has been the same: no progress on the core issues.


With the beginning of the school year fast approaching, the union and the parents committees that have been forming to support them, state that classes will not start and the strike will continue if the demands of the movement are not met. As the movement has grown beyond the initial framework of a teachers’ strike to object to the functioning of the state and neoliberal capitalism as a whole, the likelihood of an agreement reached around the negotiating table seems improbable. The conflict is far from being resolved and the peoples of Oaxaca have shown they will not be silenced in the face of the weapons of power, ten years later providing another lesson in dignified resistance. As the popular slogan goes, “A teacher fighting is also teaching.” --Scott Campbell

Friday, August 19, 2016

Neurotypicals and the Rest of Us

All teachers who have more than one pupil work with a diverse body of students who have different backgrounds, needs, learning styles, and methods of effective communication. It is very much part of our gig to figure out how to best reach every student individually, so at the very minimum they know the door to learning is being kept open for them; and there are a few useful techniques we learn for accommodating a diversity of student learning styles in our graduate teaching programs (along with a heaping helping of lip service and tokenism).

Most teachers, however, realize they have a much more complex task at hand when they actually step into the classroom and attempt individualized instruction. Some teachers work with student populations where individualized instruction isn't something solely for a few struggling or exceptional students, but rather the only way to reach any of your students. You will find that quite a few of these teachers also happen to be punks, because our entire culture is essentially a cult populated by beautiful weirdos who see the world differently from everyone else.

The Teaching Resistance column in MRR for January 2016 is by Ash, who teaches very young (5 – 7 year old) children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in urban England. She also plays in some bands you may have heard of like Frau and Good Throb, and she helps make pretty rad things happen with the beautiful weirdos of the London punk scene.

I teach year 1 children with severe ASD in an inner London school. I have 7 students who are all killer people. Their learning happens at a painstakingly slow pace sometimes and that’s fine. There are benchmarks that neurotypical children will reach before the age of two that some of my students are still working towards and that’s fine. It's all fine because at school, at least, we don’t exist in the neurotypical world, we exist in the realm of the spectrum. And that’s great. Because fuck integration politics, ASD is something that clearly (to me) demands that we change ourselves, our environments and our teaching methods to be personalised to each individual child.

Going backwards from that list lets look at teaching methods – change the learning experience so it becomes visual, kinaesthetic and relevant to that child's needs – once you know the child, that’s easy enough. We do this in punk too right? We encourage new bands to be experimental, we celebrate the addition of a hammer against a bell because when that thing hits we feel like, ‘fuck, I see’. Experiences are vital to our understanding, otherwise its just something that looks questionable on paper. I could say I saw Asesinato Del Poder play one of the toughest gigs I’ve ever seen in a basement in France, but unless you were there you won’t know what it felt like to stand in that room with your fists balled into the side of your ribs so hard you thought you’d puncture a lung and possibly die happy and angry all at once, screaming “INFIERNO”. Second – change the environment – my class is a low-stimulus room (and we have a playroom, and a separate workroom, and two outdoor pods – but who’s bragging – did I mention this is a state funded school? Who loves ya Hackney) and that’s exactly what each child needs – then they are way more able to focus on me and my teaching, ergo themselves and their learning. In punk we make our environments as open and safe as possible right? Right? Right?

Now the first thing I mentioned is what I mostly want to talk about in this article. This is the big one. Changing myself is something iv been learning to do slowly and begrudgingly over a long period now. Punk shows us that you either stick with something that’s already there (oh hey your band sounds like discharge, cool) or you steer off course and make something new (oh your band is a gothy plus sized greek woman singing about nightmares, hello dream lover - EFIALTIS is my girlfriend). Either way changing ourselves is something that to do actively we have to struggle with. To be reflective enough to say, ‘I don’t know what I'm talking about here’ or ‘maybe if I tried to be less A, I wouldn’t suffer so much B’ – whatever the thing that you don’t really want to admit about yourself is, be assured that to be truly reflective that stuff is gonna come up and you’d better be prepared to look at it if you want to handle your shit and change yourself. To look at yourself under a glaring light of ‘how do I make me better’ isn’t anything new – women have been taught to be self critical from birth so in a way perhaps we have an advantage with this – but it's important to remember that there is a history to your thought patterns, your responses and reactions, the way you organise yourself and the lifestyle you have chosen. The point is to have an objective – you can’t reshape all of that history, but you might be able to understand how it has left you and choose which specific parts of that might need tweaking, fiddling with or just straight carving the fuck out.

Things like misogyny for instance. You might not know that its there until you’re faced with someone saying that you did a fucked up thing. You might not have even seen your actions as harmful at the time or even a few months down the line. You still might not really understand what all the fuss is about when people stop wanting to hang out or won’t really look you in the eye at shows anymore all because one time this one girl said that one thing about this total non-event that you didn’t even think twice about. That’s something you might want to get the carving knife out on – I give you permission to bleed over this one. Just til you think its all gone, then I'm gonna need you to go for regular check ups in the mirror with a hefty dose of ‘what am I bringing to the world and why?’

What about validation? We all seek that in a myriad of interesting ways, you ever stop to ask why? You ever stop to question if its meaningful – or purposeful or harmful and how? And again, WHY? You ever just stop?


At work I have to be reflective, anything less is a disservice to the community I work in. I guess my question is why this isn’t more of the norm in punk – and I don’t mean sitting around discussing intersectionality (though HI, that’s always good) I mean looking deeply in to yourself, the words you say, the body you control, the actions you choose and the cultures within cultures that you promote. You feel okay with them all? A good teacher is always reflecting, I reckon a decent punk will be too. --Ash 

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Koko Lepo Free School Project, Belgrade, Serbia




While most of the teachers reading and writing for this column work in public/state educational systems, the importance of autonomous, independent, and anticapitalist educational projects across the world cannot be understated. The September 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) is by "Ferdi", a teacher and doctoral candidate from Texas who has lived in Central and Eastern Europe for six years and Belgrade (Serbia) for two at the InexFilm squatted social center. He describes himself as an anarchist and anti-fascist and intends to stay in Belgrade for as long as 'they' let him. The autonomous, collective educational project he works with, Koko Lepo, welcomes new contacts and encourages any readers who are interested in establishing contacts or continuing the project to please get in touch (see contact information at the end of the article).

The Place

InexFilm is a squat in the Karaburma neighborhood of Belgrade, Serbia–the 'White City'. For four years the place has been host to a variety of artists, 'activist' groups, concerts, and various spatially-oriented initiatives. It has no relation to NGOs nor the State and it is always under threat of falling to the tides of commercial development in the area. The latest rumor is that the bulldozers are coming for us in less than a week as of this writing. By the time you read this, a battle may already have occurred, the outcome anyone's guess.

The squat also houses an autonomous kindergarten and youth program called 'Koko Lepo' within its colorful concrete halls. Koko Lepo is a completely free weekly pedagogical program that serves the residents of a slum called 'the Dump' nearby the squat. Most of our students are the children of Kosovar war refugees from the 90s and speak Romani and often Albanian as well as Serbian. Most of the parents of these children work as urban collectors, a thankless, dangerous, and demanding job which will be passed down to our students.

A brief note about language: when speaking about our program to outsiders, we oscillate between using the epithets ‘Roma’ and ‘Gypsy’ to describe the background of our students. ‘Roma’ is an internationally accepted term which describes either an ethnic group or a stateless nation depending on who you ask. ‘Gypsy’ is typically pejorative but is nonetheless used with greater frequency within the slum itself; historically, it signals a troublesome relationship with the State and hegemonic society. So when we talk to people whose politics we are unsure about, I use the word “Roma” or say nothing at all. When I talk to liberals and NGO careerists, I say ‘Gypsy’ and watch them squirm. Incidentally, the people of the Dump often simply call themselves ‘Serbs’ or ‘Albanians’. Identity is a site of great contention as well as gaming for Roma in the Balkans; it has, in the past, meant the difference between having a job and being buried in a mass grave. People are justifiably sensitive about it.

Roma education rates in Serbia are abysmal compared to the almost total enrollment of Serbian students in the same cities. Amnesty International estimates that only 66 percent of school-aged children are enrolled in primary school while the number drops to a dramatic 10 percent for slum dwellers. Those that do enter school are discriminated against at every level. Their fellow students experiment with their parents’ racism while the parents themselves often go so far as to call school administrators and threaten to withdraw their own children if the school accepts Roma students. Members of our collective have had doors closed on their face when trying to enroll some of our students in primary school.

Koko Lepo endeavors to pass on the skills necessary for success in Serbian primary schools while imbuing a sense of autonomy and egalitarianism amongst our students. Serbia is far from a bastion of gender and racial equality despite its socialist heritage. I work as an English teacher for money in the same city. My classes at the private school I work in within a more upscale neighborhood of the White City are based largely on debates about gender parity, heteronormativity, racism, and consumerism. A critical approach to these topics does not come naturally to my English students who are typically unaccustomed even to thinking about anti-ciganism, prejudice against gypsies, as a form of racism at all. Racism is what Americans do.

Koko Lepo identifies as anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-authoritarian and as such find our key allies, as well as sources of funding, amongst the international anarchist and anti-fascist movement, particularly in Germany, as well as a bevy of radical hardcore and punks bands. We do not cooperate with NGOs or any other representative of the capitalist State. While I feel compelled to mention a couple of bands in particular who have bent over backwards for the kindergarten, such as Osnabrück's Hirnsäule and Schwäbisch Gemünde's Wasted Youth, the close relationship the kindergarten has to the Belgrade antifascist booking collectives Cherry 76 and Destroy Babylon has brought us closer to the scene than any of us could have hoped. This has also included powerful voices from the Roma hip-hop scene, like the explicitly anti-fascist Gipsy Mafia and the Romani rap legend Lord Kastro who once toured with us as a way to develop our solidarity networks and build awareness about our program in Western Europe.

The Day

On kindergarten days, at least three of us will prepare the room in the morning, text the parents that we will come to pick up their kids, and then head into the slum. We are greeted with love as well as complaints, criticisms, personal problems and gossip. All in all, the pick-up might take up to an hour on particularly chaotic days. We are now starting our third year as an institution in the Dump and the trust the parents have in us means more to us than anything. We treat it with all the care and affection we try to afford their incredible kids.

Class consists of a warm-up activity, usually with singing, before moving on to a (more or less) voluntary calendar lesson where we focus on numbers, letters, colors, time, and seasons. After this, we have free time where the kids play with the mountains of donated toys and art supplies given to us by our solidarity partners the world over. We have a hot vegetarian lunch which we cook everyday, often with the kids' help, and then play some games, perhaps do some directed educational activities, sing some songs, and then get ready to walk back home.

On youth program days, which we call Školica, or “Little School”, we typically take between twenty and thirty kids between the ages of 8 and 14 on field trips around the city. We have taken over parks, pools, cinemas, youth theaters, and other places in Belgrade that our kids might otherwise feel marginalized in or at best see as extensions of their workplace as collectors. When Školica uses the city, our kids own it. When such trips aren't possible, we tend to do some modest program in the anarchist infoshop 'Furija' in the same squat. Our two collectives share several members and, for the most part, the same ideals of autonomy, equality, and direct action.

The program is exhausting and addictive. There isn't one amongst us who hasn't felt the sense of satisfaction that can only come with doing something you are proud of for people you adore and all on the basis of voluntary association. The total absence of any monetary consideration or valuation of our labor allows the project to be valued only by its effects. We see the value of this program in our student's development and, in some key cases, eventual success in their official primary school programs after graduating from ours. We count our losses in missed days, disappointing our families through broken promises and an all-too-often surface level commitment to their daily struggles. Each day ends with a tally of both and far too many of them have ended with our accounts in the red. The long arc, however, bends towards victory. Each loss is a lesson and each success a precious reminder that this whole thing could actually mean something to someone in the end.

The Paradox

Of course, the paradox of training our children in our autonomous alternative program so they can better integrate with an inherently exploitative and often soul-crushing State education system is never far from my mind. I won't speculate on the thoughts of my comrades in the collective, but I have never seen our mission as strictly one of integration. For me, we are arming our children to meet the system that hates them with a slightly better footing than they might otherwise have without us.

It is important to me and others in the collective that Koko Lepo never become merely a DIY version of a mission trip. We cannot be some teenager's Guatemalan summer where the deep inequities and structural violence of global capitalism are boiled down into a few selfies and the phrase, “I think I really did some good down there”. How we maintain and materialize this separation is never entirely clear and we try to be vigilant of it. Sadly, we have failed miserably at this from time to time. One ex-member would even occasionally do tours of the slum for guests before he was kicked out of the collective for even worse. To help combat these tendencies we've made rules about photography in the program, try to keep the topic of race and class alive in our meetings, and have experimented with integrating members of the settlement into the program to help 'offset the white balance', so to speak. This last task has proven prohibitively difficult as those who are old enough to help out with the kids but are not yet working full-time for the family are generally supposed to be in school. We decided early on that Koko Lepo should not be an excuse to skip school even if we don't like the system: the paradox again...

Our program is far from perfect. We are constantly tackling issues of race, gender, tradition, inequity, and all the myriad problems one might expect from such an effort. Our meetings are often sites of heated and mean arguments, tearful accounts of our failures, gallows humor, etc. Despite this, I doubt there is one amongst our members who has not felt, standing at the open door of our colorful kindergarten that we built with our own hands, that there can be nothing in this world more worthwhile or more necessary. Moreover, there is nothing in this world that will stop us from seeing it through.

The Lesson

It took only three people and safe space to make this happen initially. Since then, members have come and gone but the consistency of our program and the consistency of its message, at this point, might outlast all of us in the current collective. We are a consensus based group with no distinction between workers and members. Anyone interested in committing their time to the program who is in line with our basic principles is welcome to participate. We do take care to pull, in a general sense, from our existing affinity groups–or at least make sure we can find someone who can speak for new members as a way to protect ourselves from possible infiltration by the police or worse. In fact, we have suffered worse and have survived, learning all sorts of hard lessons along the way.

It is important to us that our lessons be your lessons; I can promise you, reader, that yours have been, and will continue to be, ours. Regardless of the fate of our beloved Belgrade squat, this project is far from finished. More importantly, there is little in it that is not replicable in some way or another in your own neighborhoods given the right space and the commitment of a handful of individuals. Mutual aid is how we express solidarity for those with whom we seek equality in our common struggle for both survival and significance in the face of exploitation, hatred, and systemic violence.

Thanks for paying attention. – ‘Ferdi’

For more information:
Facebook: facebook.com/kokolepoav
Email: kokolepoav@riseup.net
Other links:
Infoshop Furija: infoshopfurija.noblogs.org/

Cherry 76 booking: facebook.com/cherry76collective
Destroy Babylon booking: facebook.com/destroybabylonbooking


Black Lives Matter, how Liberal Institutions Fail to Address Structural Racism, and What to Do About It

As radical teachers, we are always learning from our students, and understand that a student can very much be a teacher in a more broad sense as well. One of the core tenets of truly student-centered teaching practice is to listen, to not be afraid to allow students to turn the lens of reflection on us (or our bosses/administrators), to break down the hierarchical structures and authoritarian tendencies of our profession so that we can all truly learn to be better human beings together.



The June 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR)  is written by Kadijah Means, who attends Berkeley High School (California) as a student and is a recent graduate of the class of 2015. She is a student leader, heading up the Black Student Union and Amnesty International groups on campus, and has been regularly interviewed in local media - particularly with regard to her involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement.



Berkeley High has an international reputation as an enlightened, modern high school that has sometimes employed radical measures to address systemic educational inequities that are rooted in racism, class discrimination, gender/sexuality biases, and other problems that plague schools across the U.S. (and worldwide). Even in this “enlightened” institution, however, these problems persist and often end up magnified. In her column, Kadijah discusses specific examples from Berkeley High to illustrate the repeated failures of the educational system in addressing racism, both within the school context and in the wider world. She also gives some concrete suggestions for ways that teachers, administrators, and school districts can work long-term to be more responsive and help combat the pervasive reality of race-based inequities.



The topic of racism is again at the forefront of the average American's mind. In response to non-indictments and injustice catching the eye of mainstream media, movements like the Black Lives Matter have spread across the US. The U.S education system, specifically in ‘progressive’ places like Berkeley, Ca., has found itself scrambling to write lessons and alter curriculum to meet the needs of the systematically oppressed. The system was completely unprepared to address the idea of institutional racism. The fact that they were unprepared is sad, but not surprising. To be frank this is a recurring reality-- microaggressions and even explicit forms of bias will occur on a daily basis. Faculty is ill-prepared to manage any classroom conflict, not to mention racially motivated ones. There are two issues colliding here: 1. Poor communication from administration to Berkeley High students and faculty 2. The toxic racist environment is preventing students of color from flourishing in the way their white counterparts can.



If communication is key, we haven’t been able to unlock anything lately. -- this cliché couldn’t be more accurate in regard to Berkeley High. There are no processes in place to aid dialog between administration, teachers and students. Furthermore, when concerning events take place there is no effort to inform the faculty or students. here are two solid examples of dis bullshit.

On October 1st, 2014, a BHS security officer discovered a noose hanging from a tree on campus. The school administration waited more than five days to announce the incident, even after pressure from the Dean of Students and the Black Student Union (BSU). When they released a statement via email, it was ineffective, as the majority of the student body remained ignorant of the incident. As president of the BSU and Amnesty International Clubs, I reached out to the Gay/Straight Alliance to put pressure on the administration to act decisively. We decided to force a response by releasing a statement to local news notifying them of the occurrence. In addition to organizing for news coverage, employing the tactics of guerrilla warfare, I read a statement over the school's public announcement system to inform all the students of what happened on our campus, not in 1964, but today, in 2014.



There was no plan to tell the students about the noose. A student group had to bring this information to the student body. The administration planned to put paper hearts in the tree. The hearts were placed in the tree prior to the announcement. Students wondered why there were paper hearts hanging in a seemingly arbitrary tree on campus because they were never informed about the noose. You can’t actually resolve problems before people realize there’s a problem. It doesn’t actually work. I don’t want to make too many assumptions, but I imagine the admin felt like “ this couldn’t have happened at our school”, a classic ‘not in Berkeley’ scenario. Instead of allowing us to feel shitty about the despicable event that occurred on our campus the admin rushed into a band-aid or short-term solution. Sometimes it is important for us to sit in the uncomfortableness.



The noose was a reality check for many. We are not post-racial. Putting hearts in the tree without telling the student body what happened was a rush to solve something that is not solvable in the short-term. This incident illustrates the poor communication and racial tension stirring on campus. I felt the administration didn’t want to face the possibility that this was a malicious act happened in Berkeley, and therefore attempted to cover it up. In the case of the noose, those affected by the triggering imagery were neglected. This is a prime example of how the burden to educate students falls on the affected community. A racially charged incident took place and people of color were expected to respond. Students of color carry this burden, and it  definitely impacts them in the classroom. In instances like this the marginalized continue to be disenfranchised even when ‘it’s not on purpose.’



The administration downplayed what happened to make sure the minority of the school, the white students, were more comfortable than the 60 percent, student of color majority. Rather than confront the fact that racism and prejudice still exist, the administration acted as if ignoring the noose made the problem disappear. As an active advocate for equality and equity, it is an understatement to say that I was concerned the situation was not being taken seriously. I felt the history of discrimination was being minimized. We remember the Holocaust, but we constantly try to move past the racist and violent history against black people in this country. The discriminatory treatment of black people is easily ignored today because it is less tangible than at the height of lynchings in 1895 or the violence surrounding the 1960’s civil rights movement, but it is no less insidious. This silence of our community around issues of race play out in a very dangerous way for students of color. Many experience discrimination or microaggressions and have no where to turn. Learning in this environment isn't impossible, but it is harder and that's what matters. It is integral that we support students so they feel able to express when inequities occur.



In a place like Berkeley High where the school is dramatically divided by race, class, and worldview it is hard to teach about race and racism (they are different conversations). I have found that difficult topics are often avoided. Conversations  about racism, how it affects people of color and our community are essential to preparing genuinely egalitarian humans. If that is not the goal then at the bare minimum we should be creating critical thinkers.



I love teachers. I don’t want to complicate their job. They are already playing so many roles in the classroom. I understand that the omission of certain topics is due to lack of training and a fear of discomfort. No one wants to be the racist teacher who said something unintentionally offensive, so they’d rather just skip the conversation completely. I get that. Teachers simply haven’t been taught about systematic oppression, or how to facilitate discussions about it. The intent of omission is to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, but the impact of omission onto students of color is damaging. The one institution that is charged with preparing young minds for higher order thinking, employs a pedagogy that appeals to white students without regard for the students of color in the classroom. We have to reframe our approach.



Solutions
I am not an expert in education. I am a student who is keenly aware of the impact racism has on students. If I was asked to reform the current school system in the U.S here are a few things I would suggest.



  1. Stop buying textbooks from Texas [editor’s note: since Texas is such a large textbook market, publishers in the United States generally produce textbooks that conform to the educational and curricular standards set by the Texas State Boards of Education. Not surprisingly, Texas’ education boards are packed with Republicans: religious conservatives, racist neo-Confederates, and industrial lobbyists, so you can imagine what kind of “standards” are set by these people, particularly in science and social studies]
  1. Cultural Competency Training
    There are skilled educators who can explain the ideas of privilege, systematic racism, micro vs. macro aggressions, and explicit vs. implicit bias. Every school needs this attention. If a place like Berkeley needs this training then every city in the U.S needs this. I would suggest integrating inclusive curriculum that highlights the contributions of all people to the world, as opposed to eurocentric curriculum only. That means history, math, and science would need to acknowledge contributions from all cultures. This will take time. We have to be dedicated to change if we want it.
  2. Diversifying Thought
    When discussing the Black Lives Matter movement in class someone said, “They couldn’t support such a violent movement.” In my experience at Berkeley High I’ve had lots of students tell me that ‘nonviolence’ is the only way to change things (their idea of violence is looting and property damage, which I do not believe is violence). If I respond, it is usually something like this: “ I am not asking nicely for those oppressing me to stop. In fact, I am not asking at all. I am demanding the freedom and equity my people deserve. So maybe that means some windows will be broken, and some noise will be made after 10pm -- so what.” Unfortunately, I can count the number of teachers who share these radical thoughts on my hand. We can't expect students to question the status quo if the people teaching them aren't willing to question it themselves. We need minds stretching across the entire political spectrum. Diversity of thought is what enriches the learning experience. The entire reason we advocate for ethnic diversity is to expose students to different walks of life. If everyone in the classroom looks different, but have parallel mindsets, that is not enriching. We need to expose students to more radical ideas.
  3. Clear Communication
    There should be clear processes to inform students and teachers of current events on campus, especially harmful events. When it comes to inequity silence is violence.




Change is not always abrupt. These are societal flaws. Racism affects the entire country. Tthe education system has to actively walk away from racism in order to make a difference. The education system is forced to clean up a mess that it did not create. It will take time, but we have to make an effort. --Kadijah Means