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


Reflections on a Decade of Teaching as an Openly-Radical Punk

The August 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) features some real talk and reflection on a decade of teaching kids in a Title-1 (highly economically impoverished) School in Greenville, South Carolina. It is by Ryan GVSC, whose written ruminations on being a politically-radical, openly punk teacher have been a major influence on the editorial policy of this column. Other than being a teacher, he plays in LOW COTTON, RUBRICS, and many other bands, and he does the excellent zine EYESORE. He recently relocated to Salt Lake City from Greenville, can help with booking bands in SLC, and will take people out for tacos or cook them food if they are traveling through. You can reach Ryan by snail mail at 1225 W. Indiana, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Didn’t you know everyone is a fuckin’ cop? We police each other without looking at what mess our own hands have drawn or what our feet have trampled into the house. For the need to be heard, the need to be unchained, to mask our hands worn from frail attacks and feeble attempts at defiance, needs to rationalize, needs that take precedence over realities of the day… Each of which could be acknowledged by open communication and pacing our thoughts, but we’re programed to constantly be in flight mode. Stone and wood replaced with gossip and half-truth… We can fight until the sun goes down and a new pile of shit is ready for us to dig through in the morning; but we’ll never find ourselves because of what others push unto us and how we never truly give no fucks.

It’s nearly August; teachers probably shouldn’t be focused on much more than unpaid meetings, reflection for improvement and mornings sipping coffee Google searching ideas for the next year. I examine the dirt in the mirror for the first time this summer out of necessity, a mid-summer team meeting; lines of stale sweat have gathered between the wrinkles on my forehead, my hands resemble a calloused leather glove and the scents of the summer prevail. Mountain swimming holes and hopped pools carry their own hairstyle banner. Accomplishment is to run fingers across my skin and end up with waxy black cylinders of grime. A time well spent is cut off shirts fading from black to tan to red, as is the soil. Dusk is when I prepare myself to begin thinking about going to bed on time and begin to acknowledge my bad-habits that are not allowed by my alarm clock. It is always a challenge to eradicate the word fuck from my vocabulary after a summer of passionate self-deprecation. Time to thrift a new wardrobe. The worn holes in the five pairs of pants I wore on repeat from last year are no longer passable for these people; legs tapered with bike grease and pockets stained with dry erase marker and some leftover pizza I slammed during field day. It’s a shame I can’t just serve who needs it. Then I could wear shorts everyday and explain the stupid tattoos that cover my body, a true open house. I’d present myself as I appear in my mind, fluid, but I cannot. The public work environment, professionalism, self-privileging, yet culturally dry, parents will never allow self-expression in South Carolina. Why should they look beyond themselves? You only get smaller with a worldview where I come from… Maybe that’s how the Southerner flees self-harm in this mosquito stained shit hole. I was told once in college “I’d never trust a gay man to teach my kids.” The comment remained unchallenged in this University class of 15. Teeth clenched, neck sweating and legs bouncing; I remained silent as well. Why would I want to out myself in the beloved shit hole? What did I have to gain when I could lose it all? My thoughts often: “Just got to get through.” Figured I’d take on that SLC Punk mentality; better a tool in the system than a piece of shit outside of it. Remnants of this philosophy bear witness in my yearly welcome letter as it lists church as a top priority. So mysterious even cracked gossip punks even think I live for the lord. Could I have been regarded the same without fronting religious believe for all these years? Gem on the buckle of the bible belt, Greenville, South Carolina…. Would you regard me an “all-star” if you really knew me? Would you allow me to write nearly any grant I wanted for my school if you knew what my true intent was? I’m just gonna keep tucking in my shirt and smiling because I’m getting away with it; using numbers to write grants to the FDA, local garden club, Target, etc, etc, etc for free local food to be given away, books, gardens, bikes, community improvement; I’ve been awarded over 50k for things I knew my people needed by using simple numbers and compound sentences. Making that greedy green work for your kids, on my terms. Teaching kids there is more than one format for expression. Like a rattlesnake waiting on a fallen tree over a creek… It’s easy to win when a path is only one-way and your meal has to pass.

You’ve possibly guessed it by now, I’ve taught in a highly diversified and low income area for nearly a decade; 99% poverty rate and a school that has a P.O.C. administration an that pressure’s made me rather neurotic. Of course the socially motivated teacher will make it through a few years, but rigor, procedures and militancy prevail within my work environment. Unfortunately, the students from this school bring in negativity from their neighborhoods. They are taught fear, they are taught hate, they are taught to compare, unsupervised YouTube and T.V. do not aide in building a young healthy mind. Imagine when this negativity is inherited by an “educator”. Love through control. Communication through negative consequence. Anger at a child. Gavel shattering over simple offenses. This the state of the South East American Title-1 School. I thought because I was in their shoes as a child, I’d prevail. And seemingly I did, but it costs me so much in my mind at times… Anger, frustration, depression, failure.

You end up policed; even on the job. But fuck it; it’s not about me. Considering who IS important, the children… Think about who exactly is teaching our children…. Sadly in GV, SC it was primarily college football watchin’ fast food eating rednecks or people so clueless they thought curry was an exotic dance. People that consider hiking an extreme sport, gardening a waste of time and the ability to rationalize and organize information a talent. People who believe in mass produced role models. You know those, too unreachable, uninspired, and unrealistic for our kids to even think about reaching for. Have you heard of Ruby Payne? This is a major education “guru” that essentially equates being in poverty to having a low-self image and morality… This is the classist doctrine taught in American colleges of education.

At this point, I’ve got a Bachelor’s in Education, a Master’s in curriculum and am working on a Ph.D. in educational research which all means a great big NOTHING; teacher preparation in this country is complete bullshit. I’ve learned nothing, read zero books on education, and spent a lot of the government’s money. Half paying attention to every expert, analyst and administrator. Really though, you should see some of the garbage I turn in as “work”. Assignments that follow guidelines much more paralleling something that would suit a checklist for a credit card application rather than an activity that challenges you to push your thinking and ideas forward. We are prepared to regurgitate someone else’s half-thought through ideas based on research funded by your favorite American corporate interest. Because of course you need Apple technologies to learn and the state happens to love funding it. How could we ever do without it??? SERVE THE HIVE. We are not prepared for the amount of social work we are required and with general comparative statistics between student-teacher socio-economic status, most teachers haven’t experienced, let alone acknowledged, many of the issues (child abuse, poverty, immigration, drug abuse, etc) that they paid to serve and sort out. Issues double when our state standards are the equivalent of identifying the difference between the ocean and sea; and another quarter of the population protests the Common Core standards because “they take freedum frum the states”. I mean some teachers actually agree with high stakes testing. A test provided by ETS; a company that has been proven classist and racially bias…. SAT? ACT? ETC?

The general teacher is not educated enough on general topics to become an enriching components to person’s life. The industrialized education system prevails in teacher colleges and I’d assume most colleges. Teachers matter, but nobody cares about them and at fault is the classic chicken v. egg conundrum. Leaving us with distain throughout.

So what is the answer? Depression. What is the solution? Apocalypse. Both are plausible, but I’m lucky my door shuts to my classroom when I’m ready to get my teach on. Because if we lose hope we lose it all. In my world you save one, you save yourself. WE need capable, organic, wise people teaching our kids. We need bottom to the top so they see the whole spectrum without judgment. This is fighting back versus forgetting. This is feet on the ground, hands on deck, first wave assault and while we get soiled and infected from the trenches; we know that for some we deliver the world; dropping bombs for freedom. And we can be our own medics by screaming at the top of our lungs and pounding out noise.

We need you to get serious about changing the world.

From experience, I can sense the shell-shocked kid from a hellhole called home. The kid that needs an example of non-tradition. Punk will never save a life, adversely more often than not it leads to contributing to the delinquency of a minor; what can save a life is the education punk can at times provide. This education provides is worldview. This education builds patience. This education devalues what is not important; non-descript reviews, hip shit, image… a waste of time if you ask me. I’m a Nat Geo subscriber anyway. I don’t skate the punk rock pipe dream any longer. This is merely a means to utilize music for the mission. Put it down; preach away, this is direct assistive action boring full force with an assertive, honest and extreme message. --Ryan GVSC

Challenges and Ideas for Teaching about U.S. Systemic Racism and Intersectionality to Recent Immigrants

The July 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) deals with the often-uncomfortable, inevitable complexities of communicating about systemic racism (particularly anti-black racism) in the U.S. with students who are primarily from immigrant backgrounds. It is by Ian McDeath, who grew up in Philly and is an indispensable shitworker and super-busy musician in the DIY punk scene there. He teaches at an adult school for older teens and adults. Ian can be contacted directly at igwinter [at] yahoo.com.


Talking to ESL Students about Anti-Black Racism

I sort of started teaching ESL (English as a second language) as a work-study job while in college in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I say “sort of” because my actual job there was assistant to the teacher of the bilingual Kindergarten class and I basically just read weird stories and did cool art shit with 5 year olds. I got the job because I qualified for financial aid and because I had taken an extra year of Spanish in high school. I imagine there was probably a person who needed the job more and spoke Spanish better than I did. A few years later, I began working at an ESL school for adults of many different language backgrounds, also in New Jersey, and then at a similar school in Philadelphia.

I like teaching and see it as a radical act because as a friend once pointed out, it’s a form of authority that inherently undermines itself. I try to apply my politics to my classroom in fundamental ways. For example, every cycle, the class works together to create agreements (rather than rules) for themselves and for me. I try to empower them to teach each other. A lot of my lessons involve teaching students how use free and widely available resources to learn things on their own so that they don’t feel like they have to rely on some gatekeeper of knowledge.

I also try to talk openly about racism in my classroom. I do this when I hear or see something that strikes me as racist and I encourage my students to do the same. Generally speaking, these incidents aren’t directed at anyone in the classroom and I haven’t heard a lot of students say that they have felt personally hurt by racism from fellow students. What I more commonly find myself stopping class to talk about are anti-Black (specifically in reference to American Black people) comments reflecting people’s personal experiences, which range from feeling uncomfortable on the subway for absolutely no reason to being victims of mugging and assault. I am white (and straight and cis male and college educated) so I am familiar with people saying racist (and other types of fucked up) shit to me and thinking that I'm going to agree with them.

In my initial years of teaching adults, I made the mistake of treating these comments from students as if they were coming from someone in the political punk scene. That is to say, I got angry (sincerely so) or tried to embarrass the person who made the comment with the objective of pushing them to reflect on what they had said, understand why it was fucked up and never say it again. I’ve come to realize how misguided and uncool it was to take that approach with someone who hasn’t had the same opportunity that I’ve had to unlearn a lot of shit. It’s especially troubling when you consider that these were students who trusted me to help them.

Once I realized that my approach to anti-Black racism from my students was not helping them and mostly just making them uncomfortable talking to me about their feelings and experiences, I started trying to simply avoid the topic. I told myself that I was there to teach a language and anything else that they needed to know, they would learn one way or another. If someone told me that their child’s teacher was lazy and thought it necessary to mention that the teacher was Black, I would simply omit that detail in my head and carry on the conversation as if the person hadn’t mentioned it. If a young student said that they had trouble understanding Black people when they talked (followed by a ridiculous, caricatured imitation of Black American English), I would just say, “I don’t know what to tell you.” Taking this approach made me feel just as bad about myself as my previous approach.

The comment that caused me to reevaluate my response to my students’ anti-Black racism came from a then-student, a few years younger than me, who I have always liked and respected as a person, about a co-worker of mine that I deeply admire as a teacher and as a friend. Purely in the interest of illustrating the complexity of the situation, I will say that the both the student and the teacher in question are Muslim and that the comment centered on criticism of Black American Islam because of its connection to prisons. The comment also rang hollow of conviction, like the student was repeating something they had heard said with confidence but that they didn’t necessarily believe. I didn’t know what to say but I felt like the longer I let the comment linger in the air, the deeper the frustration set in. I wanted to go off for hours about history and capitalism and the media and capitalism and the police and capitalism but I didn’t even know where to start and I could feel myself getting more frustrated, so instead I just asked “Have you ever read The Autobiography of Malcolm X?”

No, teacher. I don’t like to read. Only what you give me for homework.”

It’s also a movie. I’ll find you a copy if you promise you’ll watch it.”

Of course, teacher. I love movies.”

We ended up watching it together after class and talked about a lot of the themes and messages in the movie as well as the important historical background and how that history has morphed into the current landscape of anti-Black racism in the United States. We talked about how that gets exported via mainstream television and movies to people in other countries.

I’m not sure if all of that was the right way for me to go about addressing the student’s comment. On the one hand, it kind of feels like it was just a white person (me) lecturing a non-white person about racism but I think it was also a lesson on the historically and culturally specific way that anti-Blackness exists in the United States. There are also a few things that I learned are important about discussing American racism with recently arrived adults from other countries:

1. Most places in the world have their own forms of anti-Blackness. In some places, it's similar to the United States, where Black people continue to be the victims of poverty and violence at disproportionate rates as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the racist institutions that it morphed into. In other places, Black people are immigrants, seen by the population as an invasive other, taking jobs, contributing to crime and tainting the cultural (read: racial) purity. In some places anti-Blackness is the process of occupation and colonialism by foreign armies and companies that deplete countries of resources and pit people against each other for survival. In some places, anti-Blackness is simply racist American media imported and internalized, which brings me my next point:

2. Racist American media is consumed worldwide and, just like it does here, it influences beliefs and feelings towards American Black people. American television and movies tend to portray Black people as violent and prone to criminality and this becomes internalized in some of my students (some of whom would be considered Black by most Americans) even before they arrive in this country. I'm often asked which parts of the city are fun/beautiful/safe to go to with the expressed or implied understanding that Black neighborhoods are none of these things.

3. For someone that has not been raised and educated in our specific and complicated formula of coded racism, it can seem pretty absurd. They see a world where most Americans hate and fear Black people but never say it directly. The cultural ideal they are presented of an American is a middle-class, white, college-educated person. They see these Americans afraid to go to Black neighborhoods or uncomfortable around young Black people but then have to learn a new set of culturally specific words and phrases to avoid saying that, which is a lot for someone who is already adapting to a new language.


4. Most non-Black American people, including ESL teachers, need to address their own anti-Black racism before they can really talk to their students about the topic. It's important for a teacher (or anyone, really) to understand how they themselves are affected by anti-Black racism. A teacher's anti-Black racism can present itself in the topics that the teacher chooses to talk about in class and how they choose to talk about them. It can also appear in how the teachers talks about the place where they live, their friends and co-workers and current social and political events. If they are afraid of or less comfortable around Black people or in Black neighborhoods, then for that teacher to tell students not to make anti-Black comments just seems ridiculous to them (and it kind of is). Additionally to this point, ESL teachers (and everyone) need to educate themselves on the history of U.S. racism and the current legal and economic policies that perpetuate racism. Otherwise, it can seem like all this anti-Blackness just came out of nowhere or that Black people are themselves responsible for the situation they're in.

5. Students coming to the United States for the first time see a racially segregated society where most Americans tend to interact with people who come from similar racial, economic and language backgrounds and where Black people are disproportionately victims of violence and poverty and most non-Black people don't do anything to change that. It is easy for students to look at non-Black people in society and believe that they are racist (which a lot of them are). Unless a non-Black teacher makes a point to address racism in their class, it is possible, and not totally crazy, for students to think the teacher might dislike Black people. All non-Black people have the responsibility to fight anti-Black racism. For ESL teachers, this means having meaningful conversations with your students about American anti-Black racism.
Ian McDeath

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

Creating a Student-Centered Learning Environment

 Though the institutions of education are historically problematic and often oppressive, students who have experienced them as “outsiders” (including many punks) understand the importance of learning from teachers who have developed radical notions of what education is and how it works. The Teaching Resistance column is designed to provide a platform for radical, subversive teachers/educators to share their ideas and draw attention to important issues around education.

The June 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) is about what teachers can do to help create a student-centered classroom – an educational environment which expressly validates students' own experiences+knowledge, encourages critical analysis, and helps them teach each other rather than simply telling them what to think. A setting where the teacher acts more as a mentor and coach rather than an endlessly lecturing “fountain of knowledge”. This column's author is Laura A. Zink, who has been teaching English for nine years. Currently, she teaches at a community college in the East Bay and writes short fiction. Laura can be reached directly at fightwriterzink [at] gmail.com.

In a Manner Unbecoming of “The Man”

Many semesters ago, I was teaching a unit on education in one of my English composition classes. In the essay we were discussing, the author argued that a student’s socio-economic class, the growing demand by employers for graduate degrees, and the current shifts in federal financial aid were recreating and widening the educational and economic gap between the haves and the have-nots.
I think some of the author’s statistics hit a little too close to home for the students. As we started to discuss the institutions and forces contributing to some of these disparities, the room got quiet. The students bowed their heads, gazing at their textbooks with blank and distant stares. The only sound in the classroom came from the back. A young man rapped his thumbs against the edges of his desk like a drum. Barely peeking up from under his baseball cap, he said:
So The Man is keeping us down.”
I stood there gripping my textbook, the cockles of my nerdy little subversive heart heating to a boil. I asked him to clarify what he meant by “The Man.” This was an English class, right? So define your terms. Who is The Man exactly? And while I am trying to reframe his opinion, I am thinking to myself - this is going to be good. Boo big business, right? Boo corrupt politicians. C’mon, dude! Say it!
The Man is the government,” he said. “Cops and corporations. Schools, too.” He lifted his head and paused. Looking at me straight on, he said: “And you. Like, you’re The Man.”
Wrong answer, I thought. My mind scrambled for a way to demonstrate the error in his thinking. The Man is more of an abstract idea than a person, so I cannot be The Man. I don’t fit the profile. I am not even a man, for starters. I am not on the speed dial of any government officials or CEOs or lobbyists who are seeking my ideas about managing the country or any business organization. I am a vulnerable, part-time, at-will employee of the community college system, my position subject to the varying needs of the college on a semester-to-semester basis. I am not rich. If I counted the number of hours I work against my salary, I am a low-wage worker at best. I am not The Man! I am not, not, not The Man!
Overwhelmed with emotions and opinions, I looked down at my textbook, searching as if I would find some kind of answer in there. I had to bat away this ridiculous idea. I just needed to make sure that the way I did it wasn’t too obvious.
“Well,” I said. “Let’s go back to the text. Who does the author view as The Man?”
It was a loaded question. That young man knew it. They all knew it. Nowhere in the essay did the author blame instructors for the disenfranchisement of students. For the rest of the class, the students repeated the ideas from the textbook and expressed none of their own. And after class, I tried to laugh off that student’s opinion as some kind of passive-aggressive fiddle faddle.
I ain’t The Man. Pssht. Whatever, dude.

The young man did have a point though. That day, my actions supported my authority at the expense of his. When he had an opinion that I didn’t like, I viewed it as an attack and tried to discredit it. My chosen tactic was to redirect the conversation away from his opinion, and then, worse still, replace his idea in favor of the “authoritative” ones in our textbook. Perhaps worst of all, I did all of this because I wanted to push my opinion on my students. It didn’t matter that the ideas I was aiming for were “revolutionary” or “subversive.” I wanted them to see things MY way. In a lot of ways, I was acting like The Man.
As much as I could try to rationalize that I was the exception - because of my point of view, or my politics, or my identity, or whatever excuse I could conjure to privilege my ideas at the expense of theirs - the students do feel the imbalance of power in the classroom. For many of them, this kind of power dynamic is reflected in almost every other area of their lives – boss-worker, police-civilian, court-accused. I am not suggesting that the instructor-student dynamic is identical to these others. What I am saying is that to many students, the instructor of a class is yet another authority, and again, they are not. While the instructor doesn’t have the power to fire them or arrest them or lock them up, they do have a certain power - the power to tell them what to think. Left unchecked, an instructor could be the thought police. The Man of the mind, so-to-speak.
Granted, as far as the course content is concerned, the instructor is the expert in the class. They damn well better be. They have spent years working to gain mastery over the content, concepts, and nuances of their discipline. Because of this, it is their job is to teach those specific skills. In almost everything outside of this, the students have more to contribute than the instructor does. The instructor is one person with one point of view, and in my classes, there are anywhere from thirty to forty students, each with an individual point of view. The students are the critical mass. My opinions do not help students voice their own ideas, nor discover how they came to believe what they do, nor understand the implications of their thinking and beliefs. In a classroom context, my opinions on a topic can only suppress theirs. And as the class gatekeeper, as soon as I voice my opinion, it gets interpreted as part of the course content and transforms into gospel truth.
Once I really considered what this student had said, I realized that I needed to make some major changes. As much as I was assigning group work and discussing texts and asking them questions, my class was functionally teacher-centered. I needed to adopt methods that emphasized and encouraged student autonomy, and hopefully, inspired students to question authority outside of the classroom. Here are some of the things I have done to restructure my classes into a student-centered environment:
  • Recognize the similarities – While there are times when we alternate responsibilities and workload, we are all working to make the class a success. Every rule, every activity, and every assignment reflects a two-way exchange. For example, deadlines apply to me in the same way that deadlines apply to students – no late work from students and a quick turn-around from me. These mutual responsibilities can be outlined in the syllabus. They are policies for the entire community, instructor and student alike.
  • Be transparent – I make sure to tell the students explicitly what I am trying to accomplish with each activity. I am not going to waste their time staging a performance designed to trick them into thinking I am something that I am not. I am not the Wizard of Oz. Instead, I try to demystify the classroom process, and in doing so, demonstrate to the students their critical role in the learning process and, in turn, the success of the class.
  • Admit mistakes – I am not all knowing and all-powerful. Sometimes, I do not know the answer to a particular question. Sometimes, I make a mistake. A less honest thing to do in a circumstance like this is try to hide it, or worse, throw it back at the class and disguise my own learning opportunity as a learning opportunity for them. Instead, I admit it, and I share what I intend to do about it. This way, I am being open about my limitations and honest about my mistakes, just as I expect them to be open and honest about theirs.
  • Focusing on real questions – I don’t play that “guess what’s in my head” game anymore. The students need to question things to figure out what they think, not what I think.
  • Have students take over the class - After they get the swing of things, I give them the reigns. At the end of a unit or as a culminating activity, I have students develop curriculum in class and use that curriculum as the basis for the next class. I have students run discussions, too. The best learning experiences tend to happen when students have a genuine voice and a genuine stake in both the product and the process of their learning.


Of course, these practices are not one-size-fits-all methods for refocusing all classes in all circumstances into student-centered ones. I can only speak to my experiences. What I want to emphasize here is the importance of avoiding a hierarchical structure that privileges instructor ideas over those of the students. The classroom is not a pulpit. It is not a political convention. When faced with a room full of people with unique life experiences and points of view, the most revolutionary thing I can do is to get off the soapbox, shut the hell up, and listen. I feel more confident about my classes when I am working towards developing a critical mass of independent thinkers, not an army of clones. --Laura A. Zink

Interview with Miriam Klein Stahl (part 2)

The May 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) is the second part of a two-part interview with Miriam Klein Stahl, co-founder and lead teacher of Berkeley High's Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA), where she’s taught since 1995. She is also an artist who specializes in printmaking, sculpture, paper-cut and public art and is internationally known among activist and punk circles for her powerful, iconic portraits of political activists, misfits, radicals and radical movements. As an educator, Miriam has dedicated her teaching practice to address equity through the lens of the arts.

Miriam Klein Stahl has illustrated a new (April 2015) children's book with Kate Schatz, Rad American Women A-Z, which uses a traditional format to introduce kids and adults to profiles of 26 inspirational and deeply radical women in public life. Miriam was interviewed over two separate lunch periods in her classroom at Berkeley High, where students were buzzing around the whole time working on art projects and occasionally interjecting with comments of their own – including a student whose comments start this month's column.

Bella (Student): I am Isabella DeVito Brown, I am a senior at AHA [Berkeley High's Arts and Humanities Academy, a “small school” program of a few hundred students among Berkeley High's 3000+ total students], and I've been here all four years. So, the thing about AHA is that we're a huge community and we are definitely taught to look at the world in different ways, and look past barriers - that's really important. Something that makes us different from the other schools is this interdisciplinary project that Ms. Stahl is talking about, and it's really good because a lot of schools separate this stuff around and in between classes, and with the IDP [Interdisciplinary Project] we are blending together all of these important aspects of school and creating this project that might help us look at the world in a different way.

It's really fun, actually. It's one of my favorite things about AHA because most other students have finals, and I'm like, yeah - I'm making this really awesome book and I'm learning all this stuff and it's not just learning about math or science. It's learning about how all these different things mix together to create something different.

MRR: Kind of makes it all make more sense.

Bella: Yeah, I think every school should do that - an IDP project. It really brings together the whole...

Miriam: ...Interconnectedness.

Isabella: Yeah, it really does. It shows you how the world is not just black-and-white, it is really this whole mess of stuff , and that's one of the greatest things about AHA – that's what they show us, that's what they teach us.

MRR: It shows the point of all these different disciplines, too, right, to show how they can actually work together to affect some kind of change.

Bella: You are writing about English, you are writing about history and using all of this English you have learned in school. Creating art to help emotion, and to help exemplify what is happening in the world, and it's a lot more powerful than just writing an essay about it.

MRR: Thank you for that, and it's really nice to hear how effective these programs are. I just did my student teaching last semester here in the IB (International Baccalaureate) program, which is way more exam focused for sure.

Bella: ...of course the people see that, and go “oh, those students are so prepared for the world”, but really it is sort of a micro-vision of things. Like, “I know exactly what happened in history” but you can't connect that to everything else, which is great about this [AHA's IDP project].

MRR: Right, the key here with this project, which is really great.

Bella: I think every school should do an IDP project.

MRR: I think a lot of the other schools may be emulating that model, but maybe not to the extent that this particular program has. So, Miriam, in terms of one really good question here that you got from one of the students in your classes last week – she was asking about when it is ok to be biased when teaching about our culture or social inequalities in our culture, especially when you disapprove of these inequalities? If so, how can you still allow teens to be open-minded/have different perspectives?

Bella: We have a teacher who is sort of biased about stuff.

MRR: Well, everybody's got some bias, right? I mean, we all have our beliefs.

Bella: Well, the interesting thing is that she's biased on history, so her whole thing is that she shows us all the, like, minorities that were disregarded in history class, so you come out knowing so much more about the Harlem Renaissance, and I could talk about, like, African-Americans in this situation, whereas everyone else gets this sort of white-washed history.

MRR: Miriam, how do you feel about this question?

Miriam: Well, I think that question is speaking to the Berkeley Bubble, right?

MRR: Sure. I mean, it could be applied in converse in Texas, right?

Miriam: Yeah. I am clearly part of the Berkeley Bubble [laughs], I am biased.

MRR: [laughs] Yeah, and transparent about it, right? That's the key.

Miriam: Totally. [pauses] So I don't know totally how to answer that question.

MRR: Which is ok. I guess the question, which is from a student, is if you feel it is ok to to be biased...really, is there anybody who really isn't biased, I guess that's the issue with the question, right?

Miriam: I don't think so. I think effective teachers aren't scared to bring in their life experience and who they are, and aren't afraid to be vulnerable in that way, bringing what you know and who you are, and being honest about how the world sees you. The students see us. They see a white woman who dresses like a boy, and I'm not going to pretend to be something that I'm not. I'm not going to hide that I'm living in the world in this very queer way, AND that I have white skin privilege...And I think that you need to be honest about those things to be honest to students, to be real with students and present whatever it is you are presenting. Obviously, it's not relevant for everything you are doing, but I think it's bullshit when these teachers get up in front of a class and think that students don't see anything other than what they are delivering as the content.

MRR: The context is so important.

Miriam: Right, so we all have a bias, or a perspective we are coming from and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Because hopefully in a student's day they are getting a diversity of perspectives anyway, because we all have our view on the world.

MRR: Right, and of course if you are just teaching the “standard view”, that's a bias as well.

Miriam: Sure.

MRR: ...but I guess these are the questions that students think about, and when we step outside of our bubble other questions arise. A mutual acquaintance of ours has had struggles in [a nearby district] with regard to [their] identity as openly queer, and that created a lot of problems for [them]. So, I guess the context counts, too...where we are.

Miriam: Right, and in a lot of ways I am in a privileged place where I have not experienced homophobia in the classroom.

MRR: Not openly, anyway...

Miriam: Yeah.

MRR: So, another student question here - When you teach kids to express themselves through art, is there ever a line not to cross in terms of offending people?

Miriam: There's always a line to cross. I think that line does get crossed in my classes, and it's always a good conversation to have. I think the thing they butt up against more is creating something and having an idea of how they want it to be seen, and having people see it in a way that was not intended, and so there's that thing that every artist struggles with. So, you use a swastika in a art piece, and you mean your piece to be anti-racist, is it going to come off as being racist or anti-racist? So, I think students straddle that line when they choose to make work that can have an emotional resonance with the audience. So, that's always a good conversation to have!

The other thing we have conversations about...What was that conversation we were having about the news, intent vs...

Passing Student: Impact.

Miriam: ...Intent vs. Impact. So, you know, even if you choose to put a naked woman in an art piece – which many people do, it's part of the art canon – what is the intent vs. the impact? Is that piece gonna come off as totally sexist or...not?

MRR: I guess this is an environment where kids can learn about how that goes. Which also leads into another excellent student question – I am leaning towards the student questions because they are better than mine – this is blending into how people develop their own styles, and their own ways of expression that makes the most sense to them. So the question was asked: How do you motivate a teen to create art with their own style/How do you help a teen discover their style? And I would add to that, how do you make it so they can express themselves in a way they can be happy or comfortable with?

Miriam: My answer to that would be...because we started AHA with an eye towards equity, the only reason we started this small school was to address the equity gap, and so for me it is really important that students have really strong skills. So, freshman/sophomore/junior year, I focus 90% on building technique and skill – because I know that my students need to be better than most people, because they are judged a little harsher because of who they are in the world. So, I want them to have really strong skills and technique.

Then, in senior year, I focus more on conceptual work and developing ideas and style, and I don't think you can jump into that before you have skill and technique or it is just frustrating. So, the senior class, which is the AP class you were subbing in, is 100% student-focused where they are developing their skill and technique with their concept and their own personal style. It's a balance of keeping everyone on the same page, hammering in skills and technique, and then knowing when – as a teacher – to back off and let them develop their style and their concepts.

MRR: ...and if they always wanted to express it more raw-ly, they could always stop in at 924 Gilman for the weekend.

Miriam: [laughs] Sure. [To group of students] So, what do you all think makes AHA different from other schools?

Student 1: Teachers care.

Student 2: The teachers are much more...people who like each other. It's not just school, it is about how you build relationships, and here's how you think about the world, not just “do some problems”, academics, it is about social skills. I think teenagers need a platform to figure it out. I think AHA has teachers that are not just teachers, they are friends and they care about you.

MRR: You have co-authored (illustrated) an awesome-looking new book with Kate Schatz coming out this year, titled “Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future!”. How did you come about collaborating with Kate Schatz, and what was the process by which the book was completed? How long did it take to create?

Miriam: So, Kate is an author and a teacher at the Oakland School of the Arts; she teaches creative writing. I had submitted some images for a previous book project she had done called Encyclopedia, that was a collaboration between her and two other authors. They went out and talked to a bunch of other artists and writers to make a project called encyclopedia, so they did a series of encyclopedias and then had authors and artists choose the word they wanted to illustrate or write about.

I did that project and she liked my work that I did for that, and so...Kate and I are both mothers of young kids. I have a seven-year-old, and she has a five-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old, and so when she had her daughter, who's five, she had an idea to do a children's book, and there's so few...there's a need right now for diverse children's books. There's a hashtag you may be aware of right now called #weneeddiversebooks. She had an idea, like “I want to make a book for my daughter has rad women in it”. You know, strong, powerful, feminist women and so she she had thought of doing an A-Z book.

[Kate is] part of this book called Binders on facebook, it's all these women writers, the name came out of that thing from when Mitt Romney was running for President where he said “I have binders of women”... and so she kind of put the call out onto there, “Hey, if I did a women A to Z book, what women should be included?”. It kind of started there and she sat with the idea for two years, and then called me and we had coffee and talked about collaborating on it.

So she asked “do you want to do this book?”, and I tend to say yes so I said yes. And I had already made paper cuts of five of the women that were on her initial list.

MRR: What were some of the specific ones that really grabbed you, that you were super stoked on?

Miriam: Well, she had an initial list and then we worked on that list together, and that's where our collaboration started. We were in pretty much agreement about most everything besides one - she wanted Sonia Sotomayor for S and I wanted Sister Karita, this radical nun.

MRR: When was Sister Karita active? I think my parents were really big fans of hers...

Miriam: The sixties and seventies, Vietnam War. Yeah, she was awesome. [laughs] So that was our only disagreement...I was mad at Sonia Sotomayor, it was during that Hobby Lobby stuff last summer, and she wasn't saying anything [about it]. I also wanted to kick Patty Smith out at one point, when she decided to play the Pope's Christmas party.

MRR: At least she hasn't gone full-Exene Cervenka yet.

Miriam: [laughs] Aw, man. So, [Kate and I] met for coffee, and I just started making paper cuts for the people on the list, and I tend to work really fast so I think I made about 20 of them in a week. It was summer [laughs]. We got together A thru E in a week, and she did the writing for those. I had known Michelle Tea for a really long time, who does Sister Spit and Radar Productions, so I emailed Michelle A thru E with the images and some of the writing, and was like “Hey! Wanna put out a children's book?”...Kate and I were busy and didn't have time to do a kickstarter thing, and I'm not really interested in doing that. I see the value of those projects, but my ideal was to work with a local publisher with a feminist perspective. But, you know, Sister Spit is known more for queer debauchery and not children's books [laughs], so I wasn't quite sure … but I knew at the time she was pregnant, so maybe she would be interested. I didn't hear back from her for a couple weeks, then all of a sudden I got an email from her, which was like “I just saw your email, yes I wanna do the book!”. Right after that we had a meeting with City Lights and they were like, “Yeah, we wanna do your book”, and I had all the images so I brought them in a portfolio and they totally loved them, and then Kate wrote the book over the summer...

MRR: That came together fast!

Miriam: Yeah, so it was really really quick.

MRR: [The book] almost seems like it could be a shelf reference, or even assigned for classes.

Miriam: Well, we are both teachers so we have reached out to teachers to write lesson plans for it in trade for a free book...wanna make one? I'll give you a book and some posters.

MRR: I'd love to!

Miriam: Yeah, we don't have much middle school or high school lesson plans yet. So, my kid's at Malcolm X in the second grade, and her teacher's doing a whole project with it for International Women's Day, or Women's Month, or whatever. So, for the month, her class is researching their own rad women and doing drawings, and are gonna make their own book, which is really great.

MRR: So are you going to have the lesson plans online?

Miriam: So we have radamericanwomen.com and that's meant to be a resource, there will be lesson plans online etc. The book will be available at many independent bookstores, I always tell people to order direct from City Lights and avoid Amazon.
MRR: ...So it was designed as a children's book AND an educational tool.

Miriam: It's a really fun kid's book. Me and my daughter, the seven-year old, have been picking one a night, she'll pick a letter and we will read it. She's going to read at some of the local readings. She likes X.

MRR: Who's X?

Miriam: X is the unknown woman. The woman that made you dinner. All the women who do things and don't get acknowledged.

MRR: So the tour that's happening...

Miriam: ...in March and April. It's a whole Sister Spit tour that's happening, down in Southern California and up to the Pacific Northwest, so there's great authors on that bill. Then Kate and I are doing a bunch of other stuff at bookstores and various events. There's an events page on radamericanwomen.com

[bell sounds, everybody scrambles]