Past is present: Community organizing and school integration

Screen Shot 2018-05-17 at 4.24.15 PMThe SD Notebook is back today, the 64th anniversary of the Brown decision, after a short hiatus to wrap up the semester and submit final grades. Especially because many others will attempt (better than I can) more comprehensive summaries of the state of school (re)segregation on the anniversary, I try to use my blog posts to focus on one aspect of the school integration movement that is salient to me. Last year, it was the importance of education for democracy amidst the daily ruin of democratic integrity. This year, without a doubt, it is the inspiring student organizing for school integration.

As described in earlier posts, groups like IntegrateNYC and Teens Take Charge have been doing impressive organizing on social media and in NYC to galvanize support for contemporary school integration. If you’re not familiar with these groups, check them out – they’re awesome. IntegrateNYC, in particular, has been organizing a month of mobilization leading up to a student press conference today. You can follow everything at #stillnotequal, if you’re under 25 you can sign a student constitution, and adult allies can donate to help support this effort in a severely challenging fundraising/philanthropic environment.

What I want to focus on here, though, is a great aspect of their campaign that may have been overlooked. For five weeks leading up to today, they published “teach-ins” (or, very short online overviews) of key topics related to school integration and community organizing. The teach-ins align with Integrate’s 5 R’s of real integration (see below). Each is only a few paragraphs long, contains a short (about 2-3 mins) audio component, a one-page summary with action points for organizers and student demands, and a list of additional resources at the end. I’ve really enjoyed these and highly recommend checking them out and/or using them in your teaching/outreach. They’re a great resource for people who are familiar with this issue and for people who are newer to it. Here’s a very short summary of some of the great stuff that’s included:

  • Race and Enrollment – This one covers two major historical examples of student action for integrated schools:
    • The Mendez v. Westminster case, which – 8 years before Brown – ruled that “Mexican Schools” were unconstitutional (by a federal court, not SCOTUS). As they point out, the decision was influenced by Silvia Mendez, an 8-year old, who “took the stand and testified to why she should have a right to attend the same school as any other kid.”
    • The Freedom Day Boycott, on February 3 1964, where over 400,000 NYC students left school “because they were sick of the city ignoring their demand for integration,” considered one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in US history. As described in an earlier post, students in Chicago engaged in similar boycotts, using the Freedom Day label.
  • Resources – Describes the organizing of the Rainbow Coalition to advocate for investment in neglected urban centers, noting that the “coalition tried to broker treaties between rival gangs, and fought for affordable housing, healthcare and equal access to basic sanitation services and fair policing.” The teach-in also discusses the massive Free Breakfast for Children program run by the Black Panthers that was shut down by federal agents “as a part of their larger campaign to silence the young activists of the Rainbow Coalition.”
  • Relationships – I particularly enjoyed this one, because it tells a part of the Boston school (de)segregation story that I rarely hear in Boston. Of course, many are familiar with the infamously harsh backlash to school desegregation in Boston. But, fewer people may be aware that students at South Boston High School (the center of the Boston busing opposition) felt that the “crisis was partly a result of the lack of relationships between White and African American families,” and a diverse group of students created a magazine called MOSIAC that “helped to build relationships across intersectional identities of race, ethnicity, age, class and gender.” It published a yearly anthology from 1980-1988. Among other resources, you can find a 30 min video about the Boston busing crisis at the resources listed on the teach-in site.
  • Restorative Justice – Another story that might not be particularly well-known in the history of school segregation, this teach-in talks about community organizing against NYC’s so-called “600 schools,” which were established in the mid-1960’s “for students who allegedly could not be educated in traditional classrooms because of emotional or behavioral issues.” Described as an early example of the school-to-prison pipeline, the schools were under-resourced, teachers were under-supported and student mis-assignment was rampant. In response, organizers engaged in a boycott that “brought increased attention to the discriminatory disciplinary and classification policies that placed students in alternative schools.” The teach-in, which has a lot of great detail not included here, describes the case as an example of ongoing efforts to criminalize students of color.
  • Representation – The last teach-in gives an overview of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community organizing movement, also in mid-60’s NYC, in which the “African-American Teachers Association, and parents demanded to have a say in who taught their children, as well as the school budget and curricula.” I wrote a short summary, but then deleted it – Ocean Hill-Brownsville is such a major, contentious and unique case in the history of school integration that it’s hard to summarize in a few sentences. Like all of the topics here, I highly recommend checking out the teach-in. And, in addition to the great resources there, I also recommend this book as an in-depth exploration of this troubling history.

In the course I just finished, we read an article about the importance of situating history in the context of present day struggles for social justice. Past is not really past – instead, injustice mutates/changes shape. These teach-ins are an absolutely critical resource for looking at the history of community organizing in the struggle for school integration and understanding how that past is very much alive today.

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