Families & the Community Opinion

5 Ways to Sustain Educational Justice Advocacy

It will take strong collective action to protect public education
By Briana Bivens — September 01, 2022 5 min read
Enthusiastic people gather at the center of the circle.
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This past year has seen teachers, students, parents, and community members organizing against oppressive policy changes, demanding better wages and working conditions, and resisting the growing slate of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.

In Chicago, two social studies teachers nearly lost their jobs after encouraging students to protest the scrap-metal company moving into their neighborhood. In Florida and several other states, educators spoke out at school board meetings against anti-LGBTQ legislation disguised in the language of “parental rights.” And in Oregon, teachers and students banded together to advocate robust climate education.

In the face of growing conservative attacks on culturally responsive, anti-racist, and gender-affirming education, this kind of advocacy is crucial. As more school- and community-based educators, administrators, and other education workers engage in educational justice advocacy as part of a union, activist group, or collective, we would benefit from developing our capacity to support ourselves and each other in this vital work.

Teachers and activists are no strangers to burnout, and sustaining collective action takes care and intention. Here are five core considerations for cultivating more caring, relational, and sustainable advocacy spaces. They were born of conversations I had with my own multi-issue organizing community.

1. Build your base. Given the scope and seriousness of structural injustice, it can feel indulgent to subtract time from project-based tasks to recruit and build a team. But base-building—meaningfully involving new education stakeholders through outreach and political education—is crucial for collectivizing responsibility and preventing individual overwork, resentment, or burnout.

Consider the following: How do you recruit, build trust, and form community with your fellow teachers, parents, and education professionals? Is there a variety of engagement opportunities tailored to different interests, skills, and availability? What is the onboarding process for newly engaged collaborators? How are they equipped to participate effectively? Are there ways to democratize decisionmaking processes and ensure front-line education workers are leading?

2. Make time for creativity and celebration. Encouraging creativity in our modes of organizing and celebrating the magic of our collaboration can inspire organizers, disrupt tired routines, and invite new political possibilities. When we take the time to cultivate moments for joy and acknowledgment, we refuse the capitalist notion that our production is our only value and demystify activism by highlighting the many contributions that enable the work.

How can your group diversify outreach, protest, and engagement efforts by incorporating games, sports, art, or music? How can you disrupt the conventional meeting format and incorporate content that sparks joy, laughter, and connection? Do you have a regular gratitude practice (in a meeting, in a social media post, through email, etc.) through which to honor various contributions to the organizing?

Can you celebrate together? Whether it’s celebrating the anniversary of a movement victory (such as Red for Ed), organizing a community festival, or hosting a potluck for teachers and organizers, these can be spaces for people to get to know one another, build trust, and be in joyful community.

3. Consider care infrastructure. Organizing spaces are unfortunately not immune from perpetuating injustice. Driven by expectations of urgency and self-sacrifice, organizers can end up relying on racialized and gendered emotional labor and care work. Without established time, commitments, or processes for caring for each other in organizing spaces, we also often default to inadequate “self-care” to manage the emotional and logistical burdens of activism. Think of the political possibilities that emerge when we shift the responsibility for care and support from the individual organizer to the broader collectivity.

Are there clear commitments and processes for how your group approaches conflict? Can you provide child care, food, and drinks at in-person gatherings? Can you offer virtual and in-person participation options and assess the overall accessibility of your meetings, events, and communication platforms?

4. Encourage healthy pacing. Organizers often cite a sense of urgency or culture of shame around boundary-setting that makes it difficult to be honest about time constraints, capacity, and interests and needs outside of organizing. When we make unrealistic demands of time, effort, and dedication in our organizing spaces, we risk mimicking the unsustainable, burnout-inducing conditions many educators face in their classrooms.

At the start of each year, quarter, or project, can you map the core goals and tasks according to the capacity and interests of those who will be participating? In that map, you might incorporate space for unexpected demands on time, celebration, rest, co-learning, reflection, and assessment.

Can you clarify expected tasks associated with a project so fellow collaborators can make informed decisions about their capacity to contribute?

5. Foster collective learning. There is a rich history of parents, teachers, and other education professionals learning together to make change. The workshops, teach-ins, and lectures that many educational organizations and teacher-activist groups practice today are a product of how organizers have deepened and archived their learning. Co-learning is one way to build trust and community while enriching the possibility for sustainable, intergenerational action.

How can you embed learning opportunities into regularly scheduled events or meetings? Consider reading together, incorporating a teach-in, or inviting unstructured time to discuss a particular concept. Establishing an archivist position or process can also help creatively document and organize the group’s work.

Community organizers and educational justice advocates have a long history of shaping anti-oppressive change. It’s crucial that we nourish this work by approaching it with care for one another. As the organizer Amanda Aguilar Shank writes, “We have a responsibility to align the ways we relate to each other with our values—from the most intimate relationship up to larger systems like the criminal and immigration systems.”

It will take a sustained, collectivist energy to resist conservative attacks on education and build the public educational infrastructure students need. To meet this moment, we need movement spaces that are caring, accessible, and collaborative.

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