This post is by Tony Simmons, Director, New School Creation Fellowship, High Tech High Graduate School of Education.
Recently, I had the honor of presenting the commencement address at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education (HTH GSE). In preparation for my address, I spoke to the co-founder of HTH and the president emeritus of the GSE, Rob Riordan. I asked him, “What is the GSE really all about?” Rob said that the HTH GSE is rooted in the principles of Paulo Freire, the father of critical education pedagogy, adding that, “Education at the GSE is meant to be much more than the graduates going back to their respective schools or creating new schools. The intent is for the graduates to go beyond their schools and literally transform the world!” Rob’s wish is for the graduates to embody everything the GSE represents--innovation, deeper learning, and equity, with a readiness to do the social justice work that is necessary.
Rob is notorious for sharing a compassionate and compelling truth, then subsequently shedding a few tears. However, in this case, I did not see tears. Instead I saw a steely gaze in his eyes--and I think I know why. Rob understands what I also know to be true, the hard reality that each graduate will confront as an educational leader and that is this: the future of our democracy is at risk. This is not hyperbole. The question of the future of our democracy poses a true existential threat to our very way of life. We are on the verge of a likely constitutional crisis in this country that is wholly unique. And this crisis has real consequences for real people. The educational equity fights that we have taken on for a long time have the potential to reach a dangerous level if we do not confront this challenge. Perhaps in less divisive times, preparing our young people to be civically aware and active was enough; however, as educators, we may or may not have felt the need to engage civically.
I believe that we are at an inflection point in our country. In addition to the crisis that looms over us, we are being continuously manipulated and distracted from what’s happening in the hopes that we--students and educators--remain civically unengaged. We are told by the highest echelon of our government to be more threatened by football players taking a knee in silent and peaceful protest against a legitimate grievance with their government--what our Constitution was founded on protecting--than to be appalled by the educational inequities and policies that exist along racial lines. These are inequities that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, increased reluctance to attend school for fear of encountering Immigration and Custom Enforcement officers, and risk of family separation. Clearly something needs to change.
Millions of young people are pushed and kicked out of school for no justifiable reason other than the fact that they fail to fit into the current Westernized, industrial educational model and norms. We must heed what Dr. King spoke of in his speech entitled, “Why I’m Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” when he said, “There’s something wrong and we aren’t going to take it anymore.”
Educational inequity transcends politics and violates basic human rights. According to Rob, the graduates of the HTH GSE have, in essence, taken an equity pledge, and unless we want to become passive observers of educational and societal inequities, we must be willing when necessary to become social justice warriors in education.
We must look beyond our school walls and critically analyze what is happening to our students, their families, and communities. We must recognize that our students are impacted by forces and policies that affect their ability to come to school “ready to learn.” Issues like poverty, drugs, violence, and homelessness are realities for far too many marginalized youth. We must confront those forces as education equity and social justice warriors with the all the tools and strategies we have been given.
And given the various movements occurring to confront police abuse, gun violence and slashes to education budgets, the times are ripe for civic activism by education equity and social justice leaders. Let’s remember what renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and never will.”
So, how do we take on this seemingly insurmountable challenge? I suggest that we initially recognize, study, and honor our social justice warrior heroes. We must also imagine what they had to do to confront and fight the injustices of their time. And if they are no longer with us, we can imagine how they would confront our current challenges. Additionally, we must know our own family histories of struggle and triumph so we can call upon their strength.
In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, David Brooks provides a rationale for the growing cause for this persistent oppression of vulnerable populations, stating that, “The members of the educated class use their intellectual, financial and social advantages to pass down privilege to their children.” To be perfectly frank, most young people who are white and/or live in privileged households that are often maintained through systemic forms of White Supremacy, live and practice being free from the time they are born. This is not the reality for far too many black, brown, and indigenous youth, who often, from the time of their birth, are marginalized and oppressed. In this “new” meritocratic aristocracy, what’s new is that many of us are unaware that we are a part of it. That is something we must confront and make right as educational and social justice leaders.
Dr. King addressed this critical point when he said that we need to move from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. Education now, in too many places, is just a scam that is more about schools’ data points and adults’ careers than students’ liberation through education. Let’s give our young people the education they need and deserve even if it means we have to fight for it. And when we are triumphant, we will have done as Rob hoped, transformed the world.
Some believe that the primary purpose for going into teaching and educational leadership is to improve student outcomes along the three R’s--reading, writing and arithmetic. I say the primary purpose today is to create a learning environment that allows young people to experience and learn to be free--with all of the rights and responsibilities that accompany their liberation.
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