College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

The Current Moment: Social Justice Movements Bending the Arc Toward Justice

By Greg Jobin-Leeds — April 29, 2012 4 min read
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The following blogpost is by our frequent guest blogger Saulo Colon, who raises some serious questions for the growing movement for justice in public education. -- Greg

Economic inequities have become much more pronounced in the United States and other societies since the 1970s. As we witness what Robert Reich called the “secession of the successful,” poverty and near-poverty rates are at 40-year highs and much of the middle class has been squeezed into extraordinary economic insecurity, while the top few percentiles of the economic ladder do stunningly well. While some economists are calling the current period “The Great Recession,” there is no economic crisis for millionaires. The brunt of the economic crisis is hitting the poor, the working and middle classes, and our public infrastructure. This is an enormous economic and moral detriment to our society, a condition that calls for economic justice and a movement or movements to bring it about.

Many see in our education system the problems they see in the economy and society: individualistic conceptions of education and a market-based system that replicates, indeed exacerbates, the inequalities in our society. There is a growing realization that education is now being treated as a consumer good, that parents are being treated as customers who now have to purchase education, instead of it being the right of every human. This market-based logic created by the 1% is being spread by corporate owned media and think tanks as the best way to deliver social services. The success of this corporate-led education reform campaign is evidenced by the increasing privatization of our American educational system (as seen by the recent proposal to privatize the entire Philadelphia school system). This campaign is leading many parents to believe that the only way to save our public education system is to give up on it (thus giving up on a key part of our Democracy).

Universal public education has been a shining principle of democracies such as the United States, and public education--despite its imperfections--has contributed immensely to improving the quality of life of millions in America and throughout the world. Yet, the lack of adequate financing and--more recently--cutbacks in financing of public education have meant that too many children and young people never have access to quality schools and are shut out of higher education.

A transformative movement is emerging to show economic equity as a human rights issue and generate public will for economic change. Student and teacher organizing throughout the country is building, as we have seen in Wisconsin, NY, CA and many other places. Given the recent Supreme Court decision, paradoxically called “Citizens United”, granting huge corporations more control of electoral campaigns than individual citizens, there has never been a better moment in our lifetime for movement building that calls into question the anti-democratic fundamentals of our economic system, including its impact on public education, housing and voting. Can we use this moment so that one day a person is elected president who is not backed by Wall Street, and who will use America’s vast resources to fully fund schools in Dorchester and the South Bronx?

Americans are ready to act. Grassroots movements that go to the root of problems are waking up but elitist exclusionary (“right-wing”) forces are alert. Foundations and non-profits can develop our capacity to find and fund inspirational campaigns that unleash the frustration and anger of parents, students, and the most affected communities. Polls show education as the top priority that Americans have for government spending, not military action. They show Americans supportive of more funding for public colleges, public schools and health care. The time to act is now.

We are at a turning point in the history of organizing for social justice. As the group Social Justice Leadership has written: “The environment is changing rapidly, (but) the organizing models that are most prevalent date from 40 years ago or more. There is a major opportunity for the social justice movement to reassess its approach, envision a new way of organizing, and greatly increase its impact.

The question is: Do social movements always win? And when they do, is their win durable? The point of this is to be able to say that supporting organizations that specifically intend to build social justice movements while developing campaigns for policy reforms is the most effective way to win those reforms. But is this true?

The idea of this series of blog posts is not so much to chronicle past or ongoing movements as to explore 11 hypotheses about the nature of, and ingredients for, successful popular transformative change. These lessons and principles then would be tested by looking at contemporary arenas and issues that cry out for social justice. In short, this blog will propose a theory of social change--"the art of social transformation"--based on historical and contemporary experiences in order to inform current and future movements on how to more effectively achieve their goals.

Please join our discussion.

The opinions expressed in Democracy and Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.