Systemic oppression demands a systemic exodus

Systemic oppression demands a systemic exodus

Our traditional public schools are systemically inequitable — in Seattle, in Washington State, and everywhere else in the United States. Put another way, our schools are consistently producing inequitable outcomes based on race and family income, and it’s a form of systemic oppression.

We know this, most of us. But for most of us, that’s all we do. We know it. It’s mostly an intellectual idea.

So instead of idle knowledge, let’s consider for a moment what that really means — systemic oppression — and what it means for us as human beings.

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Let's start each school day with an acknowledgment of the Indigenous people's land we occupy

Let's start each school day with an acknowledgment of the Indigenous people's land we occupy

The practice of land acknowledgment dates back centuries (at least) among indigenous communities, and is more common in the mainstream in Australia, New Zealand and Canada than in the U.S., but it is a growing movement here as well.

The idea is that before an event — whether it’s a school day, a sporting event, a meeting or even a family meal — you take a moment to name, thank and consider the people whose displacement allows you to be where you are. Whose historical trauma makes it possible for you to thrive as you do in the place you live?

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Guest Post: It’s Non-Negotiable. We Have to Teach Social Justice in Our Schools.

By Zachary Wright

In a recent article, J. Martin Rochester, a professor of political science at the University of St. Louis-Missouri, raised concerns about teaching social justice in schools. Rochester’s problem with teaching social justice in schools is focused on two simultaneous axes. One, he thinks that social justice exists outside the jurisdiction of school curricula, and second that those who would teach social justice approach it only from a liberal perspective.

As an educator who includes social justice as a necessary part of my classroom practice, I think Rochester got some some things right but a lot of things wrong.

EDUCATION HAS ALWAYS BEEN POLITICAL

Rochester’s first insinuation is that schools ought to focus on the traditional curricula of reading, writing, mathematics, sciences, etc. Schools ought not to, in Rochester’s words, “aspire to be churches or social work agencies.”

What this overlooks, however, is that education has always been political. When a nation has within its DNA laws regulating who can learn, with whom one can learn, and where one can learn, then the idea that a school ought not engage in the political realm reeks of forced naïveté.

As long as our school systems are funded within halls of state legislatures that maintain 21st-century houses of education for zip codes of wealth, and crumbling school houses for zip codes of poverty, then it is disingenuous at best to assert that schools exists outside the realm of political discourse.

Sacred Stone Community School in Cannonball, ND, November 2016. Photo by Matt Halvorson.

Sacred Stone Community School in Cannonball, ND, November 2016. Photo by Matt Halvorson.

Furthermore, schools have always been community centers akin to congregations. Schools are where communities come together to vote, engage in town halls and hear from their elected representatives. They are the places where evening athletic leagues flourish, where families gather for tax filing support and where communities gather to enjoy the arts.

To assert that schools should exist solely as collections of classrooms is to not only deny the reality of schools across the country, but also to waste the potential of using these community centers to promote social justice as defined by that particular school community.

OUR JOBS AS EDUCATORS IS TO EDUCATE NOT INDOCTRINATE

Rochester paints with an absurdly large brush when he argues that, “Educators for social justice are disingenuous in posing as facilitators of student-centered learning when as teachers they have largely foreclosed the discussion or at least steered it toward a preferred outcome.”

To label all educators as disingenuous is lazy and calls into doubt one’s arguments as purely didactical, more concerned with an agenda than honesty. However, if we assume the best, and discuss the argument underlying the insult, there may be some merit.

It is true that our job as educators is to educate, not indoctrinate. It is our job to help students develop the critical skills to be able to think for themselves, not simply to regurgitate the values forced onto them by a chosen curricula. This truth, however, does not call for the elimination of the social justice curriculum, but rather its expansion.

In my classroom, I choose to teach Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” I teach it as a means for building critical reading skills that allow students to identify an author’s central point, analyze the methodology of that argument and to critique the merit of that argument. According to Rochester, since Alexander’s work is decidedly left of center, it has no place in my classroom. What Rochester does not know, however, is that to supplement Alexander’s work, I purposefully choose secondary source materials that run counter to Alexander’s narrative. I ask students to not only analyze the merits of Alexander’s arguments, but their shortcomings as well. In fact, after reading Rochester’s article, I will take his suggestion of including Heather McDonald’s “The War on Cops.”

More and more, our political reality resembles the kindergarten sandbox wherein we yell over each other rather than engage with each other. The point is that we should not shut down the conversation simply because we think the other side’s view might be expressed. That’s not how we get a conversation on social justice to flourish.

WHAT’S JUSTICE ANYWAY?

Lastly, Rochester argues that social justice curricula imply a stagnant set of value systems. He argues that social justice itself is open to interpretation, for exactly what is justice? Fair enough.

But while we may disagree on what justice is, we can likely agree on what justice is not. It is not justice when schools in affluent zip codes have laptops for all students, while those in zip codes of poverty cannot provide every student a book. It is not justice when, according to the Brookings Institute, suspension rates for Black students was 17.8 percent while those for Whites was 4.4 percent.

We will disagree on causes and remedies. We should. That discourse, as Rochester himself argues, is precisely how we can arrive at best solutions. What we cannot do is bury our heads in the sand and abstain from engaging in these discussion for fear of offending one another. And, most importantly, we cannot block our students from having these conversations in school, not when we must soon look to them to solve the ills of their predecessors.

Youth Speaks Seattle is seeking fierce young artists for a social justice institute

Calling all youth poets, dancers, musicians, artists and activists!

Youth Speaks Seattle (YSS) is looking for fierce young artists (aged 14-19) interested in making art, learning about social justice and earning $150 this summer at the YSS Arts Liberation and Leadership Institute. Application deadline is July 31st.

The five-day institute will be held Aug. 22-26 at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, where leaders will build a tight-knit, loving community with 20 other youth artists and activists while working with Daniel Pak from the music group Kore Ionz and with community activist/visual artist Henry Luke.

In addition to professional development and skills around promotion, event planning, public speaking and facilitation, participants will learn about forms of oppression and how to fight against them using art and community. They will also receive a $150 stipend upon completion as well as credit for 60-plus community service hours.

Download the application here or apply online here.

From Youth Speaks Seattle's website:

Since 2003, Youth Speaks Seattle has been the city’s premier collective for youth spoken word poetry, creating avenues for youth voices through creative writing instruction and performance opportunities. Over the years, Youth Speaks Seattle has conducted residencies and visited classrooms in nearly all of Seattle’s public high schools, hosted a thriving monthly open mic series, transformative all-city writing circles and explosive poetry slam competitions.
In 2011, the renowned youth-led poetry program became a part of Arts Corps. We are proud to continue the Youth Speaks Seattle legacy with twice-monthly open mics, weekly writing circles, the hallmark Poetry Slam Series and a fierce Spokes board of Youth Leaders.