Naomi Klein, scholar-activist and the author of No Logo, noticed a recent trend in the growth of free market reforms and corporate force. Though some of these initiatives had been spreading by certain accounts since the late 1970s, she along with other radical scholars saw a new kind of neoliberal onslaught taking place around the globe over the past ten to fifteen years. The phrase she coined for it was “disaster capitalism”–business initiatives pushed by powerful private bodies in the wake of catastrophe. Halliburton’s relationship to the Iraqi economy both before and after the U.S. war there might be the premiere example, but countless others abound. From Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf of Mexico, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, to military violence all over the planet, the pattern is of transnational corporate force, sometimes initiating, but always intervening in the wake of a disaster to carve out space for its own economic interests–taking advantage not only of dire and desperate need, but of a lack of community and legal infrastructure to oppose it presence.
The Philadelphia School District’s announcement two months ago of the essential dissolving and total privatization of its entire public school system has outraged communities across the city, and rallied education activists around the country (though it has received almost no mainstream media coverage). The vehement response has caused the city to back off its originally proposed timeline of closing 64 public schools over the next five years, but the plan to virtually handover the entire school system to private contractors remains in effect. While the recent case in Philadelphia represents a sobering new chapter in the history of education privatization, states, neighborhoods and districts around the country–and, indeed, around the world–have been giving over control to private companies and organizations, disbanding unions and attacking labor, with less and less resistance. Many of the school systems which are most effected by these changes are underfunded, unsupported, and host largely poor, brown, and immigrant student populations. What are the connections between all these factors, and to disaster capitalism?
I believe that we can easily describe the state of public education, particularly for oppressed communities, as one of disaster–not because of teacher unpreparedness, lack of funding or low test scores, but because it is a dated, industrial system which is not now, nor was it ever prepared to handle the immense realities of the social, cultural and economic disparities which it itself has aided in creating. That powerful private bodies can understand the desperate need–not only of floundering school systems, but of the oppressed communities they serve–and can see opportunity for profit is, if terrifying, logical. The precedence for a connection between school privatization and disaster capitalism can easily be established, as one the first major school systems to become almost completely privatized in the U.S. was in the city of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The lack of infrastructure, political stability and community organizing which Klein describes as the key factors which create an opening for corporate intervention are generated by the disasters of flood and fire, but equally and inexorably by those of war, poverty, disease and starvation. That the very bodies which have created these conditions for their own benefit, should suddenly step in to save the communities they have denied and siphoned resources away from, is offensive. That they should do so with the intention of creating more profits for themselves–in the form of oppressed bodies, diligent workers, and de-unionized labor in the case of charter schools–is something we must stand up and fight against.
That education is a human right, and something which every person is entitled to, is something I hope we can agree on universally. That traditional education, either publicly or privately funded, is what will make empowered learning accessible to all people is another, more difficult question. While the trend in recent years to utterly abandon any commitment to public education is scary, the goals of traditional public schooling themselves are not so different from those of privatized learning, i.e. creating a competitive environment which produces docile workers and bolsters a capitalist economy. As we continue to fight for education as a basic human right, what kind of education will we fight for? If we acknowledge that our people and our communities are in a state of dire need, do we believe that traditional education–public or private–is the first place to begin healing, empowering and reenvisioning them?
“The struggle for justice does not end when the school bell rings.” – New York Collective of Radical Educators
I recently visited a job fair organized for young and aspiring teachers interested in urban education, after being encouraged to do so by one of my employers. The fair was held in the cafeteria of a wealthy private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and virtually every attendant was a current college student or recent graduate. All the major organizations–TFA, Uncommon Schools, Teaching Fellows–had booths set up around the room, along with six or seven other groups focused in urban education.
After walking around and glancing at some of the various displays, I decided to stop and talk with one woman who was representing an organization I did not know called the Academy for Urban School Leadership. She informed me that the Academy, which is based in Chicago, specializes in “school turnaround,” a buzz-term I recognized but was unfamiliar with. What I learned is that for AUSL, school turnaround translates into firing the entire staff–literally, from teachers and principles to cafeteria and cleaning staff–of a school deemed “under performing,” at which point the school comes under the control of AUSL. AUSL is a private organization which, though it does receive funding from public sources, is governed by a board of directors, most of whom are the high-ranking members of private corporations and business-oriented organizations. The representative proceeded to hand me a small stack of pamphlets which documented students’ raised test scores following AUSL’s turnaround of their local schools, and asked me if I was interested in applying. I told her that what I was interested in was social justice-oriented and radical education, intending to suggesting that the organization did not sound like a good fit. To my surprise, she perked up and replied, “Well, you can’t get any more radical than what we do! We take a school that’s not working and rebuild it from the ground up with the help of students like you!”
This interaction, particularly the statement made by the AUSL spokesperson, struck me as representative of our current moment in education, as we contemplate the future of schooling for oppressed communities. Modeling schools after corporations, trusting private organizations with the dispensing of human rights and resources, purposefully undermining workers’ rights and the unionizing of school staff, and replacing local teachers with those of other geographic, class and ethnic identities are all common trends in urban education, and real concerns which live in this exchange. Yet the statement made by the AUSL spokesperson was specifically telling of what is, for me, an even more concerning trend in mainstream attitudes towards urban education.
That the idea of radical justice could be applied to a project which privatizes, de-unionizes and standardizes the education of oppressed people is terrifying to me, but is also precisely the attitude that anyone pursuing or exploring urban education will encounter. Very much in the model of Obama-era liberal politics, sometimes-undefined terms like “equality” and “social justice” have become mashed up with missionary projects which beseech the wealthy and the formally educated to save poor, brown, urban communities by becoming their teachers. Many of us have become convinced that anything done in the name of “helping” oppressed people must be inherently progressive, opening the door not only for corporate philanthropy in the public sector, but also for a model of learning which is more about relieving the guilt of the privileged than it is about providing accessible, empowering and community-committed education to all people. These models have tricked many of us into falling in line with the most conservative agendas, furthering the plight of poor, working, immigrant and brown people, even as we convince ourselves that we are saving them. Equally, they all define formal education as the key liberating factor for oppressed people, rather than imagining protest and community organizing outside of school as the ways which the needs of our communities should be met.
At a symposium I attended this past semester on Academia and Activism, radical educator Claire Potter noted an enormous uptrend in recent years of college grads pursuing (usually for a limited amount of time) urban education, a shift which has been greatly supported by their alma maters. She stated that where once student movements for social justice had railed against their academic institutions, corporate power and the perpetuating of oppressive economic orders, now what people call social justice are colonial projects which implant the privileged as saviors in oppressed communities, all with the support of private education and the funding of the corporate sector. She expressed a fear that education as an acceptable pathway for the post grads of elitist institutions is actually siphoning energy away from more militant, radical and genuine struggles for justice. The question she asked is the same one I would like to ask of all educators, even those who believe they are beyond the conservative teachings of programs like Teach For America and AUSL: Are more teachers what our communities really need? Is the classroom the only, or even the primary place, where we should fight to manifest justice?
A close friend of mine recently quit her job with NYC Teaching Fellows after sticking with the program for three full years. Teaching Fellows, which is a national organization, places aspiring educators–many of whom are young, recent college graduates–in classrooms within the most in-need urban school districts, while simultaneously enrolling them in subsidized masters of education programs. My friend, who was originally expected by the strictures of the program to complete her masters within her first two years of teaching, spread her courses out over an extra year, seeing how many of the other members of her original cohort of teachers were suffering mental and emotional breakdowns due to the intense amount of work placed on them. Even with the extra year in her masters program, she still left NYCTF without completing her degree. During her stint as a fellow, I visited her classroom in the Bronx, NY several times. She was–and is–an incredible educator, who engaged and managed her class expertly, going above and beyond the curriculum to get students debating about race, immigration, language and economics. In the end, however, the incredible amount of stress generated from running a classroom while taking graduate classes, and interfacing with the Department of Education and the conservative administrators of her program, was taking such a toll on her health and sanity that leaving NYCTF seemed the only way to preserve her physical and mental well-being.
Teaching Fellows is one model for urban education of which their are innumerable copies, all focusing on putting young and inexperienced teachers in some of the most demanding learning environments in the country, while at the exact same time expecting them to earn a masters degree. The idea behind this model is that it gets large numbers of new teachers credentialed and in the field as quickly as possible, and pays for their masters as incentive for the bumpy ride. This model, however, is totally unsustainable. The first year in the classroom–as I have heard teachers from a wide range of backgrounds describe it–is the hardest one for any educator in an type of classroom, as the most basic skills which might be taken for granted by experienced teachers must be learned by emerging educators. Add to this the fact that urban schools are traditionally underfunded and under-resourced, that students may be dealing with particular learning and emotional difficulties for which there is no structural support, and that a poorly-supported district may result in classes of students with huge ranges of academic abilities, including their grasp of language and communication. This situation, a reality in many urban school districts, would be difficult for even the most expert and venerable educator to balance single-handedly. Expecting young, inexperienced, and usually untrained teachers (my friend told me that NYCTF had never taught her how to make a lesson plan) to effectively navigate the teaching of such a classroom is almost ludicrous. That they should then be additionally expected to earn a masters degree at the same time is, to put it lightly, a recipe for burnout. How did this become the predominate model in urban education? Why do suffering schools and aspiring teachers remain in line with so many of these programs?
The intense realities of urban schools and classrooms are the result of the intense realities of the lives of poor, brown, working and immigrant urban communities. Programs like Teaching Fellows, Teach For America and other urban education programs with similar or identical models, promote the idea that young teachers who are the high-performing graduates of elite schools should somehow have the power to manage the inequities in their classrooms and “turn around” whole school systems. These programs and their leaders chant “no excuses,” a mantra which we find really means that if teachers (workers) and their students (oppressed and deprived urban communities) would just try harder, spend more hours of the day in school, and get higher test scores, we would suddenly obtain a just education system and an equitable society. These programs, and the steep demands they make of the teachers and learning communities they come into contact with, do nothing to challenge the economic orders which generate inequity, nor do they hold accountable the individuals, groups and bodies which violently extract opportunities and resources away from oppressed communities. In fact, quite the opposite is true: Many of the major urban education organizations are directly funded by corporations, investors and other wealthy private bodies with some of the most heinous corporate records on the planet–see Teach For America’s donor list. How did the responsibility for justice come to rest squarely on the shoulders of working and poor people, with none whatsoever being dealt to the obscenely wealthy bodies which have themselves engendered the inequities with which oppressed communities wrestle?
My friend’s story of burnout with NYCTF is not an isolated one. For one thing, it is commonplace for young, urban educators to only be able to sustain their intense efforts in the classroom for a few years–a model which is, in fact, beneficial to the groups which hope to create an easily-managed and non-unionized teaching force. Yet more than that, it is indicative of a system which despises the working and poor, and expects them to pay their own tab without ever asking how they ended up in the economic straights in which they find themselves, or demanding those who put them there be the ones to pay up. Justice will not come from oppressed people working harder, with young college graduates cracking the whip. Resisting these unsustainable teaching models is not merely about maintaining the health and mental well-being of teachers, but about fighting for real justice in oppressed communities, demanding forcefully that public education be recognized as a human right to which all people need equal access, and that the resources controlled by the extremely wealthy and powerful be redistributed immediately. We as teachers and members of oppressed communities need to riot against corporate force, connect public education to economic justice, and burn out the wealthy, instead of the other way around.
I was lucky enough to participate in the NYC Gay Pride parade this past summer, an event which has radical roots despite its current position as prime venue for corporate advertising and economic stimulation in the form of tourism dollars. The parade was particularly high energy this year, and saw an incredible turnout, because of the passing of gay marriage in the state of New York only the day before. I walked in the parade with an organization called Queers For Economic Justice, a group which fights for the visibility and rights of poor and working-class queers in the New York area, and which is, remarkably, the only queer organization in the city which enters homeless shelters to reach out to the queer communities there.
All the groups participating in the parade were organized into sections, which converged on predesignated blocks before beginning to walk. Our section included several other groups and centers which cater to the needs of homeless, working, poor and brown queers in the NYC area. While the police presence was overwhelming throughout the parade’s route, they seemed particularly vigilant of the block on which we were gathering. They were aggressive towards even those whom they had already determined were a part of the parade, and organizers from QEJ had to take permanent positions by the roadblocks to make sure that police allowed the members of their organization through to help set up, many of whom were arriving from homeless shelters.
As the time to walk came near, organizers and leaders from QEJ gathered us together, and reminded us that what we were about to participate in was a march, not a parade, since the rights of those with whom we stood in solidarity had not been met–and could not be met–solely through the passing of gay marriage. (In fact, the same motion which had upheld same-sex marriage for New York state the day before had simultaneously denied passage of a gender discrimination bill, one which would have helped to secure jobs and housing for members of the trans community, who end up homeless at a shockingly disproportionate rate to the remainder of the queer community.) As we gathered our signs and banners and started getting into formation, and the street around us began to fill with other marchers and spectators, I noticed multiple people carrying large preprinted signs reading, “Thank You Governor Cuomo!” in bold white letters. And even as we began to march, I thought about the amount of money and resources which must have gone into printing and distributing all those posters in only one night. I thought about where that kind of money comes from, and why the Governor’s office might have it. I thought about who would really benefit from having those posters flashing throughout the Gay Pride parade, and how such a political maneuver was decided upon. I thought about what we were there to celebrate that day, and I asked myself, what is it exactly that we are proud of?
Kenyon Farrow, the former executive director of QEJ, writes forcefully about the complicated politics of gay marriage, ones which often go overlooked by the mainstream gay and lesbian community. In a piece he wrote this month for Alternet.org titled “Gay Marriage: Progressive Victory or GOP Roadmap?” he states: “What does it mean when so-called progressives celebrate a victory won by GOP-supporting hedge fund managers, Tea Party funders and and corporate conglomerates–the oft-spoken enemies of progressive causes?” He goes on to describe the myriad ways in which gay marriage as a political platform is being used by some of the most politically and economically conservative bodies to garner the support of communities who regularly resist their greed and dominance, and to actively distract queers and other oppressed communities from the ways in which their policies are destroying human rights, even as marriage is dangled as a symbol of progress. What, then, is the passage of gay marriage in New York actually working to prepare us and our communities for? What policies did Governor Cuomo’s office support that we have forgotten to protest because we are celebrating gay marriage? For which queer communities is gay marriage a victory, and for which ones–the poor, the working, the transgender, the immigrant, the incarcerated–is it a far more minimal gain?
When did queer politics become based almost exclusively around organizing for legislation and accepting corporate charity? When did we start galvanizing our movements around the electing of officials rather than the self-sufficiency and autonomy of our own communities? When did we start looking to the same political and economic machines which have always disenfranchised us to grant us basic rights? When did we start trusting politicians, and stop trusting each other and ourselves, to effectively advocate for the dispensing of justice? It struck me that on a day when we gathered to celebrate queer history, power and communities, we should be holding up signs thanking wealthy politicians for their work (supposedly) on our behalf. For even in the case of the relatively conservative right to marriage, wasn’t it the organizing and outspokenness of queers which brought the issue to light, not the foresight of a broken, bipartisan government? If justice is going to be realized, we need to start advocating for our communities–in the fullest, messiest and most complicated sense of the word–and stop expecting oppressive political and economic systems to do it for us. We need to imagine and actively build movements which are based in uniting the needs of our multiple communities, and which fight for the justice of all.