There is a great tradition in Chicago of Saturday schools–classes, programs and workshops led by community organizations and members on Saturday mornings and afternoons. Most prominent and ongoing in immigrant communities, especially in Polish and Greek neighborhoods, many of these programs started as a means of addressing the needs of immigrant students which were not being met in the larger school system, and of maintaining cultural practices in a new city. They commence in religious temples, halls, lodges, and the homes and apartments of community members. Often placing a heavy emphasis on language, many of these schools also teach history, dance, folklore, art, music, and a host of skills which have not been taken up or given the same value by the public schools. While some of them have been absorbed by larger projects and after school programs, many of them remain as they began, run by the community for the community, with the intent of providing for students what the system cannot, and keeping cultural bonds alive.
One of the last events I participated in before moving to Chicago was a vogue workshop I co-organized with one of my close friends. He, a youth organizer and dance teacher, encouraged me to lead a workshop for a queer youth group he coordinates in one of the local cities. I agreed, and the studio where he teaches dance classes provided the space. On the day of the event we gathered as a group in the studio, and before we began dancing, sat to have an introductory discussion about the art from–which was originally created by incarcerated TLBG folks, and exported to a larger scene of poor, working, immigrant and Brown queers. We talked about the roles of trans folks, homeless people, and youth in the development of the form. We talked about sex workers and their important relationship to the ballroom scene, and to voguing. We debated the role of the mainstream in propelling and diluting the art form, and addressed many more complicated questions as a group. By the time we were ready to dance, I was feeling energized and ecstatic about the enthusiasm of the gathering, and the purpose with which the participants were taking on the challenge. And I found myself wondering, why haven’t I tried something like this earlier?
I am currently enrolled in an Elementary Education masters program, and so asking all kinds of questions about the nature of learning and school. What teaching the vogue workshop helped me to remember is what oppressed communities relearn every day: The systems which are in place to educate us, like those which exist to house, feed, and clothe us, have been designed to limit our abilities as thinkers, organizers and community members, not nurture them. If we can recognize this, then whose approval our we waiting for? Whose credentialing? Whose funding? Whose licensure? Our survival thus far has depended on our finding ways around the structures which indoctrinate our minds, appropriate our resources and denigrate our spirits. Our traditions persist because we have found so many gaps through which to smuggle them, cracks in the walls where enough light gets through to keep them growing. It is in these openings where the most valuable kinds of learning happen–in the kitchen, on a basketball court, at a house party, a family gathering, a church service, the playground, the street corner. Even as educators who work in the public sector, the kinds of teaching we are obligated to perform, the skills we are assessed on, are easily the least significant kind of knowledge building we engage in. How do we keep finding these cracks and embellishing them?
This is not to say there are not real limitations to and obstacles in the way of radical education and organizing. Earning a living, and the bodies which oversee those transactions, are one concern. Finding the time, the funding, the support and resources to do what needs to be done may be another. Yet isn’t it precisely the traditions we hope to pass on, the knowledge we already rely on for our daily survival, which point out how we can evade those limitations, and do the work which is most meaningful to us, and empowering of our people? Instead of seeing ourselves as running on a deficit, can’t we start to notice the resources we already share amongst us–the spaces for learning which it is already within our power to create–without anyone’s funding, without anyone’s approval but our own?
We know that schooling–as distinct from learning–does not welcome certain kinds of knowledge, does not share certain political commitments, does not have the capacity to acknowledge all the kinds of learning that its participants are engaging in constantly. So why do we continue to imagine it as the primary place where teaching should happen? Feminist scholar and education philosopher Nel Noddings has written controversially on what she calls the importance of engaging students in self-defined learning. On talking to a student who says he hates math, she writes: “What matters to me, if I care, is that he find some reason, acceptable to his inner self, for learning the mathematics required of him or he reject it boldly and honestly.” I suggest that we fight to find ways of teaching, learning, and engaging our whole communities which struggle to bring about the exact kind of education we desire, and that if the structures in place deny any of our vision’s necessary components, we reject them boldly and honestly, and work on building our own.
“If your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order.” – Toni Cade Bambara
The recent rounds in the debate over universal healthcare in the US have resparked old arguments in mainstream political arenas. Left-leaning supporters of the bill have been criticized by conservatives for organizing around funding from a state whose military action (and the revenue it generates) they are constantly protesting. Conservatives, in retaliation, have been criticized for garnering their political support on a platform of no-taxation, then denying basic services to those same supporters based on a supposed lack of available funds. Familiar though they may be, both of these criticisms, I think, are good ones. And as someone who supports healthcare for all people, I have had to reflect recently on my inclination to demand money from a state without thinking thoroughly about where that money would come from, whose suffering would necessarily fund my healthcare.
For myself, the lesson of this debate (and the ways in which I have found myself personally checked by it) is not one about political theorizing, nor trying to point out the fault in an opponent’s logic. To me, it is about learning to recognize and look honestly at the contradictions which exist in all of our beliefs. Inconsistencies and paradoxes are a part of all of our doctrines, teachings and personal opinions, and in a climate focused on competitive debate instead of the forging of inclusive movements for solidarity, these inconsistencies are things we are made to avoid and conceal. When we sense a weak point in our own political stances, we fear exposing it in any way which might put us at a disadvantage in a match of wits. Admitting this not only exposes the divisive nature of politics-as-usual–within all political arenas–but also reveals how reluctant we are to examine the contradictions within our own beliefs. This is an issue, not only because it stops us from being honest with ourselves and our political communities, but equally because it dampens some of the most transformative kinds of discussion and action.
I can think of tons of contradictions in my own politics, but it was in college where I first encountered one of the most major double standards in my own political beliefs–one closely related to those revealed in the present debate around healthcare. Over the course of my four years as an undergraduate I joined and supported multiple student projects and protests which sought to demand financial support from our university–everything from the funding of Ethnic Studies and Student of Color programs, to sexual assault prevention training and classes for prisoners in local jails. While I believed wholeheartedly in many of these struggles, I discovered a circular conflict in myself in relation to almost every one of them. When the university ignored or refused demands, I was frustrated with its indifference, and smug at its reluctance to change. Yet equally, on the few occasions when administrators did agree to accept responsibility for the funding of a project or program, I immediately felt suspicion rise up in myself. What was it about this program that made it “acceptable” enough to receive university funding? Did I trust an institution with which I had so many qualms to properly construct and support this program in the vision of my community? No matter what the outcome, I always felt equally outraged and disappointed. I found that while I was making demands, I didn’t actually know what I wanted–or perhaps more accurately, that none of the things I was demanding were what I actually wanted.
It was during one of these periods of political contradiction and frustration that I was introduced to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by the organization INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. The book documents the organization’s coming to its own realization that foundation-based funding was just as selective, limiting and problematic as funding from the state. This conflict, which sounds like it might stop radical organizing dead in its tracks, caused group members to name the trap in which they found themselves caught, and to devise whole new ways of organizing and advocating for oppressed women that don’t depend on any funding at all–strategies which are outlined in their book. A contradiction in their politics which seemed at first like a roadblock ended up leading the group to develop radical approaches to their political work which challenged systems of funding at their base, and which completely reframed the needs, aims and beliefs of their collective.
Addressing the contradictions in our beliefs and ideas isn’t about invalidation, or calling each other out. Rather, it is about challenging ourselves to think of politics not as a debate between warring camps, but as a compassionate process of articulating and aligning the needs and desires of our multifold collectives. Examining actively and honestly the pieces of our politics which do not add up is the precise place to begin, because these are the points in which we have not yet been able to connect the many values and beliefs existing within our own movements. When we are courageous enough to engage these contradictions together, we open ourselves to the opportunity to dig deeper towards the linked roots of the systems which oppress us, and of shifting the entire perspective and goals of our projects, organizations and movements. And like INCITE!, we may find that examining our political inconsistencies may actually save us from unsustainable grappling with unjust systems, and help us arrive at strategies for action which reject those systems altogether. If we are lucky, we may come to understand that scrutinizing contradiction is not about halting action, but about changing the direction and nature of that action, pushing our movements forward with more effectiveness, honesty, and clarity in our unified vision.