edTPA Boycott: UIC Grad Students Follow Parents and Teachers’ Lead

Members of the Saucedo Elementary School community at a press conference last week.

Members of the Saucedo Elementary School community at a press conference last week.

I am proud to say that members of my graduate program have decided to boycott the edTPA–a standardized exam for preservice teachers–joining in the battle against over testing, school closings and corporate reforms taking place around the city and country.

This last week, after 40% of its parents voluntarily opted their children out of the Illinois state test known as the ISAT, teachers at Saucedo Elementary School in the Little Village neighborhood voted to boycott the exam. They are holding fast to their decision despite threats from CPS officials that teachers from the school could have their certification revoked. As news unfolds, record numbers of parents around Chicago have opted their children out of the exam, and at least one more school has joined the boycott. 

Just weeks ago, interim dean of the College of Education at UIC Alfred Tatum announced that, without the input of any students or faculty, our masters program would be closing. Though we were shocked and discouraged, we also saw an opportunity to take an active stance in opposing the use of corporate assessments to shut down learning communities. This last week, with the support of the leadership and faculty in our program, the current graduating classes resolved to boycott the edTPA, a newly instituted, highly invasive for-profit assessment for preservice teachers. (For a phenomenal analysis of the edTPA, read this article by an educator who was fired from her institution for supporting students in their resistance to the assessment.) What follows is our brief common statement, and rationale for our boycott:


Why We Are Boycotting the edTPA

This year, our Elementary Education Masters program, part of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was selected as a pilot program for an assessment known as the edTPA. Based on a fifteen minute video segment and a collection of writing prompts on lesson context, planning, and reflection, the edTPA markets itself as an authentic assessment of teacher readiness. Administered by the Pearson Corporation, the edTPA is poised to become a national assessment, potentially generating huge profits for the company. Claiming to ensure new teachers are prepared to enter the field, completing the edTPA could be required for all pre-service teachers in order to receive licensure in the future.

We are boycotting the edTPA, and returning to build our own assessment, collectively determined by faculty and candidates in our program. We do so with the belief that an empowered teacher assessment should hold the following characteristics:

-  Student teaching assessments should take into account all aspects of a teacher’s practice. The edTPA forces candidates to adhere to a narrow, rigid rubric that focuses all efforts on the one lesson being tested, diverting attention away from the complex, long-term practice of teaching.

-  Student teaching assessments should support growth and learning throughout the candidate’s process. The edTPA operates on a pass/fail basis that offers candidates no feedback or support for improvement.

-  Student teaching assessments should promote opportunity for all candidates. The edTPA costs candidates approximately $300, and, as with all standardized assessments, will be biased against Black, Brown, poor, working and immigrant teacher candidates.

-  Student teaching assessments should be conducted by educators who are a part of the candidate’s learning community. The edTPA will be assessed remotely by temporarily hired educators who will be paid a flat fee of $75 to grade a 50 page document and 15 minutes of video. These hired educators have no connection to the communities in which we teach and learn.

-  Student teaching assessments should encourage candidates to teach in all schools, regardless of need. The edTPA discourages candidates from performing the assessment in high-need schools, where challenging classrooms may reflect poorly on the candidate’s score.

While the edTPA purports to be a more authentic form of teaching assessment, we must reject and debunk this notion. For, ultimately, as with all forms of standardized assessment, the core assumption of the edTPA is that underprepared teachers and underworked students are the primary issues facing public education in the U.S. Being assessed more will not make us better teachers, just as it will not make better readers, writers and thinkers out of our students. Our universities, as with our elementary schools, become stronger when they are provided the resources they need, and when the capable educators within them are trusted to perform the duties they have sworn to carry out.

We boycott the EdTPA because we believe as young teachers, and as members of our immediate communities, we know best what is needed to make our classrooms, our programs and our neighborhoods into the most effective spaces for learning they can be. We demand support in this process, and see this boycott as an active means of supporting ourselves and each other, as well as all pre-service teachers, long-term educators, and students who are working under the pressure of similar measures.

Members of the Elementary Education Masters Program

The University of Illinois at Chicago

Lesson Plan—Organizing Resilience: Reviving Militancy

The most militant thing we can do is to garner the things our communities need, within our communities, with no one's permission but our own.

The most threatening thing we can do is garner the things our communities need, within our communities, with no one’s permission but our own.

In recognizing the dire need for militant movements in the communities I belong to, and the countless ones taking place around the globe in this historic moment, I’ve been thinking about how to start action-oriented conversations around militancy. The following lesson plan could be applied or reworked for any number of settings or organizing needs, but regardless of how it is administered, it’s goal is to lay the foundation for militant action–not merely discussion–and help generate a network of thoughtful support as the steps for its preparation approach:


1. Free Write: Upon entering the space, a quotation is written on the board:

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who are oppressing them.”

- Assata Shakur

Have a volunteer read the quote on the board out loud. Ask students to take five minutes to write their responses to this quotation: “What does this statement mean to you? How would you put it in your own words? What parts of it stand out to you?” Give students as much time as they need to respond to the quote through writing down their own thoughts and ideas.

2. Share Out: “Assata Shakur is a Black revolutionary who was involved in several Black Power organizations throughout the 60s and 70s. She has been fleeing the U.S. government since that time, and currently lives in hiding outside of the country. This last year she became the first woman ever to be added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list. What does this quote from her mean to us?” Ask students to share some of their responses. Give those who are willing a chance to read their responses aloud, talk about what they wrote, or share questions they have. Continue on until a range of ideas have been presented, and the conversation reaches a reasonable stopping point.

3. Introduction to Resilience Based Organizing (RBO) Model: “The organizing model we will be discussing today comes from Movement Generation, a radical economic and environmental justice organization from the West Coast. While they partially coined the term Resilience Based Organizing for their model, they cite its inspiration as springing from Black and Brown Power movements of the 60s and 70s, as well as ongoing struggles in Indigenous communities around land and environmental rights. The idea, as the name suggests, is organizing which is resilient as well as resistant. Communities focus first on the things they  need, and what it will take to get them, rather than on relying on the systems in place to provide them. In Movement Generation’s words:

Resilience-Based Organizing organizes people into a collective effort to meet the need at hand through direct democratic decision-making and physical implementation by those who are being impacted by the problem. It often does this with the knowledge or the intention, of butting up against legal or political barriers that force the questions of whether we have the right to self-govern and take right action in our own interests.

RBO is not about avoiding confrontation, but rather focusing on the needs of the community first and foremost, preparing for the potential for confrontation second. This is the framework we would like to work under today, both to structure our discussion and plan our potential action.” [Here, other segments--such as a teach-in, testimony from community members, panel discussion, or further sharing and interrogating of the model--may follow before the final brainstorm and closing.]

4. Brainstorm: “Keeping in mind the goals of our model, what are some of the things we feel are missing from our community? What are the struggles we face, the barriers to living/teaching/existing in the ways we need?” Generate a list that represents a wide swath of the current struggles and concerns of the community, but which does not become overwhelmingly lengthy:


Violence in the community

Too much testing!

Not enough healthy food

Not enough affordable mental health services


“Here we have a concrete list of some of the daily struggles and ongoing barriers to justice and balance in our community. What are steps we can take amongst ourselves and each other to start addressing these issues? Thinking big, throwing ideas out for the sake of starting our thought process, what are some concrete actions we can take now to start combating these issues, and working towards the justice we need?” Across from or below the originally brainstormed list of issues, begin to add other suggestions, questions, and ideas for action as they arise:


Violence in the community

-       violence and poverty go together, we need to address them together

-       discuss violence as an issue of community/mental/emotional health, not bad choices by bad people

-       talk to/organize first with those who have experienced/instigated violence in determining where it comes from and how to stop it


Too much testing!

-       boycott tests/don’t administer them

-       skip any test that takes away from student support, mental/community health

-       talk to other teachers in our school and in others about joining in the boycott

-       talk to administrators about which test are “optional” by state standards

-       develop assessments we see as nurturing of learning and connected to curricula


Not enough healthy food

-       start a cooking program

-       teach academic subjects—math, science, social studies—through cooking

-       what land is unused that could serve immediately as a garden space?

-       culture as a weapon—use the cooking traditions of our community to build connections, teach our history and traditions, and pass on health wisdom

-       create a co-op to make growing our own food sustainable, a source of income for those who do the organizing


Not enough affordable mental health services

-       compile list of as many free clinics/programs as possible

-       is there a way to organize carpools to the clinics that have not been closed?

-       support groups/meetings organized in the community by those who have struggled with related issues

-       is this a process we need more help in orchestrating? who is connected to the fields of social work/mental health that we trust and can talk to?


5. Closing: “What we have done here today is a very small step, and a very big step at the same time. We have named some of the major factors impeding justice in our community, and have worked together to begin planning immediate ways to address those factors, united with the resources we control and can share. We have much work left to do, and many more conversations as we decide which strategies we will move forward with, how we will continue to shape and adjust them, and who will be our allies. As we do, however, we are committed to honoring our own voices in this process. We have many more battles to engage, rivers to cross and difficult decisions to make. Let’s continue to support each other as we proceed, to act with love for ourselves and our community, and to focus on our needs and wellbeing first and foremost!”

Peculiar Spirituality: An Interview with Pastor Jamie Frazier

Pastor Jamie Frazier is the leader of the Lighthouse Church in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago.

Pastor Jamie Frazier is the leader of the Lighthouse Church in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago.

Pastor Jamie Frazier is the founder and pastor of the Lighthouse Church of Chicago, a Black Christian congregation centralized in the South Loop neighborhood. “Passionate about Jesus” and “Serious About Justice,” the organization strives to be not merely a safe haven for Christians who are not always welcomed by the larger church, but a catalyst for justice in Black queer communities and beyond. I sat down with Pastor Jamie to talk with him about the history of the Black Church, social justice theology, and the role of spirituality in the struggles of Black queer communities. Here are some highlights from our discussion:


How was Lighthouse founded? What led to its being realized?

Since I was a junior at Vanderbilt College in Nashville, I knew I was called to start a church and that it would be called the Lighthouse. Now, who I would be as a pastor, or who and what the congregation would look like, that has changed over time. But what has remained consistent is that I would speak prophetically as a pastor to social justice issues, that I would be committed to the cross, and that it would be a place where folks could come and find a home. Those things have remained consistent.

When I moved to Chicago three and a half, almost four years ago, I came out as a same gender loving man, and found that there were few to no spaces where I could come into a religious faith community and be all of myself. And I figured if I was having that struggle, there were other people who were having that struggle as well. I began meeting with folks in the community one on one, asking them to share their own stories. ‘What’s your spiritual journey been like? Let me tell you about mine, Let me tell you about the vision of Lighthouse church.’ And it were these meetings, some of which only happened once, but others which grew into counseling sessions, bible study groups and more, that helped lay the foundation for our congregation.

April of 2013 we started having Thursday Nights Together, and our three founding cornerstones were passionate worship, engaging conversation and an inspiring message. My hope was that this would be an African American congregation steeped in the Black church tradition of social justice activism, one that helps to restore the Black family in all its iterations, and by that I mean that I see this as a church where Black heterosexuals and same gender loving and trans folks can come together, and also invite our allies together and really build a spiritual home.

Many might think of a queer, Black, Christian space as a contradiction. Can you talk about the history of the Black church as a social justice institution?

The Black church is birthed, as we know, in the crucible of slavery. Many African American denominations, like the Black Church of God and Christ, the National Baptist Convention, the Progressive Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, these were denominations that helped represent what we now think of as the Black church—spaces comprised of sons and daughters of the African diaspora who have an ear, a heart and an eye to justice for Black folks.

Now, I think there is a difference between the “Black Church” versus a church of Blacks. The Black church, when I speak about that, has a devotion and dedication to justice and to activism. Now, there are lots of churches filled with Black people, who don’t necessarily do any justice work. But when I talk about the Black church, I’m talking about a tradition and a legacy of social justice and activism.

Richard Allen, who started the African Methodist Episcopal Church, left St. George’s Methodist Church because of the stigma and segregation he saw Black people being met with there, and its inability to address the daily struggles in Black lives. So there is a tradition in the Black church of wanting justice and equality, and also a willingness to create new spaces in which we can experience justice and equality. So what the lighthouse is doing a. by pursuing justice and b. by creating new space is very much consistent with the tradition of our ancestors.

Given a long history of theology that sees queers as a threat to the family, and of queer struggles that denounce the nuclear family as an oppressive institution, what does ‘restoring the Black family’ look like at Lighthouse?

Let me address family from three different perspectives: First, historically in Africa, second, in slavery, and third, in scripture.

Many of our West African ancestors, before they were forced through various routs into slavery in this hemisphere, did not have last names. This notion of last names is very European. People were known by tribes. And I always underscore that for people, because many of our forbearers had a tribal, a village understanding of family. Everyone is interconnected, everyone matters, everyone is tied to one another. This notion of, my family is over here and yours is over there, is a very white Eurocentric notion of division, separatism and individuality. Black folks have always had a collectivist understanding of family. And I think that offers hope when it comes to the inclusion of same gender loving, queer and trans folks, because African folk have always had a creative understanding of family. A child did not belong to a nuclear, one many one woman, family. The child belonged to the community, and the community belonged to the child. I think that offers us some openings for rethinking how we understand family. Too often for us family is Eurocentric, it is individualistic, it is limited. What we need to return to as Black folks is our beautiful interconnectedness, a tribal understanding of family.

Secondly, I think of slavery. In many cases, slavery worked to re-inscribed gender roles and oppressive social norms. It divided men from women, parents from there children. I think the only way Black folks were able to survive was this oppressive structure allowed us to demonstrate the very kind of collective understanding of family we had experienced before slavery. On plantations, there were young people who would call older women their mothers, or elders in the community their grandfathers whom they didn’t necessarily have a biological link with. Some people call these “fictive kinships.” I call it chosen family, that’s the framework I use. I feel we were able to pursue that avenue of chosen family because we had a history as sons and daughters of the diaspora of creatively constructing family. So when I hear some Black preachers rail against queer members of the community, and say, ‘The Black family is being destroyed, it’s one man and one woman,’ I ask, “When was that ever the case?” It wasn’t the case before slavery, during slavery, or post slavery. We’ve always had a capacious understanding of family, and we need to remember and celebrate that.

Finally, I don’t feel these arguments are biblical, either, and I offer several examples: When Jesus is hanging on the cross, he sends his mother not to live with is brother, but to live with John—a disciple he loved. Mary and Jesus’ brothers stand outside of a house in which Jesus is ministering, and the folks in the house say, “Jesus your mother and brothers are waiting outside,” and Jesus replies, “Who is my mother? Who is my father? She, he who lives out the will of God.” So for me that means family is whoever helps me to live out and lean into my authentic identity, the person God has created me to be. So don’t tell me family is one man and one woman in the context of marriage. It’s not consistent with our ancestors in Africa, its not consistent with slavery, and its not consistent with our experiences in its wake.

What does Black queer worship look like at Lighthouse?

Let’s go general and move more particular. Generally, I think Christian worship is centered on a high view of Christ. A view of Christ as liberator, as a force for inclusion, a view of Christ as loving. Authentic Christian worship does those things.

I think what the Black iteration, or example, or strand of worship does is it is open to spontaneity, to emotional outbursts or release. It is open to the ring shouting, the leaping, the dancing of our African ancestors. All that comes into the room. I think Black folks are rhythmic people–and when I say rhythmic people, I don’t simply mean given to dance. I mean we are able to bend and to sway in the midst of oppression and injustice, and dancing becomes a way of living in the world. So what I’m trying to work out here is that when Black folks worship, its similar to how Black folks live. We become a people that learn how to be flexible and agile, because we have to deal with this duality, with codes switching. We have to be one thing often in front of white folks and another thing in front of our own people. We know what it is to dance, and the kind of dancing we do in culture and in society is the kind of dancing we do in worship. Sometimes its literal dancing, but more than that it’s the capacity to be open and flexible to the mood of the moment, the content of our culture, and the voice of God.

Now, when we’re talking about Christian worship that is Black, that is queer, that is same gender loving and trans affirming, it is those things. It is worshiping Christ as liberator and loving and inclusive, it is flexible. But then next thing it is after that is peculiar. What I mean by that is the worship of Black trans and same gender loving folks is subversive and it is transgressive, it is capacious and it is restorative. What it does is it acknowledges the woundedness we have experienced as Black folks, as queer folks, as gender non-conforming folks, as trans folks. It recognizes that we are a people under assault, and yet we dare to create a space that embraces, loves, affirms and can hold us. And in creating that space, we are radical, we are revolutionary, we are peculiar. And it compels us to address in and among ourselves what we face, because in the other spaces we are a part of we aren’t able to tell our actual stories. So it becomes a storytelling space, a restorative space, a place where we acknowledge the pink elephants in the room. And for those reasons and more it is peculiar, because where most churches are silent, we dare to speak.

We’ve talked about the role of social justice in the Black Church. What is the role of spirituality in our movements for social justice?

Let me first acknowledge that religion has in some cases, when executed by oppressors, been a tool of enormous pain and subjugation. And let me also acknowledge, at the vanguard at the call for the abolition of slavery, for an end to segregation, for gender equality, for TLBGQ inclusion, there have often been religious voices. I think the role of spirituality in justice—speaking from a Christian tradition since that’s what I’m grounded in—justice is at the core of who Jesus is. The trajectory of liberation is deeply a part of the scriptures, so to be Christian is to pursue liberation. There is no separation of the two. To follow Jesus is to be engaged in justice.

The role of spirituality, and Christianity more particularly in social justice pursuits, is that we have some eschatological, some eternal hope.  Let me explain what I mean by this: You can do a lot of justice work, and still there’s going to be injustice. You can fight all day to feed the hungry, and still at the end of the day some will still go without food. What the Christian tradition offers that is distinct is that the good that we do will find its fulfillment in the second coming of Jesus Christ. As Revelation 21 says, “God will wipe every tear from every eye, there will be a new heaven and a new earth.” Heaven and Earth will actually be joined into one. There will be healing, there will be reconciliation, there will be restoration. If all I was was a justice advocate, I don’t know how I could continue to fight. Because I am Christian, I can continue to fight for justice because I recognize that my fight will find its fulfillment in the second return of Christ. And this does not immobilize me, it doesn’t lead me to be this fatalist who says, ‘Well, Jesus is just gonna figure it all out.’ It encourages me to participate with Christ in this work of healing and reconciliation.

At a recent Thursday night service I preached about the second coming of Christ and what that means for us now. At several places in the scripture it talks about Jesus as “a thief in the night.” What Jesus is going to do in his second coming is commit the greatest heist in history–to steal suffering and brokenness and death and grief and loss out of the world. And in the same way that we are to image Christ in his life of justice, we must also image Christ in his second coming, which will be burglary. We have to become coconspirators in this holy heist. We have to look for where there is brokenness and loss and grief and shame and poverty, and we have to steal some of that out of the world. And I think this will be one of the only heists where the victims will be glad they were stolen from. What I think preparing for Christ’s coming means is doing now what Christ will do upon his return. Wherever there is dis-ease, in any of its iterations, we need to be speaking to it and fighting it.

Throughout the scripture, Jesus is very clear that we got shit to do, and we have to be about that. But I am always very clear that at the Lighthouse, we are not just a social justice organization. We are a church. For me that means, yes we do social justice work, but that work grows out of our passion and worship of Christ. It’s fueled by it, guided by it, and it finds its completion in the second coming of Christ.

What are the questions you receive most frequently as a queer pastor doing this work?

Many news sources, but also many members of my own congregation, come to me and ask, “Pastor J, is it a sin to be gay? Is it a sin to be trans?” And that question is really wearing on me. I understand when you’ve been told it’s a sin for so long, then you come into a space that says it isn’t a sin, it’s a part of what God wants you to be, you have to do some reconstructing of what you’ve heard before. But the very question itself is so limiting, because it forces us into a construct, a conversation, a pattern of thinking in which we have to legitimate or have legitimated for us our very existence. Tell me why it’s okay for me to exist? That’s what the question really looks like, and that’s a sad, disempowering question to ask.

A better question is how do I as a Black queer person participate in my own human flourishing? That’s the question we want to ask, not is it okay for me to exist. But that question reveals that many of us have been told that its not okay for us to exist, or even that we don’t exist at all. What my goal is as a pastor is to interpret scripture in ways that are inclusive, celebratory and focused on Christ’s message of love. Anything else is a history lesson, and should be treated as such, not as a guide for our lives. Our relationships with each other and our relationships with Christ’s message of justice and inclusion are what guide us into the present.


The Lighthouse congregation will be meeting every Sunday morning at 9am beginning this February the 2nd at Glessner House Museum located at 1800 S. Prairie Ave. All are welcome!

You can find more information about the congregation at their website, or make a donation of support here.

Hiatus: Why Blogging Got Hard

Teachers in Mexico City destroy the offices of elected officials during a strike this fall.

Teachers in the Mexican state of Guerrero destroy the offices of elected officials during a strike this fall.

I started blogging seriously a little over two years ago. I was living at home in the small town in which I grew up, a recent college graduate looking for an outlet. I was coming out of a period of intense intellectual and political growth, and I didn’t want it to stop just because I was no longer in school. I was passionate about public education, racial and economic justice, queer power, and wanted others to feel the same passion. I started this blog, hoping it would help me sharpen my ideas, share my thoughts, and connect with likeminded people.

This fall, a nationwide Teachers Strike in Mexico shut down the national capital, and blocked the roads to Benito Juarez International Airport. Teachers clashed with police, and tore up the offices of politicians that threatened the wellbeing of labor and education. It was violent, it was insistent, and a hundred times more militant than the strike in which I had been involved in Chicago. U.S. mainstream media were virtually silent on the tumultuous happenings, despite close contact between members of the Obama administration and Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto during the events.

As stories and images came in, I wanted to write about them—especially given the fact that the U.S. remained essentially unaware of their existence. Yet, again and again, when I tried to write, I couldn’t. My own teacher education program was undergoing major cuts, Chicago public schools continued to hemorrhage jobs and money, and certainly demoralization was one reason for my block. Yet the more I thought about why I was reluctant to write, the more I realized the real reason was because I didn’t think my writing was actually what anyone needed.

For the first time since I started blogging, I began asking myself: What did I really think would result from me writing down my ideas and posting them on the internet? I didn’t really think I would change the world. I didn’t really think I would start a movement. I did think I would feel politically engaged. I did think I would be making a contribution. I wondered why I wasn’t feeling like a contributor, a participant. I wondered, as I often had before, if my academic training had done less to awaken my political energy, and more to teach me that writing was all I had to give to a movement. I began to question: Who is asking me to write? Who has taught me it is the best outlet? Who is actually listening when I do? While I am not naïve enough to expect immediate results, what results do I imagine coming from my blogging?

A few weeks ago, trans and gender-non-conforming students at my alma mater were fined thousands of dollars for defacing bathroom signs. The ensuing case brought the hypocrisy and decided rightward shift of the school’s administration under national scrutiny. That Wesleyan University—like many others we could name—has been shaping its student body and shifting its priorities for profit is a claim radical faculty and, more often, students have been making convincingly for many years. What did it take for these claims to be taken seriously? To be heard and comprehended?

I deeply admire these students, and others in the world taking action, making risky choices, putting their comfort and reputations on the line, and facing real and serious consequences. Recognizing that the conditions of their working lives, their communities, their neighborhoods, their relationships, are bad enough. That they have the right to be angry. That tact and politeness are not getting results. That “things could be worse” is a call for complacency, coming from the camps with the most privilege, the most power, the most resources. That waiting for the pendulum to swing is irresponsible. That the pendulum cannot swing without them.

This year, Chicago said goodbye to the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, one of the major sex positive, queer- and youth-oriented feminist organizations in the city. The Broadway Youth Center, a rare resource for homeless, trans, Black, Brown, and queer youth is under threat. New York City is now preparing to say goodbye to Queers for Economic Justice. These are red flags. These are emergencies. These are indictments of the non-proffit sector, and of privatization. These are crucial lessons about the kinds of next steps we need to take to advocate for ourselves and future generations.

In 2014, I don’t want to read any more really great, really brilliant, really well written articles. I don’t want critical dialogues, if the dialogue is not action oriented. I don’t want formal apologies that mask a resignation to the status quo. I don’t want the political theater of the two party system. I don’t want the distractions of media inundation. I don’t want feminist critiques of pop stars. I don’t want arguments and counter arguments that don’t get me any closer to justice for myself or my people.

I don’t want us to fill up each other’s news feeds. I want us to fill the streets. I fear we are losing our planet, our voices, our cities, and our lives if we don’t.

In the meantime, I will keep writing. I will do so not because I believe it is an end, an accomplishment, or even a step in the right direction. I do not believe it is any of these things. I do believe it is practice. I do believe my writing is the place where I begin to imagine what the world I am fighting for can look like, and I hope this imagining can be useful to others. But I can no longer confuse this imagining with action. As the new year approaches, I must remember that every second I put into blogging is one I could be spending engaged in whole other forms of political struggle. If I wait for my words to spark action in someone else, I may be waiting for a long time.

I don’t plan to be.

Why Now?: A New Whole Foods and the Future of Job Justice

Mayor Rahm Emanuel with some Englewood aldermen, announcing construction of a new Whole Foods Market.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel with some Englewood aldermen, announcing construction of a new Whole Foods Market.

‘We need jobs’ has been the call for decades. Impoverished communities, neighborhood organizations, nonprofits and even local government have long argued for the importance of employment opportunities in battling poverty, combating violence, and have fought for economic stimulus of all kinds in the face of prison expansion, legal reforms and more police on the streets. The ability for oppressed people to participate in traditional economies has been seen as a lofty goal for many of our communities and their advocates, and a core value of movements confronting the state. Yet as new struggles emerge around a living wage and the right to organize, that basic tenet may be coming undone in some important ways.

This Wednesday it was announced that, with the support of the mayor, a new Whole Foods Market is scheduled to be built in Englewood by 2016. One of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago, and with one of the highest rates of unemployment, the opening is proposed as part of the food desert initiative–publicly spearheaded by Michelle Obama–to address the shortages of fresh produce and nutritious groceries available in low-income communities. (Walmart and Whole Foods franchises have both begun massive national expansion under this initiative.) The construction and subsequent staffing of the market has some optimistic about the jobs being provided for a neighborhood that is so rarely sought out by new business ventures. Others question the choice of location, asking how a largely poor, predominately Black community will receive the sudden appearance of an expensive food store, whose products have never before targeted them as consumers.

The question is, why now? Why, when so much attention and advocacy has been focused on bringing business to the South Side, is Whole Foods just now, and suddenly, announcing its expansion there? The answer is new responses to worker struggle.

In 2012, as Walmart employees across the Midwest walked out and protested for the right to unionize, the Chicago government made adjustments to its redistricting laws to open three new branches within city limits, two of them within two of its poorest neighborhoods. In fact, it has only been within the past decade that Walmart has been allowed to build within the city, due in large part to concerns about the minimum wage requirements of the state. Now, as workers in the fast food and other low-paying industries strike around the nation, Whole Foods workers in Chicago have joined in with them, fighting for the same $15 an hour pay and the right to unionize. Should it be surprising that as Whole Foods employees in more affluent parts of the city have brought attention to mismanagement, working violations and poor benefits, the corporation in conjunction with the mayor’s office should seek to open new branches in areas with mass unemployment?

Here we could talk about Rahm Emanuel’s close consultations with Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb. We could talk about Whole Foods leaders’ openly anti-union stance, and staunch belief in the justice of the free market. We could discuss the company’s English-only store policy, which was just repealed earlier this summer. We could mention that when questions were recently fielded to Robb about how a community where families have an average annual income of less than $20,000 could afford Whole Foods’ prices, his response was, while he could not discuss what the actual prices at the branch might be, to remind future Englewood customers, “It’s a myth that you can’t eat healthy for less money. You may have to be willing to cook.”

There are many questions to be asked; How tied is the Democratic Party to the interests of Walmart, Whole Foods, and the larger vision of disempowered workers? If corporations have the power to control the prices of the products they sell, why aren’t they working in general to make necessities more affordable, to pay their workers and the makers of their products well? Is a Whole Foods on the South Side about accessibility, or a new wave of gentrification, the pushing out of the Black community, and the growing tourism to a “New Chicago” the mayor keeps touting? When we dream of autonomy and self-determination for our communities, are low-paying, de-unionized jobs provided by the racist state or an aloof private sector the primary thing we need to get there?

All these questions we should be vigilantly asking as the weeks come, but there is one I am even more interested in: Will their plan work? Will the clear agenda to expand low-paying, de-unionized jobs into the communities most in need of employment serve the goal of quelling protest, or will it expand the struggle? Will it disperse the movement, or push it on into the spaces–Black, Brown, poor and immigrant communities–where struggles are already happening, and have been happening for decades? Can a move like this one unite workers on a larger scale, and build momentum in the fight for real job justice?

Happy Labor Day! – From Jasiri X

Beautiful new Midwest/workers love from Pittsburgh-based emcee and activist Jasiri X. Today let’s honor all workers’ struggles by continuing our commitment to them in the present, and connecting them to the events and movements our government and media lift up, while concealing their true implications for the liberation of our communities.

“We Coming” was inspired by the Dream Defenders, BYP100, and the movement of fast food and low wage workers to get $15 an hour and the right to form a union. “We Coming” was shot on location in Milwaukee, WI during the 8/29 Strike that took place in over 50 cities around the country. “We Coming” was produced by GM3, shot by Paradise Gray, and based off a chant by Artist and Activist Jazz Hudson. Young people are rising up all over the country and the world, believe me when I say, “WE COMING”!

- From Davy D’s Hip Hop Corner

Classroom Overcrowding and United Student Struggles

CPS student's aren't the only ones feeling the cruch.

CPS students aren’t the only ones feeling the crunch.

As I finished the first year of my teacher certification program this past spring, the graduate school I attend announced that in addition to the two year program of which I am a part, they would begin offering a fast track one year certification. They did so rather apologetically, admitting they opposed new teachers rushing into the profession without as balanced an amount of training and experience as possible. Essentially, they were following a tide: As TFA, urban teacher residencies and other forms of alternative certification make graduate school appear both more costly and more lengthy, many schools have begun instituting accelerated and online programs. As students, we understood the pressures, worried about what this might mean for the integrity of our program, but did little more than discuss the issue with the faculty we most trust.

What we had not fully grasped until returning to class this last week is that by adding the one year program, the entire graduate school is essentially doubling the size of each of its new graduating classes. As courses in the two tracks overlap, the number of students in each skyrockets. When we arrived at our Teaching Science in Elementary Education class on Wednesday, one intended for a cohort of around twenty-five, we found the classroom over capacity with more than sixty students in attendance. All in different stages of the program, some of us are taking an entire year’s course load this one semester. Some of us have never taught a class or been shown how to construct a lesson plan, but will still be expected to student teach in the spring semester. All of us will be expected to gain adequate training, reflect and problem shoot sufficiently on observations we are making in our current public classroom placements, and become better lesson planers, in a classroom twice the size it was designed to be, with many of us doing twice the observations and outside studying as the program initially intended.

What makes this shift alarming is not simply that it was never discussed with any of the members of the program, nor that it means many of us who sought out this school for its perspectives on social justice are not receiving the educational space we signed up for. (As students, we are deeply supported by the faculty who run our program, and can recognize the difference between their devotion and the university’s budget plans.) It is most distressing to note that as CPS students return to school this week, thousands of them in classrooms way over capacity due to the most recent bouts of school closings and budget cuts, the conditions they are facing are mirrored more and more in those faced by their teachers. The proliferation of fast track roads into education is indicative not merely of a lack of investment in teacher training, but in students and workers across the board. A transparent article in the New York Times this last week even laid the argument for the desirability of quick teacher turn over created by the charter school model. The trend is training teachers not to be resourced, experienced and knowledgable facilitators, but to be familiar already with the lack of support, high stress, insatiable demands and denial of workers rights that are quickly coming to characterize the schools of oppressed students.

Another common notion–proffered by institutions providing fast tracks–that the offering of condensed programs is about educational justice, creating faster and more affordable paths to professional status, is criminal. If universities, the U.S. government and large corporations cared about affordable teacher training, they would lower tuition, restructure educational funding, and subsidize the study of needed professions, not cram ludicrous amounts of credits into single semesters. All these projects–from school closings and privatization, to one year and joint masters-teaching certificates–are about saving money in the short term, disinvesting in oppressed communities, and continuing to deny educational justice to those who have been denied it the most consistently, from elementary to graduate school.

Many reputable members of the educational community are referring to these cuts and slights as a defamation of the teaching profession. From school staff to professors and union leaders, in the face of these reforms countless have called for more rigorous teacher training, more elite standards for program selection, and even a Bar-like exam to achieve professional status. Yet a year ago here in Chicago, when the CTU Teacher’s Strike led to some major professional improvements–including job security, more school autonomy over distributing resources, and more recent measures to significantly cut down the number of standardized tests administered yearly–these gains were made because teachers united as workers, not as professionals. By gathering under their grievances as a working class, and building longterm solidarity with other workers in the city, they created necessary leverage in thwarting the efforts of the mayor’s office, the city government, CPS and the media that backed them. Moreover, and more importantly, it was their advocacy for students and families that garnered them their most support. The foundation of their platform and the guiding principle of their collective action–that good learning conditions are good teaching conditions–is what enabled them to win the battles they did.

If we are in solidarity with all students, as well as teachers and faculty who resist these reforms, then we must recognize these newest developments in “higher ed.” not as sources of personal frustration, or as undermining our potential status as professionals. They are the devaluing of the process through which communities become autonomous and empowered, a decided attack on the needs and rights of both current and future workers. Though the connection is not surprising, it should be underlined that as public school students’ classrooms become evermore crowded an under-resourced, so do the classrooms in which public school teachers are trained. We need movements and actions that demonstrate student and worker unity, that fight militantly for lower tuition, small class sizes, needed resources, and community-based autonomy, not the elevation and specialization of teachers as middle-class professionals. This week’s reflection on classroom overcrowding is just the most visible way in which the struggles of students and teachers are already tied, and must be fought as such.

This piece was featured as a guest post at The Socialist Worker.