On Teachers for Social Justice: An Interview with Pauline Lipman and Rico Gustein

AREA Chicago Interviews Rico Gutstein and Pauline Lipman (of Teachers for Social Justice) about some recent developments in social justice teacher networking in Chicago.

This has been an incredible year already for radical education gatherings and networking opportunities in Chicago. There was the new Social Justice Student Expo at UIC, the Education for Liberation conference at Little Village/Lawndale High School, and in the fall will be the annual Teachers for Social Justice Curriculum Fair (co-sponsored by Rethinking Schools). What work is happening to tie these efforts together more?

There are actually a couple of networks that are being forged, across the country. This April, at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) meeting, there were two gatherings in Chicago toward the goal of tying efforts together. People used AERA since there are many educational activists there from around the country. First, the Education for Liberation network met and about 30 people attended (these are the folks who put on the Free Minds Free People conference you refer to at the Little Village/Lawndale HS Campus this past June). Charles Payne has been the convener of that, and he’s just moved back to Chicago (at the University of Chicago). The second meeting was of individuals mainly representing their respective organizations: Teachers for Social Justice (Chicago), New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCORE), Rethinking Schools (Portland), and people working on the Student Expo (which goes by the name of Chicago Youth Initiating Change, or CYIC). These groups, together with Teachers 4 Social Justice (Bay Area), formed Teachers Activist Group (TAG). TAG is a new network designed to do exactly what you’re suggesting—tie efforts together.
Beyond these formations, you should also include the newly created Chicago Freedom School (an initiative related to the Education for Liberation network) as part of the ongoing, developing education for liberation work in Chicago. There is also a network of social justice high schools in several communities around Chicago, and the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education (CEJE) which is based at UIC and which facilitates the social justice high school network. CEJE has ties to all the above work and is also connected with other social justice school projects nationally. And there are many efforts in community-based organizations, like the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and others, that are bringing youth together in ways that are simultaneously educational and activist. In other words, there is really a lot going on in Chicago.
So the question you pose—about bring all these efforts together—is not a simple one. Beyond cross-group meetings and interconnections, there is nothing yet concrete, and that has to be on the agenda. It is on TSJ’s agenda, and we need to continue and expand this work. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and turf, so this work will take time. But what seems to be happening is the start of a trend toward critical activist education around the country.

TSJ is doing great work as far as giving educators spaces to come together and exchange their ideas, curricula, and to discuss current education-related social movements. What do you think it would take for teacher and educator activists and organizers in Chicago to become a political force that could strongly influence policy and the culture of education in the city? Are there inspiring examples in local history or from elsewhere that provide models for powerful leftist teacher networks and organizations?

This question relates to the previous one. And when you pose it like that, it points to the fact that there are actually a lot of other things happening around the city with respect to educational issues. For example, as a front in the battle against R2010 and displacement/gentrification, there was the struggle to force the city council to pass a moratorium on school closings, until a full, impartial study of the impact on schools, students, and communities could be completed—although we lost that particular fight. The “we” in that case was Chicagoans United for Education (CUE), which was, besides TSJ: the CTU, other school unions, SEIU, KOCO, ACORN, Coalition for the Homeless, and a host of others. That was a non-binding resolution, and we were not able to get it out of committee, but we actually got about 45 of the 50 alderpeople to sign on. After all, it’s easy to sign onto a non-binding resolution that doesn’t even get to the council floor, but it’s nonetheless significant and relates to the potential of our collective impact.
We can draw certain lessons from that (and from the larger history of social movements in the US and elsewhere). For one, it’s clear that, although teachers have spaces in which they can work—and we should never minimize those efforts—that work needs to be part of a larger social movement. For example, the African American community’s struggle for equal and quality education in the 1960s was driven by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. In that struggle over 200,000 students boycotted classes and 20,000 students and parents surrounded city hall. One of the best things we can do as teachers is to not only prepare our students to be potential change agents and activists, but to be involved ourselves (and bring students along). As Paulo Freire said, although education (alone) cannot change society, education (as in schools) nonetheless has to be an important part of the struggles to change the world. What we need in Chicago is not only collaboration of educational activists, but we have to work with labor, students and community, to make some real change. We will not make lasting educational changes without also at the same time taking on the struggle to change society as a whole.
We know from the lessons of Harold Washington‘s campaign that it took real cross-community and cross-movement cooperation to get Harold elected. So the work of TSJ—with teachers, parent organizations, community organizations, unions, etc.—these efforts have to come together. It will not be easy, either in Chicago or nationally, but the fact that we see the types of formations occurring, like TAG, the Education for Liberation network, and the CUE coalition—whether they are national or local—is a positive sign. Some of the sectarianism and turf orientation among progressive organizations and the left seems to be diminishing, as we continue to not only mature politically, but are able to sum up that we have been divided for too long while the dominant forces in power are able to maintain their position partially because of our weaknesses. And although we may see only bits and pieces at any one time, taken as a whole, when you look across the country broadly, you can see many things stirring. Education is only one arena, but the huge increase in interest in social justice education, education for liberation—whatever you want to call it—is quite clear. And the Right is rising to attack it as well, so we can take that as some evidence of their fear of it growing into a powerful trend.

At the “Free Minds, Free People: Conference on Education for Liberation” earlier this summer, there was a meeting between Chicago’s TSJ and other leftist activist teacher networks from other US cities. What is happening to form a more functional national network, what role will Chicago TSJ play in that network, and what are some of the goals as well as possibilities for a network like this?

As we said, TSJ, NYCORE, T4SJ, and Portland Rethinking Schools recently formed TAG (Teacher Activist Group). Although each of our organizations is somewhat different, we have a lot in common, particularly our political goals. We are all committed to supporting and organizing teachers as activists as part of a larger struggle for social justice in and out of schools. We also face similar challenges in organizing teachers and recognize that attacks on progressive teachers from the Right require a higher level of national solidarity and strategizing. So we decided to form a national network that might collaborate on specific projects and share resources, information, curricula and challenges. We also committed to attend eachothers’ events as much as possible. TSJ folks left the meeting REALLY energized about the potential for this network and ways that it can further our work both locally and nationally. Already it has prompted us to review and update our own principles and political goals to more accurately reflect what TSJ is actually doing and how we have evolved politically since our formation in 1998.
TAG’s first step was to create a listserv for announcements—but also a place for us to discuss our challenges, such as trying to organize teachers or dealing with right wing attacks. We recognize that TAG is just one of the networks out there, part of the larger education for liberation motion that is developing nationally. For example, some of us are also involved in the Education for Liberation Network and some of us attended the Free Minds, Free People conference in Chicago in June. TSJ and NYCORE collaborated on a workshop on teacher activist organizing at the conference and we met there to further strategize how to work together.
So far, TAG has a couple concrete projects in the works as well as on-going information sharing through an active listserv. Our first big project is putting together curriculum on the Jena 6—six young Black men, high school students in Jena, Louisiana, who are facing long prison sentences for challenging racist attacks from white students that began when the black students opposed the “white only” tree on their school grounds. (Check out www.democracynow.org and www.colorofchange.org/jena for more information on this important struggle against racist violence and criminalization.) NYCORE has developed powerful curricula on important issues, particularly Hurricane Katrina, that they put up on their web site, to be used by teachers across the US. Taking the lead from NYCORE, TAG is developing curricula, background information, images and resources on the Jena 6 that teachers will be able to use to inform their students about this issue and its historical roots and to help students take action in solidarity with the Jena 6. TAG is also planning a symposium on teacher activist organizing at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association in New York in April. Several TSJ members will be going to the T4SJ annual social justice conference in October in the Bay Area and we’re hoping some TAG members will attend the TSJ curriculum fair in November.

How can people become involved in the TSJ network?

People can contact us and can get on our email list (teachersforjustice[at]hotmail[.]com), which has about 1000 members. They can come to our bi-monthly meetings, which have a “business” part and a part devoted to discussing and learning about political issues affecting education. Our big event is the annual Teaching for Social Justice Curriculum Fair. This year, it will be November 10, at Orozco School (1940 West 18th Street, at Damen Avenue, in Pilsen). It’s similar to a history or science fair, except teachers “exhibit” their curriculum oriented toward social justice. It’s a time to share, learn, get feedback, and forge a collective identity and deeper understanding of social justice education. The event is put on by about 60-80 volunteers, so that’s definitely a way to get involved in TSJ.
We have several other types of events and working/study groups. The study groups meet for a set time frame, study, and develop an action plan. A group of science teachers met this summer to discuss teaching science for social justice, and a number of primary teachers do something similar. A math group may soon follow. We hold public events at Decima Musa (in Pilsen) such as film showings about R2010 and the struggle of Oaxacan teachers, curriculum-development sessions with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and discussions about organizing against R2010. We’ve conducted reading groups, held forums to analyze public policies (like NCLB), had school-based community forums on R2010, and participated in school board hearings and demonstrations. We consistently work in coalitions to advocate for social justice educational policy and practice. All these activities are open for anyone to become more involved (information comes through the email list or website, teachersforjustice.org), and we are open to people initiating new projects that are aligned with our principles and goals. That’s where some of our best work has come from.