Category: policy

The struggle to define who is worthy: mass incarceration and mass deportation

I just finished watching an interview with Susan Burton, author of “Becoming Ms. Burton” and founder of A New Way of Life, a re-entry program for women of color who are adjusting to their new lives after prison, and Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” on Democracy Now!. Alexander wrote the introduction to Burton’s book, in which she tells her story of losing her five-year-old son in a hit-and-run by an LAPD detective (the department never acknowledged her son’s death) and falling into depression, alcoholism, and eventual drug use. The War on Drugs had been powerfully in effect since the 1960s (see here for background, especially as it pertains to the criminalization of antiwar Black activists by the Nixon administration), and poor people of color, as an extension of what Alexander and others describe as the surveillance state, were being locked up for minor drug offenses that often received long sentences. Burton’s initiative is a powerful reminder that the U.S. narrative around this does not break from our generations-long tradition of other-ing Black and Brown people justified under various forms of political obfuscation, policy-making like gerrymandering and redlining, and media depictions that demonize people of color as simultaneously a threat and a problem to be solved.


This resonates powerfully with the parallel track of immigrant existence in this country – to which Black Americans in fact historically belong (slaves were the first immigrants, along with their captors) – which has been threaded into our story as a nation of White, Anglo people. Immigrants then and now maintain a position of lower-status people waiting to adapt and assimilate, often taking up blue-collar and unstable work that includes abuses and exploitation as part of the modus operandi. While this is not news for those of us who read and think on the progressive side of things, the connection made by Alexander in the Democracy Now! interview between the abuse of people of color and of immigrants heartened me. Under the script of settler colonialism, which arranges social relations via the White Western settler-as-savior/Black slave-as-laborer/Indigenous people-as-uncivilized-savage-awaiting-enlightenment, both Black Americans and immigrants are positioned to serve the dominant (White) state-supported control and use of resources inside our national borders. Those resources, recursively, include the labor of these individuals which is poorly compensated or even amounts to indentured servitude under corporate investment in prisons (in the case of convict lease, which some argue still happens today).

Alexander and Burton’s work makes a stunning claim: that we have choices about the way we look at drug use and the individuals who struggle with it. They speak of the ways in which we criminalize people, including poor women of color who have suffered trauma, abuse, and isolation in and out of prison, with the reckless malice which has resulted in the destruction of lives, families, and communities. This, Burton argues, itself is criminal, this seeing people as expendable, consumable, convert-able into fodder for the political fire and brimstone bursting from nativist, racist political pulpits. Alexander adds that immigrants, especially immigrants identified as people of color, are now suffering such similar depiction under the banner of racial politics that discursively justify punitive social controls which result in the dehumanization and division of people from each other:

Today, the enemy has been defined as those ‘brown-skinned immigrants sneaking across the border,’ and, you know, Donald Trump has been banging the podium, you know, saying, we must get rid of them…If we had risen to the challenge of the War on Drugs the way that we could have and should have, the system of mass deportation would not exist today…

And then:

I’m hoping that in the months and years to come that we’ll see more coordination and more unity between the movements to end mass incarceration and the movements to end mass deportation, and come to see it’s the same struggle to define who is worthy, who has dignity and value, and who is disposable, and ultimately, we are trying to birth a new America…

This speaks to the powerful need for social imagination, which Marx, Habermas, Stetsenko, and many others offer as a means of engaging with the possibilities always inherent to our realities and authoring ourselves and change through these possibilities. This world and its arrangements are contingent, open to disobedience as Hannah Arendt argued, and changeable.

Watch the full interview on Democracy Now! here (25:18-59:02).

Relying on “experts” and the problem of expertise

I teach a class about emergent bilinguals and bilingual education in the United States. This week, we’re talking about what constitutes a “successful” program, a highly polemical topic stemming from Civil Rights Era-challenges to the status quo, though the debate about the official language of America and what language to school our children in has origins in the earliest days of the republic. We’re exploring how — and whose — decision-making determines programming for students who are English Language Learners (ELLs), drawing from empirical study, learning theory, and experiences in different schools across the country. One of our readings for class, Successful Bilingual Schools: Six Effective Programs in California, documented “successes” in spite of challenges relating to funding, political opposition to bilingual education, and the ubiquitous pressures to compete, be accountable, and prepare for future job opportunities which can often shackle schooling to the leg of capitalistic destiny-making.

A question I often ask — and did in class last night — is, who is the expert in this conversation? Whose words and experience carry more weight, and why? It’s often the case that expertise comes with many letters after one’s name, conferring value through years of study and research, as well as official titles like “Secretary of _______________” or “Director of _______________.” But for those of us seeking to reach such generally unchallenged heights of expertise, the truth must always be maintained: we can’t know what happens in all given schools, for all children and parents and teachers, within all communities. An obvious statement, to be sure, but the point our class came to last night is important: Local context matters. Student voice and choice matter. What happens in a New York City French-English bilingual program may simply be implausible in Lubbock, Texas, for reasons ranging from resources to political will to community views of language use to geography.

A complicating issue is how we, as progressive thinkers in education, involve students’ communities, especially their parents, in the conversation about bilingual education. This is an asset view of students’ cultural knowledge, arguing that their family backgrounds, cultural knowledges and practices, and community histories inform their ways of experiencing and making meaning through schooling. I struggle with the asset view at times, because it’s a theory that often meets resistance on political and economic grounds. Many parents are often unable to participate more as they are pushed away, outside, beyond the walls of a school by prejudice or struggle with pressures to earn money and work harder to support their family. Some schools think they are including parents in decision-making when in reality, they are simply dictating what parents’ behavior should be. Other parents feel that this is exactly what schools should do: make all the decisions and manage their kids for 7-8 hours per day. Another issue stems from beliefs about rightness in language use. Is it a service provided to “low-status” families to help them assimilate, or a process of enrichment like a foreign language, or else the building of political opportunity and ability to participate in civic engagement?

Schooling in general is complicated, and it is experts that are invited to weigh in on what is best for our nation’s youth. Yet I’m glad that we finished the class last night with the question far from resolved. I emphasize the power that teachers, educational scholars, and policy makers have over others, a power that is too often underproblematized outside and even within the academy. Our ability to tell someone, “Yes, this is right” is historically determined and therefore contingent. While we can argue we have years of expertise, we don’t live the life of our students, and the portal via which we attempt to see in — empirical study — is fraught with complications that include bias, silencing, and misinterpretation. The posture of inquiry and uncertainty, uncomfortable though it may be, is an important one given the risk of replicating injustices past. Considering the current state of affairs when it comes to racial achievement gaps or disparities in educational outcomes for ELLs compared to American-born children, we clearly need to be asking why all of our highly-paid experts haven’t resolved these problems yet.

Pro-immigrant activism in Boston

Yesterday morning I went with organizers from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (https://www.miracoalition.org/) to the State House in Boston to advocate for the support of amendments to the state budget which protect immigrants’ access to housing, in-state tuition, education, and health care. We spoke with representatives and their aides and interns about this complicated but yet very human process of passing laws. Inspiring to think about how shaking hands, seeing people face to face (if not eye to eye), can still influence change. We are all civically connected!

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I’m also attaching the a link to the documents which listed the talking points we brought with us to speak with the representatives. MIRA made it accessible and real for everyone involved. A great model to follow in considering how to participate in the health and protection of our community in partnership with our elected leaders!

MIRA opposes Public Housing Discrimination 1
Please co-sponsor these amendments_&_opposed amendements for action

Fear and the voice of silence in American education

Every week I try to listen to Clearing the FOG, a podcast created by Washington, DC activists Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese which challenges the status quo of corporate greed that has resulted from the rising preeminence of the neoliberal worldview in the United States. Flowers and Zeese welcome weekly guests to discuss the prison-industrial complex, global warming, geopolitics and international trade, and many other topics that bring in local voices and efforts in what seems to be a hope-sapping time.

On March 7th, Clearing the FOG invited Stephen Krashen and Timothy Skelar, internationally known education scholars, to discuss the state of American schooling in a segment entitled “Clearing the FOG and the Attack on Education.” Krashen says much of what we already know as progressive thinkers in the arena of schooling. He articulates salient and continuing issues including the demonization of teachers — who he argues are doing just fine and should, because of their expertise, be sources of insight in educational policy-making, rather than the targets of value-added measurements — and the fallacious conviction that testing is the means by which we should “save our schools” (in quotes because American public schools are some of the best in the world, once you control for issues relating to poverty and its significant impact on the academic and social behaviors of children). Krashen avers that educators, teacher education programs and education research all have been characterized as “broken,” a shift in public discourse which justifies the movement of millions of dollars of federal aid into the pockets of venture funders and other private interests who fund charter schools, teacher academies (which put new practitioners into the classroom after 5 weeks of training), and other “innovative” solutions. It is these private interests, corporations like Microsoft and ExxonMobil with little or no experience with educational theory, practice, or research, who most stand to benefit from the trope that public schools in America don’t work, contributing to what Henry Giroux calls a neoliberal drive to change public education into a private good.

There is so much to say, so much to lament…and yet possibly so much to take heart for. Krashen derides colleagues of his who he says have sold out and conduct research that is funded by big corporate interests like the Gates Foundation that seek to continue the justification for privatization of public schools. No one is protesting except for a few, he says, though some are writing about this. I agree and often feel sadness and resentment in cataloguing those whose voices of resistance are getting out there, including Noam Chomsky, Henry Giroux, Diane Ravitch, Alfie Kohn, Krashen himself, and others. Most of those who speak boldly — and just about all of those whose voices come out loudest — are those who are already established, whose careers cannot be destroyed by a passionate tweet or a fiery blog post.

I am left with a thought. Who else in academia has both relative amounts of safety as well as access to resources to do the research that is not being shared and get the word out that is not being heard besides tenured professors? Graduate students. It is true that we must pass our classes, build our committees, develop relationships with faculty and make connections with other programs and departments where we hope we’ll be hired in the future. Yet we can experiment, explore, push boundaries, and challenge status quo in conferences, graduate workshops, student publications, and local organizing. Of course we worry about what all of these actions might mean to our future prospects. But not committing our efforts, even in a small and collaborative way, might mean a darker, colder future for all of us, including not only our students but also our colleagues and ourselves. Without the political commitments we study in the abstract, without consistent ethical reflection and revision, our work will remain self-serving, a means of competing for jobs rather than taking up one of many waiting torches.

What will this look like? I’m not sure. I have friends who say we all have different skills, different voices to lend to the cry for change, and some are better behind the scenes. This is true. But I also know that silence can act as a voice when no words are spoken.

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March Conferences: Eastern Sociological Society, NYCore

A milestone: I delivered my first solo presentation at the Eastern Sociological Society conference in Boston, MA, whose theme this year was, “My Day Job: Politics and Pedagogy in Academia.” Like I told the participants in the paper session, I felt that as a second-year PhD student, this was a major triumph, even if I passed out and never got to my presentation.

My talk was entitled, “Re-Humanizing Non-Profit Adult Education: Challenging Paternalism in Transition-Minded Pedagogy and Envisioning Theoretical and Programmatic Alternatives.” Paper Session 190, you are my moon landing!

While I wasn’t able to make it, the NYCORE (New York Collective of Radical Educators) conference also took place this weekend. Nick Michelli and Tina Jacobowitz presented our work on education policy, its influence over teacher education and partner schools across the country, and how we as democratic educators can make change in a workshop entitled, “Understanding and Influencing Education Policy.” We sought to say:

“We will argue that as educators, we all must be speaking for the children.  If not us, who?”

Though I missed the talk itself, the message rings across the country, especially in considering the increasing loyalty to charter schools and abandonment of teachers as just another expendable employee in a tightening education market. Powerful and important work.