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Not your mother's PTA: beyond the call for desegregation, community organizations of parents and students of color are building campaigns for racial equity within and beyond the schools.

While Bush touts his No Child Left Behind law that does little to increase federal funding for public education, it is young people and their parents who are pushing the envelope on school reform issues. Community-based organizations that mobilize parents or children (and increasingly, both) around education equity have grown in the last 10 years. A 2002 New York University report counts "at least 200 community groups across the country currently engaged in struggling for better local public schools." And, as James Mumm, codirector of Mothers on the Move (MOM), an organization of parents in the South Bronx, puts it, "This is not your mother's PTA."


You can find these community groups in working-class neighborhoods of large metropolitan cities, like MOM in New York or Generation Y in Chicago, but they are just as likely to surface in small towns, like Indian People's Action in Missoula, Montana. Beyond the call for desegregation of Brown v. Board of Education, these groups are contending with broader issues of racial inequity that resonate in the community beyond the schools. More often than not, their leadership are not seasoned politicos, but parents and students of color that many a school administration has previously written off as ignorant or delinquent.

Parent Leadership in the Bronx

MOM's parent organizing began with a group of adult students at Bronx Educational Services in 1991. Through its literacy class, the adult students got a glimpse of the kind of miseducation their children were getting. Their teacher Barbara Gross had them research the performance of South Bronx schools in District 8, as compared to other school districts in New York. Later, they visited a fourth-grade classroom to witness the poor quality of teaching and school environment. A light bulb went off collectively. Gross, who had been an organizer for ACORN, channeled her students' indignation into a community organizing campaign, which formed the foundation of MOM.

"In the beginning, we wanted to go into the schools to get things done. But there was such a lockout because the administration didn't want parents there," says Mumm.

In fact, Max Messer, the school district superintendent at the time, whom Mumm calls "an outright racist," had been steering resources for new school construction, quality teachers and textbooks away from the low-income Latino, African American and South Asian part of the South Bronx to the white, middle-class part of his jurisdiction.

MOM then set out to build leadership among parents in South Bronx.

"We organized the old-fashioned way," says Mumm. "Existing members recruit new members. We identify potential leaders at public meetings." The parents wanted to know how decisions get made in the school district. They wanted to learn how to talk to public officials.

A 2003 case study report by the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University details MOM's five-year campaign to oust Messer, which finally led to his "forced retirement" in 1997. Since then, they have developed a more cooperative relationship with the new superintendent, Betty Rosa. Rosa meets regularly with parents to talk about issues like overcrowding, certification of special education teachers and building of better playgrounds or science laboratories. After more than a decade of organizing, MOM has succeeded in making parents' engagement a norm in the South Bronx, District 8.

Despite ongoing media lament about the failure of the public education system, success stories like MOM are actually not hard to come by. However, such an intense spotlight on public education can compel politicians to adopt policies without much forethought. These policies are sometimes cosmetic at best, but more often counterproductive. In New York, just as MOM is enjoying a more constructive relationship with the school district, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing to make school curriculum uniform, which may mean loss of resources for some math and reading programs that have actually been effective in some South Bronx schools.

A campaign around education equity usually takes a long time, especially when activists are dealing with the gargantuan bureaucracies that are school districts in metropolitan cities like New York or Los Angeles. Another challenge is the difficulty of sustaining momentum after a victory.

For some organizations, this means they have to learn to adapt to changing contexts. In the first half of MOM's history, parents were locked out of a racist school administration, and the leaders employed a more confrontational style to hold the enemies accountable. Yet, as they began to win some victories, they needed to develop a more amicable relationship with the school district, to become involved in the bureaucracy to make sure that they could sustain their victories. However, they know they have to be ready to resort to confrontations if and when the moment calls for it. The balance between pushing from the outside and working from the inside is a clear strategy on paper, but hardly in practice.

Indian Education for All in Montana

In Montana, Indian People's Action (IPA) succeeded in pushing the state legislature to pass the Indian Education for All Act in 1999. Formed in 1997, IPA has quickly built a broad base of membership of 300 individuals as well as community collaboration with groups like Montana Indian Education Association. Though the victory was relatively swift--thanks to the intense organizing by IPA and Janet Robideau, a veteran of the American Indian Movement--the state legislature neither allocated money to the school districts to implement the law nor set consequences for noncompliance.

Unlike New York, Montana is a large state with a small population. American Indians make up about 8 percent of Montana's population, by far the largest group of people of color in a state with 90 percent whites. "When people say there is no racism in Montana, I tell them to come down to the store with me and see who the clerks follow, or to drive down the streets late at night and see who the police follow;" says Robideau. "What we have is still the 1950s type of mentality." She attributes this to the small migration rate into the state: new ideas don't come in, and old racist attitudes are left unchallenged.

And school curriculum, from K-12, reflects this anachronism. History textbooks either ignore the existence of American Indians in the American experience or present blatant historical inaccuracies. Any coverage of the Native experience is insignificant, and there is never differentiation among the many different tribes that live in Montana. "Young Indians are not being taught their history," Robideau concludes.

The Indian Education for All Act is designed to ensure "cultural competence" in curriculum and teaching staff for public schools in Montana. Because there is no money behind it, the law has no teeth. Currently, IPA and Montana Indian Education Association have organized 11 school districts to challenge the state government in court to provide money for the implementation. The judicial branch is a key component to many educational campaign strategies, given that most community-based organizations do not have enough capacity to monitor implementation of their victories.

Robideau admits that taking the fight to court has left most of the battles to lawyers and judges. This could have a disempowering impact on those community activists who had fought hard to get the law passed. Yet, IPA is not waiting idly for the court decision to come down. Instead, they continue to educate the community and other noncomplying school districts on this issue and put pressure on public officials. Recently, a group of students in the Indian Mission School collected $7,000 and took it to the governor to urge his support. Under the spotlight, the governor allocated $50,000 to the Indian Mission School.

One way to keep the momentum while the lawsuit is tied up in court is to focus on the small wins. There is no shortage of local issues in school reform, and Robideau feels that every victory, no matter how minor, can be tied to the Indian Education for All Act so the community can be in a better position to enforce its implementation when the time comes.

Building on the momentum also means branching out to other issues that are relevant to the local community. Although students eventually graduate from their schools, Robideau detects an increase in the number of young people who had been politicized through the IPA campaigns that become involved with other community-based organizations.

Taking on a Bigger Agenda

Sometimes, single-issue organizations evolve to take on a more comprehensive social change agenda. In 1997, MOM's leadership decided to take on multiple-issue organizing. "We're seeing a lot of other things that affect student performance, not just schools," Mumm explains. In the South Bronx, poor air quality leads to higher incidences of asthma among young people, which pushes up the rate of student absences. Some neighborhoods are surrounded by highways, and up to 10,000 trucks pass through on any given day. As a result, MOM organizers took on an environmental justice campaign by going after local polluters, removing truck routes from residential areas and opening up green spaces in the neighborhoods. Although MOM has started out as an organization seeking to improve public education in the South Bronx in 1992, educational equity is one of four priority areas since 2000. Other issues include environmental justice, safe streets, and affordable housing. This type of organizing addresses the need to tackle the structural racism that runs throughout society, connecting one issue to another.

Recently, MOM embarked on yet another expansion to create a broader base for its organizing work. This time, it focuses on youth in the community. MOM campaigns have always included young people in their midst, but for the first time, youth will have their own committee and leadership that will decide on the issues they will work on. It's a natural base-building strategy for MOM, according to Mumm. After more than 10 years, "we have strong relationships with schools, we have run some after-school programs and we work with teachers that want to activate youth," says Mumm.

The process may seem organic at first, but young people have made themselves an undeniable contender in the school reform arena, so much so that it behooves parent organizing groups like MOM to create space for their organizing. "Politicians, even politicians of color, are afraid of young people," explains Mumm, "especially articulate teenagers who understand the issues and are backed by a strong organization with a huge base."


Robideau couldn't agree more. "In the American Indian community," she explains, "the elders tend to look at anyone under 40 as youth. It was hard for them to see young people as peers or decision-makers. When the youth do something, often the adults' reaction is 'How cute.'"

The 1999 Columbine tragedy in neighboring Colorado became an impetus for Robideau to get rid of ageism. According to Robideau, after Columbine, school officials and parents reacted by clamping down on the youth with "sniff dogs patrolling hallways, school uniforms, cameras, etc. The youth were asking, 'Why are we being punished? Why are our schools turning into prisons?'"

Robideau discovered that when adults are willing to listen, youth can be very passionate and outspoken not only about school issues, but other issues affecting their community as well, such as health care and employment. Like Mumm, Robideau realized that youth of color can be very powerful advocates "once law enforcement, school officials and city leaders realize that the youth leadership has a following--not just other youth, but adults as well."

Student Leadership on School Reform

The evolution of MOM and IPA represents a larger pattern of an increasingly youth-based movement on school reform. According to Jeremy Lahoud, lead organizer of Generation Y in Chicago, "Fifteen years ago, there wasn't a lot of student leadership in school reform. Now, even if not every group has student leaders, everyone recognizes the need for youth leadership."

Every community likes to think the issues affecting its public schools are unique. Unfortunately, there is little variation in school inequities. To an experienced organizer like Lahoud, success depends more on how a local community takes ownership of the issue.

In Southwest Chicago, Generation Y has been organizing a multiracial cadre of student leaders, including African American, Arab American and Latino youth. These leaders determine the focus of their organizing by talking to other students. School over-crowding and discriminatory discipline policies seem to be overriding concerns. From there, student leaders collect data like ammunition for the battles to come.


In the past two years, Generation Y student leaders found empirical data to support what they knew all along. Some of the information is readily available from the school district, after some digging and analysis. For example, they found that the top 10 most overcrowded schools, operating at 90 to 110 percent capacity, are located in the northwest and southwest parts of the city, which are heavily Latino and low-income. They also found that low-income students are disproportionately enrolled in ROTC preparation courses, while white students are overrepresented in college-prep classes.

The more interesting data are sometimes the ones that the schools don't keep. Students unearth this information by talking to other students. Generation Y leaders collected 700 surveys and published two research reports from them: Higher Learning in 2002 and Rising Higher in 2003. By incorporating student voices in these reports, they were able to draw insightful findings from the official numbers that even eluded academics or education experts.

For example, while conventional wisdom often links overcrowding with an unfavorable teacher-student ratio that impedes student learning, the Higher Learning report places overcrowding as but one factor in a larger nexus that puts low-income students at a disadvantage. While only a quarter of the students surveyed felt that overcrowding has an impact on the quality of teaching, they were much more concerned about overcrowding in the hallway, not in the classroom. More than half stated that a packed hallway often leads to tardiness, which results in detention or even suspension. The survey also finds a high correlation between overcrowding and incidents of fighting between students. From their research, students illustrated the negative effects of zero-tolerance policies and made their own recommendations.

Superintendent Arne Duncan, initially resistant when confronted with these findings, eventually agreed to Generation Y's recommendation to try the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program in eight schools. The AVID program focuses on working with students with a C-average, at schools with a high proportion of students of color who are not getting into collegeprep classes, by having them work with a group of tutors, core teachers and cohort of other students on study skills. The Generation Y leaders decided on the program after some research and conversation with Californians for Justice, whose youth and education work has had some success with the program.

Community-based research helps students hone their academic and analytical abilities. Getting involved in school reform campaigns, in general, helps students adopt a more positive and healthy attitude toward their education.

"The students are holding school officials accountable to their education," Lahoud explains, "it's only natural for them to think about ways they should take personal responsibility for it, too."

Connecting Campaigns

MOM employs a similar kind of community-based research methodology. They also collaborate with the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. While the collaboration has given MOM some legitimacy, NYU researchers understand that it is the community group that drives the work.

"Our members brainstormed what type of information they needed to know and could use to get other parents to get involved. The researchers used this feedback to develop a format for us. And sometimes, we asked graduate students to crunch some numbers for us," says Mumm. In the end, it is the parents who decide how the data can be used.

He admits that the research "made us look sharper. Being at the table and able to talk about data as well as any education bureaucrat is important. We have to be on top of that stuff to be a player, especially as we're getting more press attention."

Public education is a behemoth, and school districts are often the very definition of a change-resistant bureaucracy. But as Lahoud attests, "the education reform movement is getting more recognized as a force of social change nationally in the organizing world, in part because it involves a lot of young people of color and it's very diverse. There is even more funding for it."

But what makes its potential for a national movement so real is the connection each campaign is making with one another. For example, with support from the DC-based Advancement Project, Generation Y is about to launch a new campaign around zero tolerance with two other groups in the country, one in Denver, Colorado, and the other in Palm Beach County, Florida. Young people are very adept at networking, talking with and learning from one another. They are generating knowledge and making it available in research reports and on the Internet.

Fifty years ago, a group of black children and their families defied a whole country and bravely stepped across a color line to test the strength of our Constitution. Everyday, youth of color engage in the same battle for educational equality and their numbers are growing. When communities of color join forces--young and old, crossing state boundaries and issues--education bureaucrats are right to be afraid.

Eric C. Wat is a community-based researcher and a writer in Los Angeles. His book, The Making of a Gay Asian Community, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2002. He teaches at University of California, Los Angeles and California State University, Fullerton.
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Author:Wat, Eric C.
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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