Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Nick Ashford, Jerry Leiber and the Soundtrack of a Multiracial America

Nick Ashford, Jerry Leiber and the Soundtrack of a Multiracial America

Mark Naison

When I discovered that two of the greatest rock and roll songwriters of all time, Nick Ashford (of the duo Ashford and Simpson) and Jerry Leiber ( of Leiber and Stoller) died in a single day, my first impulse was to go into mourning. As someone who grew up in Brooklyn in the 50’s and came of age as a civil rights and anti-war activist at Columbia University in the 60’s, I looked to songs that they had written ( from “Hound Dog” and “Stand By Me” to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Solid as a Rock”) as part of the sound track of my life and markers of my personal and political evolution.

But after thinking about their music, not only on its impact on tens of millions of people in my generation, but on the cultural politics their songwriting reflected, I think it’s important to understand that they were figures who in their own way helped redefine race in United States by creating a sonic universe which people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds could enter, and find joy and meaning within.

It is easy to forget how unique this multiracial sonic universe, which evolved with the popularity of Rock and Roll in the middle 1950’s and lasted through the late 60’s, was in its historic moment. There are certain songs, most, but not all of them performed by Black artists, most involving themes of love and loyalty, which young people in every single part of the country, regardless of racial or cultural background, adopted as their own personal anthems and retain powerful associations to this day.

At a time of unprecedented economic growth, when unions were strong, wealth was far more evenly distributed than it is now, and working class people of all racial backgrounds strode through America with a confidence and optimism that would be unimaginable today, songwriters, record producers, radio dj’s and singers managed to capture that optimistic spirit by adapting rhythm and blues- a music forged in postwar urban black communities to a broader youth market. And while the driving impulse here was commerce, the music that resulted had a joyous spirit that cut across racial boundaries more than anything the nation had ever seen.

But it could only work because some of those boundaries were being crossed in daily life. In cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit, young blacks and whites not only found themselves working in the same factories, they sometimes attended the same high schools and lived in the same housing projects. And if the majority of people who moved through these integrated settings kept to their own cohort, there were enough people who crossed those boundaries in friendship, and occasionally in love to understand that there were some very real commonalities in material aspirations and cultural values. Young people in those times, irrespective of their racial backgrounds, wanted cars, and houses, good jobs and good times, and hoped, at some point after they had their fun, to find love and marriage!

Songwriters like Nick Ashford and Jerry Leiber knew this. They were part of a generation of young people who believed in “love” ( however gendered their definition of that was) and who believed that their economic prospects were promising enough to imagine love leading to marriage. That deindustrialization, war, and stubbornly persistent racism might undermine that possibility, and that women’s empowerment would render the ideal problematic, goes without saying, but for a good ten year period, a whole generation raised in those heady times was emotionally entranced by the vision of love and loyalty put forward in songs like” Stand By Me” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.

Look at the lyrics of each of these songs:

Stand by Me

When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we see
Oh I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand by me

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

If you need me, no matter where you are
No matter how far, don’t worry baby
Just call my name, I’ll be there in a hurry
You don’t have to worry
Cause ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley
Low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me
From getting to you baby

These heroic visions of devotion and loyalty might elicit laughter today, but they were as much part of what it meant to be young in the early and middle 60’s as the draft, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Star Spangled Banner, and wherever you go, whether it be the Deep South, the Pacific Northwest, New England or the Great Plains or the Mesabi range, you put these songs on for a 60 and over group, irrespective of race, and it will being a moment of reverence, not just for lost youth, not just for broken ideals, but for passions that emerge when you live life to the fullest

That these two songwriters, one black, one white, could capture those feelings with such perfect pitch, with such startling universality, reflected not just as astute reading of a moment in American history, but the creation of a cross racial sensibility that had never existed before and might never quite exist again in exactly the same form.

Whatever this nation has become, since that time; whatever changes in gender and economics have rendered the ideals and visions captured in those songs problematic, at least for our time, the song captures a time when people dared to dream that love and loyalty were possible and that they could dream together across racial and cultural boundaries in a way that their parents generation could never imagine.

Mark Naison
August 21, 2011

Saturday, August 20, 2011

School Reform, Community Development and the Mal-Distribution of Wealth: The Road Not Taken

School Reform, Community Development and the Mal-Distribution of Wealth: The Road Not Taken

Mark Naison

Reading Sarah Mosle’s review of Steven Brill’s new book on School Reform in the New York Times reminded me of the incredible expenditure of time, money and political capital this movement has engendered. I can think of no cause in recent American history which has brought together philanthropy, government and the media, along with a bi- partisan coalition encompassing elements of the Right and the Left, in behalf of an imperative to transform an important sector of American society . Using rhetoric which enlists egalitarian ideals ( No Child Left Behind) alongside the goal of improving the nation’s place in global capitalist competition ( Race to the Top) this movement has proven well nigh irresistible in shaping the way educational policy is being formed at the state, local and national level.

Unfortunately, in terms of either egalitarianism or competitiveness, this movement has failed miserably. Not only has the nation become far more unequal in terms of every important statistical indicator ( wealth distribution, youth poverty, minority unemployment, black/white wealth gap) since No Child Left behind was passed, but we have seen no change in the nation’s position in the global hierarchy in terms of performance on standardized tests.

Why has a movement which has inspired such elevated rhetoric ( “Education Reform is the Civil Rights Cause of the 21st Century), such bi-partisan political support, and such huge expenditures of money achieved so little?

Perhaps the most obvious answer is a simple one: there is no evidence schools alone, not matter how well funded they are, can lift people out of poverty when every other social policy drives them down.

But that answer doesn’t mean we should completely give up on transforming schools.
Schools and school reform can serve as instruments of community development if the resources put into them are deployed in ways which strengthen local economies immediately, not just in some distant future when the beneficiaries of school reform graduate from college and launch successful careers

Let’s use a little imagination. What if the hundreds of billions of dollars contributed by philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and hedge fund entrepreneurs to charter schools, Teach for America and local school districts who follow their model of “accountability” were used instead to hire local residents of poor communities to work in schools as school aids, recreation supervisors, and personnel in child care centers? Not only would such a policy help transform schools into dawn to dusk community centers for struggling neighborhoods, it would create tens, if not hundreds of thousands of new jobs in neighborhoods which are starved for employment and where families are under the severest economic stress.

Right now the vast majority of School Reform dollars go into the pockets of middle class and upper middle class professionals who live far from the neighborhoods in which “failing” schools are located- management consultants, employees of test companies, computer and information system managers, teachers and administrators in charter schools. They do nothing to develop local economies, strengthen families in need, provide employment to marginalized people, or redistribute income from the very wealthy to the very poor. If you wanted to by cynical, you can say that School Reform, in the name of helping the poor, has created a wonderful job program for the children of the middle class.

But that can only happen because most ( but not all) School Reformers divorce the goal of improving schools from the goal of lifting communities out of poverty.

As progressives, our job is to insist that the School/Community linkage be foremost in all Reform efforts, and that the vast majority of the funds to improve schools in poor communities be used to create jobs and programs for people who live in those communities. No more consultants, no more tests, no more computer systems, no more hot shot teachers who spend two years in low performing schools then leave. Let’s give bonuses for teachers and principals who live in the communities they teach in, stay in schools in poverty areas for ten or more years, and lets hire tens of thousands of local residents for useful and necessary work that turn schools into places where everyone in the neighborhood wants to be

If you do that, you might not only contribute to the goal of greater equality, you will help put a dent in what all experts agree is the major hindrance to America’s global competitiveness in educational performance- our extraordinarily high rate of child poverty.

Mark Naison
August 19,2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Move Over Tea Party! Young Americans Are About to Rise Up and Make

Move Over Tea Party! Young Americans Are About to Rise Up and Make

Mark Naison

During the last two years, a political revolt on the Right has
changed the landscape of American politics. A movement which calls
itself the Tea Party, overwhelmingly composed of white Americans over
the age of fifty, has taken over the Republican Party, and with it the
House of Representatives, with a program calling for drastic curbs on
government expenditure and a moratorium on new taxation. The startling
growth of this movement is in large measure attributable to racial
fears triggered by Barack Obama’s election as president. but those
fears are connected to demographic shifts which have made school
populations majority minority in many states, and prefigure a future
when whites are no longer the nation’s dominant group. Economic
anxiety and racial fears have produced a truly vindictive approach to
politics on the American Right. To put the matter bluntly, the Tea
Party has declared war on American youth by trying to cut school
budgets, library budgets, publicly subsidized recreation programs, and
access to college scholarships.

Until quite recently. young people in the country, who do not
vote in the same proportions as their elders, ( the 2008 Presidential
Election excepted) have mounted little no significant resistance to the
Tea Party offensive and showed few signs of dissatisfaction. But this
could change with startling rapidity A wave of protest in other
nations, starting in the Arab World, spreading to continental Europe
and most recently taking the form of massive riots in England, all have
originated among young people using social media to spread their
message. It is not difficult to imagine that this wave of global
protest, both non violent and violent, will soon spread to the US,
taking forms uniquely adapted to American conditions.

Some of this protest has already started.. It is significant that
the most important recent youth protests in the US have taken place in
our prison system, a sector which dwarfs its counterparts in the Arab
world or Europe. There have been two huge hunger strikes in prisons in
the last six months, the first in Georgia, the second in California, in
each case ending when authorities made concessions. Since a
significant portion of the American working class lives in communities
where people move in and out of prison with startling frequency, such
protests are a sign of growing discontent among that section of the US
population steadily being beaten down, not only by Depression imposed
job losses and foreclosures,, but by the budget cuts Tea Party
activists have helped negotiate.

Another sign of this discontent is are electronically
organized commodity riots which the media have called “flash mobs,”
groups of adolescents from poor neighborhoods, who, with the help of
cell phone communication, suddenly descend on a downtown business
district, or a store, and rob everyone in sight, disappearing as
quickly as they’ve congregated. Incidents of this kind have taken place
in Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Maryland, prompting moral
panic among politicians and religious leaaders who view these outbursts
as a consequences of faulty childrearing and parental neglect

But while it is hard to endorse indiscriminate acts of violence
which put forth no program and make no demands, it is also naïve to
condemn them without referring to the increasing poverty and isolation
of the young people responsible for these actions , or to the blithe
indifference to their plight among urban elites and young
professionals whose prosperity has been untouched by the recession.
Can you really expect young people to stand by and suffer in silence
while libraries and recreation centers are shut, while food becomes
scares, while many among them are being forced into homelessness, and
when schools become test factories, especially since their older
siblings in prison are starting to organize and protest against their
plight. As conditions worsen among the working class and the poor,
expect more flash mobs, more school takeovers and walkouts, and more
actual riots, especially when and if police over react to these other
forms of protest.

Now as for middle class students and ex students trapped in an
unfavorable job market, will they remain silent in the face of working
class violence and dissent, or join forces with their elders in calling
for its suppression? I don’t think so. There is not only a growing
awareness among college students about racial and economic disparities
in the country, there are signs of actual activism. College and high
school students were a central component of the protests , marches and
occupations surrounding the elimination of collective bargaining for
public workers in Wisconsin, they have major participants in protests
against repressive immigration laws in Arizona, and they have been
active in protests against police violence and police brutality from
New York to Oakland.. Because of economic pressures as well as moral
incentives, more and more college graduates are choosing to participate
in programs which place them in low income communities, whether it
Vista, Americorps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, or alternative
certification programs like Teach for America. As the residents of
these communities erupt in protest, they are going to inevitably pull
along a portion of the middle class community workers and teachers in
their midst

In five years, I predict, there are going to be youth movements in
the US, multiracial, multicultural, and multi-class in their
composition, which dwarf the Tea Party in size and importance. Like
their counterparts around the world, they will take a wide variety of
forms, some violent and even nihilistic, some visionary, carefully
organized and inspirational. But they will make demands on this nation
that will require it to sharply change direction in favor of greater
inclusiveness, greater compassion, and greater equality. No younger
generation worth its salt will allow the poor and the weak in its midst
to be driven into the dust, by smug, racist movements, financed by
self-interested elites!

The current concentration of wealth at the top of our nation- that
allows 400 of the nations wealthiest individuals to make as much as the
bottom 150 million- will not go unchallenged forever.

The youth of this country will rise up and demand something better,
and the people running the country had better listen, if they want to
have a country left to govern

Mark Naison

August 17, 2011

Education and Plutocracy

Education and Plutocracy

Mark Naison

The two most powerful people shaping public education in New York State,
Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City, and Merryl Tisch, chair of
the New York State Board of Regents, are both billionaires! On their
watch, private interests- test publishers, software companies, and
educational consulting firms- have gained a huge foothold in the
state's public schools. This is the logical consequence of Plutocratic
Rule. Once they leave office, public vigilance should keep people of
great wealth out of any positions of control in our educational system.
To quote the old adage: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice,
shame on me!”

Monday, August 15, 2011

Notorious Phd's "Rules for Schools"

Notorious Phd's "Rules for Schools."

Rule 1. Never trust a school chancellor or charter school
administrator who accepts the title of "CEO." Dollars will get you
donuts that they support privatization of public education.

Rule 2. Keep billionaires as far away from public schools as
possible. Their "philanthropy" inevitably results in reforms which will fatten
their own pockets (e.g new computer and information systems!)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What I Would Do If I Had Arne Duncan's Job

What I Would Do If I Had Arne Duncan's Job

Mark Naison

First of all, I would state, for the record, that there is no quick or instant way to make our schools perform better unless we have a major initiative to reduce poverty that encompasses employment, health care, nutrition and housing as well as education.

Then, I would end Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, deemphazie standardized testing and make schools places where young people, especially those from poor and working class backgrounds want to spend time in and where they get skills that lead to useful employment. Here would be the keystones of my program.

1 Create first rate vocational and technical education programs like the kind they have in Germany and like they used to have in New York City in the 1950's. Help train the technicians needed to build a new energy efficient economy for the 21St Century.

2. Create after school progarms and night centers in the public schools which featues sports, the arts, and modern information technology, all led by teacher mentors, helped by teachers in training. Young people in NY City also had programs like this when I was growing up. They were elminated in the 1970's fiscal crisis

3. Vastly expand the hours and resources of public libraries so they not only create safe zones where young people can do their homework free of harassment and noise, but are places where they can have access to computer and information technology they might not have in their home.

4. Create CCC and WPA type jobs program for out of work out of school teens and young adults, paying them to help rebuild our rotting infastructure and mentor young people in their neighborhoods.

I can assure you that these programs would be much more effective engaging young people than our current strategy of deluging them with standarized tests to make them competitive with young people in other countries.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Basis of My Current Optimism About Youth Activism

The Basis of My Current Optimism About Youth Activism
Mark Naison

A lot of people I respect have been extremely skeptical about my prediction that we are seeing , in its early stages, a new wave of youth activism. They think I am being a starry-eyed optimist based on my limited contacts in liberal NY, especially in the Bronx

But based on the same kind of contacts, in the same place, in the middle and late 1970’s, I predicted, correctly as it turned out, a long period of Conservative hegemony in American politics, with young people leading the way. Let me explain how I came to that conclusion before moving back to the current situation.

The early and mid 70’s were a rough time in New York City, in the Bronx in particular. We suffered deindustrialization and disinvestment, a heroin epidemic, rising crime rates, white and middle class flight and finally a fiscal crisis and bank takeover of city government which decimated education, recreation and youth services. I experienced all of these things, directly and indirectly, and also watched large sections of the Bronx burn as I took the 3rd Avenue El and the 4 Train from my apartment in Manhattan to my new job at Fordham

But what made me most pessimistic was not all of these real life tragedies, it was the attitude of my students at Fordham. By 1975 and 1976, the vast majority of my white students at Fordham had come to look at any form of idealism and social consciousness as a luxury they couldn’t afford ( my Black and Latino students, whose numbers were shrinking, still shared many of my views). They looked on me as comical and pathetic, a 60’s relic who still thought that the pursuit of justice and equality was a realistic life goal. Their strategy was clear. They were going to survive, and if possible prosper, by keeping as far away from the problems of the inner city as they could, and by not wasting any energy on causes that had no chance of succeeding. Whereas my first students and Fordham in 1970-71 were comrades in struggle who shared my dreams of a better world, these young people were going to make sure that they were untouched by the tragedies that surrounded them

The attitudes I encountered then lasted for at least ten years, not receding until the late 1980’s. It let me to withdraw much of my energy from teaching and put it into research , physical fitness ( I won 7 straight Brooklyn public parks tennis championships in the late 70’s/early 80’s) and bringing up my children as competitive athletes. I continued to work with students who were justice activists, but they were few and far between and virtually all of the people I worked with in community organizations were 60’s veterans.

Now fast forward to the present. My classes at Fordham are packed with students who are committed to justice work, and who do wonderful community service projects in the Bronx and all over the globe. More and more of these students are becoming radicalized by the inequalities that surround them and are thinking of ways they can make an impact through the work they do. Many have gone to work for non-profits, some have gone into the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and the Peace Corps, some have helped found innovative social justice organizations in New York City, among them Momma's Hip Hop Kitchen, the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective and The Space at Tompkins. More than a few have decided to enter teaching as a career, some through graduate programs, some through alternate certification programs like the New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America

Equally important, ever since I began writing and speaking in defense of public schools teachers, and challenging the testing/privatization model dominating mainstream education discourse, I have been literally deluged with emails from young teachers, in New York and around the country, fighting the same battles , some of them looking for support, some of them looking to connect with existing networks, some of them launching remarkable initiatives on their own. These emails have only accelerated since the Save Our Schools Conference and March, convincing me that event was only going to increase the level of organizing among teachers around the nation, especially among those new to the profession

So while the political situation in the nation today is at least as grim as it was in the middle and late 70’s it FEELS different to me because I am surrounded by young people who feel the same way about the injustices of this society that I do, and what’s more, are willing to do something about those problems.

Their energy and their passion gives me hope.

Mark Naison
August 10,2011

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why We Need Teacher Activist Groups- and More

Why We Need Teacher Activist Groups- and More

Mark Naison

Fordham University

I think the concept of Teacher Activist Groups, first brought to my attention by educator/organizer Katie Strom (see http://teacheractivistgroups.org-)
is a perfect vehicle for challenging the corporate takeover of public education because it encourages all teachers, whether veterans or new to the schools, whether graduates of education programs or products of alternative certification, to unite around a common agenda of resistance to testing and privatization.

But unless those TAG's work within community based coalitions to fight for economic justice, their protests against corporate control of schools will be easily isolated. Teachers must not only fight for the right to teach creatively, they must reinvent themselves as social justice activists who use their position as educators to help give students and their families a greater sense of power and agency so they can fight back against the forces driving them deeper into poverty.

These two roles must go hand in hand because the more teachers create linkages to students, parents and community activists, the more they can transform their own classrooms, and eventually their own schools, into "liberated space."

None of this will be easy. But can we afford to do anything less given the mass misery budget cuts are going to impose on the communities our schools are located in?

I am frightened by where our nation is going, but I am also inspired by all the young teachers who have decided to fight back, and all the veteran educators and organizers wiling to link up with them and given them full support.

We are on the verge of something I believe is truly momentous- the rebirth of a Progressive Justice Movement that will equal the ones that swept through American in the Great Depression and the Sixties

To those who are fearful that we lack the numbers or the will to bring this new movement into being, I will close with my favorite slogan from the Sixties, which for all I know could have come from Mao Tse Tung:

"Dare To Struggle, Dare to Win!"


Mark Naison/Notorious Phd

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Return of Solidarity: Young Americans Band Together To

The Return of Solidarity: Young Americans Band Together To Organize for Justice,

Mark Naison
Fordham Univeristy

During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, many Americans, thoughbrought up on “rags to riches” stories of individual mobility, began to cautiously embrace the concept of “Solidarity”- the idea that working people could only survive, and ultimately prosper, if they helped one another when they were in need and organized together to demand that government and business provide them with economic security. Such an ideal fueled the growth of the industrial labor movement, which called on workers to sacrifice for once another, rather than compete for the favors of employers. But it was also visible in the emergence of an ethic of mutual aid that honored those who helped people in trouble, whether it was feeding a hungry person who came to the door asking for food, or taking in a family who just lost their farm or got evicted from their apartment. The music of Woodie Guthrie and the novels of John Steinbeck, especially the Grapes of Wrath captured the moral grandeur of solidarity both as a personal credo and a political ideal, but it was also institutionalized, through an alliance of the New Deal and the emerging labor movement, in unemployment insurance, old age pensions, and the legal protection of collective bargaining rights in basic industry.

For the last three years, I have been looking for signs that young college educated Americans, along with their working class counterparts, are beginning to rediscover the concept of Solidarity.Young people have been hammered especially hard in the current economic crisis. As of the Spring of 2011, youth unemployment in the US had topped 20 percent, with sections of that labor force (minority youth,high school graduates) having rates double that total. Even graduates of elite universities were having trouble finding work they were trained for, as many returned home to live with parents rather than striking out on their own.

For a while, I saw little evidence that young Americans were reading the handwriting on the wall and concluding that acquisitivei ndividualism and consumerism just weren’t going to work all that well for their generation. I watched in astonishment as young Americans failed to mobilize for the 2010 Congressional elections as they had in 2008, paving the way for Republican –and Tea Party-dominance of the House of Representatives.

But in the last six months, I have seen numerous signs that Solidarity is making a comeback among young people who are starting torealize that this economic crisis is not going away and that they hadbetter reach out to one another and fight for economic justic less their dignity, as well as their power to make a living, be permanently compromised.The first sign of this was in Wisconsin, where tens of thousands of high school students and college students mobilized in support of union workers whose collective bargaining rights were being taken away through the actions of a Republican Governor and State Legislature. At the Save Our Schools Rally in Washington, I had the privilege of introducing Kas Schwerdtfeger, a Students for a Democratic Society organizer from Milwaukee who led walkouts of thousands of high school and college students in support of the occupation of the state legislature by union workers, as well as a semester long occupation of the student center at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Such actions equaled, and in many ways, exceeded those launched by the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980’s, the last major student movement in the US to mobilize around the concept of”Solidarity.”

But Wisconsin was not an isolated incident. In New York City, the concept of ”solidarity” has been embraced by many young teachers enraged by the testing and assessment protocols imposed by the Bloomberg Dictatorship in the NYC Department of Education as well as the huge propaganda campaign launched by wealthy philanthropists in behalf of charter schools and privatization of public education. In the last six moths, a multifaceted resistance movement, jointly led by young teachers and veteran education activists, has resulted in the organization of “Fight Back Fridays,” citywide protests by protests by teachers, students and parents and parents against excessive testing; the production of “The Inconvenient Truth About Waiting For Superman,” a devastating critique of dominant Education Reform ideology, and the organization of an amazing group called “The NewTeacher Underground” which brings together teachers in alternative certification programs like Teach for America with long time graduates of teacher education programs to fight for democracy and a fair distribution of resources in the city’s schools and the communities they are located in

As someone who has been directly or indirectly involved with these initiatives- I have marched on a picket line with young teacher activists at Lehman High School, written an article on charters schools with the help of the creators of “The Inconvenient Truth about Waiting For Superman,” and spoken at a meeting of the “New Teacher Underground”—I have seen, first hand, a level of energy and commitment on the part of young teacher activists in New York that reminds me of my own experience in justice movements in the Sixties and early Seventies

And I this is only the beginning.

As the government of the United States has set upon a course of action, affirmed by both major parties,that will intensify the hardshipof America’s poor and drive millions of middle class people into the edge of poverty, the young people of this nation, I now am confident,will organize, will resist, and ultimately, over time, will change the course of American history so that sacrifice and hardship is no longer concentrated on our society’s most vulnerable people

Mark Naison
August 8, 2011

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Achievement Rap on YouTube from Save Our Schools March

Apparently, the "Achievement Rap" I performed at the Save Our Schools March in DC is being seized on by conservative commentators- the latest of which is Andrew Breitbart- as a symbol of everthing that's wrong with public education and teachers unions. Gee, all I did was say that Ed Reformers are poised to reap huge profits from testing and privitization Was I wrong?

.Notorious PhD. " The Achievement Rap"‏ - YouTube

If Floors Could Talk What Stories They Would Tell: The Fulbright Triptych and Memories of Brownsville

If Floors Could Talk, What Stories They Would Tell: The Fulbright Triptych and Memories of Brownsville

Mark Naison

After many false starts, I finally got to see my friend Simon Dinnersein’s extraordinary Fulbright Tripych at the German Consulate in Manhattan. Accompanying me was a former student who grew up in a working class family in Queens, spent four years in he Navy after graduating from Fordham and is now completing his doctorate at Cambridge (UK)

Both of us were completely blown away by this work. We stood there for over a half an hour marveling at each detail, from snippets of children’s art work to family portraits large and small, to passports, to window scenes of the German countryside to historic figures, to an incredibly realistic collection of artist’s instruments on a kitchen table that brought to mind, given the location of the exhibit, and the times we are living in, weapons used to torture prisoners of war or dissect victims of genocide- mixed images of Guantanamo and Buchenwald

But the single part of the Triptych that captured my imagination the most, and which also did so for my young friend, was the floor, a dark red tile underpinning for the painting that crossed all three panels. It was scuffled, raised, filled with what appeared to e thousands of small cracks, a floor for a working class household that had taken incredible punishment and like those who used it, somehow survived but were marked for life by those experiences. It was a floor that was familiar to both of us, and yet that we never expected to see in a work of art, and it made us feel at home enough with the Triptych to claim the painting, and the artist, as “one of our own.”

For me in particular, who has known Simon and his entire family for many years, and knows something of Simon and Renee’s upbringing in the Jewish working class neighborhood of Brownsville, the floor was a deeply personal message

It brought me back to the Sundays in my childhood when I visited my grandparents on my father’s side in a second floor apartment in a three story walkup on Hopkinson Avenue in Brownsville. My grandparents were immigrants from Poland who spoke little English, people who had escaped God knows what to come to America. My grandfather was a deeply religious, highly literate man who sold herring from a barrel on the streets of Brownsville until he was 90, but was a leader in his Orthodox shul and read Shakespeare in Yiddish, and my grandmother was a tiny woman, no more than 4’10” tall, who brought us tea and cookies with shaking hands and eyes filled with love.

Everything around them was shabby. The walls of the apartment, the seemingly ancient refrigerator and stove in their tiny kitchen, the glasses and dishes they brought food to us with, were old and worn down, yet there was a dignity about my grandparents that affected me even as a child, though I would never have been able to put those sentiments into words. These were people who had sacrificed everything so their children and grandchildren could have a better life and that experience had ennobled them while taking a powerful physical toll

And the floor that Simon had painted-that were the floors they walked on. The floor in their apartment. The floor in the hallways of their building, which they would soon leave for a Brownsville housing project- red tile, made brownish with wear and tear, ripped, scuffed, defaced, marked with the stains of food, and dirt, and urine and blood. Floors that had seen history made a thousand times in the lives of working class people whose history was rarely recorded. If floors could talk, what stories they could tell.

Well, Simon Dinnerstein allowed those floors to talk. To him, to me, to the thousands of people able to see the Triptych. As I see it, those floors could only have been painted by someone who not only who had walked floors like them, but had heard their message and incorporated them into the core of his being.

And in allowing those floors to speak, he affirmed the dignity of the people who walked on them, and in so doing, connected me to experiences that made me the person I am today, that helped inspire me with a love of learning, an identification with the poor and the oppressed, and the endurance to survive pain and hardship.

One final comment. It was Simon who looked at me during one of our tours of Brownsville, pointed at me and said “Bulyak.’- a Yiddish term, he explained, for men of unusual physical strength in a neighborhood where many men were small and thin- the men who carved up carcasses in neighborhood butcher shops, fought off Irish and Italian kids who sought to victimize their Jewish schoolmates, beat up strikebreakers in the garment district, and disposed of bodies for the mob.

No appellation has ever made me prouder- none ever touched more of a chord.

Simon, thank you for that, thank you for your friendship, thank you for your amazing art work and thank you for that floor, upon whose foundation I now stand, proud of all the people then and now who walked across it and invested it with their personal and collective histories

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Lessons of History and the Save Our Schools March

The Lessons of History and the Save Our Schools March
Mark Naison
Fordham University
The Save Our Schools Conference and March was the most inspiring single protest I have attended in the last thirty years. To see public school teachers from more than 40 states rally in defense of their maligned profession, and to hear the most important education scholars of our time tear apart the business/testing model driving education policy in the country, made me feel that I was part of a movement that was not only going to change school policies, but reinvigorate justice organizing in a nation that had lost its way.
At the “Activism” panel at the Save Our Schools Conference, I had an epiphany which I want to share, not only with education activists, but all people committed to progressive political change. And it had to do with how we should relate to initiatives such as Teach For America and charter schools, which began with a progressive mission, but now are deluged with corporate money and seem to be committed to the business/testing paradigm which encouraging privatization of public education and degrading the teaching profession.
And my epiphany was this. If historic circumstances have moved these initiatives to the right, different historical circumstances can move them back to the left. And it could happen pretty quickly. If the current debt ceiling deal goes through, working class and poor communities are going to suffer levels of hardship unseen in our lifetimes, making the prospect of schools, reformed or not, elevating people out of poverty seem improbable, if not absurd. Cuts in food support, housing grants, health care, youth recreation and college access grants, all part of the debt reduction formula, are going to have heart rending effects on students in working class communities, putting incredible pressure on every school and teacher in affected communities.
To think that Teach for America Corps members and charter school teachers and administrators will be permanently immune to the rapidly escalating pain and hardship of students and families they work with defies common sense. Many will start to rethink the business/testing model of pedagogy they have been exposed to; some will become justice fighters for the communities they are working in. And when that happens, progressives, whether in teachers unions or not, should be right there with them, encouraging them to participate in the broad struggle for democracy in America and to use their position as educators to do help organize beleaguered communities to rise up in protest and demand a fair share of the nation’s wealth.
And impossible dream? Not really. Something like this happened 70 years ago during the heyday of the industrial labor movement During the prosperous 1920’s, the nation’s largest corporations such as Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and US Steel, organized company unions and employee representation plans to prevent their workers from joining trade unions. The strategy was so successful that no one major industrial corporation was unionized when the Depression struck.
But Depression conditions, leading to 1/3 of the labor force unemployed, and 1/3 working part time when Franklin Roosevelt assumed the Presidency, produced a rapid change in working class attitudes. Organizers for industrial unions, largely ignored by workers during the 1920’s found workers receptive to their message in the three most important open shot industries- steel, automobile and electronics- and began to quietly infiltrate company unions. By the time
the CIO was founded in 1935, company unions in the automobile and electronics industry began to affiliate en masse with the new CIO unions, giving them an immediate base in the heart of America’s largest companies. The great sit down strikes in the automobile industry, which led to the unionization of US Steel and well as General Motors, would not have happened
had not company unions in the automobile industry become part of the CIO and the same dynamic occurred in the electrical industry, where both Westinghouse and General Electric ended being organized by CIO unions.
If company unions, supported by the most powerful and wealth corporations of that era, could move in a progressive direction in response to rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, there is no reason to assume that the same thing could not happen to charter schools and Teach for American in the coming years, as the American economy goes into free fall and working class communities experience unspeakable hardship.
Given this, it behooves us, a progressive organizers and justice fighters, to keep lines of communication open to people in these organizations and be there to work with them if they
join us in resistance to policies which concentrate economic sacrifice among America’s poor.
Anything less than this would be selling our movement short. To stop the political juggernaut moving this nation to the right, we need to mobilize the broadest coalition of activists and organizers, including people we may have sharply disagreed with in the past.
Mark Naison
August 2, 2011