Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The long drive home

Am I getting too old for these long road trips? I hope not. I just need more time to recover, that's all. I left Occupy the DOE yesterday to get back to work and family business. We drove straight back to Chicago in 12 hours. Lots of time to witness spring's colorful rebirth, listen to some great music and contemplate life in America's heartland.

But what you don't see out the car window is the bubbling up of anger and frustration people in small towns and big cities over their steadily worsening economic conditions and their accompanying feelings of political powerlessness. The latter is driven by the steady erosion and selling off of public space and with it, public decision-making. Which political force will capture this anger and how will it express itself in the upcoming elections is anybody's guess.

Occupy DOE organizer Morna McDermott
Occupy the DOE was part of a young but growing movement to change all that. Taking part left me feeling at once elated, encouraged, and frustrated--elated as I always am when I get to spend time in the company of good people. The United Opt-Out organizers, like Morna McDermott McNulty, Laurie Murphy, Peggy Robertson, Tim Slekar and Ceresta Smith, pulled this 4-day event together on a shoestring, right outside Arne Duncan's window. They are among those good people who see clearly the damaging effects on schools and children of standardized testing and current corporate-reform policies and are willing to do something about it.

I was encouraged by the strength of the presentations and speeches by some of the best scholars and education activists in the country --Stephen Krashen, Ira Shor, Linda Nathan, Ann O’Halloran, Ruth Rodriguez-Fay, Mark Naison, David Greene,  Jesse "Walking Man" Turner, Jim Horn, Brian Jones ... the list goes on and on. This was a nothing less than an engaging and powerful  four-day course, in a small school, taught by great teachers, all about the struggle for democratic education in America. I hope these presentations will be made widely available in the months ahead.

I heard that yesterday, after I left, Duncan invited a small group of organizers inside the DOE for a meeting and am eagerly awaiting to hear what they discussed and what kind of response the meeting generated.

Like most of the participants I spoke with, I was frustrated at the miniscule turnout which could be measured in dozens, not hundreds or thousands. I felt the same way after our SOS March and Rally last summer which drew a few thousand teachers instead of the tens of thousands I had hoped for. Similar feelings of frustration are expressed in David Greene's post, "Where have all the teachers gone?" But rather than blame teachers for being no-shows, I would rather that we organizers and activists focus on our strategies. Teachers, parents and students mobilize through their unions and existing community-based organizations. Without their active participation, no national action is going to be very large or attract much media coverage.

The core of this Opt-Out movement is strong. But its base is still narrow. Could it have something to do with the group's limited focus? Could outreach and publicity have been better? I don't know. But it raises all kinds of strategic and tactical questions for me, especially with our own SOS Convention coming up in August.

One thing I know:  there is massive opposition building to corporate school reform policies and to the standardized testing madness. I saw the depth and breadth of this base in the Wisconsin protests and the anti-Walker recall movement (elections are today) and the beating back the attacks on unions and teacher's collective-bargaining rights with SB 5 in Ohio and the Parent Trigger law in Florida. Here in Chicago, there is a broad-based community movement building against school closings and turnarounds led by a militant teachers union.

But the fact is, we are still on the strategic defensive while our opponents not only control federal and local policy but have tons of private corporation and foundation money behind them. Joanne Barkan's excellent piece in Dissent gives us a good picture of what we are up against.

My hope is that Occupy the DOE will be the start of something great and powerful and that it will generate some thoughtful dialogue in coming weeks, within the movement, about tactics and strategy.


  1. Great post, Mike. I hope this starts some badly-needed debate. I thought it was wrong to call this, "Occupy" in the first place. It was misleading. That's what kept me and some of my fellow D.C. teachers away.

    1. So a disagreement with the name kept D.C. teachers from fighting for public education? Wow. There probably could have been a better name for it, but the facts that the 1% is controlling what is taught to the 99% and that the same ideology that screwed up our financial and health care systems make it relative to the larger occupy movement. Do DC teachers disagree with what the actual occupiers stand for? I hope not.

    2. Anonymous,

      I didn't say that the name "kept D.C. teachers from fighting for public education." I only said it discouraged me and a few of my fellow teachers away. I am guessing that 90% of D.C. teachers had (have) no idea that the event was even taking place. I hope you realize that many of us who didn't take part in Occupy the DOe are still fighting for public education.

    3. I do and I respect you for that. Just being a teacher in today's education climate means you are a fighter. I just thought it was sad that we had no solidarity, which is the only way we will win. It was a great event and maybe the name wasn't that accurate, but to be discouraged to participate because of it just seems odd to me. I'm not even a teacher, but I was there fighting for you and your students as well as public education as were people from as far away as California and Florida. Somehow, they knew about it. That being said, thank you for being a teacher.

  2. It was a worthy effort, and now maybe a teachable moment. It's so important for organizers of events that hope to turn out a lot of people to lay the groundwork by getting buy-in from the very beginning through shared leadership with groups that have a turn-out capacity. Not everyone can do that, and the internet can't replace old-fashioned relationship building for turnout.

  3. Thanks, OPT OUT organizers for leading the way. As Margaret Mead said: "“Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

  4. No, Dorie.
    The problem wasn't calling it an Occupy. The problem was calling it that and then not really occupying the DOE.

  5. It was a fantastic weekend packed with fantastic speakers. It is sad that so few came out. We should all learn from this experience and identify the causes of the low turn-out. We should now focus on the Save Our Schools march on August 3. We must get the word out to every organization that can mobilize people and THAT... MEANS... UNIONS! We have to look to what they did in Wisconsin. Without the unions, we won't get the number of people we need. And we need tens of thousands.

  6. I wasn't too discouraged by the small numbers. Every great movement in this country started with a handful of great people. Good to see you there Mike!

  7. Thanks Mike. I am currently going full steam ahead in getting pictures posted and promoting this as a warm-up to the SOS event this summer. A Rebel like me has many ways to generate publicity...Pam

  8. Dorie - Such a shame that the word occupy kept you away. We made history by being the first occupation to occur legally. We had permits for everything and made that quite clear on our website. We called it occupy because it was an occupation - we occupied the Department of Education for four days - and we identify with the 99%. We all owe a lot to Occupy Wall Street for leading the way. Such a shame that I met only two D.C. teachers at an occupation in their own home town. We should have had thousands - and we did everything we could to let D.C. teachers know we were coming. But we won't be deterred. We'll continue. And we will occupy again. Would love to meet you next time Dori. In solidarity, Peggy Robertson, one of the organizers of Occupy the DOE in DC. www.unitedoptout.com, www.pegwithpen.com

  9. Dov - Regarding unions - just a heads up - we contacted every single person on the staff of the D.C. Teachers Union. Guess what we heard? Crickets.

  10. Wow! Did Peggy really say that this was "the first occupation to occur legally?" Since Peggy is an educator, I assume she knows that the right to peacefully assemble and "petition the Government for a redress of grievances" is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

    Peggy's anti-testing group is certainly within it's rights to ask Arne Duncan for a permit to sit outside in his DOE courtyard for a few afternoons. And they probably needed a permit to use a bullhorn (why speakers needed a bullhorn is beyond me).

    But there's no need to imply that the tens of thousands of citizens who occupied Wall Street, and whose name they expropriated, were breaking the law.

  11. Anonymous,
    Please be aware that with the recently passed legislation re: the LEGAL arrest of anyone seen as a threat to "national security" it was fully necessary to gain permits to "occupy" or be at any site where someone with Secret Service protection is located. Thus, the permits were necessary to make this occupation 'legal' from the standpoint that none of us really thought a point could be made with swift arrests and an unknown length of detention. The "police" were there to protect the occupiers as well. So, because the organizers covered all their bases and had all their permits in place does not in any way diminish the event!
    Also, I'm with Shaun Johnson on this one: stop the pity party teachers!! (yes, I am a teacher) There were folks like Mike who drove 12 hours to be there, folks like me who rode overnight on a bus to be there and yet, the thousands of teachers that were only a short Metro ride away did not feel compelled to be there. No more saying "woe is us" - we MUST take back public education and if the fact that this event was planned with the necessary permits kept anyone away, then shame on them!
    What about SOS last summer? Again, a short Metro ride for thousands, but local area (DC METRO AREA) teachers were outnumbered by people who traveled hundreds and thousands of miles to be there!
    I would politely suggest that unless you were there .... you probably shouldn't criticize how it was organized and pulled off. There were NO corporate sponsors, NO national teaching union endorsements or money..........just a group of people who were there to say STOP THE CHILD ABUSE THAT IS EXCESSIVE TESTING!!
    I am PROUD to say that I was there, and I couldn't be happier that I went. I am now more informed, more energized, and even more determined to stop the madness!!

  12. Mike, the strategies needed to create a surge of people to stand up against corporate school reform policies and standardized testing madness must include a greater presence in the public eye. For example, we need to get behind SOS Steering Committee member Jesse Turner's idea to produce a 28-minute video to post on YouTube. As a participant @ Occupy the DOE, I returned to Rochester, NY with a greater sense of urgency about the upcoming SOS Education Convention. Developing the "PEOPLE'S PLATFORM for PUBLIC EDUCATION" could provide the catalyst for greater involvement by educators.

  13. Anonymous - You can infer whatever you like. I am well aware of the right to peacefully assemble - it's unfortunate that our own government no longer respects this right - our rights are being taken away from us with rapid pace. We "legally" occupied because teachers currently live in fear of losing their jobs due to the mandates inflicted upon them by Duncan et al. and many don't believe their right to peacefully assemble or petition the gov't for a redress of grievances will be respected. We had teachers who came in disguise due to the fear of being recognized in their own home towns. And it was indeed a powerful group - thank you to everyone that attended. The speakers - including Mike Klonsky himself - spoke the truth - and we will share it far and wide thanks to Vincent Precht at www.livestream.com/califather. As Jim Horn said to me on the last day - this is just the beginning.

  14. Well, this is a real problem. Instead of solidarity, we have division, which is the best thing for the corporate reformers. I am absolutely beside myself that people are criticizing the organizers of this event, mostly over semantics. I guess it goes both ways, but the organizers worked very hard with little to no resources and did the best they could do. They are amazing people and I was truly inspired by meeting them. Come together people or we will lose what is the most pressing social justice battle of our time!!!

  15. Nobody is attacking the organizers personally. In fact, there has been nothing but praise for them. I think these discussions are good and necessary for the growth of our movement. We can disagree with each other about tactics and still come together.

    Leaders aren't infallible. It looks so far like there is consensus here that the event was good (some say great) but that the small size has some concerned. I myself am not so worried about the small size. But I can see how some might be concerned.

    Let's not stifle debate and discussion. Thanks Mike for opening up your blog. And thanks Peggy and other organizers for engaging.

  16. Check it out folks - every day - a new sign of hope - let's keep the momentum going.


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