January 22nd to the 26th has been dubbed School Choice Week. In 2018 the #WeChoose National Coalition seeks to take the narrative back and proclaim that #WeChoose Public Education, NOT the illusion of choice. During the week of January 22nd, the #WeChoose National Coalition has held activities to show that #WeChoose stands for education, social, and racial justice. On Thursday, January 25th education bloggers sat down with the national director of The Journey for Justice Alliance Jitu Brown for a conversation about the #WeChoose National Coalition and its mission.
Jitu Brown is, first and foremost, a public school parent from the South Side of Chicago. He has also been a community organizer for over 25 years. Jitu explains the #WeChoose Coalition as a coalition that “understands that there are more of us in this country that wants a just society.” The #WeChoose National Coalition is a grassroots coalition made up of over 1200 local organizations nationwide. Jitu explains regarding the formation of #WeChoose, “We can’t do this alone. How do we build a multi-racial coalition without people of color having to shrink? We want unity rooted in self-determination; rooted in what works and benefits all of our children.”
The #WeChoose National Coalition gained steam with the nomination of Betsy DeVos. The coalition sent millions of letters, made millions of phone calls and sent two busses of parents to DC for her nomination hearing. What that led to is a historic vote by the Vice President for the nomination of the Secretary of Education. A tie-breaking vote by the Vice President to appoint a Secretary of Education had never been done before. Jitu noted, “This renewed belief that we can work together. Journey for Justice Alliance, Alliance for Education Justice, The Badass Teachers Association, The Network for Public Education, the national unions, the NAACP, Dignity in Schools Coalition, Moms Rising, multiple state networks, AQE NY, and the Advancement Project all united around a platform that is inclusive of what we are all working on.”
The #WeChoose National Coalition was born! The #WeChoose education platform is rooted in seven pillars -Teachers of color in the classroom, ending standardized testing, sustainable community schools, ending appointed school board, Moratorium on School Privatization, End Zero Tolerance Policies in Public Schools NOW, and a national equity assessment.
As Jitu noted, “Our goal is to unite in our local cities and rooted in self-determination. Our charge is to nationalize and support those local fights.”
That local fight resulted in Critical Conversations, which were held in town hall style, in over 35 different cities last year. In Pittsburgh community members wanted to stop the suspension of k-2 children. The Pittsburgh community won this fight. In Newark community members demanded a return to local control. The Newark community won this battle. “We need to make local officials terrified of selling us out. I have been dealing with school closings since 1997. They don’t care. School choice is a hoax,” Jitu noted in the interview.
Brown shared the fact that in the Englewood area of Chicago all five high schools are going to be closed. The premise behind the school privatization movement is the removal of black and brown community members from urban spaces. Brown noted that this is directly related to housing, loss of access to food stores, and a policy of gentrifying urban spaces. The population of people of color has gone from 53% to 32% in Chicago, but this is not only true for Chicago, but it is also happening all over the country. Jitu noted, “Families of African descent have been purged. We cannot ignore the disease, and that is the elimination of people of color from these spaces and whites being given the space.The greatest thing about this coalition is that I can talk about it in this space across racial lines. It is not about minimizing anyone.”
Brown laid out that the goal of the #WeChoose Coalition is to mobilize in 50-60 cities. The coalition is working towards making sure that children have the resources that they need to become whole. Brown noted that would include after-school programs, counselors, and parental involvement.
Karen Wolfe, a blogger, and founder of PS Connect had the first question for Jitu Brown. She wanted to understand the history of the Chicago Hunger Strike that Jitu was involved in to keep Dyett High School open in 2015.
Jitu detailed the history of Dyett and the community effort to elevate the school to a powerhouse. Brown noted that Chicago had elected school councils. Jitu sat on the local school council with Dyett for ten years. He noted that he saw public school sabotage in action. At the time he was on the council, Englewood closed in 2006, and the children were sent to other schools. The climate at Dyett exploded. The community needed to bring in resources for the school to function. The council brought in restorative justice programs and student leadership programs. In 2 years Dyett had the most significant increase of students going to college and the largest decrease in students going to prison. According to Brown, the district took Dyett’s resources and slashed their budget. In 2011 Dyett won the ESPN Rise Up Award to revitalize athletic facilities, but the school was still slated to close. Organizers began to engage the parents and the community. As organizers began to develop a plan around what schools should look like, they began to gather support. Town Halls were held, letters and petitions were sent to the Chicago Public School Board. Brown pointed out that the community had developed a proposal of a K-12 system of education in the neighborhood that would be a high school with six feeders and leadership throughout. The district was, however, still determined to close the school and replace it with the Obama Presidential Center. Brown states, “We saw the bigger picture of gentrification. We began talking to parents from Little Village – another community that had a hunger strike previously. They became our mentors and told us what to expect; what the consequences could be. August 17, 2015, our hunger strike was launched, and it lasted 34 days. We did not win the school back with the name, but a lot of what we wanted is in place in the school. We have a youth farm and culturally relevant curriculum. There is a monument that was just erected in the school about the hunger strike.” Brown finished the story with the fact that the strikers had two goals: an open enrollment neighborhood high school and global green technology implemented. In the end, this was the first time that a closed school was reopened as a neighborhood community school. Brown ended with information that there will be a video coming with Chicago grandmother Irene Robinson called Kings and Queens that will chronicle what many families of color are facing, and have encountered, under Rahm Emanuel.
Next NY Blogger Jake Jacobs asked Jitu Brown how is #WeChoose getting the message out?
Jake noted that we have been shunned out of mainstream news outlets. Brown responded, “We have to push the left to the left, and we have to redefine what it means to be progressive. Neoliberal has captured that mantle and lowered the bar. We have a true alliance. I know that if I get arrested, they will get me. Because I have that confidence, I am more confident as an organizer.” Brown pointed out that the #WeChoose National Coalition has built the infrastructure to get the message out. There is a communications committee and a policy committee. He noted that the coalition has calls every Monday night. He pointed out that we are up against well-monied organizations that have fake parents groups and recycle their proposals and work to each other. Brown discussed how the #WeChoose National Coalition had harnessed the power of social media. Brown says, “We have been able to trend on social media – get our message out there. Been able to recruit people. One of the things that I have learned is that oppressive societies work to isolate you. There is something wrong with you to want to be treated with respect. There is power in knowing that you are not alone.”
The #WeChoose National Coalition had their first national critical conversation in December in Washington D.C., and it was hosted by former MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris-Perry. The campaign also trended a few times on social media and had over 100k views on facebook live programming. The next national critical conversation will be in Detroit on February 13th. Brown was asked how people can become a part of the coalition? Anyone who wants to join the coalition can reach out to national organizer Ronsha Dickerson at firstname.lastname@example.org, or they can sign up at The Journey for Justice Alliance website at www.j4jalliance.com
As we wrapped up the evening Jitu Brown, one of the nations most potent organizers, had some enlightening words for all – “The privatizers are trying to throw charter parents at us. I had a conversation with one of them. I told her I am not your enemy. The traditional system has not always been accountable. We need to adopt measures that give us more voice, not less voice.”
Brown went on to say, “I know that teachers are concerned about what is happening in our schools. Who are these bankers and why are they concerned about my school. Isolation is defeat. Privatizers are not reformers. They are colonizers and settlers. We do not negotiate with our executioner. We need to kill the privatization movement. We have worked in silos and adopted the values of our oppressors. You want a seat at the table, but you are on the menu too. We have more in common with each other than any of us do with our oppressors. People will vote against their interest with hatred that they learned centuries ago – but we need to be different. We cannot adopt the language of our oppressors. We don’t have failing schools, we have been failed.”
“Inspire a demand for community-driven school improvement. Create a space where people get inspired because they are involved in creating what they want in their communities. Seek unity in folks that share our concerns and not just see the focus of education – the issues are all interrelated, planet justice, affordable housing, police accountability. What does every person have a right to in their life? Healthcare, quality education, local control over institutions of economic development,” Brown noted.
In his closing words of advice, Jitu Brown noted that organizers must have, “Humility – there is something greater than you. All people have something to offer; Listening – listen to each other and hear each other. It is about what they think and what they have experienced; Validation – each other’s pain and stories; Consistency – we can’t do this sometime. We are on the battlefield, and this is where we need to be. What will this country look like in 20 years? In 50 years? I firmly believe that we are a part of that story. Victories can be small – but every victory is important when you are trying to build.”