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Choice as a Catalyst Starts with Public Relationships

Dear Deb and colleagues,

Last Friday you asked a question worth more extended discussion: "Is there a way that choice can be a catalyst for community organizing, not a distraction?"

Maybe we should use the term "civic organizing"? This is the phrase used by Katherine Charron in Freedom's Teacher to describe Septima Clark's decades of work to gain voice for black teachers and families in the segregated schools of South Carolina. Her organizing was background for the immense network of citizenship schools which formed the grassroots foundation of the freedom movement. Civic organizing is broader than community organizing. It also takes place in institutions like schools, colleges, and government. It is about our civic life.

Your description of the initial hope for charter schools suggests a starting point: "[The movement] brought progressive education into communities that had not otherwise known that it was an alternative possibility. It was a learning experience not only for parents and students but for the teachers and student teachers and all the others who came into our school communities."

It was, in other words, a democracy in education movement - bottom up, pluralist, an alternative to individualist, test-driven definitions of student success. And its starting point was building "public relationships," sustained human connections around the task of education. I'm reminded of what you learned was the task in your Central Park East school - teachers had to get beyond the idea that the pedagogies they learned in teacher education were more important than the relationships. Building productive relationships with families was the priority.

Private relationships may grow out of public relationships - or may not. In our youth civic education initiative Public Achievement I'm struck by how often young people say they gain from learning to work with kids who are not their buddies.  The community organizing network, the Industrial Areas Foundation, has translated the same point into the idea of a public world of diverse, often conflicted relationships, where one learns to build public relationships across radical differences of race, faith, partisanship, and economic background. They call this relational power.

As I argued in our conversation with David Randall, I'm convinced that relational power is greatly enriched and deepened by recalling and spreading the nonviolent principles and disciplines I learned in the freedom movement as a young man: don't humiliate, demonize, or seek to defeat opponents -- learn to understand them; practice "public love" toward one's enemies as well as one's friends; refrain from hating others who are violent or oppressive. Martin Luther King observed, "The nonviolent approach...first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect. It calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had." 

Charters have become highly competitive and standardized, as you said. They've lost their "mom and pop" quality. Vouchers strategies are another example of the loss of public relationships. When we worked in Milwaukee years ago to bring Public Achievement to the city, there were many supporters among voucher advocates who believed schools needed to be rooted in community life. Public Achievement was in public schools, charters, and parochial schools. Today voucher programs are promoted with customer language. And they fail, as Kevin Casey reported recently in the New York Times, "Dismal Results from Vouchers Surprise Researchers."

How do we rebuild - even re-imagine -- public relationships in education in a world where everything is privatized. "On-line education" is the new magic bullet. The "informational" has replaced the "relational." Professionals of all kinds - not only educators - have lost civic, relational identities.  They work on citizens, not with other citizens as citizens themselves through their work.

It's worth noting the spreading signs of hunger for relationships. Since the 1980s the number of adults who report loneliness has skyrocketed.  Social relationships and social networks have shrunk. Lena Derhally in the Huffington Post cites a study which found that young people, the most prolific social media networkers, are those who feel most alone. 

When I was at Oklahoma State University last week, I was struck by how much students expressed discontent with social media. "It makes us lazy," said one in a lunch with the leaders of minority student organizations on campus. "We create friends on Facebook and lose them in real life." Others pointed to other problems, like the ineffectiveness of making lasting social change mainly through social media, and the growth of cyberbullying.

Relational stories are the building blocks of catalyzing a democratic awakening. My nephew in Georgia is in a public elementary school called Camp Creek Elementary. It's a very community oriented school with many ways to involve parents and connect to the community. The grocery store nearby has a "Camp Creek" night. Parents can come inside the school anytime, without getting permission. And parents love the school. Almost half were actively involved in support of the school play.

On the larger scale, I'm impressed with the Coalition of Community Charter Schools you recently told me about. "We aspire to be great neighborhood schools of choice for the families we serve," reads their manifesto. "We embrace our diverse communities, which include immigrants, people of color, children with disabilities, the homeless, English language learners, people of all faiths, and the LGBTQ community." The Coalition looks outward to new collaborations with all kinds of schools. It promotes cultures of collaboration within schools. It has a commitment to being part of engaged communities, with a "robust process of community input."

I'd say we begin with public relationships. 

Harry

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