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Recommendations for Anti-Racist Leadership and Policymaking: Taking the Lead from Community Organizers and Activists

There are sites of possibility and hope across the country where community leadership and activism is disrupting the neoliberal agendas of school closure, and also re-imagining schools as a space for the community. School community organizing and activism typically involves youth, public school parents, and community members leveraging their collective power to disrupt structures and policies that continue to underserve and deplete their schools and communities of resources and opportunities (Mediratta, Shah, & McAlister, 2008; Renee & McAlister, 2011; Welton & Freelon, 2018). We recommend that policy makers and school administrators take the lead from teachers, as well as students and parents of color in urban schools across the country who are engaging in anti-racist policymaking by using community organizing tools and practices.

One example is Reagan High School (RHS) in Austin, Texas, a school that had significantly declining student enrollment and low academic performance, and in 2009 was given an ultimatum by the state education agency to radically improve in a year or face closure (Brick, 2012). The school remained open due to the collective leadership efforts of the principal, committed teachers, and local community organizers who reimagined how to build an optimal learning environment for the success of young people in their community. Also, a community-based organization, Austin Voices for Education and Youth (AVEY) advocated for RHS to adopt a Community School model, where the school serves as a community hub of social and health sendees and other community supports (AVEY, 2016). RHS also adopted an Early College model that gives students more opportunities to graduate high school with college credit. Through shared leadership with the principal and community stakeholders who used assets-based approaches as a school reform alternative to punitive actions like schools closure, the high school’s graduation rate has doubled (Texas AFT, 2015). Terrance Green’s research also emphasizes the importance of community leadership to school reform in urban school communities. Similar to the work of community leaders at RHS, Green (2015) demonstrates how even after a community has experienced the loss of its school closing, with community leadership, voice, and input a high school can be re-opened and reimagined as a Community School. We see the school as the community nucleus approach to reform, unlike school closure, as asset-based and even an anti-racist approach that recognizes the community indeed has vital leadership and knowledge to offer the school (Green 2015).

In contrast, communities of color in Chicago have had to navigate the complicated neoliberal undercurrents and racial politics of the urban context, and to get the attention of policy makers in this political climate communities of color have had to engage in more extreme forms of activism. Stovall (2016) who is known for his ongoing scholar-activism and engagement with the Little Village and

North Lawndale communities in Chicago, has written extensively about how these communities came together for a three-week hunger strike to protest the desperate need for a new neighborhood high school. Another example that received national attention was Dyett High School in the South Side Chicago Bronzeville neighborhood, which was one of the 50 schools scheduled to close. In protest to the possibility of school closure, parents, teachers, and other community members staged a 34-day hunger strike, that resulted in the hospitalization of several protestors (Fitzpartrick, 2015). Although the school remained opened in the end, the parent organizers’ felt that their voices were not taken seriously by the mayor and other school district officials. For instance, even after their organizing efforts the parent strikers were left out of planning discussions for re-opening the school (Masterson, 2016). The community members, as part of a district-initiated request for proposals (RFP), submitted a proposal to the district to re-open the school as a global leadership and green technology academy. Then at a press conference CPS announced it would re-open Dyett High as an arts-focused school instead, and parent strikers reported they were barred from entering this press conference (Ewing, 2015).

We have provided examples of the hopes and possibilities, but also the realities of the perils communities of color must endure when navigating the neoliberal agendas and racial politics of their schools and districts. Examples of parents-of-color activism like that in Chicago are what David Stovall (2016) calls a necessary interruption to erupt and disrupt racist business-as-usual practices of schooling and policymaking. But we do find it troubling the lengths that communities of color had to go to just to be heard and possibly get a seat at the policymaking table. Therefore, the problem does not lie with the communities of color who are engaging in heroic forms of activism, but with the district officials and policy makers who fail to truly listen.

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