Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cairo, Madison and the Nature of Grassroots Democracy

Tunisia … Cairo … Jordan … Iran… Bahrain … and now Madison, Wisconsin. Something is happening around the globe in this age of instant telecommunication – there is an outbreak of democracy the likes of which have not been seen in a long time. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker won last November’s election by 52% to 46%, got his party’s majority in both houses and so felt he had a “mandate” to do whatever he liked to balance his state’s budget, but he overplayed his hand when he sought to take away the bargaining rights of unionized state workers. In so doing he sought to eliminate the rights of state employees to have a voice in determining their own economic future. The people reacted strong and loud. What was at stake is the meaning of democracy, as Lincoln said, government of, for and by the people.

Walker stands in a long line of leaders going back to the Founding Fathers and even Plato, the author democracy, who only believed in a limited kind of democracy. Their view of democracy says: “We’ll give you a chance to vote every 2, 4, or 6 years from a limited list of candidates that we will provide you. Then we’ll open up the doors to folks with money – namely the wealthy and the corporations – to finance this electoral show, a winner will be announced, and you good people just trust us until the next election.” However, something changed. First, the Tea Party folks said – wait a minute, we have a voice that needs to be heard. Now while I realize that some of the Tea Party moves were orchestrated by conservative corporate interests and big media, and I don’t agree with much of their politics, there were lots of normal folks who just were not willing to sit back and wait for two more years. Now finally, the progressive grassroots has awakened and the message that is coming out of Madison is “we want a seat at the table too; we will not be rendered voiceless and powerless.”

The Bradley Foundation, the major supporter of Scott Walker’s gubernatorial campaign states that its mission in part is “committed to preserving and defending the tradition of free representative government and private enterprise that has enabled the American nation and, in a larger sense, the entire Western world to flourish intellectually and economically.” They go onto say that what that commitment means is to “support limited, competent government; a dynamic marketplace for economic, intellectual, and cultural activity; and a vigorous defense, at home and abroad, of American ideas and institutions.”  Sounds well and good, so why support an effort to take away one of those rights, the right to advocate for oneself and one’s interests? Could it be those vaunted “American ideas” are only applicable to the select few who have the money and power to influence decision makers?

The Koch brothers, other major funders of Walker’s campaign and major donors to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, are not interested in what works for the average person, but rather removing all restrictions and guidelines to those who seek economic gains in the name of unbridled capitalism. Why else would Walker opt not to tax the wealthy or the corporations but instead demand the union give back benefits, and give up bargaining rights? The Koch brothers want democracy in the sense that limits the benefits to them and others of their ilk.

The response to this kind of doublespeak and hypocrisy is long overdue. The challenge to the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots in this country has been slowly emerging. The poor have completely dropped out of the conversation, but now the assault has come on the middle and working class folks, and they are better organized than the poor. The middle class working folks are earning less and being asked to give up more, while the wealthy and the corporations continue to get favored status. Something had to give … maybe it has started to do so.

The challenge going forward is not simply to protest on capitol steps or march on Washington, but rather to build a kind of process where folks gather to discuss issues and concerns in coffee shops, town hall meetings, Facebook pages and blogs. It will require that progressives to talk with Tea Party folks and the working poor interact with CEOs, where shouting and chants can be transformed to listening and true dialogue. Sounds ideal but the folks with the power – the corporate leaders, the wealthy political donors, the huge lobbying organizations – are not going to be easily persuaded to let go of their privileged positions in the shadows and come out for an honest, open forum. There is still much work to be done do to force them into the light, before these conversations can happen. The issue is not about Republicans or Democrats, because both parties are active players in the rigged game. It goes beyond the choices we have been publicly presented to those who are pulling the strings from behind. For in the end the real enemy of grassroots democracy are not the political front men like Scott Walker, but the economic interests he and most politicians serve. Revealing and challenging that enemy will require research, analysis and dogged perseverance.

Just as countries such as Egypt must build an entirely new political infrastructure, so too we in the United States are only at the beginning of building a new understanding of what democracy means and how it works. This view of democracy is radically different than what has been practiced recently in this country. It is radical because it takes the onus out of the state houses and into the communities. It is radical because it challenges us to be informed and active. It is radical because it challenges the economic policies and structures that have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to which most Americans have become all too accustomed, and to which they have resigned themselves.

Frankly, I don’t know what to expect in the months and years ahead. I hold a cautious optimism that people can wake from their blind political stupor, and let the Scott Walkers of the country, and even more so those funding his campaign, know that the game has changed, and that democracy as we have known it is in fact becoming more democratic.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Process and Promise at West Philadelphia High School

We tend to think dictatorships only exist in places like Tunisia and Egypt, and when the masses rise up and force the dictators out, we consider that to be a good thing. Well, there is a dictatorship in Philadelphia that is facing an uprising of its own, and as far as I am concerned, it is about time. I am referring to the Philadelphia School District (PSD) and series of community responses to the Superintendent’s newest round of proposed reforms.

On Monday, February 7 I attended a public meeting at West Philadelphia High School (WPHS), which had just been designated a“Promise Academy”  by PSD Superintendent Arlene Ackerman the week before. Two members from the district gave a brief presentation and then the floor was open for questions and feedback. The Promise Academy program is a series of reforms designed to improve the quality of education in failing schools. The reforms include a longer school day, more enrichment program, uniforms, Saturday school and a summer program. The key to success is the hiring of a new principal with a “proven track record of turning around failing schools”  and the requirement that all teachers re-apply for their positions in the school with only a maximum of 50% being hired back for the next year. The goal is to “change the culture of the school” and to create an atmosphere of achievement and success.

Sounds great – who can challenge such a plan? No one at the meeting denied that WPHS is a school in trouble that fails to adequately educate its students. Nonetheless, many challenges were raised to the proposal not about the desire to improve the school, but over the way PSD has disregarded the input of the West Philadelphia High School community for several years. The objections were not over the promise of a renewed school, but over the way the decision-making process was handled.

A year ago the Superintendent had announced that WPHS would become a Renaissance Academy, one of four versions of PSD’s reforms. The difference is that in the Renaissance Academy the school is paired with an outside provider, whereas the Promise Academy was run directly out of the district office. Both models have the same essential goal: turnaround a failing school. A year ago the school had a popular principal, Saliyah Cruz, who had led the school through a dramatic culture change. Discipline issues had dramatically decreased, a restorative practices model of discipline had been instituted, and 9th grade test scores and attendance had begun to show marked improvement. Students and teachers expressed great hopefulness for the future of the school as it looked move into a new building in 2011. John Hopkins University had consulted with the school and University of Pennsylvania was actively involved in the school. John Hopkins had applied to be the Renaissance partner. So the local community group of which I was a part, the WPHS Community Partners, recommended that WPHS be partnered with Johns Hopkins. This request was ecohed by a School Advisory Council made of up parents and community members. Despite her calls for community input, Superintendent Ackerman went directly against the community desires; the principal and 40% of the teachers were transferred from the school and John Hopkins’ application was rejected. A caretaker principal was installed ( the first of three this year) and the school unraveled, violent incidents increased and morale plummeted.

This year when the idea of the school becoming a Promise Academy was proposed, the School Advisory Council, the local community group for the school again asked to be a Renaissance Academy (that is being paired with an outside provider), and again despite the request for community input, that input was ignored. These were the issues being raised by the group that Monday night. Three-quarters of the comments had to do with process, and the districts continued dictatorial ways. Parents wanted assurance that there would be a commitment to real change. Community members raised questions about PSD’s commitment to working with the community and parents, given their actions in the past. Several folks raised concern about the fact that after a 40% teacher turnover last year, why did there have to be a 50% turnover this year. Others wondered where this miracle-working “turnaround principal” was going to be found and whether the community group would have any input in selecting that person (the answer was “no”).

While the meeting was civil, there was a great deal of frustration. Thus, it was not surprising that at 1 pm the following Friday (Feb 11) approximately 100 students walked out of school in protest of the fact that their concerns were not being addressed or even respected. Moreover, they objected to the fact that there was an atmosphere of repression in the school for teachers and students who spoke out against the process. All the while thousands of people were protesting in Egypt about a repressive dictator and demanding that their voices be heard.

I would have thought that this experience was unique to WPHS given its unique history with the district, until I read that a very similar reaction was being voiced in South Philadelphia, where the Audenried High School was being told they were to become part of a “Promise Neighborhood Partnership” (following the model of the Harlem Children’s Zone developed by Geoffrey Canada and promoted by the Obama administration). From the reports the crowd reaction was much more vitriolic than at WPHS and police had to be brought into restore order. Parent, students and community members were asking for data on why their school was being taken over and saying that there had been no opportunity for their concerns to be heard. So apparently the process was similar as to that in West Philly.

In a time when urban schools are failing to provide an adequate education, there is no question that change must come. However, so often school officials want to find a quick fix. The Promise Academy promises an infusion of resources, but in a time when PSD must trim its budget by $400-500 million, how long will this infusion of resources last? In a time when a Republican governor favors school vouchers over equalizing the playing field between urban and suburban school districts, how long until the money for the Promise Academy is diverted? In an environment where parents and community members are asked to give input, and then that input is categorically ignored and when a principal was initiating genuine cultural reform and then was removed, when committed teachers who have chosen to work in a difficult environment are told they are not measuring up, and when students must contend with a revolving door of principals and teachers, isn’t it just possible that Superintendent Ackerman should listen to their concerns, and truly engage the community in the process?

There is no doubt that Superintendent Ackerman is a reformer facing a difficult job of transforming a troubled school system in a time of acrimony and declining resources. However, as educator Paulo Freire warned in his classic work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that if they do not honestly work in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized people they are seeking to help, they will become as dictatorial and oppressive as the leaders they sought to replace. Authentic social change comes when reformist leaders work honestly with the oppressed, rather than simply seeking to do things to and for them, and then expecting them to go along. Promises are not enough; following an appropriate process bring meaningful and lasting change.

The mild “uprisings” in West Philadelphia and South Philadelphia are a sign that people in those communities care about education and their kids and they want an authentic seat at the table. They don’t want to be pawns in quick fixes or faddish educational ideas. More than anyone, they know that the future of precious lives are at stake, because those lives are either theirs (students) or the lives of people about whom they deeply care (parents and community members). While the uprisings don’t need to lead to the ouster of a leader as in Egypt, but they are a sign that PSD can’t just make promises of some miracle transformation, they need to involve the people they claim to serve in the process of leading that transformation.

*** Photos used permission of the Notebook (

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Letter to My Congressman re: Health Care

NOTE: I received an email from my new Republican representative, Patrick Meehan, about his support of his party's efforts to repeal the Health Care Reform bill passed last year under the guidance of Pres. Obama. His rationale was basically that the bill as it stands is too costly, directs "unfunded mandates," to the states and was passed through "closed door" deals (welcome to Washington Congressman! As if your party never did anything like that!) - the same tired arguments that have been all along

What follows is my email response. I share it as an example of how we need to keep the pressure on to maintain the modest gains that have been made in the last two years in providing justice for the poor in our midst.


Rep Meehan,

I received your message regarding your participation in the effort to repeal the current health care reform bill. I am writing to strongly urge you NOT TO CONTINUE SEEKING REPEAL of the bill. Nearly 50,000 people are without adequate health care insurance in this country, and the actions of those seeking repeal is both cruel and misguided. The bill as passed did not go far enough in providing the necessary supports to the needy and controls on the health insurance companies. If there are ways to improve the current bill by tightening controls and easing access, then work on those. However, to simply reject the bill because of costs is duplicitous and hypocritical, when your party has (1) refused to tax wealthiest Americans and (2) refused to curb military spending (in this instance you share responsibility with the Democrats). It is neither prudent nor just to cut services to the most vulnerable Americans, when you refuse to do it to those who are most economically secure. Such actions only show you are beholden to the corporate powers and you fail to think outside of the "lockstep" directives of your party. Your role as a representative is not to oppose the president in order to score political points, but rather to serve the needs of the people, no matter what your political bosses tell you do.

Rep Sestak who preceded you was no "flaming liberal" (no matter how your party tried to portray him), but he laced his politics with compassion. This is something I hope and expect that you will continue.


Darrell Boyd
Broomall, PA