Sunday, April 12, 2015

Can Racist, Classicist & Clueless Organizing Models That Lie & Co-Opt Latino Voices Save Our 80% Latino School District From Receivership?

RADICAL: Arising from or going to the root source.   

What is transformative organizing?  

"Left wing or Transformative organizing is characterized by a militant opposition to racism, war, and the abuses of people who self-identify as revolutionary, radical, liberal, and progressive."  Eric Mann, The 7 Components of Transformative Organizing Theory.

On January 5, 2015 I attended a Reclaiming Our Schools press conference at Dean Technical High school co-sponsored by the Holyoke Teachers Association (HTA) and Western Mass Jobs For Justice (WMJWJ). The press conference was held to inform parents of their strategic vision however I (am a parent who has been (pro)active for three consecutive years yet) was never contacted by the HTA or WMJWJ. I learned of the press conference from Mathew Cunningham-Cook and Mekdes Ferguson, a young couple in their twenties. Mathew and Mekdes are new Holyoke residents who I met through my involvement in the Black Lives Matter grassroots protests back in December of 2014.

I attended the Reclaiming Our Schools press conference to advocate on behalf of parents and students who have been excluded from the State’s district review process and Superintendent Paez' Accelerated Improvement Plans. I spoke out against the racist curriculum the Superintendent is force-feeding my 10 year old daughter. A curriculum purposed to test-prep not teach. A curriculum which uses dishonest and disempowering English Language Arts (ELA) lesson plans about Christopher Columbus as a benevolent explorer to reinforce White supremacy and US imperialism at the expense of the truth which is that Columbus was a murder, liar and thief - who spread disease and shed the blood of our indigenous ancestors.

My daughter spoke up about our three year struggle with the lack of hands on, project-based learning, gym, music, art and almost nonexistent recess. She also denounced the lack of healthy and appealing lunch and breakfast options and testified about being served moldy meat. Rose Bookbinder, introduced herself as an organizer with WMJFJ. 

"I was hired to engage the Holyoke parent community to align them with the HTA's Reclaiming Our Schools vision for 'our' schools," announced Bookbinder.

"Who's vision?" Annie Rodriguez, shouted out from the crowd. 

 Ms. Rodriquez is an former HPS parent and current grandparent, grass roots social justice organizer and 'Undoing Racism' trainer. It was a blunt question. One which has proved crucial to our 80% Latino and Low income districts's unstable and depoliticized residence in Holyoke. 

Mrs. Bookbinder tripped over the question and clumsily replied "well, all of our vision." 

 In the three and a half years of going to school committee meetings and a hand full of "H" council meetings, I had never even heard of Rose Bookbinder. At the end of the press conference, about five of us huddled discussing our shear discontent at the obvious disconnect between these "organizers" and the 80% Latino parent community. Besides my daughter and I there were no other parents of color. 

Why weren't Latino residents, organizers and parents invited to speak at this press conference or even informed? We asked each other.

"Does anyone know of a good location to meet with parents?" 

Bookbinder asked cockily cutting into our circle in the privileged way White people feel entitled to invade our space.  

After the press conference about five of us POC organizers and allies got together at a 'Books n Coffee' spot.  I learned Rose Bookbinder was not a Holyoke parent, teacher and, that she lived in a hill town far out past Belchertown. Twenty two miles long, Holyoke is a considerably small town; it was clear Mrs. Bookbinder was clueless about Holyoke. 

On January 6, 2015 I attended American Friends Service Committee's "A People's Vision: Looking Beyond the 114 Congress" held at the First Churches in Northampton. This was an event which convened local grass roots organizers to highlight and discuss their work around various social, economic, labor and climate justice issues. Rose Bookbinder was present. This time she was wearing a different hat with WMJWJ.  Bookbinder presented a 'skit' for their worker center in Northampton. 

What struck me was that none of the actual "members" from the worker center where there to speak to their agency. Later that evening, I met Jon Weissman, Coalition Coordinator with WMJWJ. When I introduced myself as a Holyoke public school parent, resident and organizer he responded with a wide-eyed, stand-offish apprehension. I wasn't surprised or even paused. Just a few minutes prior, Barbara Madeloni, President of the MTA who was present had sized me up, in much the same way. 

Madeloni looked right through me when I told her "I find the current organizing model in Holyoke problematic. Embedding a "white saviour" into our community who is not associated with our community's struggle in any way further depoliticizes our community. And positions us as incapable of identifying the root causes of the systemic problems afflicting our communities. "I am a HPS parent and organizer and we are absolutely able to organize and bring change in our own communities", I told her. On January 8, 2015, I emailed Madeloni. 

Here is the email:

"I hope this email finds you well. I am glad we had the opportunity to meet at the People's Vision in Northampton. Congratulations on your new position with the MTA and your revitalization of the Foundation Budget Review Commission (FBRC); there are so many important issues that need to be heard. 

I will absolutely be present (with my daughter) to address the FBRC regarding our funding needs. Together with my daughter I hope to speak on the counter-productive effects of the current MA curriculum framework's mandate for more testing and assessment of our students and teachers via the MCAS. 

I will be posting an alert to my fb, twitter, google+ and blog to make a call to action for this Saturday's FBRC hearing in Noho. 

Lastly, I would like to address concerns I have around the MTA's current Organizing model in Holyoke. Leadership in our community is evident. I believe the MTA needs to be more mindful of engaging our community for leadership regarding community organizing as it relates to cultivating an alliance with the parents and students of color within the Puerto Rican and African American communities respectively."

Not only did Madeloni completely ignore my email, but, her organizer, Rose Bookbinder was not present at the Foundation Budget Review Commission public hearing to advocate for or with HPS parents.

I solicited Latina School Committee member Mildred Lefevbre to attend the Foundation Budget Review Commission Public Hearing together with Rise of Holyoke Schools (formerly Education Justice Holyoke) to support our testimony against the state’s systemic and historic underfunding and its threat to place our district in receivership. Lefevbre attended. We had a group of about 8 individuals comprised of Holyoke residents, youth, organizers, students and allies. 

Is it fair to say I should have received a call from someone at the MTA or HTA since they were supposedly trying to engage parents in their strategic vision for my child's education? Well, I did not.

Darlene Elias, a longtime Holyoke resident and one of the organizers of the first Holyoke Black Lives Matter protest) called me and rhetorically asked:

"Viviana, you're speaking at the 1st Reclaiming Our Schools meeting, right?"

"No? I was not invited to speak." I responded.

"Well, Gus (Morales, President of the HTA) asked me to speak but, I told him I thought you should speak, since you are an active HPS Latina parent. He didn't call you?" she asked sounding genuinely surprised.

"No," I replied.

And, I never did receive that call. On the 15th, when my ten year old and I I walked into the Holyoke High School cafeteria, I was not surprised to see we were two of the handful of Latinos. Coincidentally, Gus Morales was walking in my direction when I arrived and we ended up standing right next to each other.

"How come you haven't called me?" I asked.

"What?" Gus replied, wide-eyed; seemingly taken back by my blunt question.

"I'm an active Latina parent in this district representing 80% of the families in this district. Why wasn't I invited to speak on behalf of the parent community?" I reiterated.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I thought I called you but, I'm just so busy..." Gus offered.

"Will there be a public comment period?" ducking his slight.

"Uh, yes, but, look Viviana I am Union President of the HTA now; I work for them." Gus conceded looking towards the sea of white teachers."

On this blog I have denounced Superintendent Paez's complete lack of respect for parents and exposed his failing performance review by the HPS school committee where they admit he has not established good relations with the parents nor the teachers and, where I have called out Principal John Breish's racist practices.

"Viviana, believe me, I know we have a lot of problems but, tonight its not about that; its about stopping the receivership." Gus practically pleaded.

In other words, the HTA's Reclaiming Our Schools initiative strategic vision was not welcoming of speaking truth to power - that the HPS HTA is an overwhelmingly White Teachers Union, does not reflect the 80% Latino community it serves and that from its White privileged status looks down on the community it serves. I was being asked to shut up about it.

"Gus, I am very well aware and capable of respecting the agenda tonight which is to let the state know we oppose receivership." I assured him.

"Oh, okay...thank you.  You can speak before me, " Gus offered seeming very relieved.

I don't think I would have had an opportunity to speak that evening had I not "allayed his apprehensions." My daughter and I shared our Foundation Budget Review Commission hearing testimonies where we called out Commissioner of Education Mitchel Chester's racist and classicist targeting of low-income urban school districts for privatization.
The MTA's chosen parent organizers WMJWJ Jon Weissman and Rose Bookbinder were present yet I did not see hardly any parents. After Morales gave his "I bleed purple" speech Bookbinder took the podium and once again touted herself as the parent engagement organizer for the HTA's Reclaiming Our Schools initiative. At that point, it became very evident the MTA, HTA and WMJWJ had no intentions of proactively including the parent community much less allowing us to have a lead role in our own children's education.

The meeting agenda entailed presentations from key HTA union members, Morales and School Committee member Erin Brunelle a White woman who had a fit and stated "Don't speak Spanish!" when Morales spoke to me in Spanish in front of her. Last on the Agenda were 'break out' groups where parents and teachers were to collectively identify problems within the district and brainstorm action plans. There was just one minor issue getting in the way of this collective effort - almost absolute absence of parents. There were only a handful of parents and they were mostly White with literally 3 maybe 4 parents (including myself).

Those who were present were anxious to communicate with each other and vent their anger about not being informed sooner of the "Reclaiming Our Schools" meeting.

"I am very angry because I am just finding out about what is going on in our district," said one parent.

"I get a robo-call for silly things but, not for something as serious as a take-over of our district?" questioned another parent.

One Latina parent spoke no English and the organizers failed to have a translator at this meeting. Thankfully, the parent came with another bilingual parent and was able to obtain some translation. Parents at my table were frustrated because Bookbinder kept interrupting our 'break-out' discussions to make announcements which didn't pertain to the entire group.

At this meeting, my daughter along with Mathew Cunningham Cook and Mekdes Ferguson, two former members of Rise of Holyoke Schools (formerly Education Justice Holyoke) collected 50 names for a petition to oppose the State’s takeover of our schools and leveraged the opportunity by asking City Council President Kevin Jourdain who was in attendance to support the petition. Jourdain announced his support at the meeting and promised to present our petition to the whole City Council at the following CC meeting.

Why hadn't WMJWJ or the HTA thought of that? Did not the MTA hire Rose Bookbinder as the "official" Western Mass organizer for parent engagement in HPS?

Later that same evening, Rise of Holyoke Schools (EJH then) announced we would be canvassing two days later on Saturday Jan. 17th 2015 to execute parent engagement. Bookbinder asked if we would allow them to join us and we said "yes." I made the announcement to the entire HTA group that our parent of color/resident led group would be canvassing together with members of the HTA.

The night before Friday, Jan. 16th, Angie Thatcher (HTA Union member) and I stayed up til 1:00 am editing and translating the flyer we would use for our canvassing. That evening, I received a call from Rose informing me she would not be canvassing with us as she had already committed to attending a birthday party in Boston. Hmmm? Okay. So, in front of the "cameras" when the media is around Bookbinder is an organizer but, when its time to pound the pavement Boston birthday parties trump her obligation to the community she touts herself to? Negative. Its not going down like that.

Cunningham and Ferguson showed up at my house and the four of us (including my 10 year old) braved the almost negative frigid temperature to canvass. As we were leaving I saw a huge patch of ice in front of my neighbor's house. I tried to avoid it by stepping on the perimeter but, I slipped. Trying hard to steady my footing I locked my knees. I tore my right Anterior Crucial Ligament (ACL) and my meniscus. The pain was shocking and I screamed holding on to a dried up bush cutting my hands. I stood on one leg paralyzed by the pain. But, I had never had such a serious injury so, I thought I just pulled a muscle. I forced myself to squat and stand up straight.

"Let's go," I said. I had already given my word. More importantly, it was our idea to canvass; I couldn't not show up. So, I drove us down and I hopped around in the freezing cold on one leg canvassing Beaudain Village with my daughter, Dorothy Albretch, Andrea Enright, her parents, Mildred Lefebvre, her daughter, Cunningham and Ferguson. Together, we collected a contact list of about 150 names.

By the time I reached my home, I had a migraine, fever, a cold and I was nauseous. My right leg was about three times its size and completely immobile. The next day, I could not bare any weight on my right leg, at all. I stayed in bed all of Sunday. Monday I had someone drive me to my Chiropractor and when she checked my leg her jaw dropped.

"Viviana, I think you tore your ACL and if that's the case you will need surgery." She urged me to see my doctor that same day - on an emergency basis to request an MRI.
I was seen by a doctor the same day and was given a knee brace and crutches. The MRI did show I had torn my ACL and my Miniscus and would need surgery. 

Tuesday (Jan. 20th) I was at the School Committee meeting which was held at Dean Tech High School.  Again, no parents (of color) just active HTA Union members. My daughter and I testified against the receivership.  I was interviewed by Michelle Kingston of CBS3 Springfield News and I bolted out to attend a simultaneous City Council meeting where RHS petition to oppose a state takeover of our district was on the agenda. 

What does it mean to be an conscious organizer?  

Stay tuned for part II of: Can Racist, Classicist & Clueless Organizing Models That Lie & Co-Opt Latino Voices Save Our 80% Latino District?


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