Newark, not unlike other urban centers in our present moment, is in the midst of incessant change across many areas. However, education reform seems to be taking center stage. For example, some warn that the education reform agenda and community engagement initiative (PENewark) steered by Mayor Booker’s office will bring about a disastrous end, while others who support and applaud the efforts are fueled by the hope that a city-wide conversation will spark the construction of a world-class educational system in Newark. Indeed, there have been vitriolic disagreements between citizens…standoffs between organizers…finger pointing, blaming, debasing and public shaming all in the name of education reform. Visions are spoken of and strategies imagined, but how might they be actualized in the midst of snappish tension? Change is used as a rhetorical strategy, but how can change be made real unless the boundaries that turn friends into enemies are demolished? It seems, at least to us, that the ends (broader visions) often look the same (namely, the shaping of a stellar, cutting-edge public educational system in Newark that shapes every student into a globally-aware, socially responsible citizen of our tomorrow) but the means (the strategies) that Newark must engage such that our vision(s) can be actualized are often very different. Herein lies our issue: one can argue, quite persuasively for example, that a good reform strategy that may work, say, in New York City, might not be the best for, say, the South Ward of Newark. We get that! But, what are the rules of engagement that might make room for constructive collaboration, discussion and, even, debate that result in shared-work and vision? Moreover, how can we do the work of reform and activism with a shared sense of purpose, that is, a desire for the best for our youth, in ways that does not derail the aim of community-building and solidarity? Below, we offer five considerations that may useful guide posts for our journey.
1. Know and name the “real” enemy. Too often we point the finger at the wrong people and not the institutions, ideologies, systems and particular leaders that support dangerous strategies. Each of us maintains a particular analysis, and even politic, regarding education reform. For example, charter schools may be seen by some as a neoliberal tool used to further privatization and others may see charter schools as experimental public school models that might serve as laboratories for testing innovative curriculum, pedagogical practices, extended day learning projects, etc. If you believe charter schools to be more of a problem than a solution, it may be very easy to lump all charter school leaders or components into a singular category of “enemy” without regard for the particularities that shapes individuals’ commitments, politics or education philosophies. On the contrary, if you believe that all (or even most) traditional public schools in Newark fail our youth, it may be the case that you see traditional public school advocates as menaces as opposed to friends. Either way, the contentious stance maintained by both sides creates the opportunity for a certain (dis)solution of community rather than a space wherein all can come together, in a unified spirit of concern for our students, our youth. And, when that happens, we make ourselves the enemy of cooperation.
2. Transparency is our friend: Reform of public systems does not take root when practices include back door dealing, lack robust competitiveness and systems of accountability. In Newark, it can seem efficient to do business through the “traditional handshake”. Yet, projects desiring to create real transformation deserve the influence of method and due process. When business transactions have implications for the public-at-large, leaders must be proactive about 1) vetting potential ideas over a “significant” amount of time before stakeholders (both field experts and community members) 2) sharing the responsibility of implementation (i.e. the person with the idea need not solely control the resources or execution plan) 3) developing a system of accountability that is shared with the public (let the public know how you target goals, empower the public with tools to track/monitor evolution of projects and share conclusions to help provide lessons for the future).
3. Realize that “parents” don’t always know best and that the “children” too have voices. Often, community members can be heard referring to the “elders” in our community or can be heard making references to “up and coming”, “emerging”, “new”, and “young” leaders. And, we should note: there are lots to learn from the wise…from those with an array of life experiences…from our elders! But, it is also the case that one’s status as an elder should not predicate the ignoring of the voices of the “young”. In addition, if we are use to the same rhetorical line of thinking, might it also be said that parents can also be wrong? Now, is it the responsibility of emerging (or new?) leaders to attend to the advice of those who have come before? Yes! Emerging leaders should ensure that our elders are at various tables, if nothing else, and to ensure that they are sought out for their advice. The moment, however, when relationships are wrongly ordered based on ideas like “the young should listen while the elders talk” or “elders should move out of the way and allow the young to exercise their autonomy” is the moment when barriers are built that prevent collaboration. The best collaboration is fashioned when the table is set for equals and not hierarchized.
4. Defamation won’t get us to the destination. Let’s get right to the point: disagreeing with a person because of his/her positions is one thing, purposefully destroying the character of that same person is another. It is possible that folk can disagree without having to malign another, without having to smirk at another’s seeming downfall, without having to participate in the public shaming of another…to wish the worse for another. Social change requires a certain change in the change agent…that change typically tends toward justice and not the reverse.
5. History is our best teacher. What didn’t you like about leaders from the past? What don’t you like about your peers? …don’t do those things, don’t be that person! Create an environment that includes people and written policies that regulate your actions and the dealings of people on your team.
darnell moore and bryan epps