"Wake up with Freedom on Your Mind": Hundreds Gather for Education Justice in Chicago

by Marianna Islam, Director of Programs & Advocacy

On the weekend of May 18-20, Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) hosted over 200 attendees in Chicago, Illinois for their national conference: We Choose Equity, Not The Illusion of School Choice.

J4J is a national alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led base building groups organizing to win community-driven alternatives to the privatization of and dismantling of public school systems in their neighborhoods, states and nationally. Launched in 2013 with 13 cities, J4J has now grown to 31 cities across the United States and also Johannesburg, South Africa.

J4J’s member organizations are unapologetically led by Black and brown parent, student and community organizers from cities and towns that have been disproportionately impacted by top-down corporate education interventions that destabilize and gentrify those communities. Indeed, much of J4J’s leadership was exemplified in the conference program itself, which was informed by and led by its membership.

The conference also took place only days after the release of J4J’s report: Failing Brown v. Board: A Continuous Struggle Against Inequity in Public Education which illuminates just how inequitable public education remains today largely across racial lines despite federal mandates dating from 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) and 1965 (The Elementary and Secondary Education Act) that schools stop providing separate and unequal educational experiences. Through examining course offerings at schools in twelve cities, this report highlights how Black and brown students are denied “access to inspiration”, offered fewer courses, less challenging courses and less enrichment in comparison with their white, more affluent peers just a few miles away.

The conference opened up with a screening of a powerful documentary short film: Kings and Queens, featuring Irene Robinson, an activist and grandmother working with J4J, who navigates the aftermath of a school closing in her neighborhood — appropriately referring to the closings of basic quality-of-life institutions in her neighborhood as a “hate crime.”

Grounding the weekend was the conference location itself, Dyett High School, a neighborhood high school that was closed, but later — after twelve community members waged a 34-day hunger strike — reopened with substantive investments in alignment with the vision of the community.

Former Ohio Senator and current President of Our Revolution Nina Turner provided a rousing opening keynote. Many J4J sessions focused on issue-specific areas of their #WeChoose campaign, including but not limited to organizing sessions on: culturally-responsive curriculum, school privatization and school closings; sustainable community schools; Black teachers; and the school-to-prison pipeline.

The sessions also lifted up the strategic and successful organizing wins nationally, including winning millions for sustainable community schools in the federal school improvement grant program and serving as the inspiration for the NAACP's historic call for a moratorium on charter expansion. J4J has also inspired local organizing victories across the country with the #WeChoose campaign. In New York City, J4J coalition member Natasha Capers, a parent and Director of Coalition for Education Justice shared how recently, after another painstaking campaign, they were successful in securing $23 million from the mayor to institute anti-bias trainings for all NYC school staff. In Louisiana, J4J coalition member Maria Harmon, Co-Director of Step Up Louisiana, shared how struggling schools in her state now have the option of becoming sustainable, locally controlled community schools, helping to anchor neighborhoods and meet whole-child and community needs. These are just a few of the many examples that were celebrated and discussed over the weekend that demonstrated the growing strength of the alliance.

The final day focused on international solidarity in education justice work, facilitated by Dimitri Holtzman from the Center for Popular Democracy, who reminded the audience how the fight for education justice has been led by young people like those who toppled apartheid in South Africa and ignited a revolution in Chile. Mercedes Martinez, from the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, shared how parents, teachers and students are fighting back here in the U.S. in Puerto Rico, against austerity measures and Law 85, which allows proliferation of privatization through charter schools and vouchers and closure of potentially over 300 public schools that have anchored communities through the aftermath of Hurricane María. Parents, teachers and community members are occupying closed public schools and bringing in essential services despite government neglect, a privatization agenda and efforts to change the penal code to punish demonstrators. Additional panelists included Silvana Saez Valladares, Municipal Director of Public Education for Valparaiso, Chile and Ronsha Dickerson, J4J National Organizer.

Dr. Yohuru Williams, a historian and professor representing the Network for Public Education, closed out the convening with notable history lessons about rising up to important calls to action and how it only takes a dedicated minority that’s committed to justice to help make mass movements happen.

Schott Foundation President & CEO Dr. John H. Jackson was given J4J's Freedom's Torchbearer Award for his support of grassroots organizing in Black & Brown communities, and I was honored to accept it on his behalf.

J4J National Organizer Ronsha Dickerson, Schott Foundation Director of Programs & Advocacy Marianna Islam, and J4J National Director Jitu Brown.

Marianna Islam is Schott’s Director of Programs & Advocacy and recently attended Journey for Justice Alliance National Conference to join the philanthropic community in support of J4J’s work. Three years ago Schott funding helped Journey for Justice secure an operations manager. Schott has also helped bring additional funders to the table to help Journey for Justice hire a national organizer.

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