Education Advocacy in the Time of Trump

Jeff Bryant

At the count of three, SCREAM.”

That’s what John Jackson suggested public education advocates do in response to the surprise election of Donald Trump.

Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education was one of the headliners at an event in Boston celebrating the organization’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The event included a panel discussion titled, “Addressing Racism— Strategies for Systemic Change: A Post-Election Analysis.”

This was the nation’s first prominent event addressing the election outcome from an education justice perspective, and few, if any, of the panel participants had anticipated a discussion about the incoming Trump administration. (Disclosure: Schott is a partner of the Education Opportunity Network, which I direct.)

Opposition to Trump from students in K-12 public schools and on college campuses has broken out across the country. Thousands of students walked out of classrooms and filled streets with blocks-long protest marches. Their messages, as reported in mainstream media and prominent news outlets, reflects resistance to discrimination against immigrants, women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals.

Those themes were on the minds of the panelists at the Schott event, who sought to place the election results in the context of historical struggles for education justice and civil rights.

Ted Shaw, a law professor and director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill suggested that Trump is likely “worse than Reagan,” but argued that the history and demographics of the United States are on the side of progressives.

“This is not the only president we’ve elected who exhibits racism and sexism,” Jackson reminded the audience.

Jackson suggested the audience take heart in the recent victories in Massachusetts and Georgia where well-funded ballot initiatives to expand school privatization efforts were shot down by grassroots organizing and street-level voter engagement.

Also, election victories for eight women to the U.S. House of Representatives and four to the Senate were positive notes, Jackson mentioned.

“The march toward justice has never been linear,” Jackson explained. “We’re only doing better today than we were fifty years ago because there were leaders who stood in the gaps” between progress and prejudice.

“People need to be in the streets,” was the consensus among panelists, and a frequent refrain in the discussions was the need to “capture the energy of young people.”

“Old folks don’t create revolutions,” Shaw noted.

Fortunately there was a young person among the panelists, Gabriela Pereira, a student organizer in the YOUNG Coalition that organized high school student walkouts in Boston and helped lead the effort to defeat ballot initiative Question 2 to expand charter schools in Massachusetts.

“Without the energy of young people, nothing is really going to happen,” Pereira said. “We’ve been the ones out in the streets warning others about the lack of funding in public schools and the growing privatization movement.”

Pereira described how she and her peers started their organizing.
“We have energy, but we also need support from our communities and our educators,” Pereira explained. “We need them to reach out to us and give us spaces to talk and collaborate … And we need some money.”
Panelists also agreed, “We can’t only be on the defensive.”

“Most people who voted for Trump wanted to throw a Molotov cocktail at the system because they’re pissed,” said Massachusetts State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz. “We have to offer something better.”

“Young people leading the way in protest is very important,” Jackson contended, “but we also need to ensure they are engaged in the democratic process.”

Jocelyn Sargent, Director of the Hyams Foundation, suggested organizers gather at a national venue every year to share best practices for advancing the movement.

Another point of agreement among the panelists, who included Rinku Sen, the president and executive director of Race Forward, was that organizing has to focus at state and local levels first.

Both Jackson and Chang-Díaz suggested that the ballot wins in Massachusetts and Georgia would be good models for grassroots organizing in other states, especially in Southern states that have long resisted progressive change.

Jackson concluded the event by exhorting the room to “keep learning, keep fighting, and keep loving each other.”

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