These are scary and exciting times to be an activist. Scary because the privatizing dehumanizing forces of neo-liberalism are wrecking havoc everywhere; from the climate, to endless wars, to health care, to outrageous income inequality, and, as readers of this blog know, to dismantling public education. The magnitude of this assault, its machine-like ability to crush all that lay in its way, and the fear and silence it provokes often leave me stunned and uncertain of where and how to act. But these are also exciting times, from Occupy Wall Street, to Wisconsin where workers joined in solidarity to demand their voices be heard and their rights protected; to Chicago where teachers were joined by students and parents in resisting the attack on their union and their schools; to teachers in Seattle, led by the teachers of Garfield High School, asserting their knowledge, their judgment, their dignity, and their moral righteousness to say no to MAP tests; to parents in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia joining to resist school closings: we can be a part of the movement to reclaim education and the possibility of the democratic project.
Still, we waiver between fear and courage. Many of us have found ourselves alone with our understanding that a terrible wrong is being done to public schools and universities. This loneliness deepened for me as I allowed myself to participate in the testing, accountability measures, and data collection processes that are the tools of our undoing. Even while I spoke in my courses about the dangers of these measures, even as I invited students to be critical of the accountability regime, even as I could wax eloquent over dinner about the undoing of public education by an ideology that makes a commodity of every person and idea, I went to work each day and dutifully completed the rubrics, aligned the standards, explained the best way to interface with the web-based data management system. Shame creeps in even as I write these words, as I reveal my compliance within this system. I recognize that same shame in the eyes of colleagues who remain silent when conversations turn to the madness that grips us, when ideas surface that perhaps we should take action and say no to the undoing of our commitments and responsibilities to teaching and learning for justice and liberation. I struggled mightily with my complicity, trying to carve out the spaces of resistance within my courses, within my conversations. But more and more I doubted the story I was telling myself. If, in the end, the actions that I took allowed the machine of technocracy to continue unabated, I was as responsible as the most complicit administrators and colleagues.
Like so many educators, I wrestled with and continue to try to make sense of the nature of activism within systems and institutions so dominated by fear. I once had a colleague say that I ‘frighten her’ because I was so vocal about my torment, about my sense that we could no longer agree over coffee that things were wrong, but then sit quietly in meetings and allow the destructive farce of accountability to continue. At first her fear of me confused me. Isn’t it the people in charge who frighten us, the ones who use surveillance, endless talk of budget cuts, and shock doctrine pressures to get us to conform? At some point her words became a clearer warning: speaking out is dangerous-whether or not it is followed immediately by action. There is a reason we protect free speech in our constitution, because the ability to name our world is the first act of rebellion. Just like Freire tells us.
In Liberty Plaza during Occupy Wall Street I saw a yellow poster board sign with the words scrawled by hand: ‘see something, say something.’ This simple flip of the fear mongering reminders we’d been inundated with since 9-11 helped me understand the power of bearing witness, of naming what was happening to us and refusing the narrative being imposed on us. Where was the danger? Who was trying to hurt us? And why were the people in charge so committed to silence?
I came to understand that every time I refused the words ‘accountability’ or ‘standards’ or ‘outcomes’ or the phrase ‘data driven,’ I was actively resisting the dominance of their language to describe my work. Each time I said, ‘Well why are we acting as if these numbers on this rubric reflect the development of our student teachers when we know they don’t?’ I was bearing witness to the absurdity of the measures, the data, the scientistic collection of numbers. I came to realize that it was my civic and moral duty that each time I saw the emotional violence of high stakes measurements, each time I saw the dehumanizing language of accountability, each I saw the marginalization of the voices of educators, parents and students in claiming the education we want, it was my job to say something. To raise concern. To heighten awareness. To alert others to the threat. And this naming of the reality of what was happening, this refusal to be silent in the face of what was being done to us as faculty, as educators, as human beings with a desire to make the meanings we wanted was, as my colleague wrote, frightening –to those in charge, and to those who preferred not to rouse the anger of those in charge.
Jesse Hagopian, one of the teachers involved in the Garfield boycott that has spread throughout Seattle and incited support across the country, says of the process by which the teachers came to decide to boycott “It started with a conversation in the teachers’ lounge.” It started with people seeing a test that was not working, that was hurting their students, that was twisting ideas of knowledge and learning; that simply did not work– and saying so—saying what they saw. And what they discovered was how many of them were seeing the same thing.
So, when teachers, students, parents, community members ask, ‘what can I do?’ I say the first step is simple—scary yes—but simple—see something, say something.