Talking is dangerous. Jesse Hagopian, a teacher leader from Garfield High School, says that their boycott, “began with a conversation in the teacher’s lounge.”
In the fall of 2011 I found myself in many conversations with people I had never before met. Conversations about economic justice, about the possibilities for and nature of change, about racism, about schooling and about democracy. I had these conversations in Zuccotti Park, at Occupy Springfield Massachusetts, at Pulaski Park in my hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, at Occupy Montreal. These opportunities emerged because people claimed a space for themselves, a public space, and said- ‘Let’s talk.’ The conversations were dynamic, thoughtful, attentive, popping with an incredible energy. One of my favorites, a discussion about Marxism leading to a discussion of the possibilities of democracy among a group of us that had gathered at one end of the park to hear an impromptu lecture from a philosophy student at NYU. One of the most difficult, trying to speak with a young man about the need for social security as my feet got cold and numb in the surprise October snow in Springfield Massachusetts. So many people who visited Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street came away saying, ‘Now I know what democracy might be.”
In the spring of 2012, I participated in Occupy the D.O.E, and had a similar experience. Rich conversations, good people, shared worries, anger and hope. I left there feeling more alive and connected to humanity. I left with courage to use my voice and humility to listen well.
Education is a conversation and knowledge emerges in conversation. Education is experiencing and preparing for the kinds of interactions the Occupy movement offered. Freire talks about the indispensible qualities of a progressive teacher as including humility, trust, patience and impatience…These are the qualities as well of human beings in community, making meaning, creating possibilities.
If education is a conversation, if knowledge is something we create as communities and that emerges in how we make our world, then the assessment lies in the conversation, in the actions, in the shared meanings, conflicts and continued questioning. If education is a conversation then our demands are for public spaces to have those conversations, for time, for resources, for people to be able to enter the conversation from a space of physical, emotional and psychic security. If education is a conversation teachers must be prepared to be reflective, attentive to their own and others positions, to listen well, to engage the complexity of human relationships.
Freire talks a lot about trust. I think about what it means to enter a dialogue, a conversation, with trust; trusting students, teachers, parents, community members. Trusting ourselves to listen and learn, to know and to not know, to ask questions like: what is the purpose of education? what is the nature of knowledge?
The accountability regime is based on mistrust. Mistrust of teachers, students, teacher educators, parents, the people.
From the media and establishment there were calls for Occupy Wall Street to state its demands. Similarly, corporate deformers and their operatives want education activists to state alternatives. They want to know how we are going to assess without tests, what curriculum we will use if not the common core, how we will be accountable. I believe we must refuse their questions and demands for a clear and singular message. They use these to trap us in their narrative. I refuse their narratives and their questions. We need to ask our own questions. We need to tell our own story.
Here are some of my questions: Why is income inequality increasing? Why are our prisons overflowing? Why are some of our children, black and brown and poor children, being subject to dehumanizing schools and endless testing? Why are teachers ridiculed and unions being busted? Why are corporations taking over the work of teaching and teaching teachers? Why are people fearful of speaking out? Who is doing the silencing? To what end?
Here is my narrative: I want education for democracy and justice. I want education for liberation. I want conversations about what we all want for and from education.
And I want the movement against the corporatization of education to itself be democratic and liberating, to be a conversation in which we ask questions, listen, trust, name structures of power and oppression, imagine new possibilities, and act, and then converse some more.
In Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011 all kinds of citizens gathered, talked, listened, named their world, and began to take action based on what they saw. This happened as well in Oakland, in Nashville, in Boston, in cities and towns across the country. In the fall of 2011, we began to enact a true public education. And we were shut down. We were violently suppressed. I saw a young man dragged from the sidewalk into the street in order to be ‘legally’ arrested. I was with hundreds of people when the police locked us in Zuccotti Park, their intention clear: incite panic and then be able to react with violence. I watched vans empty and police in riot gear march in lock step down 43rd Street, batons drawn. And I did not even see the final brutality of destroying the Occupy Wall Street encampment. Violence and brutality because people came together to talk, to name and to act.
Even though there was not a single clear demand, they shut us down. Even though we did not speak with one voice, they shut us down. Even though we were not specific in the alternatives we offered, they shut us down. They shut us down because we were talking to each other, because we were taking our space and our time, because we were naming the world in terms other than those they gave us. Because we were engaged in conversations, in education.
Looking forward to April and Occupy the D.O.E. 2.0—to talk, to act.