Activism is the alternative

Last week I was on a local radio program, Bread and Roses, to discuss the assault on public education in its various nefarious forms, and the possibilities of resistance, especially through grassroots union organizing. As I was discussing the ways that educators are being boxed in by shock doctrine tactics of depleted resources on the one hand and calculated fear on the other, a call came in from a social worker. He phoned to say, ‘the very same thing is happening in social services.’ He went on to talk about how ‘data’ is destroying counseling through the framework of service denial. If a client is not getting better fast enough, then services are denied as being ineffective. If a client shows any improvement, then services are denied because the person is better and no longer needs counseling. The ‘data’ does not include  –cannot include under accountability regimes—the experience of relationship within the counseling. The caller went on to describe the alienation he experiences within his work and the loneliness of walking in a world where everyone else seems to have bought into the language of data, accountability, and the inevitability of free market ideologies.

I was a therapist before I was a teacher. I know, from both sides of the therapeutic experience, that so much is happening in therapy-even just when it might look like nothing is happening at all. I know how crucial therapy can be as a holding space for a person to take time to grow, to heal, to understand. Just as I know from my time as a high school teacher how much of a school year can be spent creating the trust that will allow a student to risk vulnerability and write, share a thought, speak her hopes.

But you don’t have to be a therapist or an educator to be experiencing the profound alienation of life in the neoliberal regime where we are, each of us, micromanaged at work, subject to tenuous economic conditions, surveilled, and scolded by fear and cynicism to behave. Where we are told a story about our work and our lives that measures value in data points, efficiency, standards, and service to the god called ‘the economy.’

The caller helped me think about the alliances we need to build beyond education. We need to grow alliances with all kinds of workers, people at all stages of life, the many of us who find ourselves alienated and uncertain. Because the dominant forces at work in this age of hyper-capitalism are not only leading to more poverty, racism, classism, endless wars, and environmental devastation, but they are reshaping how we think about ourselves, our communities, the meanings we make, the values we find.

Sometimes lately I have trouble finding my way into conversations about education. The language of accountability, data outputs, college and career ready, rigor, standards… it all describes a world that is separate from the world I value, from the world I am creating with others in the classroom, in activism, over dinner.  The problem is not how these words are used; it is that they are used. There is this nagging from some circles to ‘present your alternative.’ I reject that demand as much as it keeps the conversation within the tight narrative we’ve been offered. I am not answering the same questions the deformers are asking, so there is no ‘alternative’ with which to reply. I am asking questions about how we create community, about the struggles to trust enough to really live democratically, about how we can overcome the racism that haunts our communities, about what gives life meaning and pleasure and joy, about how we can take care of each other, and how education encompasses all of that and more. I want conversations about the world we create in relationships, the ways we make meaning; the world as uncertain and unfolding.

The cool thing about the caller to the radio program was that he took the conversation in an entirely new and unexpected direction. Joel, the interviewer, and I never got to talking much about union organizing to fight corporate education deformers. We ended up instead having a conversation that helped all of us know our lives in a new way. I left energized—not because things would necessarily get better, but because I had just had a delightful interchange with another human being. It put me in mind of Kurt Vonnegut’s explanation of why he went to the post office.

“I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and 
I'd never have to leave it.  But I use a typewriter, andafterward I mark up the pages 
with a pencil.  Then I call up a womannamed Carol out in Woodstock and say, 
"Are you still doing typing?"Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track 
bluebirds out there andnot having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, 
and I say,    "Okay, I'll send you the pages."  
Then I go downstairs and my wife calls, "Where are you going?"     
"Well," I say, "I'm going out to buy an envelope."    
And she says, "You're not a poor man.  Why don't you buy a thousandenvelopes?They'll deliver them, and you can put them in the closetand get one whenever you want."     
And I say, "Hush."  
So I go to the newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets 
and stationery.  I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that 
sort of thing, and I talk to them.  The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her 
eyes, and when it's my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately.I get my 
envelope and put the pages in it and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center 
down the block at the corner of Forty-Seventh Street and Second Avenue, where I'm 
secretly in love with the woman behind the counter.I keep absolutely poker-faced; 
I never let her know how I feel abouther. 
One time I had my pocket picked in there and I got to meet a cop and tell him about it. 
Anyway, I address the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, 
and I go home.  
And I've had a hell of a good time.     
I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different.” 
(Harpers’ magazine, September, 1996)

I recently read Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. I wonder if, given the demand for non-fiction readings, it would make David Coleman’s cut list, but expect it is much too dangerous, and not for any allusions to sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. No, it is dangerous to our technocrats because it reveals with clarity and honesty the beauty, the said and the unsaid, the profound knowing and not knowing of human relationships.

The struggle against corporate education deformers is, in part, the struggle to preserve recognition of ourselves and each other in relationship, in community, in democracy as the confusing, uncertain, imaginative beings that we are. My activism has given me this experience of relationship. My activism is the alternative.


  1. twinkie1cat says:

    It is not just in education and social work. Nurses, too, report reductions in hours and fewer “deals” for working bad shifts like 3- 12 hour shifts on weekends and being paid for 40 hours. Plus, professional nurses are reporting having to deal with young nurses who have been through quick training programs at for-profit schools. They know procedure but not the foundation for the procedure and so cannot make professional judgments (The Teach for America of nursing care I would say. There are also private nursing assistant schools that advertise that they can have you trained in three weeks. Nursing assistants have taken over many jobs that LPNs and RNs used to do.) It looks like the “screw the worker” mentality has invaded all the human service fields. And with privatization of government jobs resulting in less pay and no job security, businesses can do what they please.

    I believe this is the result of both the super-capitalistic anti-union mentality of a government that was dominated by conservatives for a long time and still is to some degree, state governments that still are, and the weak hold that human rights advocates have on the federal government. Also, you might notice that the fields most ripped off are those dominated by females. Republicans are predominantly white men. The Religious Right,particularly in the largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, is newly reinforcing, yet again the idea that men are supposed to be leaders and women submissive, as does the Roman Catholic Church and most Pentecostal groups. We are going to end up with poor government service,a decline in education and increased poverty, even among the well educated if the trend is not stopped. Our entire society is influenced by its religious leaders, because, despite a decline in church attendance, we are still a religious people.

    America is becoming a country where the most important thing is the bottom line, not serving the people. Recentlyl the ONLY hospital in the poverty stricken are of Baton Rouge Louisiana was closed, not for lack of business, but because it cost the state too much money! Now emergency care means a trip across town in a city with poor public transportation and jammed up traffic. What is going to happen when Public Safety is privatized???

    • Barbara Madeloni says:

      While the Republicans have certainly done their part to bring us here, Democrats and ‘liberals’ have been more than willing to embrace technocracy and faith in the free market as the structuring ideology of our lives. Obama talks about education as necessary for competition in the global economy. His policies have brought more privatization, more union busting, and more reliance on a technocratic worldview. This is about corporate power in both parties–and internationally. Your point about the gendered aspects of these attacks is important, but that is because capitalism flourishes under divisions.

  2. Jill the Sub says:

    Barbara, this is an excellent analysis of where we are as a country. So I’m working on some “Common Sense for the Common Good” which I’ll post soon, that looks across the multiple fields of education, healthcare, economics and politics. And we’re thinking of a summit in the fall around these issues. Can you join our planning group?


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