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Occupy Education: Seizing the Momentum to Reclaim Our Schools

The South African poet and activist Breyten Breytenbach once said, “You Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable.”Illustration: Alec Dunn

We hope this is coming to an end—in schools, and in the rest of our society.

The Occupy movement that began in 2011 raised a defiant voice for justice and equality. From Wall Street to Oakland, from Portland to Louisville, protesters pitched tents and announced that they—we—were tired of living with the unacceptable. We were fed up with a government and an economy that served the interests of the 1 percent, that seemed hell-bent on creating as unequal a society as people would tolerate.

Much of the media focused on the encampments in parks across the country—regarding them sometimes with amusement as little neo-Woodstocks, other times with contempt as infestations of heroin addicts and violent street kids, and occasionally with respect, as expressions of a new and imaginative social movement. Though the physical encampments were important rallying points, the Occupy movement quickly became much broader than these outposts. The range of groups and individuals who identify with the movement’s call for direct citizen action to bring a measure of fairness, equality, and democracy to U.S. political life has been energizing.

From the beginning, the occupiers have confounded easy categorization. The media said, “Take us to your leaders.” “We are all leaders,” came the reply. The media cried, “Get specific: What are your demands?” The occupiers said simply: “We demand equality. We demand democracy. We demand a society that works for everyone.”

In places, government officials adopted a conciliatory approach to the protests, but in many locations, the authorities attacked Occupy sites with startling brutality, beating protesters and trashing possessions. In New York’s Zuccotti Park, renamed by occupiers Liberty Square, police destroyed the 5,000-volume People’s Library, hauling it to the dump.

But the Occupy movement is not something that can be torn down in the dead of night; it never represented a literal, narrow occupation of particular locations. The cry to occupy is a call to fill up all the political space available, as the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once said. It’s a metaphor, a quest to fill our society with equality and justice.

In the education arena, teachers, parents, students, community members, and activists are finding imaginative ways to resist and to create alternatives. Here, occupation has taken many forms. Indeed, the education occupations preceded Occupy Wall Street. In the fall of 2009, California saw dozens of student occupations, sit-ins, and demonstrations to protest draconian budget cuts. Over the winter of 2011, students, teachers, public workers, and just about everyone else participated in the weeks-long occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison, protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s reactionary legislation. In Tucson last April, students defending the embattled Mexican American Studies program occupied a school board meeting, chaining themselves to board members’ chairs, chanting: “Our education is under attack! What do we do? Fight back!” (See our editorial on recent events in Tucson.)

New Momentum for Education Activism

The Occupy movement itself spurred new momentum. In Trenton, N.J., demonstrators briefly occupied the state Department of Education, protesting Gov. Chris Christie’s pro-charter school initiatives. In New York City, members of Occupy DOE (NYC Department of Education) have offered a spirited challenge to Mayor Bloomberg’s undemocratic, handpicked Panel for Educational Policy (PEP). At one meeting, Occupy DOE mocked the PEP functionaries, yelling “puppet!” after each was introduced. As reported in Rethinking Schools, Social Equality Educators in Seattle led an occupation of the state capitol to protest school budget cuts and to stage a citizens’ arrest of legislators for abandoning the state constitution, which proclaims the support of public education as the state’s “paramount duty.” Teachers’ actions inspired hundreds of students at Seattle’s Garfield High School, who walked out of classes and rallied at City Hall in solidarity. Blogs like Occupy Education created a forum for “messages that dare public schools to serve students’ passions instead of politicians and vendors’ coffers,” and feature poignant student artwork displaying different “occupy” interpretations.

One of the most militant of the occupations occurred in Chicago, where more than 100 parents, youth, and community members staged a four-day sit-in at City Hall to protest Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s “practice of maligning black and Latino neighborhoods by destabilizing their public schools and selling them off to the highest bidder.” Organized by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), and supported by the Chicago Teachers Union, UNITE HERE, and other community groups, demonstrators demanded that the mayor meet with the community to discuss its well-researched alternative to the Chicago elite’s profit-driven school improvement plans.

Occupy the Curriculum

It is equally urgent that we bring this occupy spirit to the struggle to reclaim classrooms and schools from the imposition of scripted, standardized, corporate-produced curriculum. Teachers and community allies must demand—and create—teaching materials about things that matter, within a pedagogy that respects students’ lives and cultures. If we cannot secure the right of educators, parents, community members, and students to determine the nature of the curriculum, then the 1 percenters—the textbook companies, billionaire-run foundations, high-priced consultants, and assorted corporate reformers—will have permanently revised the character of the curriculum.

There are hopeful signs. Some of you may have seen the Rethinking Schools blog in November. We reported on our Zinn Education Project Facebook site, which asked teachers about themes they planned to address in the coming month. The replies reflected a markedly unstandardized curriculum. People were teaching about the history of corporate personhood, the war in Afghanistan, the early women’s rights movement, and the link between industrialization and imperialism. From teachers across the disciplines and grade levels, we hear a defiant tone of “We’ll decide what our students need to learn, not some distant corporation.” This is a cry we need to amplify.

As teachers move to occupy the curriculum, we especially need to turn our attention to investigating the origins of the economic crisis that has laid a blanket of hardship and insecurity over so much of the world. Teachers need to share ways that we are equipping students with the critical skills to interrogate the economic inequality that from year to year yawns ever wider.

But educators can also draw inspiration from the Occupy movement’s playful yet profound expressions of grassroots democracy—the general assemblies, the mic checks, and the myriad ways that occupiers have found to make democracy participatory. The movement holds valuable lessons for school and classroom life.

Of course, the Occupy movement did not invent social justice protest, and it’s not impossible to find occasional self-righteousness, or worse, among its proponents. Posing the struggle as the 1 percent against the 99 percent may miss important contradictions—especially along lines of race—among those 99 percent. But it does signal a renaissance of activism, a renaissance that is our responsibility to nurture and to deepen and to make even more audacious. And popularizing the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent has offered a conceptual framework at once simple and enormously powerful. In fact, the corporate agenda in education is a 1 percent agenda—a billionaire boys’ project, in the words of Diane Ravitch—and the sooner people recognize that, the better off we’ll be.

The Occupy movement signals how much we need each other. For educators, that means that whatever progress we hope to make in defending schools and classrooms will only occur within a broader movement for economic and social equality. We must ally with all those who have a stake in opposing an individualistic, profit-first corporate agenda. More than anything, perhaps, the Occupy movement has urged everyone to take the next step, to move out of our comfort zone, to act as if the world depended on it, and to say with conviction: We will no longer live with the unacceptable.

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