By Paul Gilroy
The Guardian, Sunday 10 November 2013 10.50 EST
Slavery has been written off as part of the pre-history of our world. Contemporary capitalism was shaped by its rational brutality but the banks, insurers and speculators who facilitated and expanded slavery have been able to project their activity as unsullied by a cruel and racist system that was as systematic as it was functional. Financial institutions appear instead as the very agents of freedom, emancipating the archaic world of the plantation with their dynamic, modernising energy.
Today, neoliberalism reprises and extends that tale. It decrees that racism no longer presents a significant obstacle either to individual success or to collective self-realisation. Race provides a useful way to mark out the boundary between then and now: racism is presented as anachronistic – nothing more than a flimsy impediment to the machinery of colourless, managerial meritocracy.
Any residual effects of past inequality are effectively privatised – seen only on an individual scale. If you cannot succeed in contemporary conditions, that failure can only be a result of your own shortcomings. The newly multicultural market cannot be bucked; and slavery, though not yet quite forgotten, is entirely overshadowed by the heroic story of its abolition by the morally charged forces of economic progress.
Steve McQueen’s new film, 12 Years a Slave, contests this ground and returns us abruptly to the problems of race and human freedom. It revives the righteous agenda of 19th-century abolitionism and asks what might happen if we employ the recent history of racial slavery as a lens through which our contemporary predicament is considered? What understanding of freedom, of literacy, creativity and legality does a reflection on that archive now yield?
edited for accuracy & clarity 11/11 10:00pm
Transformative social justice movements never stem from a group’s desire to “save” others, whether those others are one’s neighbors or “oppressed populations” across the world. Yet, so much of the work that goes on under the guise of non-profits, social justice art, and education reform today stems from this old colonial/missionary mindset that sends people out to “engage” with communities and “help” them struggle for a better world.
Social justice art is more important than ever in our neocolonial/neoliberal context because it contains the potential to turn us away from this missionary mindset and turn us, instead, toward the hard work of looking inward to understand how we, ourselves, are dehumanized & oppressed by the social, political, & economic structures in which we live.
But how can social justice-focused art help catalyze transformative social movements if the work takes place within the context of arts non-profits, which tend to prioritize paying artists and administrators and impressing funders in the ever-tighter scramble for foundation funding over supporting sustained relationships with communities & grassroots movements? How can artists survive without these organizations, which are often the only means they know of through which they CAN be paid for doing creative work that matters to them?
After struggling to understand the connections between art, non-profits, and social justice movements for a while now, here’s one thing I’ve come to believe:
My thoughts are certainly not the last word on this, and they’re of course limited by my own ongoing learning process, but I believe we desperately need more introspective social justice art in New Orleans. We need to find new ways to nurture critical, introspective local art communities that both support artists and urge them to talk about & create work about the ways in which our organizations, modes of consumption, modes of community-building, educations, and desires have so often led us, against our best interests, to embody, speak the language, and dream the dreams of neoliberal capitalism. Having dialogues that encourage introspection about the non-profit industrial complex could be a first important step towards reinvigorating critical social justice arts communities and generating sustained, mutually nurturing relationships between artists, their communities, and social movements.
On that note, Peacock Rebellion’s Agen(c)y: Nonprofit Dreams + Disasters inspires me so much! This cabaret performance in Berkeley last year was all about the Nonprofit Industrial Complex’s deep ties to neoliberal economic forces and its complicated, detrimental impact on global social movements. (I just found out about the performance, and at first I thought it took place THIS year, but alas, my timing is waaaayyy off. Still, it’s relevant, don’t you think?!).
Disheartened, broke and unsure of what was next in his career, [VAIDYA] turned to one of his life-long passions, theater. He became an activist, if you will, against activism. He began writing satirical plays on “the non-profit industrial complex,” a term coined in one of his favorite books, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, and which he says “embodied perfectly what I saw the industry had become.”
His performance project, the Peacock Rebellion, collected stories from disillusioned non-profit workers across the country, who reached out to him as word of his efforts spread.
Vaidya asked them questions: why had they become so disillusioned with a sector they had loved for so long? How had the constant need for seeking out funding exhausted their efforts from really doing the mission work in their communities? Nearly a decade later, he estimates he has interviewed over 2,000 people.
“I thought about 100 people would come to that first show in the Bay Area [in late 2004]. We had 400 people there. Immediately, I knew this was my new life; I could translate so much more to people via the stage and the response and interest was incredible. The stories were endless.”
Vaidya’s show is ostensibly about disillusioned workers in non-profits, but it’s really about something deeper: what some believe is a growing crisis in one of America’s most beloved sectors. Corporate money both saved, and critics say, destroyed non-profit work as we know it.
As the show asked, can we dream bigger than the dreams that non-profits–including and especially arts non-profits–allow us to dream? Yes, we most certainly can. And many people here in New Orleans are working to cultivate such dreams. What will the role that art and performance play in enabling us to come together and dream together even more powerfully?
Readers, I’m taking a break from blogging to attend to some pressing writing deadlines on other fronts! However, here are a few updates/followups to previous posts.
1) If you missed “Talkin’ Revolution,” Junebug Production’s 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Founding of the Free Southern Theater, thanks to HowlRound TV you can view videos of the event here. The third video down features yours truly facilitating a discussion with Kalamu ya Salaam, Jim Smethurst, Jan Cohen-Cruz, and Carlton Turner about the impact of the FST on the Black Arts Movement and on community-engaged theatre from the 1960s to today.
2) I’ve written a lot of private responses to critiques that I’ve received about my Slate article and my blog post about not writing letters of recommendation to TFA. But I also did an interview with the brilliant blogger, Edushyster, that contains my public response to TFA staff members, corps members, corporate attorneys, Pearson representatives, and other folks who responded to my arguments with critical insights and/or ad hominem attacks. You can read my interview HERE, if you’re interested.
Thanks for reading.
This article was originally published in Antigravity Magazine.
Although the Free Southern Theater operated in New Orleans from 1965 to 1980 and was a national leader in the Black Arts Movement, pioneering new aesthetic forms that influenced future generations of poets and performing artists, it is rarely mentioned in history lessons and its legacy is not common knowledge in New Orleans.
Lately, I have been reflecting on how writing leads to more writing. I’ve done a lot of blogging this fall, and it’s led me to also write a great deal for my book project. Or maybe it’s the other way around. The book leads to the blog. On the worst days, I feel pulled between these two forms and frustrated by their incompatibility; on the best days I feel harmoniously balanced between them. Writing a book is a process that takes years and countless hours of solitary reading, note-taking, and revising. Blogging allows me, by contrast, to put ideas out in the public sphere right away & to build connections with readers and with other writers.
Today an edited version of my blog about not writing recommendations to Teach for America was published on Slate.com. In this moment suddenly I feel that my writing is out there in the world in a completely new way. I’m moving from the act of always being caught up, quietly, in the work of writing, to experiencing a public identity as a writer (or, a kind of writer…a blogger, specifically). I’m compelled, as a result, to think more about the kind of writer that I want to be.
My ideas on this blog have been controversial. On a personal level, writing in this public space has caused me to have to look deep inside and ask myself: do I truly believe in what I’m saying? do I believe my voice matters? how do I account for and include the voices of others? how might this writing be a teaching tool? These questions have led me to also deepen the ideas and resolve that I am putting into my larger project, which is a study of how neoliberalism has impacted radical democratic performance, teaching, and writing practices in New Orleans.
Sometimes I just want to write about something happy. The compassionate spirit and creative brilliance that I see in my daughter every day. The wonderful October air in New Orleans. The brilliant things that my students say in class on those days when everything just syncs and we’re caught up in learning and conversing together. The joy and deep sense of camaraderie I feel during conversations with organizers, artists, and young teachers in New Orleans. How can I incorporate these beautiful, everyday experiences into my writing? Would doing so be transformative to what I put on the page?
When I write, I am looking at the world through a critical eye. How do I better account for all the other moments, in which I am living–critically minded still–but fluid, absorbed, connected, caught up in both the joy and the struggles of everyday life?
Wanda Vrasti writes:
in neoliberalism there is less of a difference between emotion and reason than there is between emotions that are conducive to entrepreneurial action (e.g., autonomy, adaptability, compassion, multiculturalism, philanthropy, and self-fulfillment) and those that are not (e.g., anger, anxiety, boredom, lust, and depression). While the latter must be “treated,” the rest can help realign entrepreneurial conduct with principles of social order, harmony, and meaning (“‘Caring’ Capitalism and the Duplicity of Critique,” Theory and Event 14.4, 2011).
Neoliberal hegemony works to convince us that these values–autonomy, adaptability, compassion, a spirit of giving, multiculturalism, self-care, etc.–cannot exist without, or outside of, the marketplace. I am interested in thinking about how we can collectively garner back some of these values into a critical ontology, an introspective mode of living in a neoliberal world that resists the spread of marketplace values into every area of life. I’m going to try to experiment with this in my writing. Next up, a harmonious and critical post.
(see bottom of post for a new note)
My last post stirred up a controversy in facebookland and twitterville. I want to use this space to clarify some of the reasons why I do not write letters of recommendation for students who are seeking to apply to Teach for America. Students often come to me for such letters because they know I’m involved in education issues and they think of me as a professor interested in social justice. I decided to make my private policy on this question public because I believe it’s ethically wrong to claim to research or teach about issues related to social justice without actively taking part in collective struggles for systemic social change.
One impact that the neoliberal turn in higher education has on faculty in all stations on the adjunct-to-tenure-or-poverty ladder is that it makes us timid and afraid of taking an active part in grassroots struggles. Taking a political stand requires letting go of our images as politically “neutral” teachers and “objective researchers.” Given the stark employment climate in higher education, we often fear that speaking out publicly against injustice might damage our 1 in 100 (or 500) chances of attaining and/or keeping a job with some level of security and a living wage.
The threat of McCarthyism isn’t necessary today. University faculty and graduate students’ fears of public dissent are grounded in the everyday precariousness of life under neoliberalism. When this system began to come into its own in the 1980s and 90s, academics reacted by hiding in theory. Theory was soothing for a time. But for many, it doesn’t feel soothing anymore. As we watch every aspect of our embodied existences become infused with marketplace ideologies, and as we struggle inside the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, more and more academics are starting to feel the need to join collective movements for systemic change.
Building on these sentiments, which I know are out there and expanding, I am writing today to teaching faculty and staff at U.S. universities and colleges who claim to have an investment in furthering social justice. I encourage each of you to stand with me in refusing to write letters of recommendation for students who are applying to TFA. With this collective action, we can begin to undo some of the damage on the millions of children whose lives are harmed not only by the never-ending cycle of first- and second-year teachers that now populates disadvantaged schools, but also by the militarized, corporate, and data-obsessed approach to education that this army of under-trained, inexperienced teachers enables. Equally importantly, we can communicate to our college students how they will be negatively impacted and possibly even psychologically damaged by this system. Our collective action might eventually cause TFA to have to rethink its insistence that an army of naive and un-trained recent college graduates can form the solution to education inequities in this country.
Why does TFA matter so much to our national, educational futures?
Every year, TFA installs thousands of unprepared 22 year olds (the vast majority of whom are from economically and racially privileged backgrounds) into disadvantaged public schools. They are given a class of their own after only 5-6 weeks’ training and a scant number of hours co-teaching summer school (in a different city, and frequently a different subject and to students in a different age group than the one they end up teaching in the fall). TFA teachers are then hailed by the mainstream media as heroic examples of the type of human capital that should be populating public schools. I will explain below why this is the case. But first I want to note that as college and university faculty stand by and allow these well-meaning young people to become pawns in an organization that is working on a massive scale to de-professionalize teaching, we are denying our own moral positions as trained, teaching professionals. Furthermore, we are setting our students up to not only contribute to injustice in public schools, but also to be victimized by that injustice. Yes, TFA may look good on their resumes and allow them to attain social capital as graduate schools bow in recognition and investment firms set up special places for TFA royalty. But the cost of this social capital is that our students have to become participants in a reform agenda that is inflicting an increasing amount of damage on public schools and communities.
It’s a well known fact that without TFA, the whole corporate reform kingdom WOULD immediately crumble. But whether university faculty personally desire that to occur or not isn’t even the question here. The simple fact is, students who apply to TFA are not trained to be teachers. So, in a very simple sense, by refusing to write TFA letters of recommendation we’re merely telling our students that we can’t recommend them for a job for which they are not at all qualified. Despite TFA’s claims that it is bringing “highly talented” human capital into public schools, an increasing amount of research shows that TFA recruits perform at best no better, and often worse than their trained and certified education school graduate counterparts. (See this link for a starter list of research on TFA corps member effectiveness). What’s more, they tend to leave after just a few years in the classroom. In fact, the corporate system depends on them leaving!
I had to think hard about this question when I taught in a university whose student body was composed of primarily first-generation college students, and where racial diversity was strong. I still refused to write the letters in this setting. Just because my students came from similar backgrounds to students in TFA districts did not make them prepared to teach in those districts. Would a biology professor write an English major who’s never taken any core science courses a recommendation to medical school? Certainly, that would be strange. It would be even stranger if you knew for a fact that the English major was just going into medicine for a few years, as a way to boost his resume, before ultimately going on to a career in public relations.
Sure, there’s always the hope that if TFA diversifies its mission will change. Even if such changes are beginning to occur (TFA swears they are, but I’m not convinced) children and schools will continue to be impacted negatively as long as TFA remains integral to the corporate reform agenda.
How is TFA connected to the corporate reform agenda?
In a comment on my last post, Tulane professor Jimmy Huck argued that he could see a reason for not wanting to write a letter of recommendation to a white supremacist organization, such as David Duke’s election campaign, but that he doesn’t see TFA as being that kind of organization, or that he doesn’t see it posing a similar kind of problem within his and other liberal professors’ sense of ethics and responsibility to guide and nurture their students. I disagree. Here’s why:
Racism is slippery in today’s United States. It was easy to see it, label it, and stand against it when it came in the form of despicable characters such as Louisiana’s David Duke. However, in our new neoliberal “post racial” universe, the new racism tries its hardest to appear to be non-racist. We’re living in a culture replete with glittery celebrations of a new “paternalism” in public schools that celebrates charter schools as part of “innovative urban revitalization.” Beneath the discourses around school reform and urban revitalization is the hope that the (mostly white) elite class and free market ideologies will combine to solve every social ill. Meanwhile, whole communities of African American and Latino men and women are being warehoused in prisons. The racial income gap is widening. And urban communities of color are being gentrified out of cities.
TFA & the charter schools that function as TFA’s biggest partners make use of this new slippery racism to rid cities of veteran teachers of color. TFA’s mantra to “close the achievement gap” relies on a logic that blames veteran teachers (“lifers“) for not believing in the capabilities of students of color. The logic here is deeply flawed because the teachers that TFA uses its corps members to replace are usually teachers of color. There is no teaching shortage. Schools and districts FIRE their unionized and more expensive professional staff in order to make slots for the cheaper, eternally revolving wheel of TFA and other non-traditionally certified recruits who start off innocent and hopeful, but quickly burn out, only to be coddled with high paying leadership positions before they can threaten to rock the boat. When we write students a letter of recommendation to TFA, this is what we’re recommending them for.
With all this talk about the achievement gap, TFA & their networks of millionaires and corporate supporters blame veteran teachers, public schools, and parents for educational failures. Whether or not schools are actually failing, and HOW we define failing isn’t the question. The point is to invisibilize the impacts of structural racism, the prison system, and poverty on their students’ lives in order to convince the public that the market-based school system is the “only alternative.” In order to do this, TFA and other corporate reform organizations have to carve public identities as organizations whose core missions are concerned with civil rights and equity. However, if we look closer we’ll see that corporate education reformers’ version of the “civil rights movement” is merely a shined up version of white imperialism and paternalism. Let’s look a bit closer.
TFA 2.0 and the New Imperialism
When I joined TFA in 1998, the corporate reform movement was just a whisper. I was placed into a public high school in Oakland, CA with only 3 other TFA teachers and dozens of veteran teachers. I quickly realized that I wasn’t even remotely prepared for my job. Luckily, the veteran unionized “lifers” at my school swooped in. Over the course of two years, they trained me to be a decent teacher.
I keep pointing to the fact that veteran teachers are often unionized because if it’s not obvious yet–the more TFA has become aligned with the corporate reform movement, the more it has also become a union busting organization. The unionized teachers at my school were the opposite of everything TFA told me they would be: they were profoundly skilled, profoundly committed to their students, knowledgeable about and respectful to our school’s surrounding community, and as efficient as they were hard working. The best teachers I knew left at 3:30 pm to take care of their own kids and families. But because they had deep experience and strong collaborative partnerships, they were able to consistently plan and grade papers in a way that put the efforts of my own 70 hour work weeks to shame. They were able to stick with teaching and to consistently be excellent at it because they knew what they were doing!
Not all the teachers in our school were stellar–but just as at any other workplace there were stars and there were the more mediocre workers, each of whom contributed something positive and essential in his or her own way. The conditions under which we worked impacted our ability to achieve the results we wanted in our students and in our school. We had classes with 35+ students. Some teachers didn’t have their own classrooms. We often didn’t have books. Our students came into the classroom with every challenge in the book. We needed smaller class sizes, money for books and materials, and money to renovate the crumbling school building. We needed more professional development, more time to collaborate, and more support staff. We needed our students to have safe communities, nice homes, and food on their tables. Our students’ parents needed to have jobs that paid a living wage. We needed the police to stop profiling and imprisoning the young men in our community. We needed the War on Drugs to come to an end. We needed all these things. Corporate reform solves absolutely none of them. In fact, it exacerbates them.
After a few years working in Oakland, my school’s veteran teachers schooled me in these realities at the same time as they taught me how to teach. I also enrolled in education courses at a California state university. There, I received the formal training and mentorship that TFA did not sufficiently provide. After 3 or 4 years, I began to feel like a good teacher. Of course, by then, all my fellow TFA alums had moved on to bigger and brighter pastures. Soon, I moved on too.
15 years later, structural racism hasn’t changed a bit–it’s grown worse. Meanwhile, in today’s TFA (what I like to call TFA 2.0–the new data-obsessed version of TFA that has grown up to be a central force within corporate education reform), recruits are more and more often placed in charter schools where they are removed from communities of veteran, local teachers that can help train and ground them. At an increasing number of charter schools, especially those that identify with corporate values, “veteran” teachers tend have around have 3-4 years of experience under their belts. Their principals are similarly fresh out of college, often with just a year or two more experience than the teachers. How do they manage to do a good job? Well, this takes us back to the racism and imperialism question.
Not only are TFA teachers taught to work upwards of 70 hours per week to make up for their lack of experience, but they are also trained that test-based data matters more than anything. To attain higher scores on standardized tests, corps members are taught that they must achieve 100% student compliance and “excellence” 100% of the time. To achieve this goal, the recruits are handed a shame-based discipline structure that encourages them to view their own communities as replete of “middle class” (read: white) values such as diligence, politeness, cleanliness, and thrift (as if these values don’t exist more in working class communities than in other places). TFA teachers’ young privileged and majority white bodies form the model image of these values. Unruly fellow students’ bodies form the model images of their opposite.
No Excuses charter schools provide the best examples of the deceiving & paradoxical nature of how the corporate reform movement imagines and enforces these values. No Excuses schools include KIPP (the first No Excuses CMO, which was started by TFA Alums), Uncommon Schools, Democracy Prep, ReNew, Achievement First, and many others. No Excuses methodologies exude a great influence on TFA training methods, and many TFA corps members will end up teaching in one of these schools. (I do want to note here that some No Excuses schools, for instance KIPP, only hire teachers after they’ve had a couple of years of experience. Still, KIPP values exude a strong influence on TFA training, and KIPP schools recruit experienced corps members on a routine basis).
Although school policies vary according to each CMO and each principal, in typical No Excuses schools, every moment of every day students’ bodies are disciplined into silence and obedience. From the age of Kindergarden, they are told that their sole goal in life is college, but it seems more the case that the sole goal of most No Excuses schools is to raise students’ scores on standardized test scores, not to teach them the critical thinking skills and creativity that will allow them to thrive at college. Students are forced to sit up straight in their desks, which are usually in rows not circles, and “track” the teacher’s every move with their eyes. They are to raise their hand for every question (regardless of whether they know the answer or not). They are often required to eat their lunches in silence, sometimes while doing math or reading assignments. Students who do not comply are shamed into submission by being outcast from the school community (at some No Excuses schools students are made to put tape over the school’s logo on their uniform shirts and sit on “The Bench” at the back of the room; there they remain apart from the other students, who can be punished for speaking to them, at recess and lunch). (For a detailed, nuanced description of various versions of No Excuses discipline & parents’, students’ and teachers’ thoughts about it see Sarah Carr’s book, Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children).
In New Orleans, No Excuses schools form a growing majority of schools serving primarily low-income students of color. Growing out from the “New Orleans model,” it’s increasingly the same case in almost every major US city. This summer in Chicago when there was massive resistance to the shutting down of neighborhood schools in low income communities of color, the resistance movement there suspected that their closing schools would soon be replaced by scores of “new paternalism” charters. They were correct in their suspicions. Even as I write this, TFA is recruiting new corps members for 2014 to replace many of the teachers who were fired in Chicago and to help build 52 new charter schools on top of the public, neighborhood schools that were closed. Also, see this reflection from a TFA corps member about how TFA put him him in this exact same situation, but in Philadelphia.
Teachers in the kinds of charter schools that TFA and its corporate reform networks build regularly read their lessons from scripted curricula designed to maximize students’ test scores. The strain of sitting up straight and fearing the young white woman at the front of the room in fact serves as a way to occupy the students and prevent them from slipping into boredom and restlessness during their long school days, which are sometimes as long as 12 hours, not including homework and sometimes even Saturday school.
Please watch this video for an example of how No Excuses schools combine narratives of community and racial solidarity with the public shaming of students, or read this Daily Kos piece on the paternalism at these and other schools where TFA corps members or alumni form the majority of staff. Then check out this new innovative discipline data tracking tool!
What do these things remind you of? (Leave your answer in the comments!)
TFA teachers fall for the No Excuses rhetoric for 3 reasons: first, they lack professional experience that would allow them to create a thriving classroom space that values students as complex human beings (they can learn this of course, but as in my case, it takes time & good mentorship and often isn’t possible in a scant 2 years); second, they generally have little knowledge of their students’ communities, something that would allow them to attain a more organic sense of respect and authority in the classroom; and third, they often have no veteran teachers or unions to turn to in the moments (and such moments are increasingly frequent!) when they want to critique the top-down structures of their schools.
No Excuses rhetoric also, unfortunately, often combines with the internalized racial superiority that results from corps members’ privileged upbringings. Militarized discipline policies give TFA recruits a concrete goal, something to hold onto in the chaos of public school environments with increasingly large class sizes and increasingly traumatized, hungry kids. With their prestigious degrees and competitive attitudes, corps members are made to understand themselves as the perfect role models of the values that they’re teaching and also, thus, as the perfect enforcers of what corporate reformers call the “new paternalism.” When we recommend our students into this program, we’re recommending them into this precise role.
Of course, not all TFA corps members are white and not all of them come from economically privileged backgrounds. TFA has been trying hard to diversify. If the organization has trouble with this it’s because TFA’s core logic relies on imperialist values wherein the knowledges of communities of color are devalued.
TFA’s definition of excellence in teaching has little to do with big picture questions such as cultural competency, interdisciplinary collaboration, preparing students to be good citizens and community members, or the teaching of creativity and critical thinking. Instead, it is often limited to the data produced by the corporate, profit-driven standardized test and test-prep system. This focus on data produces narratives about school failure that function to prevent real, inclusive, community-engaged education reform and replace it with quick, easy, and often profitable corporate takeovers. When “failing schools” are taken over by No Excuses schools, as happens more and more often around the country, TFA recruits and compliant alumni are brought in to replace veteran staff. These teachers are often too naive and inexperienced, and too caught up in the high pressure system of blaming teachers for student “failures” to rock the boat. By the time they begin to question authority, they’re funneled into leadership positions where they’re told they can “make a bigger difference,” but in which they really just gain a bigger stake in maintaining & expanding corporate reform.
At the core of this whole system are the market-based values of profit and property. Education policy scholar Kristen Buras’s map, below, of the financial interests at stake in the New Orleans charter school take-over illustrates this more clearly than any other resource that I know:
An immediate concern that I have for my students as they seek positions in TFA, other than the fact that when they come to me they most often have ZERO experience or training in teaching, is the fact that market-based education reform traumatizes not just students, but also teachers. Both the veteran teachers whose jobs and unions TFA and other programs like it are working to systemically destroy, and the young TFA recruits themselves end up with the short stick in the deal. I’ve spoken with dozens of TFA and former TFA teachers in New Orleans who themselves have been psychologically damaged by how No Excuses schools have forced them to ignore the realities of students’ lives in the unending focus on making students silent and obedient.
I refuse to support my own students in taking a path towards damaging themselves and others. TFA applicants are the most well meaning young people that I know. It’s true that they are often white and privileged, but they also tend to be deeply critical of social inequities and passionate about putting their lives on the front lines of struggles for social justice in this country. They flock to my classes because I teach about these issues. Perhaps they come to you for similar reasons. Yet, when we put them in the hands of TFA, these amazing young people get roped into a way of educating young children of color that puts them at the head of the room, ruler in hand, disciplining young bodies, dismissing the cultures, knowledges, daily struggles, hunger, and pain that they bring into the room, shutting down their agency and critical thinking minds, requiring total obedience, putting their own privileged lives and their college experiences up on every wall as an elusive promise in return for total compliance, 10 hour school days, and test prep, test prep, test prep. Our college graduates fall into this because they are young and inexperienced. It is our job, as faculty, to educate them about the problems in this system and its relationship to older forms of racism and imperialism. If we stand by silently as they take the TFA path, we are failing, ethically, in our roles as teachers.
I’m NOT trying to argue that all TFA teachers are bad teachers. Nor am I claiming that all TFA teachers work, or want to work, in charter or “No Excuses” schools. Furthermore, I want to note, that based on my limited knowledge in New Orleans, even in the case of those that do work in such schools, not all of them are silent and compliant. TFA corps members and alums are increasingly finding ways to fight the oppressive system in which they are working. As they gain experience and education, some TFA corps members become fantastic teachers and education leaders. I strongly believe that after a couple of years (I stayed for 4 years instead of the typical 2), I was a good TFA teacher. But the fact remains that TFA teachers are employed by the corporate reform agenda to rid communities of veteran teachers, privatize schools, and instill a militarized, corporatized data-driven culture into the education landscapes of low-income communities. These are all POLITICAL actions which are deepening social inequities in our country.
My political action is, in return, a small gesture at fighting back. I am inspired and guided by a much larger and growing movement. I urge you to join your action to mine and, by doing so, to join this movement. Together, we can change the direction of public education in this country and bring it to a place of true justice, equity, and joy. But if we sit back and remain “objective” and uninvolved, then we’re dooming ourselves to dim and disparate future.
In that regard, on the advice of several of my mentors who are leaders in the grassroots struggle for democratic education reform, I’m rethinking my letter to students who come to me seeking letters of recommendation for TFA. What I plan to do in the future, in addition to telling my humanities students no and sitting down with them to really explain why, is to suggest to them that if they want to be teachers, they might apply to graduate programs in education. I will do some research on graduate programs in education to have on hand. As an American Studies scholar and postdoctoral teaching fellow, if I understand myself as a sometimes-mentor to future teachers, then this is the best way that I can guide them to gain the skills and knowledge that they’ll need before anyone can ethically recommend them to take charge of a classroom full of children.
Revision Note (10/1): After talks with some colleagues and with one of my former students who’s applying to TFA this year, I realized that I left an important group out of the equation with this post: education majors who apply to TFA. As much as I disapprove of TFA as an organization, of course I would write a letter of recommendation for a student who comes to me with teaching experience and a near-degree in education. I am truly sorry that I left these students out of my equation in all that I wrote above. It was a great oversight.
However, I’ve never actually met an education major applying to TFA until now. I suspect that’s partly the case because I work in the humanities. So, every other student who came to me about applying to TFA was either a humanities or a humanities/marketing major with zero experience teaching children. All the corps members that I knew in Oakland fit this model. And I don’t believe I know any TFA alums in New Orleans who were education majors when they applied to TFA (correct me if I’m wrong, friends!). I’m truly encouraged to hear that there are Ed majors and people with related, pedagogy focused degrees that are applying to TFA! Yes, as a colleague reminded me today, change is possible from within.
I still don’t feel quite comfortable being the one to judge a student’s readiness for the classroom in this way, without having seen her or him teach or without knowing much about his or her training. But at least in such cases, I’d know that there are professional educators and mentors watching over the student & training her or him in teaching philosophies and methods in a way that goes beyond TFA’s 5-6 week crash course. So, I’d write the letter. But first I’d listen carefully to her or his reasons for wanting to apply, and I’d make sure to also explain my critiques of TFA.
If TFA changes course and becomes a recruitment agency for talented, certified teachers who are committed to teaching as a career (not that they have to stay in teaching forever, but they should at least be inclined towards teaching for more than 2 years), then it will be an entirely different organization! Maybe that will happen one day. But as I noted above, it’s not likely. TFA 2.0 exists to support the corporate education reform agenda, and that agenda is grounded in the de-professionalization of teaching. I only just began to get into the nature of that game in this post…
Buras, Kristen, Jim Randels, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Students at the Center. Pedagogy, Policy and the Privatized City: Stories of Dispossession and Defiance in New Orleans. New York: Columbia Teachers College Press, 2010.
Buras, Kristen (in conjunction with the Urban South Grassroots Research Collaborative). “New Orleans Education Reform: A Guide for Cities or a Warning for Communities? (Grassroots Lessons Learned 2005-2012)” Berkeley Review of Education 4 (1), 2013. ucbgse_bre_16124. http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/3dd2726h.
Carr, Sarah. Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Gabbard, David and Kenneth Saltman. Education as Enforcement: the Militarization and Corporatization of Schools. 2nd Edition. Routledge 2010.
Giroux, Henri. America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth: Reform Beyond Electoral Politics. Monthly Review Press, 2013.
Heilig, J. V., & Jez, S. J. (2010). Teach for America: A review of the evidence [policy brief]. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center and Education Policy Research Unit. Retrieved March 13, 2012 from http://nepc.colorado.edu/publication/teach-for-america
Lack, Brian. “No Excuses: A Critique of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) within Charter Schools in the USA.” Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 7.2 (2009): 127-153.
Lipman, Pauline. The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City. New York: Routledge, 2011.
National Academy of Education. (2009). Teacher quality [Education policy white paper]. Washington, DC: Author.
Nolan, Kathleen. Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Ravitch, Diane. Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. New York: Knopf, 2013.
Ronfeldt, M., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2013). How teacher turnover harms student achievement. American Educational Research Journal, 50(1), 4-36.
Veltri, B.T. & Singh, N. (in press). “A Tale of Two Countries: Teach For America/Teach For India as Globalized EducationalReform ‘For The Public Good?” World Education Culture Congress Proceedings.
Veltri,B. T. (April, 2010). Learning on Other People’s Kids: Becoming a Teach For America Teacher. Information AgePublishers: Charlotte, North Carolina.
Veltri,B. T. (July, 2008). Teaching or Service? The site-based realities of Teach For America Teachers in Poor Urban Schools. Education and Urban Society, 40 (5) Thousand Oaks, California: CorwinPress.
I remember you well! Your work in my class impressed me and taught me a great deal. I’m so glad to hear that our class discussions enabled us to establish a trusting connection with each other that led you to come to me for this letter of recommendation.
However, I need to tell you up front: I do not write recommendations for Teach for America. I believe doing so is immoral and damaging to children, to schools, to the teaching profession, and to this country. I was a TFA corps member myself, and now I am an active member of the TFA resistance movement. I urge you to please reconsider applying to TFA.
If you have the time, I would like to sit down and have coffee with you to explain my reasons for refusing to write you a recommendation. Please know that I do not, in any way, doubt YOUR ability to make a positive difference in the world through teaching or any avenue where you dedicate your energy. I’d be happy to write you a recommendation for almost any other kind of application. However, I am starkly opposed to TFA’s preying on smart and deeply ethical young people such as yourself with false promises about how being a corps member will allow you to contribute to educational justice. I cannot contribute to this predator-prey relationship by helping TFA to get closer to you and all of your brilliant potential.
I hope that we can sit down and talk about this in person because I’d truly value hearing your perspective & your reasons for wanting to apply to TFA. In the meantime, I am pasting some links below that I believe are crucial for you to read if you want to be informed about what you’re getting into, should you decide to pursue this application. All of these articles were written in the past few months and they represent a wide variety of critical perspectives on TFA. If you respect me at all as a professor, you will take a few minutes soon to sit down and really read and think about these articles. I look forward to talking with you about them.
The Problem with Privilege
by Andrea Smith
For a much longer and detailed version, see my essay in the book Geographies of Privilege
In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege. These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: “I am so and so, and I have x privilege.” It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were.
I’m so grateful for all the insightful comments that probe and deepen the argument I made in my last post. I want to thank people for reading and for being willing to engage with me as I think about these things, and strive to be as honest as possible and to tell my truths, and as I make mistakes, and learn and grow. It’s amazing to me that people would read and respond to what I write.
I also want to acknowledge the comment this week that most impacted me and that said things that I wanted to say but didn’t know how to, and couldn’t, for all sorts of reasons. This comment is from Geryll Robinson, a well known local writer and member of The New Orleans MelaNated Writers Collective, melanola.com. Readers might also know Geryll from her practice as a Doctor of Naprapathy, Reiki Master/Teacher, Shamanic practitioner and Energetic healer. Dr. G Love has had a private trauma healing practice in New Orleans since 2003 and was one of the first free to affordable healers on the scene after Katrina.
I have known many people whom she has healed and have for years deeply admired the way she brings healing to street corners, FEMA trailers, cafes, bars, back alleys, living rooms and (of course) her office. She’s also a trainer of other healers and has attuned hundreds of New Orleaneans to Reiki, Shamanic work, Trauma healing work, nutrition, ergonomics and self care. As Dr G. says, “There is an underground healing r/Evolution going on in our city and I’m proud to be a co-creator.” (www.fivedirectionswellness.com.)
Her comment is so important that I want to re-post it here. More of Dr. G’s writing on these issues can be found in her forthcoming “Memoir of Decolonization.”
What I’d like to add to this article is an address of the TRAUMA that gentrification is causing in an already Traumatized community of black people. We People’s of Color are dealing with lifetimes of oppressive traumas that exist in our psyche’s, families, and DNA. Believe it or not, “white/passing” persons, we have systems in place to address these issues inside of our communities that are not googleable – that are not marked by LLC signs, that are INTERNAL parts of our realities as an invisibilized culture. When neighborhoods are disrupted these internal supports are also lost. The trauma effect of surviving Katrina’s devastation has unleashed a new wave of frustration and helplessness in our communities as we get displaced AGAIN after doing the work of rebuilding the city. We are exhausted from this process and instead of receiving compassionate understanding and support for the psychic causes of violence, dissociation, and fear that Katrina, the flood, and aftermath triggered – we are being labeled as “noisy”, “dirty”, “neglectful”, “unstable”, “dangerous” and more. This makes us “bad” neighbors, roommates, and community members in the experiential realities of our “white/passing” neighbors who often come from a culture of fear. Many of our new neighbors are accustomed to quiet after 9pm on weeknights, a sense of “white american” security and ownership around property, and an every man for himself / Manifest Destiny expectation that is not necessarily applicable in our neighborhoods. They may call the police or intervening community members to PROTECT themselves from the trauma responses of their black neighbors. Many “white/passing” people do not realize the effect that calling the police on say something as “reasonable” as a noise complaint, inevitably leads to the running of the entire households records through the police system and then somebody goes to jail, loses a job as a result, and eventually are displaced by righteous “innocent” new community members who have social expectations that do not include the very real challenges we face as a people recovering from a legacy of trauma in a hostile/ignorant environment. Our new community members do not understand that displacement of families across wards inevitably leads to increased violence due to “turf wars” between the now displaced families and the families of the new neighborhood/ward that is feeling defensive about its turf. This echos the hystory of civil wars in African nations created in part by colonial boundaries enforced upon them without care or awareness of pre-existing borders between rival communities and cultures. Needless to say this can and does trigger feelings of despair hopelessness and anger on the part of an already oppressed culture.
Thank you Dr. G. for these comments and for engaging in collaboration and conversation with me in the process of learning how to write about these issues. Please keep writing and posting.
Whether you’re from New Orleans or not, longing for the past is a part of life here. People who’ve lived here for generations long for the city as it was in the past–whatever past era (but always pre-Katrina) signifies authentic New Orleansness to them. Take me, for instance: I moved to New Orleans as a teenager in the 1990s. My longing is for the White-girl New Orleans of that decade: when the French Quarter still had Kaldi’s, when Bywater was industrial and cheap, and Magazine Street’s corner bars, burned-out grocery stores, anarchist collectives, and antique/junk shops embodied urban decay and disinvestment.
I notice that my White friends who moved here after Katrina seem to all long for the pre-Katrina past as well. They can’t access it in their memories, but they yearn for the authenticity that would come from being able to do so. I feel their frustration. Last week, as I was moping through the 8th anniversary of the Flood, I started to admit to myself that I long to be able to tell Katrina stories, and to have HAD a Katrina story. How sick is that?
This post is about gentrification in New Orleans today as it is tied to the longings of white people in this city. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.
It’s important to note, first, that when we think about gentrification we’re not just thinking about a local phenomenon. Local experiences of gentrification are a window into broader global processes, such as neoliberalism. Gentrification often gets played out as a battle over local culture and spaces and the local economy, but at its core, it’s always been tied to government policy that goes far beyond the local.
Gentrification could not happen without policy making and public/private partnerships at the level of at least the state, but also at the broader national and global level. For instance, the emphasis on privatization (the catastrophic elimination of federal, city, and state responsibility for the structures of societal reproduction–housing, transportation, health care, financial regulation, etc–and the handing over of those structures to private entities functioning within a marketplace structure that the state subsidizes) isn’t just a Louisiana, Bobbi Jindal thing. It’s symptomatic of a global thing called neoliberalism, an ideology that’s been imposed on New Orleans and many other cities via what Naomi Klein calls “shock therapy” or “disaster capitalism” (real or manufactured crises through which neoliberalism is implemented on a mass scale). I also like David Harvey’s name for neoliberalism as it is violently imposed on communities: “accumulation by dispossession“–the redistribution of resources to the ruling class via the violent seizure of resources and the public commons from the working and middle classes.
So, after Katrina, when Bobbi Jindal, Paul Vallas, and Ray Nagin understood the marketplace to be the only possible savior of New Orleans and created policies that reflected this understanding, they were taking cues from broader economic policies, such as TARP, NAFTA, Race to the Top, etc., that expressed and implemented the same set of values. These policies aim to redistribute resources from the bottom and the middle of the social ladder to the top–especially the very tip top. In short, these policies aren’t really good for ANY of us, except for those of us who are bijillionaires.
So, gentrification isn’t just an economic thing. Nor is it just about individual White people renting or buying up houses in neighborhoods that, locally, have been understood as African American spaces. And as much as I bemoan these things, gentrification really isn’t about “pop up restaurants,” food trucks, or individual charter schools either. It’s a state-sponsored process that is also rooted in a culture that we all, no matter what color or class we are, experience and to some extent are a part of: that is, the culture of White supremacy and imperialism. (see my student Juliana Stricklen’s excellent essay on this topic too!)
In its economic, spatial, and cultural reach, gentrification is a new version of ages-old imperialism: European-descended people travel to a distant land (in this case, the Treme or the Ninth Ward), bringing their “resources” (their social capital, and their “high culture”) as gifts for the natives, whom they romanticize as “authentic” and outside of capitalism’s money fetish, while at the same time they label them as deficient (in skills, ethics, knowledge, and fitness for self-government). Claiming to lift up and cure the ills of this land, they set up camp, seize local resources, and, push locals out all while claiming to be improving their surroundings. 200 years ago, imperialists called these actions Christian charity and racial uplift. Today we call them “social innovation,” “Main Street entrepreneurialism,” and (in university settings), “service learning.” In both cases, the heart of the process is a sense of racial and cultural superiority that functions to clear the consciences of those whose true concerns are spatial, cultural, and economic control.
The late geographer, Clyde Woods, argues that neoliberalism and its symptom, gentrification, are merely a newly painted face on the old plantation mindset upon which this nation’s wealth was founded. Struggles over space in this country have ALWAYS been about race. They have always been tied to the maintenance of white property–whether that property is real estate, financial capital, or the value that people gain by having a white body in a racist nation. In the 1950s, cities became de-valued when they became less white as a result of white flight to the suburbs and “urban renewal” (ie the leveling of “slum” (low income, non-white) neighborhoods and the construction of interstate highways through them). The 1960s urban crisis was then underwritten by the state sponsorship of white supremacy, in the form of federal highway construction, federal housing loan policies, red-lining, racist policing structures, and public disinvestment in cities. Today White property ownership continues to influence how Black and Brown property is valued. By the 1990s, urban land and housing had become devalued enough to make it extremely profitable for investors and the financial sector to move back in and “re-imagine” or “innovate” in areas formerly defined by disinvestment (can you tell I DESPISE the word innovation and how it’s thrown around all the time?). The state partnered with those sectors to support this entrepreneurialism. In New Orleans, Katrina made this all possible at a grand scale because not only land but also ALL the forms of social reproduction could be, and were, seized and privatized (schools, hospitals, housing etc) for the sake of investors. The conservative, market-obsessed values of neoliberalism provided the vision. The state enabled the privatization. The investors took it from there.
8 years later, we find ourselves living in NOLA–not New Orleans. It’s as if we’re all living in SOHO. The NOLA acronym designates a POST-something: post-authenticity, post-racial, post-democratic, post-Black??–also something stylish and savvy and profit generating. In NOLA, people like Pres Kabakoff can feel perfectly comfortable saying on national TV that New Orleans is ultimately BETTER because it lost 100,000 poor, African American residents after Katrina. But then, at the same time, he can lament that “some” of the city’s culture went with them.
Well, you can’t have Black culture without Black people. And that’s where we get back to the longing and the yearning. I can’t claim to know what African American New Orleanians yearn for today–although I suspect their yearnings are various and conflicting. But I do claim to know what “NOLA” is about–that’s because it is largely about ME–or people like me–young(ish) White professionals newly arrived (and/or returned) to the city.
“NOLA,” at its core, is about White people and/or relatively rich and privileged people yearning for what they imagine to be the “authentic” and whole/undisturbed Black culture that they/we fear gentrification is destroying. We White people LOVE second lines because we imagine them to represent some kind of authentic collective-minded alterity, grounded in the African diaspora, that is at odds with the white-dominated capitalist world. We don’t want to identify or be identified solely with the limitations inherent in the capitalist system. We’re bigger than the system, and we’re deeper than it, but we’re caught up in it and benefit from it too. We love New Orleans because we imagine this city to contain some of this imagined, non-capitalist-alternative authentic Black essence that we imagine is always at risk of being lost forever. We yearn so much that the yearning itself becomes a work of art, a “NOLA,” that is, a song and a poem, or a locavore meal, or a Congo Square concert series, a paean, to what we imagine has been lost, while also being a source of pleasure and denial and catharsis that lets us, the beneficiaries of that imagined loss, to pretend that the loss never happened.
(disclaimer: my own PhD dissertation was largely an expression of this exact longing…).
But the fact is, what we’re yearning for isn’t what we think it is.
I’m not going to attempt to define what African American culture in New Orleans means except to say that how it functions for White people is often very different than how it functions for Black people. (my friend Lynnell Thomas has a forthcoming book about racial romance and white desire in the city that should shed some light on this soon, too).
All I want to say is that White yearning for Black authenticity is, in short, an avoidance strategy: we can avoid striving to be our authentic selves, or striving to think outside hegemonic capitalistic bounds, or striving to think collectively and function collaboratively if we imagine all of those radical possibilities to be located, exclusively, in the romanticized second-lining Black other. We can even jump into the parade and walk in the shoes of that romanticized Black figure for a Sunday afternoon, or YEARS of Sunday afternoons (all the while not asking ourselves how our White bodies in Black parade spaces are changing the narratives of the parades, and whether those changes are something that everyone in the parade embraces). Likewise, at Saturday Art Markets, we can tell ourselves that by shopping local, riding bicycles, and being active citizens in our increasingly White neighborhoods, that we’re bringing more GOOD to the city than we are doing harm. But then on Monday morning we usually go back to being gentrifiers, or to worrying about being gentrifiers, and then to YEARNING for that imagined alterity, that we imagine as outside of the gentrification process but which, in fact, is central TO it.
Gentrification allows white people to replace racial introspection and the democratic imagination with this tantalizing yearning. As an ideology and CULTURAL process, it allows us to always remain an arm’s length away from our potential as human beings to see and hear each other across difference, without jazzy racial romance getting in the way. The fact is, it’s a lot easier to dance at a second line than it is to attend community meetings where your non-white, lower income neighbors are expressing perspectives that radically clash with your own.
Personally, I’m staying home from second lines this year for exactly that reason. Instead, I’m going to concentrate my limited free time on going to cross-racial, cross-class community dialogues like THIS one at NOCCA TONIGHT–conversations that promise to be challenging and full of difficult, yet potentially transformative insights into the accumulation by dispossession process, and what individual white people have to do with that, and what we can do to reverse or change things. White people, I encourage you to think about joining me in this plan. Let’s deal with our yearnings by starting to help build a future that can sustain us all.