Advocacy Through Transformative Activism
"If a man hasn't discovered something he would die for, he isn't fit to live." - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Detroit, Michigan, June 23, 1963
The principles of Transformative Activism emerged from the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. These historical figures advocated nonviolence, and worked for social justice by inviting the masses to walk with them for change. This move for me from Advocacy to Transformative Activism is the deep-seated conviction that guides my current mission. A mission that began some 47 years-ago in 1963 when at the tender age of 8, I stood with my Grandfather among a half million other Americans who came to participate in March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. At first, other than being excited by the shear multitudes of people, I understood little of what was happening, but as soon Dr. Martin Luther King began his "I Have a Dream" speech I was hooked. His speech of course became part of the fabric and soul of America’s struggle for freedom and justice. That day I became an activist for freedom and justice for one day.
For the past 11 years as a professor at CCSU I have worked tirelessly and diligently to first become tenured then promoted, and a valued senior faculty member to my department, university, and to my profession. Now I find myself here at my Professional Assessment thinking what comes next?
Over the past five years parents and teachers have been telling me their stories of the negative impact No Child Left Behind has had on their students and children. Parents have told me about children who hate reading and school, due to the pressures of testing. Some of my creative and innovative teachers began to talk about changing their careers, or retiring from teaching. They complain about feeling powerless and hopeless in their own teaching and learning communities. Other faculty members in the school of education and professional studies shared similar stories about in-service and pre-service teachers. I felt the need to act. My first step was to share the stories of teachers who left the profession, or found ways to resist. In a joint collaboration we wrote proposals, for Phi Delta Kappa International conference in Indianapolis. Turner, J., Clark, B., & French, J. Phi Delta Kappa International, (2009, October). Don’t Let The Light Go Out: An NCLB Resistance Story. The National NCTE conference in Philadelphia, (Turner, J., Clark, B., & French, J. Kurt Love, Lynda Valerie, National council of Teachers of English, (November 2009). Light one candle: A continuation of NCLB resistance stories. We are a group of K-12 teacher educators, pre-service and in-service teachers linked by the principles of whole language, critical literacy, critical theory, and new literacies. These were my first steps outside my advocacy box.
Presenting these resistance stories in November 2009 at Phi Delta Kappa, and the National Council Teachers of English conferences the seeds were sewn. I would soon rediscover that passion for activism born in 1963. I knew something special was happening. In Philadelphia last year my eyes and heart were once again opened. The instant our presentation was over, there was no going back, the times they were a changing… I heard it in the cheers from these conference attendees; I saw it in their tears, and felt it in their handshakes and hugs. This audience of teachers, and educators from every corner of this great country were urging us to take our simple presentation on the road, and let America see what is going on in our public schools in grades K-12. How appropriate, "Philadelphia" the birthplace of our nation the discussion afterwards was "what can we do"? There were plenty of suggestions… one seemed too good to be true – let’s walk to DC and tell them, we can’t stand for this anymore. The seeds of a new Declaration of Independence began, a revolution rooted in the transformative activism of Dr. Martin Luther King. On the drive home I began to think about how we could take this walking project to Washington DC.
On line I started to find many parent groups and teacher groups who opposed NCLB education reform policy. In December I located a facebook group called Teacher Letters to Obama where they were asking teachers to write heartfelt letters to President Obama about the impact of his education reform policy. I wrote one, and was then contacted by Anthony Cody, blogger for Education Week’s Teacher Magazine asking me, if I was really walking to DC. By February when Anthony Cody printed my letter to Obama, my colleagues from Philadelphia had schedules and lives that conflicted with our walk plans, but my name had been carved, even if only on paper, and with a long history of "What’s Right is Right" I knew I was on the right track, and somehow or another I would walk to DC. My voice that had up to now only been heard in the Halls of Bernard on Stanley Street was being heard all across this wonderful nation of ours. Educators all over America were feeling the same restraints and passions as I did. Suddenly I was the connection that had up to now been missing. This walk was not about me, but somehow or another I was now becoming "The Walking Man" the one who would be walking to DC, for teachers, for kids, for public schools, for educators who felt their voice had not been heard up to now.
The story of one man walking grew into "Jesse Walks This Year, and We All Walk Next Year". My Facebook "Children are More Than Test Scores" reached 6950 members this October. This past Labor Day September 6th 2010, as I sat at a reception held for me at the American University in Washington, DC, with Dr. John Foshay videoing my presentation - just as he did when I started my walk back in June on Stanley Street, I knew this journey was only beginning. I knew right there and then that while my walk to DC was over, my evolution as a professional, my evolving into a Transformative Activist, my striving for the education of all of Americas children was only just beginning. At the end of the American University talk I was invited back again next July for a rally and a teach-in. I will be walking again next July. This November I was invited by the President of the National Council of Teachers Yvonne Siu-Runyan to Chair Susan Ohanian, (the nation’s leading voice against NCLB) featured session at NCTE. As a result of my walk I have also been invited to be the closing speaker for Hofstra Annual International Scholar’s Forum RECLAIMING PUBLIC EDUCATION this coming Saturday, December 4, 2010. Recently at NCTE this November I have been invited to submit an article about my walk for NCTE’s Language Arts journal, and ask to submit a book prospectus on walk to Washington DC by Richard Owens from Owens Publishing.
So here I stand at this Professional Assessment finding myself finally understanding CCSU’s unique community engagement mission with an unbelievable year behind me, and another ahead. I feel that I have been blessed from above; I have been given this opportunity to impact the thinking of these issues on a national basis. I am quite hopeful and optimistic, in this era of naysayers I am in the process of redefining leadership in the classroom. The road before us is long and winding, it is paved with many ugly turns, but it is the right road to take. Now I call myself a Transformative Activist who is once again walking to Washington DC, but this time I won’t be alone!