What the Education Reform Movement Can Learn from the Student Power Movement

Last week, some Twitter and real life friends of mine converged on Madison, Wisconsin for Student Power 2013. Because I’ve been really encouraged by the healthy debates and conversations I’ve had with these amazing men and women, I asked one of them, Hannah Nguyen, to write about what the reform movement stands to learn from the Student Power Movement. Hannah is a student at USC, and a building member of the Los Angeles chapter of Students United for Public Education. She writes her own blog over at inspirEDucation. I’m so thankful for her insight and her words and her ability to look past differences in order to agitate for better educations for our students. I hope you learn as much from her as I did.

What the Education Reform Movement can learn from the Student Power Movement

I’ll be honest. When I was asked by Spencer to write about what the education reform movement could learn from those at the National Student Power Convergence, I was taken aback. The education reform movement is willing to learn from students? After not even listening to teachers? I know I sound skeptical. But I am weary of reform and disappointed in the harm I have seen it done to many communities across this country. I truly feel as my friend Jacob Chaffin so aptly puts it, that the education reform movement is “a reactionary ploy of neoliberals everywhere to use the public to dismantle public goods.”

After my own experiences in education, after all I’ve learned about education reform and the other side, and my recent experiences at the National Student Power Convergence, I think I have every right to be skeptical. But instead, I will choose to be hopeful. I hope that education reformers will take a step back and listen to what I and my fellow organizers of the Student Power Movement have to say.

On August 1, 2013, over 400 students and youth organizers fighting for all kinds of causes came together for the National Student Power Convergence in the Madison, Wisconsin. I was personally invited by my good friend and mentor, Stephanie Rivera, to attend and represent Students United for Public Education (SUPE)’s Los Angeles chapter, which I will begin to build this year. SUPE is a national coalition of high school and college students dedicated to fighting for educational justice and defending the ideal of a democratic, accessible, and high quality public education. As a former member of SFER (Students For Education Reform), I joined SUPE because their core values align with mine, and I can no longer support education reform, or even stand by as I witness the destruction I feel it is not only causing to schools but also communities.

On the first day of the convergence, at the end of Stephanie’s keynote speech, I felt the Student Power Movement for the first time as the entire room stood up and chanted, “WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE! ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE!” After the convergence, I realized that the most important word of that chant is “we.” Here’s why:

Intersectionality.

Before, it was simply a vocab word from my Sociology book, but at the convergence, I learned that this is the glue that holds the Student Power Movement together. This is what creates the “we” in Stephanie’s chant. I came to the NSPC bringing my own stories and passion for social justice, as did everyone else. At the convergence, we all took the time to listen and learn from other people’s stories. I saw people slam poems about oppression that ended in tears or screams for help. I heard the stories of high school students in Wisconsin, who came together to draft a Student Bill of Rights to resist corporate education reform, privatization, and high stakes testing. I heard about how their voices were swept to the side or silenced, and I saw a fire in their eyes as they vowed not to give up. I heard the same anger in the voices and the same fire in the eyes of everyone else, as they shared their story of how they have been fighting to overcome systems of oppression.

After listening and learning from one another, we realized that all our individual movements and passions intersected. Whether we are college students dealing with debt, undocumented students hiding in the shadows, queer students being attacked for who we love, students going to bed at night hungry, or students of color being unjustly profiled, we are all oppressed by the same forces: corporate powers who make money off the backs of others, politicians and officials who make decisions without consulting those affected, and neoliberals who manipulate the public to dismantle unions and stay in power. No matter what fight we are fighting, no matter what part of the country we come from, no matter if we completely agree with each other or not, we are all united in solidarity by the oppression we feel and justice we seek. We are all united by the collective power we have in taking down our oppressors. Together, we are the Student Power Movement.

What I think the education reform movement can learn from Student Power is simple, although I have yet to see it done. I ask that education reformers realize the intersections between their movement and ours. And I ask that you do this by doing what the Student Power Movement has done.

Listen and learn.

These two things were at the core of the National Student Power Convergence, and I believe they are two things that are absolutely essential for any movement to truly fight for justice and an end to oppression and dehumanization. You can honor the humanity of those you aim to serve by listening and learning from them.

Listen to students and celebrate their student power by giving students a voice. Learn from those who experience the education system each and every day. Learn to open your eyes to the complexity of education, maybe even step into schools and experience them for yourself.

Listen to the first-hand experiences of those who are affected by your reforms. Look closely at the consequences of market-based reform, especially at the failures that are often hard to accept. Look closely at the systems of oppression and inequality that exist beyond the walls of a school. Look at the severe effects of those systems on students and look at who is working to keep those systems in place.

Listen, with open ears and open hearts, to the beliefs of those that disagree with you. Try your best to understand where their beliefs stem from. There is a reason they fight for what they believe in. Respect that and listen. Understand that silencing their voices is oppression because that’s how intersectionality works. When you oppress those who fight for educational justice, you are also oppressing their brothers and sisters in the Student Power Movement and in any other movement for social justice.

I have heard one too many stories of oppressed people being ignored by those who make decisions for their community. If you ever want your reforms to work, you need to listen to the people whose communities and schools you are reforming. You need to try to understand their needs and experiences. Be willing to collaborate. Try to look at these issues as less of a “corporations vs. teachers’ unions” battle and more of an educational justice issue. We are not here to take sides. We are here, we are angry, and we just want justice for all students. Hear us now!

Once you do so, I hope you will begin to abandon top-down tactics and neoliberal agendas that reinforce the systems of oppression that have historically and systematically marginalized those you want to help. I hope you will realize that this is the first of many steps education reform must take to truly bring educational justice and equity to communities across America. Once you refuse to fuel the oppression, I hope you will begin to work with us as we fight together for educational justice and equity.

“WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE! ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE!”

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