This talk was given by Rapheal Randall as part of the “Justice + Space II” conference’s “Revitalization / Reuse” panel, held at the University of Pennsylvania on April 2, 2016. The description of the panel is as follows: “Modern day colonization finds itself playing out at ground zero in our neighborhood schools. Across the country, school closures and privatization destabilize and kill community centers by sinking the futures of entire neighborhoods into a graveyard, making way for outsiders to encroach upon the land and displace the residents. Using school closures as a case study for gentrification, we examine alternatives to displaced presents and shuttered futures.”
I would like to let my comrade Kat Engleman (co-chair of Diverse Design) know how inspirational she is. Understanding the issues and conditions she was facing within PennDesign as it concerns alienation and the design field’s blind spots as it concerns race, class, and gender, she could have simply critiqued what was happening individually, and stayed powerless. However, she decided to put forth a proposal, to craft a conference with her colleagues that works to address the very issues she is battling as a student, striving to figure out how to apply what she is learning in design to liberation struggles. Sometimes we confuse critique with leadership. But, leadership is only established and realized through the putting forth of a proposal; it is about putting skin in the game, not just sitting on the sideline with complaints. So again, I want to thank Kat for stepping forward and showing us what leadership looks like.
Today, I will also put forth a proposal. I want to put forward a new way of thinking about “revitalization & reuse” as it concerns societal transformation. We need to think about how to revitalize and reuse human potential, and how we can do this through schools. I want to contend with the idea that the “the city” should be seen as a designated center for business agglomeration and capital accumulation, and I am asserting today that it should be a space and place dedicated to expansive human development and emancipation. I can sit here all day and talk about various reuses for school buildings after they are closed; but this is problematic because it assumes that there is an equitable logic to public schools closures, which fits within a capitalistic framing, something I am seeking freedom from.
I won’t spend time talking about the history of school closures since I was instructed by Kat to only talk about solutions. I will highlight the revolutionary potential of schools, and how we can use them to truly transform consumers into citizens and active agents for human emancipation.
We make a lot of assumptions about schools. Just like highways, when you look at them in an ahistorical manner, these things seem to be natural phenomena, like they have always been here. We all assume schools are simply places where we learn, gain an education, and go on to seek employment and yadda, yadda, yadda. The truth is schools are a relatively recent concept in human history, and were not developed with the goal of freeing human potential; but as a mechanism of state coercion that forces people to conform to social norms and ways of being that support the economic status quo. In the minds of the elites, we go to school to be docile workers who are domesticated by what they learn, as it concerns the lack of another alternative; not democratically-minded folk and forces engaged in the constantly changing terrain of history.
However, though they can be inherently conservative and oppressive, schools within working class communities of color can potentially become places of cultural pride and emancipatory training. In my experience, folks from Philly are quick to highlight what high school they attended; it indicates a clarity regarding schooling and its connection to class and racial positioning. Therefore, subconsciously we know we just don’t go to school to learn about how to get a job; in those buildings, we learn about power, important social relations, and what role we are expected to play as youth, and later, adults. This shines light on some key leverage points that can be used to really challenge the current oppressive system.
If schools are used to train people to behave and conform, they can also be reconstructed as places where people learn to rebel and flourish. This has always been the tension embedded in the brick and mortar of schools buildings, and the ruling class knows the danger of allowing the smallest of liberating spaces in oppressed communities; this leaves them open to collective revolt. And, in an effort to truly transform the city into a simple money making machine, having pockets of restive populations in close proximity to newly minted condos is problematic. (The quickest way to get rid of those populations is to remove the cultural and economic institutions that keep them alive while they struggle for dignified lives. In my opinion, the church has been recently rendered impotent as a radical left political force in the Black community; moving on public schools is the next logical tactic to remove the powder keg of marginalized communities of color from the midst of wealthy enclaves.) So, contesting to maintain public school buildings and keeping them functioning is key to long-term class struggle in cities. Now is the time for us to reimagine how they are utilized.
We need to see schools as the first places we learn how to be self-determined; the places where Black and Brown working class students and parents can begin exploring governance, and not simply engaging schools as another institution where they consume an assumed public good. Schools can be places where students actively participate in community planning, project-based work that is directly tied to learning how to lead and gain community buy-in as it concerns the built environment, and the various social relations that we would identify as crucial to healthy community development. I envision schools as places where students are given the space to learn what they feel “gives them life;” what inspires them to keep living. Too often in Black and Brown communities, we look at schools as just vehicles to better economic opportunities. But what if they bolstered the imagination rather than stifle it?
We need schools that train students to not only be a proper employee, but where they clearly understand the deep connection they share with their neighbors and neighborhoods; solidarity that is the exact opposite of the alienation we all suffer from. If we create spaces where children and youth believe another world is possible, we will develop the forces necessary to free all of us. It is beyond our current imagination to truly envision what liberation would actually look like. However, I think if we taught our children to be whole, to feel deeply, to see their destinies tied to not only those living now, but the unborn, I guarantee we wouldn’t need Playstations or Hoverboards to keep their attention. The gloriousness of the universe would captivate them, to the chagrin of capitalists everywhere.
So how do we get there, for real? As a Marxist, I understand that we need to do a deep assessment of the material on hand, including people, place, and the political moment. Clearly, we are not in a situation to assume this sort of intervention will be easy; but we do have room to move things forward.
At YUC, our focus is youth leadership development, mostly among the Black and Brown working class communities of North Philadelphia, with a clear understanding that Black Liberation is the historic foundation for all human freedom. We focus on education reform and schools because we fundamentally see it as important terrain for working class struggle.
We acknowledge the centrality of schools to working class community development, as a number of our youth see very few ways out of the dire circumstances they find themselves in, shaped by historical forces that outpace their existence by hundreds of years. We also see schools as places where students learn about power; how to wield it and how to acquiesce when it is abused. Therefore, all of our campaigns have to be centered around both education and power. The community schools concept and strategy addresses both issues: educational spaces that provide a way out of suffering for Black and Brown working class communities (with restorative services and practices that take some of the load of), and places where power can be grasped, felt, and expressed. We see this model and strategy as a crack that we can exploit in the overall structure. If students and their parents gain power within schools, they can help improve the material conditions within those buildings, which will inevitably change the consciousness of both folks inside and outside the classroom, leaving room for hope to blossom for something better.
Right now, we are calling for “Community Control,” or the right of our communities to be self-determined, and have a say in what happens in a school building. With time, if this crack opens further with a victory in terms of gaining governing powers acquired via organizing by working class youth and their parents, we can begin exploiting those conditions and redevelop entire communities, moving our folks away from being consumers of goods to those actively shaping their own lives. We could begin shrinking the gap between the elected officials and their constituents, and even begin challenging the legitimacy of our currently corrupted form of democracy.
Schools can truly be the initial places were “the people” reclaim democratic power. With that power, they can begin contesting for broader reforms: in the workplaces, in the home, and at the local, state and federal levels of governance. That is what the elites are so afraid of – a well-read and protagonistic populace who refused to be contained.
What is clear is that when given the chance to try new things, to truly engage in the precarity of life with guidance and support, both materially and emotionally, human beings can experience exponential growth in terms of consciousness and our ability to develop new systems and new forms of needs that propel us forward evolutionarily. The only way to change the system is to transform the populace from consumers and victims of history, to active participants in the shaping of a robust and equitable democracy as change agents.
I believe this is possible in our Black and Brown working class neighborhoods right now, in the very schools that serve them today, which is why the “powers that be” want them closed. So let’s fight to not just think of new ways to use the buildings – but to re-envision the very purpose of these institutions. Our freedom depends on it.