We have been sharing a series of interviews and conversations that highlight perspectives on education changemaking from stakeholders who are working to improve the education system to further explore the possibilities raised in Shaping the Future of American Public Education: What’s Next for Changemakers? Sean Elo, the director of campaigns and policy for Mid-City CAN, a grassroots community organizing nonprofit in San Diego, shares his experiences working on community-led education changemaking efforts.
One of the central questions of the paper is whether the wide array of education changemaking efforts could reflect or inspire a new commitment to the promise of public education, or whether the range of disconnected efforts could undermine any more sustainable widespread change. What’s your opinion on that topic?
There’s a ton of potential in the breadth of the groups looking to improve and fulfill the promise of public education. But there’s also some real danger there. That disconnect comes from the different motivations behind folks’ entry into the work. Our organization does its best to be led by the community, and I have a lot of belief in the positive potential of that. We also know there are some corporate entities that have a completely different motivation.
Your organization’s work on the School Climate Bill of Rights that was adopted by the San Diego Unified School District is an example of community-led changemaking. How did the process begin?
The bill of rights was the second resolution we worked with the community to pass, and the processes looked somewhat similar. The first was a resolution was about providing culturally and religiously appropriate food for students. A group of concerned residents, teachers and students who wanted to see something change came together. The majority of the credit belongs to them and to the various community organizers who worked with that team. They did a lot of research about similar efforts in other parts of the state, and over months and months, they painstakingly worked to create a document that made sense for San Diego and that would create a restorative atmosphere to give youth a real opportunity to succeed.
How did your organization and the community work with the school district throughout the process?
Initially, we faced some pushback from the district, but over time trust was built. We had a good dialogue with the district throughout. There were different points where things slowed down a bit, where we had to work through points of tension and concerns from both sides. Early on, we were able to talk to the school board members to give them a heads up about what the team was working on and make sure that they were on board n. We also had some crucial partners inside the district who wanted to see the vision realized. Champions were certainly helpful, but even between the allies and the community, trust building is a continuous process that ebbs and flows and takes a lot of work.
In our experience, community members who want to see change need to be as solution-oriented as possible. In both cases, we were not vague in terms of what the community wanted. We elicited demands. The clearer the community can be in terms of what is expected, the better.
Do you see its adoption as a signal of any larger shifts in communities’ role in education reform?
It certainly is a sign of what the shift should be. Many schools are expanding restorative justice options, and those are often the direct result of communities and students advocating for those changes.
What questions, concerns or hopes do you personally have about the future of education changemaking? What do you think we should be grappling with?
How seriously are we going to take our youth? How much are we going to listen to them? The world seems to be moving faster and faster, and young folks are the most adaptable to that. So the question is whether we are going to respect that ability that they have and give it proper deference in terms of making change. It’s one thing to say we appreciate youth and want them involved and another to have them at the table. There is a magic to movement building and community organizing, and we have to put student voices and opinion at the forefront of those efforts. We’ve recently seen incredible examples of the power young folks have, and I’m hopeful the stand they are taking is a gamechanger. The history of important social change is generally younger people saying enough is enough.
Shaping the Future of American Public Education: What’s Next for Changemakers? explores four possible scenarios of education changemaking and raises strategic considerations for education changemakers and other stakeholders to explore as they navigate the myriad ways they or others might seek to influence American public education.