Public education needs to be at the core of the Revolution.
Understanding the function of hegemony is critical in identifying why public education in the United States is the key factor in revolutionizing ideology and challenging power structures. The concept of hegemony as an enforcer of the oppressive condition is explained best by the metaphor of a ripple effect in the water after a single drop. While moving solitarily, a single drop of liquid into a larger pool creates a succession of rings around it. Liquid large distances away, echo from the agitation of the single drop at the epicenter.
Consider interpersonal racism. One is taught biased and discriminatory ideas (often at young and formidable age) about anti-blackness, which then becomes cemented in ideology through experience, choice of social circles, and participation in the capitalist economy (jobs, buying/selling goods, etc). While beliefs and bias socially may impact the narratives one is exposed to, with the addition of the institution, those beliefs become rooted in power structures of politics, ultimately reinforcing them into tangible and measurable oppressive actions intersecting with gender, sexuality, class, ability, religion, and age. This is how a concept or thought of otherness, or anti-blackness, transposes into a ripple that now is rooted in the environment. This practice, often measured through economic means (part of the problem because we center conversations around capital and not humanity), shows a clear institutional racial bias that has rippled into every industry of our society (military, health care, sports, education, etc).
As someone who has dabbled in many areas of community organizing, I realized my calling was with the youth. I know, without a doubt, that my purpose on this earth is to work with and give space for youth to validate themselves. Working within the system is a concept many have discussed. To fix something within implies you have the power to flip a structure rooted in hundreds of years of oppression. As a 21-year-old, I was naive. I was a public school teacher at a “low income” school with a majority being students of color, for 10 years. I taught 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade. I know for a fact that I was able to spark ideas, shift thought, and validate hundreds of students over the years. But did I change anything from within? Did I fix the cog in the gears that weren’t working properly?
No. Instead, it broke me, and many others with bodies and minds like mine.
I’d argue too that after gaining all of my experience and this knowledge that there isn’t any validity in attempting to “change” or “fix” something from the inside. Especially when schools are the core of the perpetuated hate. It’s 2020 and several people were hanged from trees in California. Nothing has changed, because the schools haven’t changed. They are functioning exactly as intended, and it’s working. People are dying.
My story is not dissimilar to others. I could reach kids in ways that others couldn’t, and students found safety in my classroom regardless of enrollment. I taught histories that exposed institutional bias, we held space for healing, and students developed agency in a matter of months. Each year the impact of my teaching improved as I focused on my craft, but so did the impact of how the district targeted and abused me.
And without the support and allyship, the mission to “change the system from within” just isn’t sustainable.
My career started by just doing my own thing in my four walls. I would literally close the door, turn the blinds, and talk to the kids with authenticity and honesty. They saw me for that too. Even young students knew I was treating them with more respect than education had ever provided and that felt affirming to them. They knew they could take risks with me. Then I was challenged by a coworker to expand my practice and offer to train others, allow peer observations, and train the staff, because then the impact becomes exponential. I was certified through Teaching Tolerance and did several trainings when admin found it useful for their public relations. Even though there was occasional push back, I felt like I was doing good work.
Slowly the admin write-ups and reprimands began to add up. Essentially the “radical” work I was doing at the elementary level validating students’ identities was “not age appropriate”. I was being pushed out. Because I didn’t want to continue to fight against my admin, I decided to move up to the middle school level in the same district. Since I taught 5th grade at the time, that meant following my students to middle school. I was so excited to continue to do the work and build, and now, I had confidence that I could start on some institutional practices as well.
The first year there was amazing. I facilitated several trainings both at my site and regionally, including one for administrators on restorative practices. I felt validated and affirmed. But with a change of administration brought a change in leadership ideology and now, the new mission of the person in power was to cut off my mic. They immediately let me know that the path I was on was not going to continue. I fought. Hard. Union. Grievance. All of it. I won, too. But I didn’t realize the toll it took on my mental health and that the road was only going to get harder.
The year after, I watched student after student be criminalized, marginalized, suspended and expelled, and some, locked up. The same students who had found refuge with me for a decade. I stopped having anything positive to say to them. How could I tell them it was going to get better? I realized very suddenly, it wasn’t. Then, the district really waged war against me when I spoke out, and sought media attention, because atrocities against students were being ignored. They isolated me, silenced me, and removed me from the one thing that reassured me of my purpose, my time with students.
Speaking out against police abuse on a school campus was like trying to call the cops on the cops. Participation in the public education system requires complicity in causing harm against the most vulnerable. Teachers of color become sacrificial to the cause of supporting youth of color as they navigate the system themselves. It’s just not sustainable.
The concept to describe the relationship between the success of students of color in schools and the prison industrial complex is the school to prison pipeline. However, in 2020, it has undoubtedly turned into a playground slide. The increase of police presence in schools whether as an SRO, community partnership, or some fake notion of safety like with the “Safe Schools” program, has exponentially increased the rate at which students of color are criminalized. The pipeline has been shortened into the slide and even painted a bright color to attract youth. Any teachers that stand in the way are subject to severe injury.
Defund and dismantle the police. Abolish prisons. Abolish ICE. But honestly, without a complete overhaul of teacher staff, redlining, curriculum, anti-racist training, restorative practices, school design, libraries, and community resources, the single drop of racism will continue to ripple throughout society; through friendships all the way to board rooms. If we don’t directly focus on rebuilding public education in the United States, none of this will change.
In Hindi meaning hope and Swahili meaning life, ASHA is an Artist, Educator, and Revolutionary. Through her decade of teaching, performing poetry, and speaking at community events, Asha consistently uses her platform to voice out against injustice and to speak up for those who have been marginalized and silenced for centuries.