how do you measure the efficacy of a conversation? how do you determine whether you achieved a state of dialogue that was significant? as i attempted to wrap up and reflect on a meeting between our superintendent and my students, colleagues, parent supporters, and community activists… i found myself struggling to answer these questions, not knowing whether the hour and a half conversation between us all was an exercise in naive idealism and futility.
the conversation ranged from general to at times very specific (although the specificity never ventured into the sort of creative problem posing and solving discussions usually necessary to solve such grand and complex issues as LAUSD’s enormous budget deficit). the tone varied between calm reception of multiple perspectives to frustrated urgency, all the while maintaining respect for all participants.
yet is it enough to simply respect someone’s position and then continue to make decisions that inevitably compromise the integrity of that position? this was the question that eventually led to a massive headache all day, one that i am still trying to get rid of… hoping that this blog entry will put to rest some of my after-angst of this meeting. the one thing that made me feel somewhat better was debriefing after school with my students. when i asked them how they thought it went this is what they had to say:
“i thought it went o.k. it was cool. i mean, he already said the same stuff. but i think he listened to what we had to say.
it was kind of weird because we were trying to keep it all peaceful and he was getting defensive, but it was good.” – karen molina
“i think it was good. he is not all evil, like some bad man. he wants to help us and he listened. i think we kinda persuaded
him. i think he is on our side and wants to help but it’s not enough.” – kenya higgins
i think it is this last statement by my student that really sums it up. it was this statement that led me to understand why i had the headache… did i actually believe that we were going to persuade the superintendent to change his mind and save more teacher jobs as to not raise class size simply by talking to him? at first i knew i was not this naive, as i had expressed this sentiment to a fellow organizer while planning for this meeting… yet there was a certain part of me somewhere that was secretly wishing, like a child closing his eyes tight and wishing with all his might before opening a present… and because this was impossible, i feared the meeting had been a waste of everyone’s time. but i was reminded that this was not the case. that there was something more important at work here, something that was recognized by both corines and our delegation of concerned students, parents, and teachers…
our youth participated in a dialogue with people who hold power over them and they were fearless and unapologetic as they spoke truth to power. using the power of personal narrative and the purest and most innocent of logic, they questioned power as to why we as a community, school district, and overall society continue to cause disruption and pain to those who least deserve it? why do we continue to only acknowledge inequities and backwards priorities rather than simply change them? why is the “sacred cow” of this school district a television station (a quote by our superintendent as he proceeded to justify that he could not cut any more anywhere else, as anything else would hinder the fundamental functioning of the district) and not the sacred space of the classrooms our students are to learn in? when are we all (as adults, citizens responsible for our own democratic ideals and fate) going to make the paradigm shift that allows all students to fully partake in the human right that is education?
these questions did not get answered but there were reasons to walk away from this meeting feeling positive. our young participants learned the first lesson in social justice pedagogy… that no matter what the outcome, it is always important to speak truth to power. the adults became a little clearer on where the struggle moves form here. this email from a discussant today summarized the sentiment that i had been feeling, the need for both the district and the union to put redefine what there job roles our in these times… respectively they should change from being about balancing the budget/saving the district and protecting teachers jobs and salaries… to balancing humanizing pedagogy with academic skills and content and SAVING OUR CHILDREN’S EDUCATION!!!
It was an excellent meeting Mark, unless we insist on judging it by outcomes. We worked very well as a group, and were respectful of one another and built on each other’s points. No one dominated (except of course Cortines), kids’ and parents’ voices rang loud and clear, and Cortines was forced to confront people on the front lines who will be badly hurt by his policies.
He also admitted that there were still possibilities, assuming that “bargaining units were wiling to make guarantees,” and I communicated that to Joel already. Of course it was not our place to comment on the feasibility or desirability of “guarantees.” Cortines did admit that he was offering to help some schools, such as Crenshaw and Jefferson, and that that wasn’t particularly legal, but he thought it was the right thing to do. We made the point that he should make all the schools whole, not just a select few.
I will also be happy to talk to Duffy and Julie about the meeting. The UTLA officers to my understanding are all on board with probing Cortines to at least see what he’s willing to do at this juncture. After all, in our conversation he did leave room for some hope, but he did not specify his terms. He did imply that our leadership would have to be the ones to suggest something.
The best thing we can do now in my opinion is to stand with our officers as they try to find out what Cortines might be willing to consider. Just so we have a clearer picture. Meanwhile, we continue to support our negotiators in our schools and in the streets as they engage in this complicated work.
Of course Cortines’s main point was: “I feel your pain and share your concerns. But balancing the budget with available funds for the next three years is my job, and only layoffs and class size increases balance my budget. So, sadly, I have no alternative but to….”
What else did we expect from the superintendent at this juncture? At least he gave us some slight sense of possibility. We’ll see where that goes