A Matter of Life and Death

Today on the blog I talk to Jeremy Knight, for the second part of a two-part interview. Knight is director of membership at Students for Education Reform (SFER), a membership organization that aims to create activists who will fight for education justice. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I serve on the organization's board of directors.) Knight and I talked about how his personal experiences cause his perspective to differ from "reform orthodoxy." In this second part of our conversation, Knight talks about what "winning" looks like and how to do more of it.

Me: You’ve been an active participant in, and observer of, education advocacy in some real hot spots. What have been some “a-has” in the last couple of years?

Knight:  One thing that I’ve noticed is that, for some people, being involved in education reform feels like having really tough challenge that they want to wrap their hands around and solve. For a lot of communities, this isn’t a cool challenge to solve, it’s not like a tough math equation that’s engaging, it’s literally a matter of life and death. Which is why we focus so much on working with people of color. We’ve found that the students from those communities have more passion and commitment for the issues, because it’s their brothers and sisters in the system.

As a result, the way we approach our training is different. The kids we work with weren’t always the president of the club in high school, or maybe in college they were working full-time. Or there weren’t enough after-school activities in their communities for them to be "emerging leaders" in. That’s not something we have to do think about when dealing with students in middle-income backgrounds.

Me: It sounds like part of what you’re doing is building the confidence and skills for folks who may not always have been told that their voice matters. I’m a white guy who was raised in an upper-middle income household. My entire life I’ve been told that every little thing I do and say matters. I was never negatively reinforced when I expressed an opinion. That’s a whole lot of privilege, and it sounds like you can’t count on that kind of assertiveness when organizing students and families from disempowered communities.

Knight: Exactly.

One of the other big things I’ve been thinking about too is how to build wealth in black communities too, so that we are determining the pace of change. I used to just think about political and policy change, but now I’m thinking about wealth and philanthropy. I’d love to find more groups organizing wealthy people around reform. There’s definitely focus on leadership development for people of color in the private sector. I’m not sure if they’re thinking about how they engage with those folks after they've accumulated some wealth. They’re getting folks into the lucrative fields, but giving back once they make money, that’s tricky.

Me: When you look at the last few years of organizing work, what strikes you as a win?

Knight: We had a big organizing win with our remedial course legislation in Minnesota.

But our biggest win was in Los Angeles, with both issue and electoral organizing. We were able to build leadership and understanding around complex issues, with 90% people of color, all from Los Angeles, mostly from marginalized communities.

Initially the communities we organized said, “We want to get breakfast in the classroom,” which is important. We transitioned, though, from just discussing breakfast in the classroom to a broader conversation about equity. That led us to work on the local funding formula, which became a state legislative fight. After that legislative work, we worked on equity implementation in Los Angeles schools, and we trained even more members along the way.

After the equity work at the capitol, we started working on an ethnic studies resolution at the local level. That was a great experience, but almost more importantly, that led to our members really seeing which political players have power in the citywide landscape. That led them to look at Bennett Kayser. He was a Los Angeles Unified School District board member who was rejecting every charter proposed in his part of the district. That annoyed our members and led to them fighting for Valiente Charter School to get approved. Charged up from the fight over charter approval, they worked to get Kayser out of office when we helped Ref Rodriguez get elected.

All of which is to say, our student organizers are getting more sophisticated in real time, and it’s all being driven by local students from the community. This work in LA happened over the course of two years. We would never have been able to talk about electoral work two years ago. It’s only because we invested in local leaders.

Me: That’s pretty amazing. I don’t think most people know that story. Is there anywhere you think you missed some opportunities?

Knight: One place we’ve missed an opportunity is in rural communities. The more we talk about socioeconomic opportunity, it’s clear there is a ton of work that can be done in rural communities. It’s also a strategic place to think about building more power, because there is lots of legislative power in rural areas. That’s huge, and something we’re starting to think more about in Ohio, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. And that’s from our members. They’re like, “I come from a place where we had nothing, and I know people there with stories too.”