Working Alongside Communities, Versus Positioning Ourselves as Saviors

Today on the blog I talk to Sharhonda Bossier, for the final installment of our two part conversation. Read the first part here! Bossier is vice president of network impact at Education Cities, an organization that works with cities and their leaders to create more great schools. Bossier is a former teacher and co-founded Families for Excellent Schools. Bossier and I talked about her own education activism, how her personal experience drives that work, and her critiques of current reform approaches. In this second part of our conversation, Bossier offers some real talk about philanthropy, while ruminating on how folks need to shift their thinking in order to transform the education policy debate.

Me: Ok, so when we left off our conversation, you were just saying that you had been teaching for a bunch of years and wanted to find some way to have a bigger impact on education policy.

Bossier: Right. I was in my fifth year of teaching and feeling burned out. I was young, didn’t have a family, so the extracurricular stuff ended up on my plate. If you have a family, it’s easier to avoid doing the SAT prep on Saturday. I was looking for a job, and a friend of mine was in the campaign world, had been on the Bloomberg campaign, and knew tons of education reformers. Most of them went to Education Reform Now, and that’s where she was. She introduced me to the folks at Democracy Prep. We started Democracy Builders, and then a year later started Families for Excellent Schools.

Me: What did you see in the education reform movement that you liked? What didn’t you like?

Bossier: Here’s what I don’t like. I don’t like that the funders have as much sway and influence as they do. I say that, because I think that they can influence an organization’s mission and strategy in ways that they don’t fully appreciate. It’s hard to say to funders, “I know that’s what you think you want, but it’s not what you want.” Not enough of us are educating funders the way we need to.

I also think it’s a problem that the public face of the movement, especially its early phase, was overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly from privileged backgrounds. Then you start a conversation about diversifying the movement along racial and socioeconomic lines. But if you look at the next generation of leaders, and who is investing in them, they're still mostly white and from privileged backgrounds. So you have a few emerging leaders of color who get air time, but they usually only get air time under the umbrella of a white-led organization.  If there are no black women, where are the people who will mentor me? How do we get people comfortable mentoring across lines of difference? So I think the challenge for me is that the movement doesn’t reflect the community. The other challenge though is that people aren’t mentoring or investing in people who don’t look like them.

The other thing that I‘m having trouble with is the silence of our white allies. People are silent about police brutality. People are silent about the need for more affordable housing. People are silent about the battle for a living wage. Even people I truly believe are progressive are quiet about those things. I think it’s hard because we need to appreciate the intersectionality of all these issues. People should still rally and march for the sake of one school or one school building. But they need to work their relationships to influence things like police and community relations. Why are we not talking about those things? How do you get your white allies to use their positions of privilege to bridge their communities with the ones they serve?

What do I like? For all of my “man this movement isn’t diverse” stuff, I will say that there are a number of emerging leaders who come from stances that are different from the previous generation of leaders. I do think the diversity conversation is important, as a starting point. I like that it is okay to be a progressive democrat and an education reformer. We talk openly about that intersection, but that’s about as far as we’re willing to go. I think I am hopeful about the conversations about recognizing and figuring out how to harness people power. How that has been used and to what end. Now that people are beginning to see that community members have real power, I think that’s a good thing.

I also think that some of that previous generation of leadership has gotten to a point where they realize they can’t "charter" their way to a solution. So they’re thinking more creatively about what a real range of options look like. I think that’s some reformers growing up and now being in decision making positions within districts and they’re like, “Oh that’s hard.” I also think that some folks who have tried to scale charter management organizations have been humbled.

I also think that as we have our own children, and we look at what we want for our own kids, we approach what we need for other people’s children differently. When you’re twenty-two and you don’t have a kid, you’re like, “Double block English, double block math is good for these kids.” Then when you have a seven-year-old that can’t sit through it, and I know she’s not a bad kid, I realize there’s something wrong. I want her to do more than math formulas. I want her to think about what it means to work with other people to tackle problems. It changes things.

Me: What are the pitfalls going forward?

Bossier: I think we are really in danger of continuing to isolate ourselves form the lived realities of the people we claim to serve. So many of us, myself included, get to this place where we find ourselves spending most of our time in conferences, or in meetings, and that just seems like so far from the reality of the school in the communities that we say are most important, and at the center of our work. There are people who are out advocating for shit and haven’t set foot in a school in years. And I don’t know how you say, that for a seventh grade science class, what you need to do if you haven’t seen that class since you were a seventh grader.

Also, as an outsider in New Orleans, what does it look like for me to work with and alongside communities, and not position myself as a savior of communities? Even when I see myself as coming from similar circumstances, I’m not from New Orleans. Like, my coworker Butch [Trusty] is from Baltimore, we talked about what it’s like to watch your city go up in flames. There are moments though, when even as a person of color, you have to check yourself and say, “Wait a minute, that hasn’t been my reality fordecade plus.” I’m pretty far removed from the black girl from Watts. That girl and the woman with the apt in the Garden District in New Orleans are different. Our options are different. Reconciling who you are now, and who you were then, and having to check our own relative privilege in those conversations? That’s hard. When I look around and see what I see as the tokenization of people of color, it’s like, we have to be careful that we are not pretending to represent for people in communities that are not that much like us anymore. We’re wearing fancy suits. Shit I spent four days at the Biltmore in North Carolina last week. I’m going to be in Aspen for the Global Action Forum. And so I need to check myself on that. For those of us that are like, “Justin, you’re white, screw you, let me tell you,” let’s remember that I haven’t lived in Watts for 15 years.

The other thing is, I watch the conversation around “broadening the tent,” which comes and goes in waves. I think we’re about to hit a point where people are going to say, “We don’t have to do this authentically, because we can plow ahead with some political theater.” I’m also worried that we’re going to hit a point where people decide that it’s just too expensive to do real organizing. If you look at the New York City campaign, it’s ridiculously expensive. They’ll say, “Sure, people aren’t shouting anymore, but we bought them all off. Why don’t we just plow ahead without them anyway?” In New Orleans, school results are about to plateau. But they view community engagement as a “nice to have,” not a “need to have.” We’re about to watch that happen. My concern is that people will start to see real community work as too intense from a resource perspective.