Uplifting Communities of Color and Ending Systemic Poverty

Today on the blog I talk to Jeremy Knight. 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 first part of a two-part interview, Knight talks about organizing communities for the long-term in a field that loves focusing on the short-term.

Me: So, tell me how you got here.

Knight: Originally I grew up outside of Atlanta, in Decatur. I was raised by a single mom. My mom would drive me to school like twenty minutes away, in my grandmother’s neighborhood, which was only slightly better than the one in our neighborhood. She was like, “I don’t want you to get shot,” which was totally possible, given where we were living. My grandmother would pick me up from school, and we could go to the library. We checked out ten books everyday and read them together. It was kind of "rinse and repeat" with her and the reading thing. From a really early age, both my mom and grandma took an intense focus on making sure I had as great an education as possible.

Eventually my mom remarried and we moved into the suburbs of Atlanta, and I ended up going to the best public schools in the state. I was often the only black male in Advanced Placement and gifted classes, so a lot of folks invested in me. It was nice to see teachers and administrators doing that. I also came out my sophomore year of high school, and I got a lot of love and support.

I graduated and went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I took education classes and social justice classes. Reflecting on my whole educational career, at that point, I saw that I had been in predominantly black schools with lots of violence and not-so-great teachers most of my life. But when I moved to the suburbs, while the teachers were better, I was the only black kid.

When I joined SFER, I started thinking more about systemic inequality, which allows me to have an impact beyond a single school. Now I’m able to do systems level change in education.

Me: How does your perspective on system changes differ from current education reform orthodoxy?

Knight: I think reformers are starting to get here, but I think that as a person of color, as a person working in community organizing, reform cannot happen without input from, and support from, the community. This is nothing new. If reform is happening to a community, and not with a community, nine times out of ten it won’t work. If there’s progress at all, it will be a bumpy road. In New Orleans, there’s great academic progress, but the community is disgruntled. How long can that last? Newark is another example. If leadership isn’t representative of, and listening to, the community, it cannot last.

Also, the end goal is different for me. The end goal for me is uplifting communities of color and ending systemic poverty. And changing the actual seats of power. My end goal is seeing more people of color in rooms that are making and changing policy, and also giving away money. So much of our movement is supported by philanthropy, yet most philanthropy is driven by older white men. I want there to be more folks of color who are helping to influence the way in which resources are given out, both publicly and privately. It’s more than just “get more kids in great schools.”

Me: Where do you see the tension between “get more kids in great schools” and your end goal? When the rubber meets the road, what does that tension look like?

Knight: It looks like seeing what types of efforts are heavily funded, and which ones aren’t. A lot of my opinions are formed by national conferences I attend and the traveling I do. But the conversations I see, and looking at the funders’ annual reports for example, it’s interesting to see who gets the most money. The organizations that tend to get the most attention are those that mobilize large numbers of people. It’s a great tactic and eye catching. It’s great to change media discourse temporarily. But if you’re just mobilizing people, and if white folks from well-off backgrounds who haven’t experienced the achievement gap personally are in the driver’s seat, that isn’t true community building.

There is also long-term work to put people of color in the driver’s seat, which is what we do in organizing. It’s a tension, and I don’t know that one or the other is the correct answer. We need both. The biggest discrepancy is the attention given to the fancy, “right now” stuff, versus that given to the longer-term work, which gets less attentio

Me: Describe the work of organizing to me, and how SFER does it.

Knight: Organizing is hyper-local. We train organizers who build leadership in their communities. The other thing we do is intentionally create activists, those who feel like they can speak out on issues of education. We invest in communities where our members are from, but we’re also thinking about building programs that train more activists in general, who can be trolls, quite honestly, and call out the ridiculous things that we hear in the anti-reform space. It’s painstaking, it’s long, it’s hyper-local, and it requires a lot of investment in people. It takes a long time and is really draining. There’s high turnover, especially with students. It’s rewarding, though, and the impact is for the long-term.

We also make space to have people connect along lines of difference. If we’re organizing in Los Angeles, which is predominantly Latino, and also in the north side of Minneapolis, which is black, it’s a beautiful thing. And we also engage allies, while tapping into their resources and privilege. We can create a space where we build a shared understanding of what change means.

Me: How do you respond to the question about whether or not organizing is working? Some people hear that the work is for the “long-term” and roll their eyes, thinking you’re avoiding accountability “right now.”

Knight: The metrics look very different. A lot of the metrics funders want to see are like, “Did you pass this particular policy?” or “How many people did you get elected?” or “How many people did you turn out to this event?”

We do those things well. But at the crux of organizing is building actual civic leadership. I’m curious to hear how many leaders we developed, how far did they go into our training model, and are they capable activists? Did they just do the basics, or are they deep on an issue? How many alumni do we have? How many people are employed in education reform through our work? Not only are we trying to get people involved in the field and changing policy, but we are actually building a community as well. Are there people who have access to higher wage jobs? It’s more people-centric than tactic- and action-centric.

Come back for the second part of our conversation later this week ...

(UPDATE: an earlier version of this post incorrectly listed Knight's professional title.)