Nearly a year ago today, I joined an inspiring band of intrepid activists who made their way to the nation’s capital to protest the impact of high stakes testing and corporate education reform. We arrived with the genuine hope that a demonstration at the Department of Education might encourage a national discussion about what many have rightfully identified as the destruction of public education.
After a long day of speeches and activities, a representative from the Department came out and asked for a meeting. After being ushered through security, a small contingent of protesters and I travelled upstairs where we were hustled into a small conference room. After a few minutes, Secretary Arne Duncan joined us. He stayed for only a few minutes, sometimes listening, but mostly politely but firmly pushing back and evading our grievances. It was clear that we had come to the wrong place.
After he departed, Arne’s staff pressed us for solutions. I suggested a National Teacher Congress that would allow real teachers, from across the nation, and from all backgrounds and districts, to convene in Washington to earnestly discuss and explore solutions. Arne’s aides perked up. “What a fantastic idea,” one his staffers chimed in. In abstract it was, but as we debated it in the weeks following the protest it was clear that we needed something stronger. We felt acknowledged for sure, but certainly not heard. For all the power projected on him, Arne is a functionary and we determined that we needed to go after the persons and entities on whose behalf he functioned.
In the months that followed my idea of a Teachers Congress morphed into a week of lobbying to educate elected officials about the detrimental impact of corporate education exacerbated by rampant racism and poverty. The idea of a National Badass Teachers Association (BATs) Congress was born.
On Saturday, July 24, 2015 I reprised my role as keynote speaker as part of that Congress, but the real action had already taken place as my fellow BAT and edu-blogger Steven Singer of Pennsylvania chronicles below. The BATs returned to DC, not to revisit history but to continue our mission of creating real opportunity and equity in the nation’s schools. For even as we all firmly believe, as the Reverend Dr. King once expressed that the arc of the universe bends towards justice, we also acknowledge that sometimes you have to push at its base to help it’s curvature along. —Yohuru Williams
We came to Washington, D.C., in ones, twos and threes.
We came by the carload. On the train. In transcontinental flights. Even walked.
No mass uprising. No angry rhetoric. No fists shaking.
No corporate funding. No thick rolls of bills. Just whatever jingling change we could spare for travel, room and board.
We occupied the Capitol stuffed overcapacity in hotel rooms, sometimes sleeping on the floor or even in the hall.
Not ideologues, not Democrats, not Republicans – just parents, teachers, students, people.
Who are we? We are the Badass Teachers Association. And we came to be heard.
Last year we stood outside the U.S. Department of Education to air our grievances. We spoke to those walls, we spoke to each other and the open air. We spoke with such volume, the doors opened and we were invited inside.
And in the presence of The Powerful, we didn’t stumble, we didn’t lose our courage, we told the truth to their disbelieving faces.
Our public schools are not failing. YOU are failing our public schools.
Your policies are poisonous. Your testing is treasonous. Your facts are fallacious. Your designs are dangerous. Your ideas imperious. Your lectures libelous. Your measures malicious. Your networks nefarious. Your rigor ridiculous. Your standards suspicious.
Secretary Duncan, next year you should convene a congress of teachers. They would tell you what needs to be done.
And we meant it.
We didn’t wait for permission. We didn’t wait for an invitation. We gathered our own power, gathered our selves and this year became the Badass Teachers Congress.
For two days we marched up Capitol Hill and into the halls of the House and Senate. We made appointments months in advance to sit down with our legislators, and if they wouldn’t meet with us, we sat down with their aides, and if they wouldn’t commit to a meeting, we showed up anyway.
We told them the truth. Right to their faces if they were brave enough to face us.
We didn’t wait for education policy to be directed by education experts. We presented our expertise, offered it freely, shook hands, smiled and looked them right in the eye.
But we didn’t stop there. Telling Congress is one thing. We BECAME a Congress.
We drew on our own first hand experiences of the failure of national education policy. We drew on research, peer-reviewed studies, the fruits of universities and colleges – real, unmanipulated data.
And we came up with resolutions.
We acknowledged that our labor unions sometimes fail to live up to their promise. But we didn’t throw them away. We devised ways to strengthen them, to increase their power to empower and make them more like us.
We acknowledged our national history of racism, sexism, and prejudice. And we didn’t allow our many different shades of skin to provide offense, we didn’t allow our various cultures, ethnicities, religions and sexualities to become a burden. We drew on our differences as a strength and committed ourselves to acknowledging the ways we have been disenfranchised. We decided on a path of love and acceptance even if that path might take us to places that make us uncomfortable, we’d go there together.
We resolved to continue protecting teachers from toxic work environments that far too often become abusive. Too many of our colleagues have taken their own lives due to the toll of this job. We are the last line of defense between children and people who would sooner sell their futures for a few pieces of silver. And finally the problem is being recognized and steps are being taken – slowly – to help.
In short, we did what The Powerful least expected or wanted. We held each other up. We recognized our own power and vision. We organized, made plans and set the course for our future.
In the weeks that follow, more details will emerge. We’re still examining the incredible input, ideas and information. So much happened, it’s hard for any one person to encapsulate it all.
But of this you can be sure.
We are the Badass Teachers Association.
And we will be back.
Dr. Yohuru Williams and Steven Singer