by Robin Bingham
“Plight–Fight—Insight.” A three-word phrase Willie Baptist, strategist for the Poor People’s Campaign, likes to use to sum up three of the pillars of good organizing.
Plight: Identify the problem. Fight: Figure out the leverage, the power dynamics, and how to address the problem. Insight: Think it over, study history, find out what others are doing, trouble shoot. And do it again.
The three parts don’t go in order—they are in constant tension with one another, informing one another, all three necessary.
Might—a fourth pillar—refers to the people, the actual organized power, that is the force moving the other three, and is defined by another good-to-live-by maxim: Organizing happens at the speed of trust.
As the dust settles (has it settled enough to see what we are doing?) and the Baltimore Teachers Union turns to face the fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to think strategically. On the cusp of winning huge monies for education through the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future legislation based on the Kirwan recommendations, Baltimore Schools were looking forward to a steadily brightening future: 80% increases in funding for special education students, more funding for high poverty schools, universal Pre-K, increased salaries for PSRPs and teachers, just to name a few of the priorities. Suddenly, as stay-at-home orders from COVID-19 shut down most sources of revenue, the initial state funding that had been designated to begin paying for this future was redirected to our COVID response, the special session that would have ensured that the law go into effect immediately despite a veto from the governor has been postponed possibly until after the governor’s deadline to create our state budget, and the state revenues that would have funded the bill going forward are all in jeopardy.
On March 12, the day Governor Hogan announced the first round of school closures, teachers were dashing around completing their SLOs. Administrators were dashing around completing their second observations of teachers. Testing Coordinators were dashing around inventorying the technology they’d need for the huge battery of testing that happens every year in April and May. And students, largely unaffected by all these preparations and internal workings (aside from the heightened stress of the adults, the multiple meaningless post-tests, practice tests and random lessons that seemed a little more put-together and thought out than usual followed by a pizza party), went trundling back and forth between school and home.
Very few of us realized that the distance between us, once paved by the linoleum tiles of our school buildings, was about to become a chasm we could only bridge with the help of the echoing chambers of Google Classrooms in which someone always forgets to turn off their microphone.
But what was unleashed on March 12 when Governor Hogan announced school closures was nothing less than a full-scale organizing training for all of us. Faced with the challenge of continuing to hold school, the past month has been a boot camp in learning how to reach families and students, bring them into our orbit, follow up relentlessly to get them into meeting spaces to talk with us. Relationships have become long-distance, countless hours have been spent calling, texting, WhatsApping families, speaking to distant relatives as we track down phone numbers, spending hours figuring out what technology students have access to, how to get them other technology, asking students to show up to meetings, calling them when they don’t, all so that they can participate in our classes, and continue some semblance of their education.
Out of all this, we’ve garnered some extremely accurate and useful information. We’ve learned exact numbers of families who have computers, tablets, phones, working phone numbers, televisions, internet. Only 3 students in my daughter’s class have yet to join their 11am daily Google Meeting. In the classrooms that I work in, that number is well over half and daily attendance, while slowly rising, still hovers in the single digits. Those who filled out the tech survey have also shared whether they need food assistance. Of the 182 respondents at our school, 72% need food. Someone citywide has that number for all schools. I hope they are looking at it, thinking about it; it may be the only thing that matters for some of our students.
Which brings us to the big question: What for? What are we organizing our students for? Education is a human right, and our job right now is to continue some semblance of an education through this pandemic. But the herculean effort and the resulting tiny pile of breakthroughs we are having at cracking the digital divide are enough to make us realize that we really need to think through the content. This stuff is too big to just be grabbing whatever off the internet, or modifying and accommodating for the district-purchased TV curricula on channel 77.
We need a space to think—all of us together. We need shared insight on the plight we face, and that our students face—in order to prepare ourselves for what is likely to be an unprecedented fight to protect the right to a free, high quality education.
But the hours and hours we’ve spent connecting our parents, families and students together through these online platforms are a wonderful opportunity for coalition building. Coalitions of teachers, students, parents and multiple organizations have always been the engine driving the wins in any struggle.
All of these new online connections and the insights we’ve gained from a month of outreach can be the basis for growing our strength as a union. Could what we learn during this unprecedented Spring be the insight we need to win better approaches to learning, smaller class sizes, an end to the racist high stakes testing, and making sure our students and families have the human right to an education secured, as well as the right to housing, food, and incomes?
Could all this work to get people onto a Silicon Valley app be elevated to real organizing opportunity to fight for housing, food, good schools? Couldn’t we leverage all these newly forged connections to bring our families into our orbit, to link up with other organizations also thinking about food, housing, jobs and our children’s futures? Let’s think of these two months as a special union training in organizing and learn what we need to know to build strength and power for schools that we all love.